Comments on PILOTS AGREE and related Labor issues.

by William R. Carr


UPDATE NOTE (12/30/99)

Since the following article was written, the Pilots Agree strike has long-since ended. It ended in an apparent defeat for the Pilots Agree members. A subsequent river-wide organizational effort also failed to bear fruit. Though some companies have had to improve their standards, and others are now involved in labor issue lawsuits, the companies undoubtedly feel that their hand has been strengthened.

What went wrong? In my opinion, the primary mistake was that the strike was called prematurely -- before Pilots Agree had properly been organized and gained the support of a large enough following. The essential ground-work had not been completed. There wasn't enough support, nor sufficient financial resources available for a sustained strike. The strike was a courageous effort on the part of a few. Unfortunately, they were simply too few. Many had to return to work in defiance of their own strike, simply out of necessity -- to feed their families. The assistance of the International Organization of Masters, Mates, and Pilots, while very helpful, was not sufficient to overcome the initial lack of organization and preparation. Also, many rivermen were suspicious of the "intrusion" of, what was to them, a largely unknown maritime union. The matter is not at an end, however.

The strike effort was not a total failure by any means. Mistakes were obviously made, but I'm sure much was learned. A seed was sown, and that seed has born a limited amount of fruit. Unfortunately, it was bitter fruit to many. But it will bear more and better fruit in the fullness of time. If it does not, I, for one, will be surprised and sorely disappointed -- for upon it may hinge the future of organized labor in America's Heartland.



The river pilots are on strike, and they can use all the support we can give. Why should we care? Two main reasons. (1) Their grievances are very real, and (2) Their success may have wide-reaching implications that will benefit American Labor in general. PILOTS AGREE, the new union they have formed, is perhaps the most significant development in Organized Labor since the early decades of the century.


Most of the striking pilots work the Mississippi and Ohio rivers on towboats often pushing as many as 25 barges at a time. The cargo carried in a single tow may exceed fifty-thousand tons. The towboat may have upwards of 5,600 horse power under the "hood." The total value of equipment and cargo entrusted to river captains and pilots can top ten million dollars. This, in itself, is quite a responsibility. Combine that with the responsibility for the lives of their crew, (who labor in the nation's most dangerous profession) and the environmental and safety implications of the slightest mishap, and the responsibility of the river pilot is truely awesome.

This demanding job must be carried out day in and day out on hundreds, or even thousands, of miles of shifting river channel under all weather conditions, and the pilot must be familiar with every inch of his route. In order to perform such a job, one must be a true professional with long years of experience. In addition to years of experience, the river captain and pilot must possess a federal license in order to be considered for the job. Along with the tremendous responsibility goes tremendous liability. The captain and pilot are subject to severe fines and penalties in the case of water pollution or other accidents. The job of river pilot is not just an administrative or supervisory job, it is also very much a "hands-on" job. The river pilot is a watch-stander in direct control of his vessel and tow, who labors 12 hour days, seven days a week. He doesn't go home to wife and children when the day's work is done, but stays at the workplace 24 hours a day for 30 days straight. Then he goes home for a couple of weeks with no pay. He gets no overtime; no paid vacation; no paid holidays; often no travel pay for getting to and from the job; and most have no pension plan.

The jobs of river captain and pilot are jobs that traditionally carried not only this great and increasing burden of responsibility, but also a legendary degree of "prestige." Captains and pilots hold much coveted positions. They are the masters of a much celebrated and honored profession. Their jobs possess a mystique of almost mythical proportions that have been celebrated by the likes of Mark Twain, himself a proud pilot, (for a while). One would imagine all this honor and prestige would pay a handsome premium. Oh, it's considered a good job, but...

But here's the unbelievable part. River pilots make about the same wage as a UPS driver! Oh, yes, UPS drivers make a fair wage for the job they do, (it's a great job, and has its own demands, of course) but there's no comparison between the responsibilities and skill requirements of the two jobs. Yet, in addition to a fair wage, the UPS driver enjoys overtime pay of more than 40 hours work in a week, paid holidays and vacation, health benefits, and a generous retirement plan, not to mention evenings and nights home with the family.

In addition to the matter of compensation, comes the matter of authority and safety. The master or captain of a vessel is responsible for the safety of men, equipment, and cargo, yet he is also the company's man-in-charge on the scene. The position carries inborn and unavoidable conflicts of interests, because the company's only real purpose is to turn the maximum profit. The U.S. Coast Guard has primary regulatory responsibility over navigation on the waterways, and is charged with enforcing safety regulations on the companies, equipment, and captains. But the Coast Guard, in order to have good relations with the industries it regulates, quite properly tries to work with the companies, rather than against them. The master of a vessel has the full legal responsibility of insuring the safe navigation of his vessel and insisting on his company's compliance with all regulations relating to his vessel and tow. In theory, the master has full authority to do this. In practice, however, companies tend to push the envelope of safety in the interests of additional profit—and if a captain resists company pressure to operate unsafely, his job and livelihood are at risk.

The captain has the right, responsibility, and authority to put things right, but he risks being fired in doing so, and the Coast Guard can't, or won't, prevent it. This puts captains and pilots in an awkward, and often impossible, position. The only thing that can really remedy this circumstance is a strong union able to back up the captains and pilots and mediate on their behalf in disputes with regard to the company, or industry as a whole, and the regulatory agencies.

A properly organized union is not only an advocate for workers, but works on behalf of the industry too, (albeit, often in an adversarial capacity) to make it work in the interests of all involved. One of its primary roles is to protect workers from arbitrary and capricious company action against employees who do their job properly.

The glamour, excitement, and romance of working the river is an enduring myth. The romance of the river professions died out, if it ever really existed, not long after Mark Twain passed from the scene. There are no longer any riotous port-calls in river towns to break the monotony of life on the river. The pilot and crew must report aboard stone sober, and remain that way, literal prisoners to their workplace, for 30 long and tedious days at a stretch, seldom, if ever, setting foot on shore. Life on the river is endless tedium, irregularly, but frequently, punctuated by interludes of the most back-breaking and dangerous work; receiving and dropping off barges in mid-stream; making and breaking tows; passing locks; and continuously keeping the barge lashings secure. The tedium of routine steaming is only slightly alleviated by the continuous performance of routine maintenance work and watch-standing, in a never-ending cycle, day and night. This is a life-style so demanding that not one out of a thousand ordinary men or women could find it bearable as a permanent career calling. Yet it is one of the most underpaid and misunderstood professions in the country.

Since about 1972 the minimum wage has increased from $1.25 an hour to $5.25—a factor of 4.2. By comparison, pilot's wages have increased from $12.50 an hour to $22.50 an hour, a factor of only 1.8. Had pilots' pay kept pace with the increase in the minimum wage, a pilot would now be making $52.50 an hour—an amount that might more accurately reflect the pilot's worth. Yet during the same period the responsibilities and potential liabilities of the river pilot have increased dramatically. Barge lading in the average tow has increased by about 14,350 tons. Loaded barge drafts have increased from nine foot to eleven. But in addition to the increased tonnages and work burden, has come an increase in the potential criminal liability for failure to adhere to increased and more stringent regulation. In addition to this, there has been a great increase in hazardous chemicals and other materials hauled by barge, which pose and additional threat to the environment as well as the health and safety of crews.

Since we've mentioned minimum wage, let's look at crew wages. The deckhand is at the bottom of the wage scale on the river. In addition to the disadvantages and social privations the captains and pilots experience, his job is one of muscle-straining and back-breaking labor under the most severe work conditions. He is nine times more likely to be killed on the job than workers in other industries. Most hazardous professions, regardless of the skills that may or may not be required, command a hefty premium in higher pay. But not in the case of the river deckhand.

The pay for deckhands vary widely from company to company. I was pleased a few years ago when my son got a job as a deckhand on the river, but I was amazed to find that his $50.00 per day required 12 hours of labor and provided no other benefits. He made only $4.17 per hour, working at one of the toughest, most dangerous jobs in America! The "best" companies, paid about twice that amount—still hardly adequate considering the risks of the job.

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Me, A River Pilot?

I'm a deep-sea seaman, (or "blue water" man, as the rivermen put it). I'm a licensed 1,600 ton master, (oceans) and an unlimited second mate, and sail as second or third mate, shipping out of New Orleans through the Masters, Mates, and Pilots union. As a second mate on sea-going vessels, I make about what might be considered a very fair wage, along with the full benefits package, and am pretty satisfied with the rewards of the profession. (This, of course, is all thanks to those who fought the union battles from the thirties onward to the present time.)

Since I live in Southern Illinois,  however, I've often entertained the thought that it would be nice to work on the river and remain closer to home. My license technically qualifies me to work as a river captain or pilot, though I would have to go through a lengthy "apprenticeship" to really become qualified on any part of the river system. That would mean that I'd probably have to work as a deck-hand, and/or trainee pilot, while acquiring the necessary skills to be a riverman and learn the specialized towing methods used. Yet, since I have considerable deep-sea towing and pilot experience, and since properly licensed people are almost always difficult to come by, I thought any towboat company would be glad to hire, and perhaps even offer to train, someone such as I.

Of course, I was wrong. I wrote inquiries to several companies and never received a single response. I wasn't totally discouraged, however. When I spoke to the Coast Guard in St. Louis, they expressed pleasure that I might be considering working on the river. They felt certain I could go to work immediately on one of the several riverboat casinos coming into the area, since they had been having considerable difficulty finding properly licensed pilots. (The casino companies had been trying to get the Coast Guard to bend the rules to accommodate this circumstance.) But I was interested in towboats, not floating casinos.

I finally sojourned down to Paducah, Kentucky, and made a personal appearance at a couple of towboat company personnel offices, cautiously excited by the prospects that I might soon be launching a new career. I was practically laughed out of one towboat office. "Why would a blue-water man want to work on the river?" the port captain asked. He apparently considered the possibility of a blue-water man desiring a river job literally laughable. Perhaps he also sensed that I was a union man. I don't know. The experience was sobering, to say the least, and not a little perplexing. I've since learned why they weren't overjoyed by my overture. I found that work and wage standards on the river are about twenty-five years behind those of comparable blue-water professions. They knew that I could never be satisfied with even the best they had to offer.

Sour grapes? No, not at all. Though I'll probably never make the grade as a river pilot, I have nothing but admiration for the men who pilot those big towboats and massive tow-strings. It's a demanding job, and one that any man would be proud to hitch his reputation to. The job commands tremendous respect—and one of these days, thanks to the courageous efforts and sacrifice of the members of PILOTS AGREE, it will also command the wages and benefits befitting it.

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And a Reversal of the Decline of Organized Labor

The Western Rivers encompass the whole of America's heartland. The Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri rivers, and their many tributaries, reach into every nook and cranny of mid-America—from the Great Lakes and Canadian border in the north, to the Gulf of Mexico in the south; from the Appalachian Mountains in the east, to the Rockies in the west. This vast river system drains the bulk of the continent, and provides a natural water transportation complex which services the interior of the greatest, most productive nation on earth. It is literally, and in more ways than one, the arterial system of the nation. Thousands work the rivers of this intricate water transportation system. What better place to inject new life into the nation's faltering organized labor movement, than if the river professions unionize?

What an appropriate arena for American Labor to take a stand!

River men are, and have always been, a fiercely independent breed. Those who have passed the test, hardened themselves to the job, and stuck with it, (and the companies they work for) have traditionally resisted such things as labor unions. Of course, the companies were quite pleased to remain free of the coercive influences of organized labor. They can certainly be expected to do everything within their power to prevent their pilots and crews from organizing now. Once, however, towboat companies paid pretty well relative to shore-side industrial employers, and offered incentives to the profession. They paid well enough to keep unions at bay, and instituted some appropriate benefits. With the decline in organized labor economy-wide during the last two decades, however, and rampant industrial "downsizing," (as the "threat" and power of organized labor subsided) towboat companies found it convenient and profitable to allow employee wages and benefits to lag, and to cut back or eliminate many fringe benefits packages once considered necessary. The non-union rivermen found their lot declining in parallel to the general decline of organized labor in other industries. They didn't notice it at first, but by slow and steady increments, they went from being fairly well compensated to being grossly under-compensated. And all the while their work-load and responsibility level was increasing. Now they've had enough, and have decided to take a courageous stand to reverse the trends of recent decades.

In standing up for their labor rights, the member captains and pilots of PILOTS AGREE are not only taking a courageous stand against abusive and negligent river towboat companies, they are also taking what could be a significant and decisive stand against the arrogance of exploitive corporate interests in general — on behalf of America's beleaguered working middle-class. The PILOTS AGREE battle is opening a new front in the struggle of organized labor nation-wide!

If the river pilots are successful in winning fair compensation and working conditions for themselves, the message will spread and reverberate beyond the rivers and far into the hinterlands. Our representatives in Washington may even begin to get the message. The message is this: That they, (our public servants in Congress) have been selling labor out in favor of capital for too long, and that labor is still a force to be reckoned with. It may even dawn upon them that the overwhelming majority of the electorate is none other than Labor personified. This is a golden opportunity for the great middle class, (though they are not yet aware of it) to begin a reversal of recent trends and regain lost ground.

My friends, the significance and potential of what is now taking place on our nation's mid-section cannot be overstated. While the nation's press and mass media, (sympathetic as it is to corporate oligarchs) may play it down, American Labor must recognize the battle being waged by PILOTS AGREE for what it is—Labor's greatest hope for a revival of the promise of the American dream. It's time Labor started heading up river again, after over decades of being sold down the river. For this reason, every American has a stake in this battle whether he knows it or not. Most union members know what the stakes are, but every victim of corporate downsizing, (whether union or not) must be made aware of the significance of the current fight, and how it can impact them. The same goes for millions still happily in the work force, but are only a pink slip away from termination, because capital is once again able to tread rough-shod over the American corporate workplace.

This writer, while a proud and long-time member of the International Organization of Masters, Mates, and Pilots, is no militant unionist. It would be nice if unions were unnecessary. But the fact is, the history of capitalism amply demonstrates that capital needs a strong and constant reminder just who does the work from which it profits. Only strong labor unions have been able to fill the bill. Only through the coercive activities of organized labor have workers been able to enjoy a rightful and fair share of the bounty their labor produces.

There will be those who are quick to point out the many past abuses of organized labor, and say they want none of it. But few of them remember, or consider, what the sweatshops and ships were like before labor organized and demanded a fair shake. Sub-human, slave-like conditions, not to mention child labor and inhuman hours and work environments, were the rule during the formative decades of the industrial revolution. With the increase in large corporate structures as the mode of doing business, the need for a powerful labor movement became even more critical to the well-being of workers. The first goal of organized labor was the attainment of a living wage, reasonable working hours, and safer working conditions. The ultimate result of unionism was a truly prosperous and ever-growing middle-class that evolved during the first two-thirds of this century. And all the while labor's lot was being up-graded, unionized shops maintained and increased their profitability. It was found, much to the amazement of corporate employers, that what was good for labor was also good for capital. But things have changed, and capital has been given the right to "escape the tyranny of American labor" by moving production off-shore, and repudiate the men and women who made our economic miracle work.

True broad-based prosperity did not arrive in any industrial nation until organized labor became a force to be reckoned with in the work-place. Strong unionism, sometimes forced into literal bloody battle to gain and maintain its position, caused a tide that literally raised all boats. It made the great middle-class what it became in this country. "Union scale" became the benchmark against which both industrial and non-industrial wages and benefits were measured. Non-union labor benefited across the board too, although many didn't realize or admit it. When labor unions were strong across the country, all employers were forced to consider the going union scale in order to attract and retain skilled and non-skilled workers—and, (in many cases) in order to keep the union out. It was not only the private sector which had to measure up against union scale—wages and benefits in our entire Civil Service system moved upward on the coattails of organized labor.

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(a lesson in unionism vs. global economics)

Few realize what has happened to cause the two decade-long decline in organized labor. In part, it was the very prosperity which organized labor had made possible. To many people, unionism had been long been viewed only as a necessary evil. With national living standards up, however, unionism seemed no longer necessary at all. Too many thought they could "have their cake and eat it too." With prosperity, a general complacency set in. Not just a few people felt unions had become arrogant and gone too far, and that unionism threatened the continued viabilities of industries locked in to union contracts. (And, in fact, some unions did tend to over-reach.) Good wages and benefits could now be had without union membership in high-paying non-union shops. Many industries moved south into traditionally non-industrial, non-union, areas. "Right to work" became an anti-union slogan, and some states passed "right to work" laws, to prevent unions from threatening their newly forming industrial base. The people were glad to get these new jobs, and if they didn't exactly pay union scale, they still paid pretty well. But those good wages and benefits were paid in non-union shops and regions only because unionism was still strong in related industries elsewhere. Without the ever-present threat of organized labor, few corporate employers will pay well for long out the the goodness of their heart. It must be remembered that Capital has no heart, and no natural sense of civic duty or responsibility. Corporations exist and operate for the benefit of stockholders, not their workers or the good of the country. The bottom line, their bottom line, is their only measure of worth.

Many union members place the blame for the decline of Labor squarely on Ronald Reagan due to his handling of the Air Traffic Controllers' Strike. Indeed, that was a significant turning point for the fortunes of organized labor but wasn't, in itself, the cause for labors' decline. It must be remembered that the Air Traffic Controllers were federal employees, (Civil Servants) and their strike was, unquestionably, as ill-advised as it was illegal. The strike itself, and those who advised it, caused the opening corporate oligarchs had been hoping for, (and undoubtedly planning for). Reagan merely did what was expected of him by everybody except, obviously, the Air Traffic Controllers themselves. In effect, (and in fact) the controllers' union had been hoodwinked into taking the very action necessary to set a planned union-busting process in motion. The strike, of course, was extremely counter-productive in more ways than one—to the Air Traffic Controllers specifically, and Labor in general. It played nicely into the hands of the enemies of organized labor and the America's working middle class. General public opinion, predictably, went against the controllers' union and favored Reagan's tough actions. The strike had the aura of being an unpatriotic act that sought to make the nation's air-travelers hostage to what appeared to many as unreasonable demands.

The Air Traffic Controllers, of course, had very legitimate grievances, but they misjudged public sentiments and followed bad advice in striking against their employer, which was the government itself. Most people, (feeling their own jobs threatened) felt the Controllers were already in tall clover. Their wages, benefits, and retirement packages were the envy of the majority of the nation's non-union work force. In the public perception, their grievances were overshadowed by their bounty. Much public opinion turned against unions due to perceived union greed. Government itself, which had for decades favored unions, was given the excuse it (or perverse elements therein), had been seeking to turn against Labor. The first significant blow against organized labor was thus accomplished without the slightest hint of the real machinery at work against American workers.

None of this happened by accident, of course. The real enemy of Labor is national policy engendered by a wrong-headed push toward what is called the new international economic order. (Some appropriately call it an international conspiracy.) The primary cornerstones of this new internationalism, reduced to policy, (at least the two most directly impacting labor) are the deceptive concepts known as deregulation and free trade. Reagan championed both, so his firing of the Air Traffic Controllers was step one in a much larger process. (It's unclear whether even president Reagan was fully aware of what was happening on his watch.) Both were easily sold to the public under their false colors, (i.e., "getting the government off our backs" and "global economic freedom"). These two terms and concepts, however, are really euphemisms for license to capital to once again ride rough-shod over Labor. The resulting policies give corporate enterprise both the option and incentive to "internationalize" not only their markets, but their production sites. Thus, they are given license to maximize exploitation of Labor and resources, while increasing profits, by playing the international wage differential game on a global basis, (i.e., produce in low wage labor markets and sell in high wage consumer markets).

Corporate down-sizing, paralleled by rampant union-busting, and the decline of organized labor, have been the natural, intended, and ongoing, results. Millions of jobs, both union and non-union, as well as thousands of factories, and whole industries have been exported. Labor, across the board, has suffered the consequences. During this same period both the Democratic and Republican parties underwent a significant change that few noticed. The Democratic party, the party of the people, went from being the champion of the productive working class to the champion of the non-productive welfare class. Republicans, the champions of big business, imperceptibly became the champions of international corporate capital. A few decades ago, being the champion of big business was also to champion the domestic job providers, which also benefited Labor across the board. That is no longer the case. Now, Wall Street stock prices soar with news of increased downsizing of the American corporate work-force, and decline when unemployment figures drop.

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There is no comparison between the Air Traffic Controller strike and the PILOTS AGREE strike. If the river pilots had wages and benefits that approached those of the pre-strike controllers, there would be no present strike against towboat operators. The former was an illegitimate strike by civil servants against the public purse, and the latter is a classic case of Labor organizing to demand its rightful and fair share of corporate returns on its labor. Those who see it otherwise would be either members of the corporate oligarchy or owners of securities. Corporate stock owners, of course, would much prefer a 50% or 100% return on their stock investments than, say, a modest and reasonable 10% return.

The river pilots are in perhaps a formerly unsuspected position of power. Their employers can't ship the plant to Mexico or Asia. They can't even seriously threaten to do so. Nor can they re-flag foreign and bring in Mexican captains, pilots, and crews to man their vessels, as much as they may wish to do so. They are literally stuck in the river, and stuck with American labor. The pilots have finally woke up after accepting a raw deal for too long. Now it's time for the towboat companies to wake up and take notice. The Air Traffic Controllers' had grievances which concerned work hours and public safety. So do the river pilots, but there is where the similarities end. The river pilots have a right to fair compensation, overtime pay, holidays, paid vacation, a retirement plan, reasonable other fringe benefits, and a safe work environment, (all of which the controllers already had) but the river pilots don't have. And the river pilots have the incontestable right to organize and strike.

It's also time for our representatives to wake up and realize that the public is finally catching on to what they have been doing in the name of internationalism and the utopia of a Global Village—in which American Labor and American living standards are fully expected to seek the lowest common global denominator. PILOTS AGREE, you've got more support than you know. You've got "RIGHT" on your side. Hang in there!

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With the current ongoing economic rumblings coming out of Asia, it would seem time for the corporate oligarchy to wake up too. The folly of their international utopia is becoming apparent even to the untrained eye, and the globalized corporate system is bound to crumble sooner than later under the pressures of civic unrest and un-serviceable debt. (Look what's happening in Indonesia! And it ain't over yet.) It is appearing more and more like the global corporate utopia might crumble sooner than expected. There is no better insurance to national and global economic stability than strong and largely self-contained domestic agricultural and industrial economies, which only look abroad for a marginal share of their market—for excess production and truly mutually beneficial bilateral trading arrangements. "Excess" production means production that consumers in the producing country do not want or need. The wage differential production game is both short-sighted and dangerous, and international interdependence spells national dependence and economic decline, (at least, or particularly) for rich and viable economies such as ours). That, too, is dangerous, of course. All forms of over-dependence should be avoided by nations as well as regions and individuals. This is simple common sense.

INSIGHT: Much of the "excess" value in the current stock market represents what should have been the wages of downsized labor, diverted from the pockets of labor to security values, CEOs, and corporate profits. This is accomplished at the cost of middle-class prosperity. When labor is short-changed, wealth accumulates at the top of the economic ladder, and the economy, and society itself becomes unstable.

Capitalism works. But it can only work well when Labor is properly compensated. This can only occur when the producer is also the primary customer-consumer of his own production, (within limits, of course). Export production cannot replace production for domestic consumption as a broad-based wealth generator. Export-based economies have historically evolved from exploited colonies which later developed into poor, exploited, Third World countries. The only difference now is that the export economies of the Third World which where once plantation based (or raw material mining based) are now going industrial and high tech.

The rich are still getting richer and the poor getting poorer in both rich and poor countries alike because labor is being sold short. Labor, to any export based industry, is merely an expense to be cut on every occasion. The cutting, of course, spreads to the service sector as other sectors of the economy are shorted. This is the downward spiral we are witnessing now in the United States. With our representatives now fully in league with international capital, (against the interests of labor) Organized Labor is the only power, (yes, THE ONLY POWER) capable of reversing this trend. Organized Labor is People Power.

One of the gentlemen's agreements between capital and Third World governments under free trade policy, such as NAFTA and GATT (and the new World Trade Organization, WTO), is that Labor will not be allowed to independently organize and thus discourage or threaten foreign investment. This makes the workers in poor countries very attractive to potential corporate investor/exploiters, and it makes those workers conveniently vulnerable to foreign corporate exploitation. They, after all, don't require a modern industrial wage, since their production is always for markets located elsewhere. The rationale that the new global economic order will benefit Third World Labor is mere smoke. The purpose is to destroy their independence, their local economies, and make them dependent upon corporate providers, foreign debt, and foreign markets. The New World Order, as it is being instituted, has one single major goal, (aside from de facto world government) and that is this: That the entire global population will purchase its every need, (its every life-sustaining spoonful of nourishment) through approved corporate channels. That's it in a nutshell.

May, 1998

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