Sunday, September 27, 2015

Pope Francis praises radical Catholic journalist Dorothy Day for taking up the "cause of the oppressed"

(Dorothy Day in 1934)

Pope Francis' visit to the United States has reinvigorated debate about the excesses of capitalism in the world's most capitalistic nation, the threats those excesses pose to workers, the poor, the marginalized, and the environment itself. In his historic speech to Congress last week, the Pope cited the examples of several Americans who've pointed the way toward a more humane country that values social justice and not just free enterprise. One of those Americans was the radical Catholic journalist Dorothy Day, whose work has been discussed in Labor South on several occasions. 

"A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did," the Pope told Congress, "when it fosters a culture which enables people to dream of full rights for all their brothers and sisters as Martin Luther King sought to do, when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton."

(To the right, Pope Francis, photo by Korean Culture and Information Service)

Below is a 2011 Labor South review of the most recent of several biographies of this amazing woman, whose life was a testament to commitment to social justice:

I didn’t waste much time when I learned that a new biography of Dorothy Day had been published. I had to order it, of course, since books by or about Day seem never to find themselves to the shelves of your local corner bookstore.

At last it arrived, All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day, by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books, and even though I’ve read and studied her life many times, I’ve now learned that there was so much I didn’t know about this enigma in American literature and social consciousness.

Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, social activist, newspaper editor and writer, author of the classic autobiography The Long Loneliness, and resurrectionist of the grand-but-almost-forgotten tradition of Catholic social teaching, is a haunting, even troubling figure in modern-day America.

Few have stood farther to the Left on many social issues—from labor rights to civil rights—or bore as many bona fide credentials—from her jailing as an card-carrying IWW Wobbly and suspected revolutionary during the original Red Scare at the end of World War I1 to marches with United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez and with civil rights leaders in the segregated South in the 1960s.

Yet her Christian faith was unwavering, a faith that embodied both a clear-eyed look at the cold realities of this earthly life and a mystical union with the crucified Son of Man and the church he entrusted to his disciple Peter.

Forest, an old hand at the Catholic Worker and friend of Day, captures this dichotomy well. I’ll make a confession here: I’ve not yet completed the book. I plan to read it slowly, too slowly to wait before offering this review. However, I’ve read enough to know that it offers a new, in-depth look at Dorothy Day, filling in many gaps with wonderful details about her life and her views. Yet perhaps what I love best about it are the photographs.

The photographs are wonderful—from the book’s cover photo by Bob Fitch showing her busy at her typewriter in a cluttered room with her beloved books lining the shelves behind her to the closing photographs of her funeral procession through the streets of New York in 1980.

The story of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker is familiar to many, but it’s still a fascinating one. The daughter of an itinerant sportswriter, Day saw poverty and the marginalized up close and personal at an early age. A radical and a rebel from her last days in high school and first days at the University of Illinois, she dropped out of school and launched her writing career with socialist publications like The Call. She had a lover, became pregnant, had an abortion, lived the bohemian life in New Orleans and later Provincetown, befriending Eugene O’Neill, and taking in a common-law husband who was an atheist. Pregnant again, she vowed she would have this child, and the religious impulses that she had long resisted became too strong to ignore.

An Episcopalian by birth, she found herself drawn to the Catholic Church and had her daughter Tamar baptized in it. She and her common-law husband parted. Later in New York she met the vagabond French poet Peter Maurin, who with her co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement at the beginning of the Great Depression and the Catholic Worker newspaper that was at the movement’s heart. They and a long line of volunteers who would eventually would include such folks as The Other America author Michael Harrington fed and sheltered the poor and jobless in the movement’s “houses of hospitality” while growing their own food at communal farms outside New York and elsewhere. Meanwhile, they put out a newspaper that hit hard at the issues of the day while searching the issues of the soul as well.

Day, whose father came from Tennessee, kept an eye on the South even as she wrote about urban life in New York. The first issue of The Catholic Worker (cost 1 cent per edition, 25 cents per year’s subscription—still true today) in May 1933 dealt with the treatment of black labor on the levees of the South. The newspaper’s third issue focused on child labor and the Carolina textile mill strikes.

In 1935 Day traveled to Memphis to get a first-hand look at the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union and its struggles to improve workers’ lives in the area. “During that trip I saw men, women, and children herded into little churches and wayside stations, camped out in tents, their household goods heaped about them, not one settlement but many—farmers with no land to farm, housewives with no homes. I saw children ill, one old man dead in bed and not yet buried, mothers weeping with hunger and cold. I saw bullet holes in the frame churches, and their benches and pulpits smashed up and windows broken. Men had been kidnapped and beaten; men had been hot and wounded. The month after I left, one of the organizers was killed by a member of a masked band of vigilantes who were fighting the Tenant Farmers’ Union.”

Such was Day’s evocative writing, a pared-down, even simple, style yet one brimming with compassion and righteous indignation against social injustice.

Day was an activist as well as a journalist. As a result of that Memphis trip, she telegrammed First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who in turn contacted Tennessee’s governor. The governor was unmoved, and so was the Memphis Commercial Appeal, which editorialized against outsiders like Day “who came to criticize.”

My hope is this new biography will help excite further new interest in Day. A movement is already underway to have her declared a saint, something she likely she would have opposed. Her life is a testament to the validity and strength of Catholic social teaching, however, a tradition nearly forgotten until recently.

The phenomenon of once-staunchly Democrat Catholics, all of them immigrants or descendants of immigrants, siding with the Republican Party in recent decades is, as the late and fiery Catholic labor priest Monsignor Charles Owen Rice of Pittsburgh once lamented, “another cross in my old age.”

This writer recalls attending the annual meeting of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists here in Oxford, Miss., in October 2009, and hearing speaker after speaker attempt to brand even fascism and Nazism as sins of the Left, not the Right.

In a Labor Day speech in 2011, however, the head of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockdon, Calif., praised unions and pointed to Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 and subsequent papal encyclicals and statements as unassailable proof of the Church’s deep commitment to the right of workers everywhere in the world to unite and to be treated justly as workers and human beings.

Dorothy Day would have approved.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Mississippi's Howard Industries pays bottom-feeder wages but enjoys plaudits & subsidies


OXFORD, Miss. – Politicians and local editorial writers love Howard Industries of Laurel, Miss. The editors at the Laurel Leader-Call shower their blessings on Jones County’s largest employer and castigate any naysayer who might want to offer an alternative viewpoint.

Politicians shower the producer of electrical transformers with money—taxpayers’ money--to the tune of at least $60 million in local and state subsidies so far, plus a $20 million bond issue from the county.

Howard Industries rewards its friends. Besides taking out newspaper ads, it recently gave $8,000 worth of new helmets and face shields to the Laurel Police Department. Each of the state’s legislators once received a Howard Industries laptop computer, a nice little thank you for their $31.5 million taxpayer-funded gift to the company back in 2002.

The only thing politicians asked of company CEO Billy Howard was that he use the money to create more jobs.

And there’s the rub. What kind of jobs?

Many of the company’s predominantly black workers say they’re underpaid for the hard, grueling work they do, but negotiations with management went nowhere after at least 16 meetings. A recent union-backed study shows a top-line Howard Industries maintenance worker earns just 61 percent of the wages paid a similar worker at the ABB transformer manufacturing plant in Crystal Springs, Miss.

Defying the local newspaper and the power Howard Industries wields in the community, the Laurel City Council voted 5-1 in July to support the workers’ call for higher wages. Those five council members quickly found out what happens when you stand in solidarity with workers rather than their bosses. In August, the council reversed its vote.

The council members initially “decided to pander to a handful of disgruntled workers,” the Laurel Leader-Call editorialized. The council’s support of the workers “got our community crossed off the list of every major company that would think about locating and hiring a large workforce here.”

Nowhere in the Leader-Call’s August 10 editorial was there mention of the dismal record of arguably one of the state’s worst employers.

This is the company that seven years ago became the site of the largest raid against undocumented migrant workers in the history of the United States. Approximately 600 workers from Mexico, Panama and points farther south were summarily arrested by federal immigration agents. Most of them were hauled off to a prison camp in Jena, La., where they languished for weeks in overcrowded cells without formal charges. Female workers who were mothers avoided jail but had monitoring devices locked onto their ankles.

This is the company that then had to be shamed by the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance into releasing 283 paychecks it still owed to the migrant workers it had hired.

Howard Industries is also the company that subsequently pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate immigration laws and received a $2.5 million fine in 2011. A year later, the company agreed to a $1.3 million settlement of a discrimination lawsuit by four black women who said they were refused jobs because of the company’s preference for Latino workers. As many as 5,000 non-Latino workers were eligible to receive funds from the settlement.

This is a company that was fined nearly $200,000 for 54 violations of work safety rules by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the same year as the immigration raid. “It is unconscionable for an employer to tolerate serious injuries, including amputations, as just a cost of doing business,” said Clyde Payne, Jackson’s OSHA director at the time.  

Apparently the company is still going on the cheap as regards its workers.

“For the type of work they do, (wages) are incredibly low,” says Roger Doolittle, a Jackson-based attorney who represents the 2,000-plus workers at the 4,000-worker plant who belong to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 1317.  “It is a travesty that the city of Laurel supports hundreds of thousands in tax exemptions to that kind of employer. … It defies belief.”

Attempts to get a response from Howard Industries have been unsuccessful.

The workers protesting the low wages are IBEW members, a fact that sticks in the craw of both company leaders and the Laurel Leader-Call.  This is the solution offered by the newspaper: “If you’re unhappy with your pay or working conditions, get another job.” And remember, the newspaper editorialized, “unions fleece workers under the guise of working in their best interests.”

Ironically, the city of Laurel was the site of one of the greatest victories of the pro-union movement known as Operation Dixie after World War II. Some 3,500 workers at the Masonite plant there joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), prompting Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hodding Carter in Greenville later to write, “CIO union contracts have added more than five million dollars to Laurel’s annual payrolls.”

Worker payrolls apparently aren’t a priority with Howard Industries’ friends in the news business and legislative halls. Keeping Howard Industries happy is their priority.

A shorter version of this column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Labor South roundup: NLRB gives fast-food workers a break; New Orleans labor organizer sees "dreams to build on"; student labor organizers win for workers in Nashville; and a labor museum in the coalfields

Here's the latest Labor South roundup, and guess what--it's all good news!

Fast-food workers get a break from the NLRB, and Republicans don’t like it

Reaction has been fierce to recent action by the National Labor Relations Board that may lead to fast-food workers being able to negotiate with corporate headquarters rather than being limited to individual franchises. The action helps unions in negotiating for better wages and benefits with corporate overseers at the table, something those overseers were often able to avoid during Republican rule over the NLRB.

“The board has set a dangerous precedent that will lead to higher costs for consumers and fewer jobs for workers,” said U.S. House Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee Chairman Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., in a joint statement. “The National Labor Relations Board has pushed a culture of union favoritism that is detrimental to workers and employers.”

Furthermore, “we will work to roll back this flawed decision and the damaging effects it will impose on families and small business owners.”

The NLRB action comes amid long, ongoing protests across the country by fast-food workers tired of being at the bottom of the economy’s food chain. A report last September showed that the real earnings of low-wage workers fell 5 percent between 1979 and 2013. That decline is in sharp contrast to the 64.9 percent productivity gain reported during the same period.

The United States had the highest incidence of low-pay workers among 26 countries surveyed in a report from the Economic Policy Institute in 2014.

New Orleans organizer who helped Indian workers in Mississippi win their fight with human trafficker Signal International sees “dreams to build on”

Facing South posted a compelling interview this week with Saket Soni, the New Orleans labor organizer who has championed migrant workers in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans and who helped Indian migrant workers on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast win a $20 million settlement with the shipbuilder Signal International. Signal was convicted of human trafficking earlier this year.

“The task of rebuilding New Orleans and rebuilding the South is a big one,” Soni told writer Allie Yee. “If I’ve learned anything from the people we’re organizing, it’s that they have extraordinary dreams. … There are lots of dreams to build on, and lots of work to be done.”

Soni is executive director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and the National Guestworker Alliance.

At Katrina's 10th anniversary, Soni said he sees progress toward "a reversal of power and governance by the people who are at its lowest rung."

Student labor organizers in Nashville help gain big victory for Davidson County workers

Benjamin Eagles and other student organizers in Nashville, Tenn., were instrumental in securing a huge victory for local workers during recent municipal elections.

On the ballot, Metro Charter Amendment 3 required that “40 percent of the work on metro government construction projects totaling $100,000 or more be done by workers from Davidson County," where Nashville is located.

Nearly 57,000 citizens voted for the amendment. Against it were a little under 41,500.

Opposing the amendment were powerful forces in Nashville, including the Nashville Tennessean, local chamber of commerce, contractors, and almost all of the candidates for mayor in the election.  The student organizers have been active in the city and on campuses for some time on behalf of local workers against the growing trend among public and private employers to outsource work.

Museum in Matewan, West Virginia, tells the region’s labor history

A great silence looms over much labor history in the United States. It is rarely taught in history classes, and political and economic leaders tend to pretend it doesn’t exist.

That’s why it’s gratifying to know that since last May a museum exists on the hallowed ground of Matewan, West Virginia, that is devoted to the compelling labor history of the region.

West Virginia residents were the driving force in creating the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, which received funding support from United Mine Workers Local 1440 in Matewan and from the West Virginia Humanities Council.

Matewan was the site of the bloody Battle of Matewan in 1920 between union supporters and anti-union detective agents, leaving 10 people dead. It was the subject of John Sayles’ film Matewan in 1987.

Friday, August 21, 2015

U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the World: Thank you for smoking!

(Atkins Road with tobacco fields in the background. Near Cameron, N.C.)

SANFORD, N.C. - I grew up in tobacco country. We lived in a relatively small town, Sanford, N.C., but tobacco fields surrounded the town, and most people either worked in them or in the textile mills that also dotted the landscape.

I was a town boy, but most of my cousins were farmers and I primed, handed, and hung tobacco most summers, mostly hung (tobacco-laden sticks in the barn) since I was town-boy-slow out in the field. When my father and cousin Lewis rented a four-acre stand one summer, my brother John and I went through the entire process—from planting to harvesting.

(To the right, yours truly on the left with my brother John in a central North Carolina tobacco field) 

I remember the thick black gum that covered our hands at the end of the day, getting soaked from wet tobacco as I hung it in the upper reaches of the old wooden barns that today are merely relics of a past era, the bonhomie around the barn on priming (harvesting) days—nabs & RC Cola, and lots of chatter and gossip, black and white together, with R&B or country music from someone’s radio.

“They put so many chemicals in there today, I think that’s the reason it causes problems,” 90-year-old cousin Lewis told me during my visit to Sanford and neighboring Cameron this month.

Back in the early 1960s, we used to “top” and “sucker” tobacco—hand pull the plant’s flowery terminal bud and the growths that drain its energy. Nowadays chemicals are used to do this as well as perform other duties in growing tobacco.

Tobacco is indeed a culture as well as a plant, but science has proven that its use is dangerous to your health and that’s why local, state and federal governments have placed many restrictions on it.

The dangers of tobacco haven’t stopped the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, however, from waging a worldwide battle on behalf of the U.S. tobacco industry to keep other governments from placing restrictions on its use.

A front-page article by reporter Danny Hakim in the New York Times earlier this summer detailed the behind-the-scenes global campaign of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to keep people in other countries smoking their lungs away.

“They were against the tobacco tax increase,” Ukrainian lawmaker Hanna Hopko told Hakim. “They were against placing warning labels on cigarettes. This is just business as usual for them.”

One of every two Ukrainian men smokes, compared to just a little over one in every five in the United States. Yet the Ukrainian government—certainly friendly to the United States in the ongoing dispute with Russia over whether the U.S. or Russia will wield greater influence there—is so pro-tobacco that it took international legal action against Australia three years ago when that nation tried to restrict smoking.

The Ukrainian government worked hand-in-hand with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in taking that action. Such legal maneuvering is bound to become easier once the Obama-ballyhooed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement is fully implemented, including its provisions allowing corporations to sue nations that do anything to restrict trade.

Ironically, Ukraine exports no tobacco to Australia.

The New York Times article cited similar legal and related maneuvering in New Zealand, Nepal, Moldova, Uruguay and Jamaica. Prompting the U.S. Chamber campaign is a World Health Organization treaty with nearly 180 nations aimed at reducing tobacco usage.  The United States is not one of those nations.

The deepending influence of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce nationally and internationally in political as well as economic issues was the subject of another article by Simon Swartzman in Working In These Times this month.

Reviewing Alyssa Katz’ new book, The Influence Machine: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Corporate Capture of American Life, Swartzman said the chamber “today protects some of the U.S.’s most viciously destructive corporations from any government regulation.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the most powerful lobby organization in Washington, D.C., and not only unions are in its cross hairs but workers’ rights and, yes, consumer rights as well. And it does everything it can with its deep pockets to elect Republicans across the land. It has played active roles in the election of justices for the state Supreme Court and other courts across the South, from Virginia and North Carolina to Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Even in China has the influence of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its foreign affiliated chambers been felt. When the Chinese government tried to impose restrictions of the use of temporary workers in factories some time back, the U.S. Chamber weighed in heavily and managed to get the legislation so watered down as to be meaningless.

“You don’t have choices,” the late comedian George Carlin once told us. “You have owners. They own everything. They own the corporations … the bought-and-paid-for (politicians). They’ve got the judges in their back pockets.”

Carlin the prophet never said truer words.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Dorothy Day House in Memphis: Reaching out to homeless families in one of the nation's poorest cities

(To the right, the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality in Memphis)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The two-story, century-old house sits on a hill next to a vacant lot on Poplar near Cleveland, between downtown and midtown. A Buddhist temple is nearby, and so is the Sacred Heart Church, where masses are held in Vietnamese and Spanish. Beggars with rickety grocery carts wander the pockmarked streets, glancing up at cars that only stop when the light turns red.

When Memphis native Polly Jones walks into that house on the hill, she feels something she doesn’t feel anywhere else in the city. “There’s not a lot of love in my city,” says the 22-year-old homeless single mother of two toddlers, boys aged two and three. “This house, I would rather be here than anywhere else right now.”

Jones and her boys have been at the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality at 1429 Poplar Avenue since May. She plans to leave next February after getting her GED and a fresh start on a new life that includes a future career as a surgical nurse. “I want to better myself for my kids. … Everything they do for you here is for the better. When you come here, you come with a goal.”

The Jones family is one of three families at the Dorothy Day House, the only refuge for homeless families in this predominantly black city of 650,000, the nation’s poorest large metropolitan area and one of its poorest cities. Half the children in Memphis are poor. The city’s other missions limit themselves to either men or women.

(Sister Maureen Griner)

 “The whole idea of a Dorothy Day house is to answer a need that’s not being met,” says Sister Maureen Griner, executive director. “It’s the hope you bring to people who are really desperate. By the time people get here, they don’t have pocket change, evicted, probably living in a car. … People don’t think about homeless families. There are hundreds in this city every night.”

Jones came to the Dorothy Day House after a series of life’s blows. She lost both her mother, who had drug problems, and the grandmother who reared her in 2011. “That was a tremendous putdown, and I was pregnant with my first son. I didn’t know my biological father.”

She did factory work for a while but her younger son’s asthma kept pulling her away to take care of him. “It was hard. I kept getting discouraged. When you are a mother, you have choices to make. … I made my son my priority.”

The two-story house on Poplar Avenue is one of more than 185 Catholic Worker communities around the world. Each is independent in its commitment to voluntary poverty, prayer, and nonviolence, and in its outreach to the poor and marginalized of society. Other than the occasional grant, they all depend on private contributions with little or no support from government or sometimes even the Catholic Church.

Dorothy Day, who died at 83 in 1980, was the radical journalist who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement with French peasant-poet-prophet Peter Maurin. Inspired by the social teachings of Jesus and in Catholic tradition, they launched the Catholic Worker newspaper and first hospitality house in New York City at the height of the Great Depression in 1933.

(Dorothy Day in 1934)

“What we do is very little, but it is like the little boy with a few loaves and fishes,” Day once wrote.  “Christ took that little and increased it. He will do the rest. … Our work is to sow. Another generation will be reaping the harvest.”

In the mid-1930s, Day traveled to Memphis, where she championed the “dispossessed” members of the embattled Southern Tenant Farmers Union (see my Labor South post on July 14, 2015). “I saw men, women, and children herded into little churches and wayside stations, camped out in tents, their household goods heaped about them, not one settlement but many … children ill, one old man dead in bed and not yet buried, mothers weeping with hunger and cold.”

Sister Maureen, 68, a native of Louisville, Ky., who helped found the Dorothy Day House in Memphis 10 years ago, is keeping the flame of Day’s vision alive. The house is only big enough for three families, and she and her small staff have to turn away as many as 10 families a week.

Still, they’ve helped over 40 families get back on their feet over the past decade, and Sister Maureen envisions a “Dorothy Day Village” in the future where they can accommodate more of the needy. A 13-member board oversees the house’s operations, and hundreds of volunteers have come through its doors to help.

“It’s painful to turn people away,” she says. “Dorothy Day said put a pot of coffee on the stove and a pot of soup, and God will take care of the rest.”

A version of this column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in the Arkansas Delta memorializes when the poorest of black and white Southerners stood together to "Roll The Union On"


(The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, Ark.)

TYRONZA, Ark. – The black and white sharecroppers of the Arkansas Delta in the 1930s were the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor. They worked from sunup to sundown, buried in debt, a Southern peasantry every bit as bound to landowners as their medieval counterparts in Europe centuries before.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had them in mind when he declared the South “the nation’s number one economic problem,” yet the federal government botched its attempt to help them, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, allowing landowners not only to grab federal dollars intended for the peasants but even to evict them from their shacks and shotgun houses.

That’s when the lowest of the low finally stood in protest.

It was in 1934 when 11 white and seven black sharecroppers and tenant farmers gathered in what was known as “Red Square” in this tiny town in the heart of the Arkansas Delta, a combination dry cleaners run by H.L. Mitchell and gas station operated by local marshal Clay East. In that humble building, they established the headquarters of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU).

Inspired by the writings of Upton Sinclair and the speeches of Norman Thomas, Mitchell and East were both self-proclaimed socialists. Like many in the 1930s, they were disgusted with an unhinged capitalism that had plunged the nation into economic chaos and left their neighbors near starvation while plantation owners and their political cronies jealously guarded the status quo.

This rare moment in Southern history where black and white came together to stand for social justice against overwhelming odds is preserved in what must be the most humble of historic places, the nine-year-old, state and federally funded Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, located in the same building where Mitchell and East led the STFU.

Some have called the STFU a predecessor to the Civil Rights Movement, Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, and today’s Farm Labor Organizing Committee in Ohio and North Carolina and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, each a shining light to the powerless of this nation.

“It took a lot of courage,” says Linda Hinton, director of the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum, about the defiance of Southern tradition that the STFU represented. “One of the original members had been a Klansman, but whenever he started looking around and seeing how he was being treated, and saw the blacks were being treated the same way, he joined the union.”

Courage indeed. Earlier efforts by sharecroppers and tenant farmers to assert their rights had met with brutal suppression. An Arkansas Delta picker strike in 1891 ended with nine of the strikers captured by masked vigilantes and summarily hung.

What is probably the worst race massacre in U.S. history took place in nearby Elaine, Ark., in 1919 when black sharecroppers met in a church to organize for better wages. A band of armed white men launched a terror campaign against them that led to more than 100 deaths.

Members of the STFU, too, faced beatings, kidnappings, jail time, and constant threats from gun-toting night riders. However, a strike in 1935 led to several landowners agreeing to better wages. By 1937 the union claimed tens of thousands of members in Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri and Oklahoma.

(To the right, an STFU call-to-strike poster on display at the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum)

“Meetings followed the pattern of religious revivals, with fiery sermons, passionate exhortations, and emotional hymns,” writes University of Mississippi historian Elizabeth Payne in her essay on STFU organizer Myrtle Lawrence.

Great labor songs like “We Shall Not Be Moved” and the classic “Roll The Union On”, written by STFU sharecropper-poet John L. Handcox, came out of the movement.

Takeover attempts by Communist-led unions, internal divisions and other pressures eventually drained the STFU of its original fire, and by the 1940s it was a mere shell of itself.

Decades later, the history remains controversial, museum director Hinton says.  “When I started working here, I spoke to a couple of elderly ladies at the church and asked them about it, they whispered, `yes, we do know about it.’ They felt they had to whisper.”

The museum, which gets about 4,000 visitors a year, is part of a four-site “Southern Heritage” tour sponsored by Arkansas State University that also includes the barn studio in Piggott where Ernest Hemingway worked on the novel A Farewell to Arms, Lakeport Plantation in Lake Village, and Dyess Colony, the farm cooperative whose most famous resident was country music star Johnny Cash.

The STFU failed to realize its dream of equality and fairness in the Delta. The region remains poor and divided, its biggest change seen in the corn and soybean crops quickly replacing King Cotton. Yet a closing sentence in a 1937 STFU declaration of rights speaks to the hope that the STFU continues to inspire.

“To the disinherited belongs the future.”

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Workers complain of low wages at Mississippi plant where 600 undocumented workers were arrested seven years ago

Workers are complaining about low wages at a plant in Laurel, Miss., where an estimated 600 undocumented migrant workers were arrested by federal agents seven years ago and many of them sent to a Louisiana detention center without formal charges or even the opportunity to call a lawyer.

Most of Howard Industries’ 4,000-plus current workers are African American, and thus the NAACP also supported their plea before the Laurel City Council last month for higher wages at a company that not only enjoys local tax exemptions but also received a $31 million state taxpayer-funded subsidy back in 2002.

Laurel Mayor Johnny Magee, meeting with reporters after last month’s council meeting appearance by an attorney representing the workers and an NAACP official, said that the city can do nothing about wages at Howard Industries. He and Council President Tony Thaxton also agreed that the company’s local tax exemptions are not in danger.

The workers, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, earn between $3.55 and $6 an hour less than their counterparts in other nearby Mississippi plants, said Roger Doolittle, an attorney representing IBEW Local 1317. Contract negotiations between management and workers have been in a stalemate over the pay issue.

“For the type of work they do, (wages) are incredibly low,” Doolittle said. “It is a travesty that the city of Laurel supports hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax exemptions to that kind of employer. … It defies belief.”

A request was made to Howard Industries for comment but no response has come thus far.

The local newspaper, the Laurel Leader-Call, editorialized strongly against the union on June 17. Unions “are an impediment to good business,” the editorial said. “Unions fleece workers under the guise of working in their best interests.”

The editorial went on to say that the solution to the workers’ complaints is as follows: “If you’re unhappy with your pay or working conditions, get another job.”

Howard Industries, which produces electrical transformers, is the company where hundreds of immigrant workers were arrested by federal agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in August 2008. This was the largest raid at a work place in the history of the nation.

Howard Industries, a company with a reputation for gifts to politicians, pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the nation’s immigration laws and agreed to a $2.5 million fine. Federal prosecutors said the company hired undocumented workers even after receiving word from the Social Security Administration that their Social Security numbers were invalid.

Ironically the only conviction of an actual person in the case was of a Latino, company human resources director Jose Humberto Gonzalez.

Many of those arrested were sent to the LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, La. They were held for weeks without formal charges or the ability to see an attorney. The migrant workers were dumped into single rooms holding as many as 250 inmates, according to the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance.

Their crime was working without proper documentation at a company that was fined in June of 2008 for 54 safety violations.

In 2012 the company agreed to a $1.3 million settlement of a discrimination lawsuit by four African American women who said Latinos got preferential treatment in hiring. The company also agreed to hire at least 70 rejected job applicants within nine months of the settlement.