Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Republican "grass-eater rule" in Mississippi has prison system in shambles, workers' compensation gutted, and education on a precipice


("Uncle" Earl Long on the stump)

OXFORD, Miss. – Three-time Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, a betting man who loved the horses, knew his maneuverings to get a fourth term in 1960 were a long shot.  He also knew he was the last hope for the poor white and poor black in a state where the right-wingers were aching for power.

A.J. Liebling, a newsprint poet who also loved the racetrack, records in his classic The Earl of Louisiana what indeed happened when Uncle Earl’s bet came up short. “The grasseaters and the nuts have taken over the streets of New Orleans.”

Sure enough, newly elected Gov. Jimmie Davis quickly moved to cut $7.6 million in welfare funding and put 22,650 poor children on a path to starvation.

When I get depressed about politics, I look back to Uncle Earl for some solace. His enemies called him crazy—and maybe he was a little—but he was a true-blue populist who stood up for regular folks, something hard to find these days.

Look at Mississippi under Republican “grass eater” rule in both the governor’s mansion and state Legislature.

A lop-sided tax system that favors corporations and the rich has contributed to one of the biggest income gaps between the rich and poor of any state in the country. Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn’s solution? Phase out the state income tax and the $1.7 billion in state revenue it provides.

Thank goodness, House Democrats killed Gunn’s plan and prevented Mississippi from becoming another Kansas, where Republicans succeeded in such an effort and nearly wrecked the state’s budget while flatlining its economy.

I’m one of the few journalists in this state who has decried the miserable protections workers here get due to a Republican-spawned gutting of workers’ compensation rules. That’s why I get calls from desperate workers injured on the job with little or no means of getting just treatment from their employers. Got one the other day. What can I tell them? Get people to stop voting in politicians who side with bosses and CEOs rather than working folks.

Another nearly wrecked institution is Mississippi’s prison system. Corruption at the highest levels and medieval conditions within its private prisons have the system’s reputation in shambles. Experts acknowledged during a recent Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics panel discussion here at the University of Mississippi that past politics and a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” attitude set the stage.

My view? The core corruption in the state’s prison system is its willingness to hand over what is a state responsibility to profit-seeking private corporations.

Finally let’s look at education in a state with a sordid history of politically sanctioned disdain for public education.

Once again, the state Legislature ended its most recent session underfunding public schools, this time by $211 million under rules it set for itself in the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP). Initiative 42 (on the ballot this fall and which would force the Legislature to meet MAEP funding requirements or face judicial sanction) is an effort to fix this.

Quite clearly a grass-eating core within the Republican Party wants to privatize public education. Charter schools and vouchers are merely Trojan horses in that cause.  According to a study recently published in New Labor Forum, charter schools across the country have doubled since 2008 while some 4,000 district schools shut down. Charter school CEOs earn as much as three times what school principals earn. Yet charter school advocates are the first to condemn teacher unions that want fair wages and benefits for teachers.

Higher education is in a nationwide crisis. The cost of one college year has increased 1,200 percent over the past 30 years, the New Labor Forum reports. Student loan debt jumped 400 percent between 2003 and 2013. Thank the corporatization of America for those statistics.

The board of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, known as the College Board, has been under fire for failing to renew the contract of University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones. The decision, reached in secret, led to widespread speculation about a right-wing takeover of higher education in Mississippi.

Such speculation is warranted given what has happened in North Carolina and Wisconsin.

Tea Partyers, corporate wheeler dealer Art Pope, and the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors managed to get rid of progressive UNC President Tom Ross earlier this year as well as university centers devoted to the environment, voter engagement and ending poverty. Pope’s dream is to get writer Ayn Rand, right-wing goddess of unhinged capitalism, accepted into the canon of required studies at UNC.

In Wisconsin, Republican Governor and possible presidential hopeful Scott Walker tried to get the wording of the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement changed from “searching for truth” to “meeting the state’s work-force needs.” He failed, but he did succeed in seriously cutting university funding.

Mississippi voters have a chance to change things next election. Will they vote for Initiative 42 and for politicians who serve rather than oppose their interests?

I’m hoping, but I’m not placing any bets.

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

Friday, May 1, 2015

Labor South's May Day Roundup: Rosie the Riveter, building cars in Mexico on the cheap, and anti-union toxins in South Carolina

It’s May 1, the true “labor day”, St. Joseph the Worker Day, and time for another Labor South roundup with a look at the late Rosie the Riveter, the growing auto industry in Mexico, and anti-unionism in South Carolina.

Rosie the Riveter

One of my favorites in my grand collection of coffee cups is my Rosie the Riveter “We Can Do It?” cup. With her red bandanna, blue work shirt, rolled-up sleeves, and balled fist, she’s always been a labor hero to me, not only a symbol of World War II-era, factory-working women but also a reminder of the wonderful legacy of women at the forefront championing working-class folks.

One of several women associated with the Rosie legend, Mary Doyle Keefe, died last week in Simsbury, Conn., at the age of 92. Keefe was the model for artist Norman Rockwell’s 1943 rendition of Rosie the Riveter, which had her in overalls with a lunch box and rivet gun close at hand, and Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf under her feet.

Like another Rosie, the late Geraldine Doyle, who died at 86 in Lansing, Mich., in 2010, Keefe had never worked as a riveter. Keefe was a telephone operator when Rockwell had her pose for him. Doyle was briefly a factory worker but quit when she saw that the hard working conditions might endanger her true love, playing the cello.  It was Doyle whom artist J. Howard Miller used to create the Rosie in the “We Can Do It!” poster.

Some might say the real Rosie was Rose Will Monroe, a Kentucky native who did actually work at Ford’s Willow Run Aircraft Factory in Michigan, which was building B-29 bombers. She came along after the poster was already created, however, but was featured in a film promoting war bonds. Monroe died at the age of 77 in 1997.

They’re all heroes to me, and they’re all Rosie, one tough gal who wore a blue collar, did a good job, and was proud of her work.

Building cars in Mexico on the cheap

A recent report from the Associated Press shows Mexico in position to become the next “Detroit South” with plans by both Toyota and Ford for new plants there. Most of the 18 auto factories in Mexico were built in the past 10 years.

Mexican workers like the money. They can earn as much as $10 a day at one of the Japanese plants, or even $20 a day at Volkswagen. Those are good wages in a country with a minimum wage of $4.50 a day.

It’s going to be hard for even auto workers in low-paying states like Mississippi to compete with such miserable wages.

So what authors Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais in their classic 1955 book, Labor’s Untold Story, described as the “run-away-plant movement” continues, aided by NAFTA and its kin, and it will continue as long as workers remain unorganized on an international scale.

What’s encouraging, however, is that Mexican auto workers are raising complaints about poor working conditions such as long hours and injuries on the job. If workers like them unionize around the world, eventually the run-away plants will run out of places where they can run.

Anti-union toxins in South Carolina

Another recent Associated Press report tells of the decision by the Machinists union to forego a planned union vote last month at the Boeing plant in North Charleston, S.C.

The union released a statement describing the “toxic environment” against unions in the state. Threats and political interference are among the toxins. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has publicly urged workers at the 7,500-worker plant to oppose any unionization effort.

A “toxic environment” toward unions exists throughout the South these days with the Republican takeover of the region. Workers eventually are going to realize that the Nikki Haleys of the world don’t represent their interests. Let’s hope that realization comes sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

An ink-stained wretch pens a novel, and thus a "long apprenticeship" comes to fruition

(To the right, Edgar Allan Poe)

It all started when my eighth-grade English teacher, Bill Watson, introduced us to Edgar Allan Poe’s poems and tales of horror. He told us of other writers, too, but Poe was my man.

When I got back home after school in my North Carolina town, I went immediately to my room and starting writing. Oh, the words that poured forth! Pages and pages of epic poetry! Story after story of Poe-like terror and mayhem so pitiably inadequate they deserved to be killed and buried like Poe’s “tell-tale heart.”

When my Poe fixation faded, I turned to Jack London. Here was a challenge. What adventures could I boast to a writer who had been a gold prospector, hobo, able-bodied seaman, oyster pirate and war correspondent? Working summers on a tobacco farm just didn’t compare.

(Jack London)

No matter. At my writing desk, I spun great long tales of frozen barrens with roaming packs of wolves, pirates on stormy seas.

Mr. Watson admitted to me decades later he never had any idea he was changing forever the life of the unremarkable-but-wide-eyed 14-year-old near the back of the room.

I’m reminiscing these days about those childhood years when I envisioned writing both the greatest epic poem since Milton and the Great American Novel. Today, this aging, ink-stained wretch, after decades of banging out true stories in newspapers, magazines and a couple books, can now claim a published novel.

Mine has been a long apprenticeship.

(To the right, the cover to my recently published novel, Casey's Last Chance)

Ernest Hemingway once said this about journalists writing fiction: “On the (Kansas City) Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time.”

Papa Hemingway had a good point. Newspaper work can be a wonderful muse. You write fast and hard against deadline, often under a tough editor’s stern eye, ridding your language of excess baggage, boiling it down to crystalline purity. That’s what I see in my favorite writing journalists, from A.J. Liebling, Dorothy Day and Ernie Pyle to modern-day masters like Charlie LeDuff.

Some of my favorite fiction writers got their training banging out newspaper stories, like hardboiled master James Cain, but Hemingway had another point when he said getting “out of it in time” may be necessary.

Making the transition from newspaper articles to magazine articles is no cinch. Newspaper deadlines can be just hours away. A magazine deadline may be six months in the future with publication six months later. Newspaper writers want immediate gratification. Waiting a year to see a byline is an eternity. Today’s online journalism makes old-style newspaper deadlines seem like a luxury.

Fiction’s biggest challenge to the nonfiction writer is that the writer makes most of the decisions. He can't always rely on the facts to make them. Another challenge is failure.

“If there are to be any claims to greatness, they are to be found only in the scope of the failure and persistence in the face of it,” novelist and journalist Stephen Marche wrote in the New York Times about the failures of great writers like Herman Melville. “That persistence may be the one truly writerly virtue, a salvation indistinguishable from stupidity. To keep going, despite everything. … To keep failing.”

For many years, I was the stereotypical newspaper reporter with the unpublished manuscript in the bottom drawer of his desk. I looked everywhere for models. Mississippian Eudora Welty talked about the importance of a writer’s “sense of place.” The great worker poet Philip Levine, who died this month, believed writers should leave their “place”.

“It’s important to get away from the place where you’re from,” he told an Oxford audience in 2000. “When you’re away from (such places), it is then that you can look back and see their beauty and their horror.”

In other words, writers disagree with each other.

Hacking away at an earlier, never-published novel many years ago, I’d get up at five in the morning and put in a couple hours before spending the next nine hours reporting and writing nonfiction. Got it finished, but 40-plus rejections and my friend, novelist and crime reporter Ace Atkins (no relation), finally convinced me to shelve it and start working on a second.

It was good advice. I later learned that’s what a lot of writers did and with success, including Ace Atkins and now me. Writing (and publishing) short stories also provided good training for that future novel.

Fiction and nonfiction share one thing in common. Both give you a joy that’s hard to describe when you finish what you’re writing and know it’s good. At that point, it’s not even important whether someone else knows it, too.

Except Mr. Watson. If he were still with us, I’d want him to know.

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

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Civil Rights Movement veterans, yesterday and today, wonder if America will always be "racially insane"

Let's take one more look at the recent 50th year commemoration of the march across Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., with a focus on one Civil Rights Movement veteran still active today and another, now-deceased veteran, both of whom wondered whether America will always be "racially insane."

(Macye Chatman above)

SELMA, Ala. -  Macye Chatman was a wide-eyed, Tennessee-bred, 19-year-old Tuskegee  student in 1965 who turned civil rights activist after seeing the level of racism and segregation practiced in the Deep South.

 “If you rode the bus back then, you’d have to go to back of the bus. My roommates from Mississippi told me you couldn’t even go in some stores and buy clothes. Clothes! You wouldn’t be riding with white people in the car. They would be following you, and you might be killed.”

Forget about casting a ballot to change things. “I felt it was wrong that black people couldn’t vote.”

So Chatman joined the movement in Montgomery, stood with Martin Luther Jr., and demonstrated at the state Capitol at the same time the historic Selma-to-Montgomery march was getting underway 50 years ago.

She spent her 20th birthday in jail. “I got arrested in front of the state Capitol. They didn’t want me there. We were staying, and we locked arms and sat down in an Indian-style protest. State troopers were all around us. The horses were circling. We stayed two-and-a-half days in jail, 12 to 20 in a cell. You slept on the floor. I never was charged with anything.”

When she got out, she knew that thousands of marchers were making their way toward Montgomery from Selma, and she was going to be there to meet them.

Chatman, now 70 and living in Jackson, Tenn., was one of tens of thousands who came back to Selma this month to commemorate the Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965 that led to the historic Voting Rights Act of that year, including “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965, when state troopers and local law enforcement authorities brutally beat and tear-gassed 600 peaceful protesters on Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

President Obama and Georgia Congressman and “Bloody Sunday” veteran John Lewis were among those who came to the event, and many who were there pointed to the backtracking on voting rights, the economic inequality, and continuing racist behavior by too many uniformed police that exist across the nation today.

“Today we are right back to where we were in 1965,” Chatman says. “We are making so many steps backward. They’re trying to repeal the Voting Rights Act. They’re trying to repeal women’s rights, the right to protect her body. What about racial profiling?”

Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County vs. Holder decision essentially lifted federal pre-approval requirements for voting changes in places where blacks historically faced discrimination. Dozens of states, including Mississippi, where I live, have responded by implementing new restrictions on voting.

Modern-day Republicans, the spawn of erstwhile arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond’s 1964 campaign to change the one-party Democratic South to a one-party Republican South, pushed through those restrictions, tough new laws on voter ID and when and where people can vote. The target: Democrat-voting minorities.

The ruse Republicans use to defend voter restrictions is the claim of voter fraud. Yet little evidence exists of voter fraud on the part of voters themselves. “Where there has been election fraud in American elections, it is usually committed by politicians,” says Lorraine C. Minnite, director of urban studies at Rutgers University. “The most important illustration of outright corruption of elections is the century-long success of white supremacists in the American South stripping African-Americans of their right to vote.”

I traveled to Selma, Ala., during a South-wide journey in 1992 to report on the role of the black voter in elections that year. Selma’s late civil rights activist and attorney J. L. Chestnut Jr., a much-revered veteran of “Bloody Sunday”, talked to me at length about race in America.

“There is no way to escape white racism in America. America is racially insane. It affects politics and everything else. I can’t spend a lot of time worrying about how far we’ve come. I got to worry about how far we got to go. We’ve come a long way and probably got twice (as far) to go.”

Chestnut talked about “Bloody Sunday” on Edmund Pettus Bridge, a bridge named after a Confederate general and alleged Klu Klux Klan leader.

“I remember March 7, 1965, here in Selma when we came face to face on Edmund Pettus Bridge with the awesome might of the Alabama government. I remember John Lewis bleeding like a stuck hog.”

Yet Chestnut came out of that experience with hope. “I remember whites coming to Selma and risking their lives. A nation that will do that is not all bad. … I tell white Americans that I have more faith in America than they do. I believe if you give Americans the truth, they will do their damndest to be fair.”

Still, giving Americans the truth is a tall order, Chestnut admitted, when the goal of so many politicians is just the opposite.

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

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Labor South roundup: Hank Williams, Claude Sitton, La. & Texas oil workers win, & a Tennessee politician rants

(To the right, Hank Williams)

During my recent travels through south-central Mississippi and Alabama en route to Selma for the 50th commemoration of the 1965 march, I encountered a lot of interesting folks—writer and sociologist Al Price (also known as “Chester Rebel”) and his group of activist Tennesseans who invited us to join them in Selma (see my postings on this event) plus Terry Faust at the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Ala.

It has been a busy March with lots happening during and since that trip. Here’s a Labor South roundup of March encounters and events:

Hank would’ve wanted it this way

The South may be poor but it has always been rich with storytellers, and I met one of the best in Terry Faust at the Hank Williams Museum in downtown Montgomery, Ala. Terry is a musician and songwriter who helps out at the museum, and he’s also a special friend of the Williams family because of another job he holds: tending Hank Williams’ grave.

(Terry Faust at the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Ala.)

I bought Terry’s CD of great, personally penned tunes, Terry Faust, the Grave Tender, along with several Hank CD’s at the museum store while Terry entertained me with one story after another about the Hank legend and his own encounters with country music greats like Jamey Johnson, also from Montgomery. He told of meeting the late Little Jimmie Dickens at the Grand Ole Opry. When Little Jimmie found out Terry tended Hank’s grave in Montgomery, he put his arm around him and told him what a good thing he was doing. Then he started reminiscing about the Hank he knew more than 60 years ago. “We talked about Hank Williams two solid hours,” Terry recalled.

Speaking of Southern storytellers, was anyone better than Hank Williams himself, a working-class hero if there ever was one? Whether he was “Ramblin’ Man” Hank or his alter-ego Luke the Drifter, the country music genius won me over the first time I heard “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” way back in the 1960s. In later years, I was drawn to his lesser-known tunes like “Weary Blues From Waitin’” and “Alone & Forsaken”.
At Terry’s suggestion, my wife Suzanne and I later went and ate lunch at Chris’ Hot Dogs, a nearly 100-year-old eatery in downtown where Hank himself used to hang out. It was wonderful, and I kept an eye on the back booth, where Terry said Hank liked to sit.

Claude Sitton, the greatest of the civil rights reporters, dies in Atlanta

I was saddened to hear of the death of Claude Sitton at 89 in Atlanta during my visit to Montgomery this month. Sitton was the greatest of the civil rights-era reporters, filing dispatch after dispatch to the New York Times from the front lines across the South. It is said that Sitton and Newsweek reporter Karl Fleming created the modern-day long, thin reporter’s notebook so they could hide it in their coat pockets.

 Sitton possessed a “physical and mental toughness,” former Atlanta Journal-Constitution managing editor and author Hank Klibanoff told the Times. “He was not going to be intimidated.” Klibanoff and former Philadelphia Inquirer editor Gene Roberts authored The Race Beat, a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the journalists who covered the Civil Rights Movement.

I got first-hand experience with that “physical and mental toughness” when Sitton interviewed me for a job at the old Raleigh Times in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the late 1970s. Sitton was chief editor of the morning paper, the News & Observer. Both papers were then owned by the Daniels family. I remember sweating under those intense eyes as Sitton probed me about my views on reporting and writing. I wasn’t sure how I handled his questions, but maybe I did all right. I got the job.

Labor-Green coalition helps gain victory for striking oil workers

Striking oil workers in Louisiana, Texas, Kentucky, California and Washington scored a victory earlier this month with a tentative agreement on a contract between the United Steelworkers and Shell Oil Co., which served as representative for ExxonMobile, Chevron and other companies.

Nearly 4,000 workers began striking February 1, and they were later joined by another 3,000 at workplaces across the country to demand better working conditions, wages and benefits, and to protest the hiring of temporary workers.

Also joining the strike were environmental groups such as the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and the Sierra Club, whose members expressed strong concern about the environmental impact of oil refineries lacking proper safety standards.

According to Paul Garver of Talking Union, the USW believes the tentative contract promises better safety standards and a review of workplace practices and hiring as well as wage increases.

Tennessee legislator blasts Volkswagen for its openness to unions

Tennessee politicians just can’t get over the German company Volkswagen’s willingness to allow the United Auto Workers to address worker concerns with the company’s management at its Chattanooga facility. Although an election last year failed to give the UAW official collective bargaining rights at the plant, the company has okayed the union’s unofficial presence in discussions over workplace issues.

During a recent meeting of the state Senate Commerce Committee about, among other issues, a proposed $166 million incentives package to Volkswagen, state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, whose district includes the VW plant, fired a volley of criticism at Volkswagen America general counsel David Geanacopoulos for the company’s role “as a magnet for organized labor.”

Other Tennessee politicians such as Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, both Republicans like Watson, bitterly fought the UAW in last year’s election, warning of dire consequences if the union scored a victory.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Modern-day Selma protesters decry GOP-led efforts to turn back the clock on gains from 1965 sacrifices

(To the right, civil rights researcher and protester Antoinette Harrell at last week's commemoration in Selma, Ala.)

SELMA, Ala. – The first time I visited this town more than two decades ago Joe Smitherman was still mayor and activist lawyer J.L. Chestnut Jr. was still around to remind him of the bad old days when Smitherman as mayor allowed the beating and tear-gassing of civil rights marchers on March 7, 1965.

Both Smitherman and Chestnut are gone now, but the memories of what happened 50 years ago were very much alive this past weekend as Labor South joined tens of thousands of others to commemorate the courage of those who risked their lives for the civil rights of all Americans. People also came to protest the modern-day erosion of those rights.

(The Rev. William Barber II)

The Rev. William Barber II, North Carolina NAACP president and Moral Monday movement leader, said he brought 150 people with him to the event. “We’re here to honor the memory of the sacrifice. The very things that they marched about has been gutted.”

Macye Chatman, 70, a civil rights-era veteran who spent her 20th birthday in jail in Montgomery, Ala., because of her protests at the time of the Selma march, agreed. “We are right back to where we were in 1965. We are making so many steps backward.”

(To the right, Macye Chatman)

Barber, Chatman and others are incensed at Republican-led efforts in the South and beyond to restrict voting through voter ID laws and other means, the continued assault on abortion rights, the Citizens United unleashing of uncontrolled corporate-funded political elections, police assaults on unarmed black men, and other measures that threaten to turn back the clock while giving untold power once again to a well-healed oligarchy in the region and nation.

One of the many protesters who walked Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge last weekend was researcher Antoinette Harrell of the New Orleans area, an amputee who is missing part of one leg. She came to remind people of the sacrifice of Herbert Lee, a black farmer and activist from Amite County, Miss., who was murdered in 1961 for helping civil rights leader Bob Moses with voter registration efforts. A white state representative, E.H. Hurst, shot and killed Lee during an argument at a cotton gin. When Louis Allen, a black man, later reneged on his earlier statement that Hurst had acted in self-defense, he, too, was shot and killed.

“All Herbert wanted to do was vote,” Harrell said.

Selma was the epicenter of the civil rights movement a half-century ago when law enforcement authorities mercilessly beat peaceful protesters during a March 7, 1965, march. A federally protected second march on March 25 was successful as some 25,000 marched the roughly 50 miles to Montgomery along with leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and others. The event was vividly depicted in the recent Academy Award-winning film Selma.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Selma auto parts workers protest low wages & chemical exposure as nation commemorates 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march

(The bloody police crackdown on Selma-to-Montgomery marchers on March 7, 1965)

A labor struggle is brewing in Selma, Ala., as President Obama, former presidents, Civil Rights Era-veterans, journalists (including Labor South), activists and regular folks gather there this weekend to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bloody first march across Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Workers at the Renosol Seating plant in Selma, a supplier of the Hyundai plant in Montgomery 50 miles to the east, say their low-wage jobs have only gotten them potentially life-debilitating illnesses ranging from asthma to cancer.

“This is a big week in Selma,” said Kim King, a seating plant worker in a press release from the United Auto Workers, “but we think it’s also important to lift up the voices of those of us living and working in Selma today. … I am inspired by the history of my town leading the voter and civil rights movement. Today my co-workers and I stand as leaders in fighting for dignity at work.”

King said workers at her 90-employee factory typically earn $8 an hour and even after 10 years seniority only make as much as $12 an hour. Yet many experience “terrible breathing problems” as a result of exposure to chemicals such as toluene diisocyanate, also known as TDI, which is used in producing the foam inside car seats.

An NBC News study, conducted by Yale University’s Occupational and Environmental Medicine Program, showed that most employees tested by last July had been exposed to the chemical, which can cause asthma. Workers filed complaints with the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration. Last August OSHA announced it planned to inspect every auto parts plant across the Deep South states of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia as a result of high rates of injuries and safety issues. The inspections will take roughly a year.

According to statements by officials with the Lear Group, which owns Renosol, to Alabama Media Group blogger Erin Edgemon, the company conducted its own study and concluded the “Selma plant is safe for our employees.”

 “We know we have the power to improve pay and conditions at our workplace,” King said. “I am standing with my co-workers in Selma ready to fight.”

King is a member of Seating Workers United, an organization supported by the UAW. She and a handful of other workers at the plant hope to be able to organize into a union there to represent their interests before management.

“America needs good jobs and when we come together we have the power to make our jobs and our lives better,” says the Seating Workers United web site. “Through unity we have the power to win.”

A half century ago this Saturday (March 7), Selma became the focal point of the Civil Rights Movement as peaceful marchers attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a march to Montgomery and were brutally attacked by club-wielding policemen who beat marchers and sprayed them with tear gas.

A second effort--with federal protection--on March 25, 1965, was successful as Martin Luther King Jr. and others led an estimated 25,000 protesters across the bridge in the march. The Selma-to-Montgomery march became a catalyst to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

These events have been depicted in the recent Oscar-winning movie Selma.

Common, the rap artist who co-wrote the Oscar-winning song “Glory” from the movie, has been active in the labor movement and a vocal supporter of the right of workers at the giant Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., to join the UAW if they choose. The Grammy Award-winning artist performed at a sold-out concert on behalf of the Nissan workers at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., last year.

In related news, workers at the Faurecia SA automotive seating plant in Cleveland, Miss., have protested their low wages, poor working conditions, and the hiring of temporary workers at their plant. They also have expressed the desire for an election to determine whether they can join the UAW.