Thursday, May 16, 2013
Anti-union Nissan makes big gift to Evers Institute but forgets civil rights martyr Medgar Evers was a big union supporter
(To the right is a photograph I took of Ray Smithhart in Jackson, Miss., in 2004)
OXFORD, Miss. - My old friend Ray Smithhart would have loved the irony of union-fighting manufacturer Nissan making a gift of $100,000 to the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute.
Known in his later years as the “dean of Mississippi’s labor organizers,” Smithhart worked closely with civil rights martyr Medgar Evers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, forging a link between the labor and civil rights movements that Martin Luther King Jr. himself saw as key to the future of both.
“Medgar Evers told me I was the first white man who ever talked to him,” Smithhart told me during an interview the year before he died at 88 in 2005. “We had good relations.”
That’s why he must be smiling in heaven. Nissan, unionized around the world but fighting unionization at its plant in Canton, Miss., made its donation to the Evers Institute last month. “This organization talks about and looks at youth education, diversity, and racial reconciliation, and those are the same things Nissan looks at,” Nissan spokesman Jeffrey Webster said.
If Smithhart were alive today, he would likely ask Nissan to look deeper into Medgar Evers’ beliefs. “All people need their civil rights, especially the working people,” said Smithhart, who served as president of a United Rubber Workers local and secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO.
Mississippi and nation are marking the 50th anniversary of Evers’ slaying with a long series of tributes to the late activist and field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP. Evers was killed in front of his home in Jackson, Miss., on June 12, 1963. Events include the annual Medgar Evers Dinner in Jackson next month. Among those on hand will be Hollywood actor and labor activist Danny Glover, a vocal supporter of the union effort at Nissan.
“I think about Medgar Evers,” Glover said at a gathering of pro-union Nissan workers last July. “He was only 37 years old when he died. Medgar Evers would be right out here supporting you.”
Activists, community leaders and the United Auto Workers have been building support to get Nissan to allow a fair election for the 5,000 workers at its Canton plant. Workers say the company is already waging an intense anti-union campaign within the plant that includes one-on-one meetings with managers, videos and threats of plant closings and layoffs if workers choose to join a union.
Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has opposed unionization at the company’s plants in Mississippi and Tennessee even though its workforce in other parts of the world is largely unionized.
The UAW has taken the Canton story to the world. Rallies have been held in Atlanta, New York, Detroit, and as far away as Brazil. Hundreds turned out for an evangelical-style gathering at Tougaloo College in January that featured Glover as well as an array of preachers, students, activists, and workers.
The $100,000 gift to the Evers Institute may be a sign that Nissan is feeling the pressure. The company also recently announced a $500,000 education grant to the Canton Public School District. Nissan reported $84.4 billion in net revenues and $4.37 billion in operating profit for the nine months ending in December 2012.
Yet things aren’t all rosy for Nissan’s relations with predominantly black Canton. Efforts by state lawmakers to back a $100 million plant expansion and supplier support plan in Madison County have rankled local political leaders, who are still miffed at a state-backed prohibition against Canton annexing the plant.
Nissan’s cash handouts, welcome as they may be, say nothing about the fundamental question of workers’ rights, itself a civil rights issue.
Evers died in the cause for those rights. Smithhart, too, was on the front lines, integrating water fountains, pressuring Jackson leaders to hire black police officers. In 1962, goons fired 200 pellets into Smithhart’s car near Ripley. A Port Gibson police chief told him “no one would hear” from him again if he didn’t leave town.
“I would not let the anti-union forces intimidate me,” Smithhart said. “I stood my ground, and they did not like it.”
Claude Ramsay, state AFL-CIO president at the time and another Evers associate, told me this during a 1981 interview: “They’d call me and threaten me. I kept a double-barreled shotgun on the floorboard of my car, and I told them I’d take at least two of them with me.”
The labor movement “transformed misery and despair into hope and progress,” Martin Luther King Jr. once said. “The two most dynamic and cohesive liberal forces in the country are the labor movement and the Negro freedom movement.”
Sunday, May 5, 2013
Poor, uprooted, and on the margins: Writer Steve Stern's tales of Old World Jews in Memphis' Pinch District
When the one-legged, one-eyed rags peddler Lazar Malkin left on his journeys into the Mississippi hinterland to find customers for his collection of “shmattes and tools,” he liked to remind his fellow Jews on Memphis’ North Main Street, “The Pinch ain’t the world.”
Old Malkin was right, but he was wrong, too. The Pinch, the former Jewish quarter of Memphis, Tenn., located along North Main between Downtown and Uptown, was, after all, a world unto itself. Along with its “jewelers, tailors, and watchmakers,” its Hasidim, rabbis, meshuggener and various luftmensch, were Klotwog’s Feed Store, Rosen’s Delicatessen, Ridblatt’s Bakery, Hekkie’s Hardware, the Neighborhood House, and the Anshei Sphard Synagogue.
It’s the world you enter in writer Steve Stern’s wonderful collection of short-stories The Book of Mischief (Graywolf Press, 2012), a lost world, that perennial of Yiddish literature, that existed in a little corner of a Deep South city, a threatened world where “at night rabid animals stalked the perimeter … with now and then a werewolf among them; and never mind the marauding Klansmen” who’d taken the place of the Cossack troops that tormented these Jews back in Russia and Poland’s Carpathian Mountains.
Stern, a winner of the National Jewish Book Award and teacher at Skidmore College in upstate New York, spent formative years in Memphis and found in the Pinch District—now largely blighted but possibly facing a rebirth--a bottomless source of inspiration.
(To the right is an abandoned synagogue in today's Pinch District)
The Pinch is Memphis’ oldest neighborhood. It was here where Davy Crockett and Sam Houston caroused at the old Bell Tavern in the early 1800s, where waves of Irish and German immigrants came and worked along the nearby levees of the Mississippi River, where many of them perished or fled during the 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic that nearly destroyed Memphis.
Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia settled in the Pinch after the epidemic. They came here just as they came to New York’s Lower East Side and other places of refuge to escape the pogroms launched against them after Czar Alexander’s assassination in St. Petersburg in 1881.
This collection of Stern stories also includes tales from New York’s Lower East Side, the Catskills Mountains, and Eastern Europe, those shtetl and city ghettoes we know mainly today through “Fiddler on the Roof”, the paintings of Marc Chagall, the haunting pre-World War II photographs of Roman Vishniac, and the tales of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Stern revisits the horrible last moments of the immigrant women at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York just before it goes up in flames in 1911. He juxtaposes the world destroyed at Auschwitz and Treblinka with today’s Prague, where that most iconic of Jewish writers, Franz Kafka, has become “Elvis”. His “jug ears stretched to satanic points … the forehead receding to a vampirish widow’s peak,” Kafka is everywhere—in the windows of bookstores and cafés, on T-shirts and coffee mugs.
Stern quotes Kafka to get to the heart of things Jewish: “In us all still lives—the dark rooms, secret alleys, squalid courtyards, and sinister inns. The fetid old Jewish town within us is more real than the hygienic town around us. With our eyes wide-open we walk through a dream, ourselves only a ghost of a vanished age … ”
(An alley today in Memphis' Pinch District)
And one “old Jewish town” was to become the Pinch District of Memphis, Tenn. Here along its alleys and narrow streets were refugees from a distant and hostile world, eternal wanderers it seemed, who now must contend with “a river … awash with dead men and snakes. Beyond our neighborhood the poor people married their own mothers and had two-headed children. For sport they wrestled pigs and cut the private parts off Negroes, which they framed and hung up in the barbershops. The South beyond the Pinch was Gehinnom, it was Sichra Achra, the other side.”
(To the right is another back street in today's Pinch District)
As is obvious here, Stern has a Jewish sense of humor, and it’s no accident he spends some time in this book in the Catskills amid the ghosts of “Sophie Tucker ... Fat Jackie Leonard, Danny Kaye né David Daniel Kaminsky.” In his story “The Wedding Jester”, his character Saul Bozoff may be Stern himself, a curious Jewish Southern writer who discovered in the Pinch a haunting of ghosts--“immigrants crying hockfleish and irregular pants, pumping their sewing machines like swarming hornets in the tenement lofts, braiding Yiddish curses into their yellow challah bread.”
Or preparing for the occasional visits of Memphis’ political czar, Edward H. “Boss” Crump, who would boast “Our sheenies are good sheenies” with just the hint of a threat behind that frozen smile and “rakish straw skimmer.”
These stories are filled with golem, dybbuks, tzaddik, and there's even a daughter of Lilith, the original “femme fatale,” Jewish, of course, a succubus as dangerous as she is seductive. Stern takes you to fantastical heights that require the suspension of Gentile logic and practicality. You fly in the air with Rabbi Shmelke “above the telephone lines and trolley lines” of the Pinch. You accompany Zelik Rifkin into a dream world of Pinch District doppelgängers who exist just above the tallest oak in the quarter. You swing with Felix Meltzer over the rooftops of Prague as he escapes the golem.
Stern tells us Saul Bozoff, the writer in “The Wedding Jester”, was never to be a bestselling author, lost as he was in “the place where history and myth intersected,” a writer “saturated in Jewish arcana” whose books are “catalogued as Fiction/Judaica.”
As literary critics Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg once wrote, the writers of Yiddish or Yiddish World literature, “virtually unknown to Americans,” navigate a world that is “internally a community, a spiritual kingdom,” and “externally a society in peril, a society on the margin.”
Indeed, by and large, these are poor immigrants, dealers in rags and legends, refugees from oppression defiantly true to their faith and culture yet also fearful of those outside their world, the holders of power in whose smiles lies an ever-present threat of bad things to come. Yet what stories these lost world denizens have to tell.
Friday, April 26, 2013
Death in Bangladesh and Texas: Will bottom-feeder industries and their corporate customers ever put people over profits?
(A late 19th century sweatshop in the garment industry)
How many tragedies will it take before the bottom-feeders of the global economy stop their relentless, immoral search for the world’s cheapest wages and decide that fair labor costs and safe working conditions are a part of doing business?
When textile workers stood up against their bosses in New England and joined unions like the Industrial Workers of the World in the early 1900s, the industry packed its bags and moved to the U.S. South, where a new generation of oligarchs had succeeded antebellum plantation owners and promised a climate that may be post-slavery but not post-slave wages.
After six decades of what North Carolina mill worker Eva Bradshaw once described to me as being “just dollar bills to them, not humans,” the South’s textile workers also stood up and joined the Textiles Workers’ Union of the America and its later emanation, the Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE).
Aided by the North American Free Trade Agreement and other government intervention on behalf of Big Business, the textile and garment industries’ response was to pack their bags and move south to Mexico, where instead of paying a veteran Carolina mill hand $11 an hour it could get a Mexican worker for $1.47 an hour.
Then when Communist China decided that a capitalist underbelly works quite well with an authoritative regime that mouths Marx but tolerates little or no dissent among the proletariat, the textile and garment industries said, “Hmmmmmmmm.”
Chinese workers earn a mere 64 cents an hour, industry leaders noticed, and soon their factories were off on the Orient Express of New Liberalism!
Then those pesky Chinese workers started complaining. After all, they were living in the last bastion of the “workers’ paradise”, right? Protests, strikes and walkouts became regular events along southeast China’s industrial corridor in the 2000s. Finally Communist Party leaders realized they had to stop the constant turnover of Marx, Lenin and Mao in their graves and do something about workers’ demands. For example, increase wages and let workers elect their own union leaders instead of having the government appoint a factory manager to wear both hats.
That wasn’t welcome news to the gypsy textile and garment factories. So next stop: Bangladesh, which now ranks only behind China in the garment business, a country where the typical garment worker earns the equivalent of $37 a month.
That’s why it should be a surprise to no one that yet another horror has been dealt workers in these industries. A poorly built, eight-story structure that housed multiple garment factories in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed last week, killing at least 400 and injuring many more. An unknown number of people remain trapped.
According to Bangladesh reports, workers were told to go to work despite the discovery of cracks in the building the day before the collapse.
Just last November, 112 workers were killed after a fire broke out in the Tazreen garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. They burned to death in a building without fire exits. The factory produced apparel for Walmart and Sam’s Club as well as Sears, Disney, Sean Combs’ Enyce and other Western companies.
Walmart and the Sears Holding Corp. have thus far opted out of joining a group of companies that have pledged to compensate victims of the Tazreen fire. In fact, Walmart apparently took a lead role in 2011 in opposing an effort to have companies step forward and fund improved safety measures among their suppliers in the South Asian garment industry.
More than 800 workers have died in Bangladesh factories since 2005.
Of course, the textile and garment industries don’t have a monopoly on poorly monitored plants that endanger the lives of workers. This became clear in Texas last week with the explosion of a plant owned by the West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas. The explosion killed 14 and injured more than 160.
Labor writer Mike Elk has reported that the plant had no sprinklers, fire alarms and shut-off valves but it did have “1,350 times the legally allowed amount of highly explosive ammonium nitrate.”
Thursday, April 18, 2013
Fannie Lou Hamer, a folk philosopher of the civil rights movement in the Mississippi Delta, knew what she was up against in a state and region where an entrenched hard-right oligarchy ruled at the expense of the majority.
“With the people, for the people, by the people--I crack up when I hear it,” said the former field hand, a woman wise far beyond her sixth grade education. “I say, with the handful, for the handful, by the handful, ‘cause that’s what really happens.”
Hamer spoke those words decades ago, but they’re just as true today as hard-right political leaders in Mississippi and across the South once again circle the wagons to make sure they stay in power even if it means suffering across the land.
Witness the spectacle of Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and the Republican bosses in the state Legislature opposing an expansion of Medicaid that would help 300,000 needy Mississippians even though the federal government will largely fund it. They’re not going to threaten their party or their own political necks by giving Obamacare a chance succeed.
Even the pleas of some 200 doctors and other health advocates who recently gathered in Jackson, Miss., fell on deaf ears as Bryant and Co. stood in the door to block any expansion, much like segregationist Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett tried to block integration at Ole Miss back in 1962.
The comparison is fitting.
In Mississippi you have the poorest state in the nation, where one in five nonelderly residents lacks health insurance, a state that recorded the nation’s largest growth in the gap between the rich and poor between the late 1990s and mid-2000s. This is a state that in the last two decades enjoyed a net gain (over what it paid in taxes) of $240 billion in federal aid to the poor and needy.
It’s the same story across the South, a region that will forever be the nation’s poorest so long as it continues to be ruled by oligarchies of self-interested pols and the business and corporate interests they serve. That has been the South through much of its sad history.
From Virginia to Texas, what Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson called the Confederacy, Republican governors have led the charge to oppose the Affordable Health Care Act and the Medicaid expansion that is a key part of it. Florida’s governor is the only exception. “Many of the citizens who would benefit the most from this live in the reddest of states with the most intense opposition,” Kaiser Family Foundation President Drew Altman told the Associated Press.
The assault on the needy takes many forms. The Republican governor and legislature in North Carolina recently agreed to slash weekly benefits to the unemployed from $535 to $350. North Carolina has a 9.2 percent unemployment rate, fifth highest in the nation. It joins five other Southern and border states—Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and South Carolina—that have slashed benefits to the unemployed.
Back in Fannie Lou Hamer’s day, white Delta planters and their pet pols fought racial integration with every fiber of their being. Their minions killed and maimed activists. They burned churches and homes. They threw blacks like Hamer into jails and tried to beat them into submission.
The same federal government that finally forced Mississippi and the Delta planters to accept the black vote and black civil rights also allowed that same leadership to control federal aid to the poor. Planters grew rich on federal farm subsidies but were misers when it came to doling out food stamps or other poverty assistance. They had no compunction about withholding assistance to any black upstart who challenged the system.
Read historian James C. Cobb’s The Most Southern Place on Earth about those times. It’s painful but an education. Mississippi was “a kind of prison in which live a great group of uneducated, semi-starving people from whom all but token public support has been withdrawn,” said one observer, a physician from North Carolina who refused to believe how bad things were until he saw them in person.
The same hypocrisy exists today. State leaders in Mississippi managed to find $356 million in incentives to lure Toyota at a time when they wouldn’t even fund a burn center, forcing burn victims to leave the state for treatment.
“Nothing could be a greater threat to the Southern cheap-labor economic strategy than universal, standardized federal social insurance,” author Michael Lind of the New America Foundation has written. “In order to maximize the dependence of Southern workers on Southern employers in the great low-wage labor pool of the former Confederacy, it would be better to have no welfare at all, only local charity (funded and controlled, naturally, by the local wealthy families).”
In other words, government “with the handful, for the handful, by the handful.”
Friday, April 12, 2013
Here's the latest Labor South roundup--from pipeline workers in Mississippi and poultry workers along the border South to longshoremen on the East and Gulf coasts.
Picketing at the pipeline
Brian Anderson said he and the other pipeline workers on the picket line in Columbia, Miss., have a simple message.
“We’re protesting lower scale wages and no benefits. We look after worker benefits. We are not radicals, not going to smash heads or sabotage or anything like that. … What we are trying to do is educate the public that they are getting an inferior job.”
A welder from Longville, La., Anderson is a member of Pipeliners Local 798, which is protesting the Kinder Morgan company’s decision to award the non-union Loutex company a contract to build a pipeline in and beyond the Marion County area in south Mississippi near the Louisiana border.
Kinder Morgan is based in Houston, Texas, and Loutex is based in Joaquin, Texas.
The picket site is in Columbia, county seat of Marion County, and involves anywhere from 15 to 60 workers a day. Overall 300 workers are involved in the protest, which has been going on for the past couple of weeks, Anderson said.
Attempts by Labor South to get company comments regarding the picket were unsuccessful. However, Kinder Morgan representative Allen Fore told WDAM-TV in Columbia that the company awarded the project to Loutex because it offered the best and most competitive bid.
That bid was based on low-wage, low-benefits labor and other factors that may end up making the project more expensive, Anderson said.
“The costs on a nonunion contractor is higher than a union contract,” Anderson said. “We go in there and do the job. At the end of the job, the gas companies will give them (non-union companies) more money to get the job completed, and the cost of non-union goes on up. It takes them longer, and you don’t have the same kind of quality.”
Poultry workers beware
One of Labor South’s best friends, labor writer Bruce Vail, says poultry processors Perdue and Tyson are outsourcing jobs and seeking nonunion contractors in the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia area. The United Food and Commercial Workers, however, are on the scene and holding “the giant processing companies accountable for driving down living standards.”
It’s just the latest assault on poultry workers, many of whom still endure “stretch-out” conditions on the assembly line much like workers did in the 1920s. The Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center recently released a study detailing the resulting health problems plaguing poultry workers in Alabama.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, working hand-in-hand with industry leaders, is scheduled this month to implement new regulations allowing poultry companies to increase the speed on the processing lines. Also in the works are plans to remove hundreds of federal inspectors from those same lines. Here we have a clear case of the USDA aiding companies at the expense of workers and consumers.
The good news in the poultry industry, however, came last summer when 1,200 workers at the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Russellville, Ala., joined the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). The victory capped one of the largest organizing drives in Alabama over the past 10 years, and it came after a bitter fight with the company.
Dockworkers ratify contract
Longshoremen earlier this year threatened a strike that would stretch along the East Coast into the Gulf Coast if they didn’t get a fair contract from the U.S. Maritime Alliance. Well, they got their contract.
Nearly seven months after their previous contract expired, the alliance and the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) announced this week ratification of a six-year contract that will raise wages, provide protections for workers displaced by technology, and limit nonunion subcontracting and outsourcing.
ILA members voted this week by a wide margin to approve the contract. The alliance, which consists of port associations, carriers, and direct employers, is expected to vote to ratify within the next few days.
Friday, April 5, 2013
OXFORD, Miss. – Bluesman Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry isn’t really howling mad.
Even when he opens the door of the Two Stick restaurant here for our interview, he has a grin on his face as wide as the swath of sunshine that follows him in. Sporting a black beret, a stud in each ear, a dark pullover proclaiming Clarksdale, Miss., the Crossroads to the Blues, he shakes my hand like we’re old friends.
It’s not long before he’s telling the story of how he got the nickname. He was a country boy accepting a challenge from his uncle to butt heads with a billy goat. “BAAAM! It seemed like boiling hot needles were burning! I knocked the goat down, and my head didn’t hurt. It must have knocked my brains down to my ankles. My feet were on fire!”
All of us at the table—Perry, his daughter “Shy”, Oxford musician and Ole Miss biology instructor Wendy Garrison, me—are laughing. We laugh a lot during my two-hour interview with Perry, 65, a Lafayette County native bluesman who has been performing and recording since the 1960s.
One story leads to the next, such the time he and his family performed at “Big Mama’s Juke Joint” in Hong Kong. “Very elegant,” Shy recalls.
“They spent $10 million on the place,” Dad says. “One night we had a tour group that flew down from Shanghai. They spoke no English except for the interpreter. Seeing those people clap their hands, getting up, hollering, dancing to the music, knowing they didn’t understand what we were saying … ."
He shakes his head and grins. “Of course, we were a good-lookin’ band!”
We’re sitting just a short walk from the Blues Trail marker on Oxford’s Square. The marker includes Perry among the region’s blues greats. Over his long career he has performed and worked with the likes of T-Bone Walker, Freddie King, Clarence Carter and Little Milton. Today he teaches blues as well as performs it.
Bill Perry’s blues trail has been long and winding. His sharecropping father, a gambler and moonshiner, won him his first guitar in a crap game. Young Bill sat in front of local bluesman Ned Bowles “like a bird dog that spotted a bird” to learn licks on a guitar.
The Perrys were poor, but music and moonshine made their house a popular destination. “Our house was the boogie house,” he says.
People bought moonshine and stayed to drink it and play music on the front porch. “I made up my mind I wanted to be an entertainer. Guys who played the guitar were always the center of attention. I never got attention.”
Still, the Perrys were different from other folks. Bill had a black father and a white mother. “I was a tar baby with red hair.”
When the family moved from Mississippi to Chicago, life stayed hard. “You find out how cruel people can be. I guess that plays into what I call the blues.”
His father kicked him out of the house when he resisted a beating. “My dad was a strict, super-duper country dude. He believed in busting your butt if you got out of hand. I never was told I was loved. I was never hugged.
Perry’s mother cared for him and helped him, but his father laid down the law.
He started out playing gospel, worked at Chess Records, got to meet the great Willie Dixon. “I tried to learn every doggone thing I could about that studio.” With the help of Little Milton, he switched to the blues and made his debut solo recording in 1970 with “I Was A Fool”. The song got on the Billboard charts. A long career of performing and touring followed.
Perry “is able to tell of some awful things from touring in the segregated South in the ‘60s while seeing humor in how ridiculous the people perpetrating the situation were,” says his friend Garrison, herself a fine slide guitarist.
Perry moved back to Mississippi in the 1980s, a decision he has never regretted. “Here you got room. I’m not saying we’re perfect in Mississippi, but compared to Chicago we come about as close to perfection as you can get. I had enough squeezed-up living, 27 years of my life.”
Yes, no more city life for Perry, who lives near the tiny town of Abbeville, Miss., (population 421). “Oxford’s too big for me. Abbeville would be too big!”
Despite a stroke in recent years and near blindness, Perry travels constantly, performing solo or with other artists such as his own family. Wife Pauline, daughter Shy and son Bill Perry Jr. are all accomplished musicians. He also stays busy teaching young musicians at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale and other venues. He says one of his pupils, Christone Ingram, is a future great.
“I try to pass on what I know to be the truth. … This is my passion in life. My music and my family.”
Here’s Perry performing with harmonica player Adam Gussow: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skGR_2nRXhw.
This is a performance of “I’m Going Back to the Crossroads” circa May 2010.
And check out this link to hear some of the other talent in this family. This is Bill Perry Jr. on the piano with his song "Jo-Lynn": http://www.frequency.com/video/bill-perry-jolynn-oxford-sessions/68447297/-/5-110056
And check out this link to hear some of the other talent in this family. This is Bill Perry Jr. on the piano with his song "Jo-Lynn": http://www.frequency.com/video/bill-perry-jolynn-oxford-sessions/68447297/-/5-110056
Thursday, March 28, 2013
Labor South Roundup: A labor veteran on organizing, talk of a labor board at VW in Tennessee, a steelworkers strike in Texas, and "Southernomics" assessed
(Labor veteran Danny Forsyth at Ole Miss)
This week’s Labor South roundup features a labor veteran telling students at the University of Mississippi about organizing, discussions between Volkswagen and the United Auto Workers in Tennessee regarding a German-style labor board, a steelworkers strike in Texas, and good reads regarding the Southern model of economics.
A veteran organizer talks about what works in a campaign
Danny Forsyth, a good friend who worked the frontlines of the textile mill battles in the last decades of the 20th century as a labor organizer, spoke this week to Ole Miss students in a course I’m teaching on social movements and press coverage in the South. As he has done in the past, he offered some good advice for current and future organizing campaigns.
“You’ve got to train your local leaders, get your core group together and train them. Whenever I left town, the local leadership could do what was necessary to do.”
Forsyth, who’s retired now and lives near Water Valley, Miss., knows what he’s talking about. Over a four-year period in the 1980s, he said his organizing efforts helped secure 20 victories out of 22 campaigns. Forsyth worked with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union of America (ACTWU)—later reconfigured as the Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE)—in the long battle to establish a union at the giant textile mill in Kannapolis, N.C. Victory was finally achieved in 1999.
Forsyth worked with Crystal Lee “Norma Rae” Sutton on campaigns, and during the civil rights era with activists like Fannie Lou Hamer. In the 1960s, Ku Klux Klansmen tried to gun Forsyth down during an organizing campaign in the Mississippi Delta.
Forsyth said the best organizing is from the ground up, utilizing the methods espoused by famed community organizer Saul Alinsky. For example, each meeting with local workers would include teaching/training sessions on such topics as “power”. Workers would learn where they fit in vis-a-vis the existing power structure in a plant or community and see that they could have power, too.
Community is key to organizing, he said. Plus organizing is hard work. Forsyth may have been the first organizer to use a computer in collecting data useful for a campaign.
Working in the South is a challenge because of the entrenched opposition of the power structure. Connecting with workers was not hard for Forsyth, however. “I’m an old Southern boy,” he said. “During the campaign at Cannon (Mills in North Carolina), they put me in front of the camera because I talked the language.”
A labor council at Volkswagen in Chattanooga?
Tennessee’s conservative politicians are all a flutter about revelations that Volkswagen officials are talking with the United Auto Workers regarding the possible creation of a German-style labor board at the company’s plant in Chattanooga.
The company may unveil a plan for such a board as early as May with formal discussions beginning in July. UAW President Bob King has indicated an openness to the idea although certain legalities may have to be considered before implementation.
Under the German system, workforce representatives are elected democratically, and the union is able to work with the company in resolving worker issues.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam seemed aghast at learning of the development. “I would hate for anything to happen that would hurt the productivity of the plant or to deter investment in Chattanooga,” he said in a statement. Haslam went on to say he doesn’t see any need to change the existing, non-union structure and that workers are happy at Volkswagen.
Volkswagen employs 3,200 at the Chattanooga plant. It has been seen as a company less defiant of unions than other foreign companies with operations in the U.S. South, such as Nissan. The UAW is building a major campaign at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss.
Observers say the labor board idea may offer potential for union growth in the South. However, organized labor needs to be careful that what evolves is not the equivalent of a “company union”, where workers seem to have representation but management actually calls all the shots.
Steelworkers on strike in Texas
After learning their company, Firestone Polymers, wanted to triple the deductible on their health plan and lower insurance payments after the deductible is met, members of the United Steelworkers at the company’s Orange, Texas, plant went on strike.
These workers’ jobs are particularly risky due to the exposure to potentially dangerous chemicals. Firestone Polymers makes synthetic rubber.
“Local 13-836 members are concerned about their health care costs because they … work in a dangerous environment,” according to a USW release.
The plan offered by Firestone Polymers mirrors similar plans offered by other companies in today’s economy. They seem attractive in that they include a lower premium--and lower costs to the company--but studies show they ultimately result in higher costs and health risks for workers.
On the Southern economy as a model
A recent cover story for the Austin, Texas-based Progressive Populist, headlined “Southern Poverty Pimps”, describes in detail how “the ‘original sin’ of the Southern political class is cheap, powerless labor.”
In his article (http://www.populist.com/16.05.lind.html), writer Michael Lind details what this blog and its author have been decrying for some time, a Southern economic model increasingly adopted beyond the South that preserves the wealth and power of an entrenched oligarchy at the expense of workers and ultimately the nation as a whole.
“Southernomics is radically different,” Lind writes. “Southern economic policymakers have sought to secure a second-tier role for the South in the national and world economies, as a supplier of commodities like cotton and oil and gas and a source of cheap labor for footloose corporations. This strategy of specializing in commodities and cheap labor is intended to enrich the Southern oligarchy. It doesn’t enrich the majority of Southerners, white, black or brown, but it is not intended to.”
Southern “pimps”—Lind’s term for the region’s conservative leaders—threaten non-Southern states by seeking to strip them of “their best companies and industries” and thus cripple their economies. They do this through cheap labor and other repressive means at home.
Another interesting read is Katherine S. Newman’s analysis of tax policies in the South and West, part of a series about inequality called “The Great Divide”.
In her article “In the South and West, A Tax on Being Poor,” which appeared in the New York Times earlier this month (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/09/in-the-south-and-west-a-tax-on-being-poor), the Johns Hopkins University sociologist outlines the dependence on regressive taxes-- like the sales tax--in the South and West, a dependence that certainly has long characterized the South. The rich and corporations get the breaks at the expense of the working class and the poor.
Meanwhile, Southern states like Mississippi look to the federal government to fill the gaps they refuse to fill. “The Southern states reap more tax dollars in federal benefits that they pay in taxes,” Newman writes. Mississippi “saw a net gain of $240 billion between 1990 and 2009” while states that do more to care for their people “lose out for every dollar they pay.”