Thursday, October 16, 2014

Hong Kong protesters take on the Communist Party-Big Business alliance in that city

 
(To the left, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong when Labor South visited there in June 2013)

Labor South follows the Global South as well as the U.S. South, and this blog has been tracking events in Hong Kong closely since editor/writer Joseph B. Atkins visited that city in June 2013 and interviewed top labor leaders, activists and migrant workers there.

George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, an account of the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, put the lie to notions that the Communist Party always promotes revolution against capitalism.

“Official Communism must be regarded … as an anti-revolutionary force,” Orwell wrote. “The U.S.S.R. is in alliance with France, a capitalist-imperialist country. The alliance is of little use to Russia unless French capitalism is strong, therefore Communist policy in France has got to be anti-revolutionary.”

Orwell describes in detail how the Soviet Union co-opted worker unions and other true revolutionary forces in Spain in the battle against Generalissimo Franco’s fascists to protect its own selfish interests in the country. In the end, Franco won, setting the stage for the fascist takeover of much of continental Europe.

Karl Marx must have rolled over in his grave.

A similar alliance between “Official Communism” and capitalist leaders in Hong Kong today is why thousands of students and workers have taken to the streets in that city of more than 7 million in a weeks-long protest.

The protests, referred to as the “Umbrella Revolution”, began in late September, just before the Oct. 1 celebration of the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, in opposition to a Beijing plan to have a select group of Communist Party types and Big Business interests vet candidates in the 2017 election for chief executive of the former British colony. The current holder of that post, Leung Chun-ying, is himself a Beijing favorite, and among the protesters’ demands is that he step down.
 
Students and other young people in Hong Kong have had long-simmering disdain for Beijing’s hidden hand in Hong Kong affairs, a contradiction to Communist Party promises to Great Britain back in 1984 that the “rights and freedoms” of the residents of the semiautonomous territory would be protected. That hidden hand has worked closely with Hong Kong’s top business leaders to show favoritism to immigrants from the mainland in hiring, an easy and probably profitable exchange for protection of their financial interests.

The Economist reported earlier this month that Chinese President Xi Jinping “held a meeting in Beijing with 70 of Hong Kong’s super rich to ensure their support for his stance on democracy.”

Protesting alongside the students have been workers and union members. Member unions of the city’s only independent union organization, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, have gone on strike in support of the pro-democracy movement. In fact, the HKCTU, led by Hong Kong Labour Party chair Lee Cheuk-yan, was at the heart of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong long before the recent protests began.

(To the right, HKCTU leader Lee Cheuk-yan in his Hong Kong office)

In an interview with Labor South in Hong Kong in June 2013 (an interview that was subsequently published by the London-based International Union Rights journal), Lee Cheuk-yan talked about the alliance between the Communist Party in Beijing and top capitalists in Hong Kong and how their tactics resemble those of the old colonialists in times past.

The Communists “want big business on their side,” Lee said. “That is the political deal. The capitalists support the Communist regime, and the Communist regime supports the capitalists. Workers, of course, are always the ones that sacrifice.”

The HKCTU is “part of the movement for democracy in China,” he said. “We need a strong base in Hong Kong, both in terms of workers’ rights and at the same time we need a strong democracy movement.”

Workers and pro-democracy forces around the world should be supporting the protesters in the streets of Hong Kong. Bear in mind, however, those pro-democracy forces likely won’t include Big Business.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A progressive, populist South rising up? From Moral Mondays in N.C. to the UAW in Tennessee & Mississippi, Southerners are challenging the right wing

 

(A tobacco field near Cameron, N.C.)

Again another delay in posting on Labor South, and I apologize once more. Wrapping up a book manuscript and other duties kept me busy this time. Coming soon will be a look at labor support of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, a victory for casino workers in New Orleans, and a glance back at the hard-hitting journalist Robert Sherrill, a great Southern muckraker who died in August.

CAMERON, N.C. – This tiny town on tobacco road in central North Carolina looks much like it did back when my father grew up here in the 1920s—a small gathering of stores and homes with wrap-around porches between the railroad tracks and Plank Road, piney woods and fertile fields in the distance.

Scratch the surface, however, and what you find is deep, fundamental change—the homes are nearly all antique shops now, some with smart, little cafes and coffees shops that serve expresso. The residents are artists and collectors, local and transplant, not farmers and seed merchants.

A lot is changing in my home state, and the change here says much about the South today. Hard-right Republicans control this once Democratic haven, and their impact includes: refusal of Medicaid to 500,000 people, slashed federal unemployment benefits and state earned-income tax credit to more than a million, deep cuts in public education funding, and new tax breaks for the wealthy.

A progressive populist movement has risen up, however, and challenged the conservative junta in the state capital of Raleigh. Led by the Rev. William Barber II, president of the state NAACP, the multi-racial Moral Monday movement has been protesting, organizing, and spreading dissent since April 2013. Hundreds of supporters have been arrested for opposing the junta’s restrictions on voting and abortion rights, gerrymandered legislative districts, and gutting of the safety net for the poor.

The movement has spread across the South, including Mississippi, and beyond, and now members have aligned with a wide range of progressive activists, including the “Fight for 15” fast-food workers seeking union representation and $15-per-hour wages. Movement leaders like the Rev. Nelson Johnson of Greensboro, N.C., and the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson of Washington, D.C., were early supporters of the effort to bring a union to the Nissan plant in Canton.

“The South has been one of the greatest purveyors of death and destruction,” Nelson said during a pro-labor rally in Memphis, Tenn., back in 2006. “We come here to join in the struggle. People are being mistreated on their jobs, getting injured on their jobs, and being cut from their health care, individuals on temporary work and who’ll never have any kind of retirement income, people who work forty, fifty, sixty hours a week and don’t make enough to put aside to help their children go to college. That’s our congregation.”

An old friend of mine in North Carolina, Vietnam and Afghanistan war veteran Bob Mayton, told me during my recent visit that Mississippi may be pulling ahead of North Carolina now in the wake of the Republican takeover there. I told him Mississippi should never be a model, not with a governor like Phil Bryant who can refuse Medicaid to 350,000 in the nation’s poorest state.
Despite mainstream media’s general avoidance of any positive news about the labor movement, workers are gaining ground in the nation’s least unionized region. The 712-626 vote against union representation at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., in February may have caused anti-union Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, both Republicans, to pop champagne, but it also opened the door to a new kind of organizing that may prove a model for unions in the South.

The United Auto Workers decided to forego an appeal of the vote to the National Labor Relations Board—an appeal certainly justified in view of Haslam and Corker’s obvious interference in the campaign—and establish Local 42, a voluntary, members-only union in that will fight for workers’ rights in Chattanooga and hopefully grow largely enough to get official recognition.

In July, a federal judge ruled that the Michigan-based Kellogg Co. violated the labor rights of the 226 Memphis, Tenn., workers it locked out after a contract dispute. The 10-month lockout ended with workers returning to their jobs, and Kellogg’s multi-millionaire CEO John Bryant exposed as a paragon of greed in corporate America.

In many ways, the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary Conference in Jackson, Miss., in June was a landmark event in all this Southern activism. The conference drew activists from across the region--civil rights-era veterans like Bob Zellner and labor organizing legends like Bruce Raynor. More importantly, the conference brought young people together to pick up the banner for social justice in the South. No issue got more attention than labor rights.

Some 400 students participated in a pro-union rally outside the Nissan plant in nearby Canton at the conference’s end, waving placards, singing labor and civil rights songs, and shouting their approval when the Rev. Isiac Jackson of the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan told them, “Union today! Union tomorrow! Union forever!”

The civil rights movement of the 1960s began with black students’ protest at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. Mississippi later became its most heated battleground. Is Mississippi the next stage for today’s movement of progressive activism?

This column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss.

                       

Sunday, September 14, 2014

On the Southern Labor Front with Moral Monday in NC, Kellogg workers in Memphis, UAW in Tenn., Cargill workers in Texas, teachers in New Orleans, Boeing workers in S.C.

 
(Maria Stoller Atkins as a young woman and more recently)

Apologies to readers of Labor South for the weeks-long delay since my last posting. I’ve been out of pocket recently with the August 29 death of my mother, Maria Stoller Atkins. She was 92 and a German native who introduced me to the worlds of classical music, philosophy, and social justice issues. During World War II, she was imprisoned by the Gestapo for an act of kindness to French prisoners. Working at a plant in France where they were held, she and another lady felt sorry for them and slipped them cakes and champagne during a holiday. The Nazis only released her from her Polish prison as Russian soldiers made advances on the Eastern Front. After the war, she married then-U.S. Army sergeant Roger Burton Atkins, my late father, in Munich, and they settled near his family in Sanford, N.C., where I spent my formative years. She was a deeply religious woman who knew first-hand the evils of racism and fascism, and I miss her greatly.

Much is happening on the labor front in the South. I just posted a column with the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss., that looks at the region-wide implications of the hard-right Republican takeover in my native North Carolina and the progressive populist Moral Monday movement that has risen there to confront it and its efforts to destroy any kind of safety net for the poor and marginalized in society. I’ll post the column on Labor South soon.

I see Moral Monday as a movement with great implications for the South as a whole and one of several developments that show a growing restiveness among working-class and progressive-minded folks in the region. It has already linked itself with the “Fight for 15” fast food workers seeking to organize a union and $15-per-hour wages. Even before Moral Monday, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and Coalition of Immokalee Workers were championing the rights of migrant workers in North Carolina, Florida and elsewhere, and they were winning battles with major food corporations to better wages and conditions.

A federal judge ruled last month that Michigan-based Kellogg Co. wrongfully locked out 226 workers at its plant in Memphis, Tenn., after a contract dispute. The judge ordered the company to allow the workers to return to their jobs. For 10 months, through rain, snow and blistering summer weather, the workers protested outside the Memphis plant, and their perseverance paid off. The judge’s ruling also exposed the rank greed and arrogance of Kellogg CEO John Bryant, a multimillionaire with no concept of how his actions affected his company’s workers in Memphis.

The United Auto Workers may have tapped into a new way of organizing the South with its decision to establish Local 42 in Chattanooga, Tenn., in the aftermath of the 712-626 vote against unionization at the Volkswagen plant there last February. Tennessee U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam shamefully interfered with the vote, raising false alarms that a union would destroy jobs and investment. Local 42 is a voluntary organization that will stand up for workers’ rights and hopefully grow large enough to win official recognition.

Things are happening all across Dixie. Workers at the Cargill ground beef processing plant in Fort Worth, Texas, have voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers union. After suffering unjust firings, harassment, and threats of cut wages, workers at the 200-worker plant decided their only chance at fairness was standing together in solidarity as a union.

In New Orleans, teachers fired as a result of anti-union local and state government opportunists in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are winning their legal battle in Louisiana’s state courts. A five-judge panel of the state’s Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the thousands of firings by the Orleans Parish School Board and state Department of Education were illegal. The case is now before the state Supreme Court.

An organizing effort is underway among Boeing workers in North Charleston, S.C. Unions have struggled at the company’s giant 7,500-worker plant there (this includes contractors) over the years and have been completely absent for the last five. In 2009, the company chose the South Carolina site to build its 787 Dreamliner instead of its Everett, Wash., site, where workers are union members.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) has started an organizing campaign in North Charleston that could make it another major battleground for Southern workers seeking union membership.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Jazz great Charlie Haden's radical roots and Mississippi connections

 
(Charlie Haden, 2007. Photo by Geert Vandepoele in Gent, Belgium)

OXFORD, Miss. – I dragged my two young children to Memphis that night back in March 1997 with a promise: “Someday you’ll thank me.”

We went to see one of jazz’s great bassists, Charlie Haden, and his Quartet West. Rachel and Michael had never heard of him and had no interest in jazz, but going they were. Daddy insisted.

French berets, dark glasses, goatees, and black outfits were everywhere among the crowd at the University of Memphis concert hall. After high school and university jazz bands warmed things up, Haden and his group—tenor sax man Ernie Watts, pianist Alan Broadbent, and drummer Larance Marable—walked onto the stage.

“Dad, he’s so normal looking,” 14-year-old Rachel said.

That’s my gal. With just a few words, she went straight to the heart of the matter with Charlie Haden. With his short-cropped hair, thick glasses, clean-shaven, cornfed, Iowa-and-Missouri-bred looks, Haden hardly seemed the revolutionary who helped change jazz forever or the political radical whose “Song for Ché” honoring Che Guevara and liberation movements in Angola and Mozambique got him tossed in a Portuguese jail.

Haden, who died at 76 in July from post-polio syndrome, was what writer David A. Graham described as “the least likely revolutionary” in sax great Ornette Coleman’s quartet when they threw a bomb into the bebop establishment with their album The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959. After all, Haden had started out as little “Cowboy Charlie” with the country music-crooning Haden Family on radio back in the 1940s.

Yet it was Haden’s bass lines that held Coleman’s wild and soaring “free jazz” together and then guided it into the stratosphere. “His firm grounding in the roots seems to have been what enabled him to be such an effective radical,” Graham wrote in his tribute in The Atlantic.

It’s the bass that provides the bottom, the foundation, on which jazz and other roots music stand. A long tradition of great bassists have made jazz what it is. It includes Charles Mingus, who bridged the worlds of big band and bebop, and Vicksburg. Miss., native Milt Hinton, often called the “dean of jazz bass players.” With what record producer Jean-Philippe Allard has called his “huge, deep, dark tone, his perfect intonation and his melodic invention,” Haden is another giant in that tradition.

Haden’s devotion to roots is evident in one of his most evocative albums, Steal Away, with another Vicksburg native, jazz pianist Hank Jones. The duet offer a collection of ageless gospel and spiritual tunes that date back to pre-Civil War times and come out of African American as well as both white and black Protestant traditions.  Legend has it that the title tune was written by Nat Turner, best known for leading a bloody rebellion against slavery in Virginia. Haden also contributed his own “Spiritual”, a tribute to Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers and fellow martyrs Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Haden teamed up with another Mississippian, Jackson native jazz and blues singer Cassandra Wilson, later in his career on Sophisticated Ladies, a collection of torch songs from the 1940s and 1950s. Haden so badly wanted Wilson to do Johnny Mercer’s “My Love and I” for the album that he sang the tune to her on the phone to convince her.

Haden felt a life-long connection to the poor, the marginalized, and their struggles. Polio nearly cost him his voice as a teenager and precipitated his switch from vocals to bass. He saw jazz, like country, as the music of poor people fighting to make their way. His leftist politics were like his music, bold, revolutionary even, but always with an eye on roots, the basics.

The rich body of work he left behind ranged from his renditions of Spanish Civil War songs in his Liberation Music Orchestra album in 1970 to the ultimate film noir soundtrack that is his classic Haunted Heart in 1992. The latter was part of a trilogy devoted to Haden’s longtime home city, Los Angeles, and the noir world there that writer Raymond Chandler captured so well in his novels.
   
On that night in 1997, Haden’s quartet played at least four tunes from Haunted Heart, my favorite of all his records. I remember he would let out a “Whoop!” after a good solo by a fellow musician. It was the same whoop you hear on “Lonely Woman” back in 1959 with Ornette Coleman. On the day after I heard the news of his death, my wife Suzanne and I flew to Los Angeles to visit Rachel, a social worker there. She took us to Vibrato, one of the city’s best jazz clubs, a perfect place to drink a silent toast to one cool cat whose cornfed looks belied the revolutionary fire that was behind them.

(This tribute to Charlie Haden appeared in the Aug. 13-19, 2014, edition of the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss.)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Kellogg Co. workers in Memphis finally back at work--no thanks to Kellogg or CEO John Bryant

 
(To the right, locked-out Kellogg Co. workers in Memphis protesting outside the plant last February. Robert McGowen is on the left.)

Robert McGowen holds no bitter feelings about the 10 months he stood on the highway outside the Kellogg Co. plant in Memphis protesting the company’s lockout of him and 225 other workers because of a disagreement over a union contract.

The 23-year-veteran Kellogg Co. worker is just glad to be back at work. “We cranked it (the plant) up,” McGowen told Labor South. “We are running good cereal. Everybody’s getting along. The supervisors are glad to get us back. Some of us are fourth generation. I am second generation. It is like our kitchen. We can run it better than anyone else.”

The workers are back no thanks to Kellogg Co. CEO and president John Bryant, whose leadership of the company since 2011 has treated the generations-stretching loyalty of workers like McGowan with contempt.

Thanks go to U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays and his recent ruling that the National Labor Relations Board was essentially correct in seeking an injunction against the Battle Creek, Mich.-based cereal maker for serious violations of federal labor law. The company locked out the workers last October when their union, the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers, refused to agree to contract concessions that would cut wages and allow the hiring of new “casual” workers at lower pay. Mays ordered the company to allow the workers to report back to work Monday, August 11. With the order, workers resume getting wages, health insurance and other benefits, which they lost during the long lockout.

Administrative Law Judge Ira Sandron followed Mays’ order a week later with a separate ruling against the NLRB complaint. Kellogg Co. leaders responded by saying they would reconsider plans to bring back the workers.

McGowen said Mays’ ruling ultimately carries more weight than Sandron’s ruling, and he and most of the other workers are indeed back at their jobs. Still, the Memphis Commercial Appeal this week profiled one 38-year-veteran Kellogg worker, Glen Mason, who told the newspaper “I can’t work for that company anymore. I’ve never seen the company stoop so low as it has done this past year.”

An estimated 60 percent of Kellogg workers in Memphis are like Mason: African American. Those workers have filed a claim of racial discrimination against the company with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

McGowen said supervisors at the plant welcomed him and other workers back this week “with a `glad your back’ (and) handshaking. … The supervisors were in turmoil (during the lockout). The supervisors didn’t have anything to do with it.”

Kellogg is a profitable company, reporting an increase in revenue from $14.2 billion in 2012 to $14.8 billion in 2013, plus a profit margin of 24 percent for the quarter ending Dec. 31, 2013. CEO Bryant’s salary is roughly $6.6 million a year.

During the 10-month lockout, workers protested along the roadside outside the plant, often in rain, snow and both cold and hot weather. They went without pay, health insurance, or any assurance that the lockout would ever end. They received widespread support from the community and beyond—although Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton was noticeably quiet during the fray.  Political and religious leaders in the city called for a full-scale national boycott of Kellogg products. Organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Congress on Racial Equality, and Black Congressional Caucus all expressed their support for the locked-out workers. An online petition on their behalf gained thousands of signatures.

McGowen said he’ll never again be able to drive by the protest site outside the plant without thinking about the lockout. “I was on that highway for 10 months. I drove back Monday, drove by that spot. It was all cleaned up, but I’ll never forget it.”

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Labor activist Han Dongfang on the rise of Chinese workers, plus a Kellogg-Memphis update and soon-to-come tribute to jazz great Charlie Haden

 
(Han Dongfang at the Washington, D.C., panel)

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A democratic election by workers at a factory in Guangzhou to select trade union leaders and a promise by the Chinese government to provide better vocation training for migrant workers bring a new perspective to recent comments by Hong Kong-based labor activist Han Dongfang at a panel discussion here. Labor South covered the event.

Han, founder and executive director of the China Labour Bulletin in Hong Kong, said at the one-day “Chinese Labor Movement: Which Way Forward?” panel discussion sponsored by the Albert Shanker Institute that Chinese workers are increasingly asserting their rights and that the Chinese government is responding. He called on workers and activists to push for a “peaceful transfer” that could eventually transform China’s Communist Party into a social democratic party that recognizes and protects worker rights.

“Chinese workers are fighting back,” Han said. “They are no longer the victim. They don’t need sympathy. That makes you feel weak. … If you are afraid of the dark, and the dark knows this, it will be aggressive.”

Han served on the June panel with Human Rights in China Executive Director Sharon Hom and columnist and The American Prospect editor Harold Meyerson.

A correspondent with Radio Free Asia and arguably the most prominent activist for labor rights in China, Han served 22 months in a Chinese prison for his role in founding the Beijing Autonomous Workers Federation at the time of the crackdown at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. After contracting tuberlosis in prison, he was released and spent a year in treatment in the United States. He lost most of a lung as a result and was banned from returning to China and expelled to Hong Kong.

Despite his imprisonment by the Chinese government, Han sees potential for significant change and the promise for more worker freedom in the country. “I’m very politically incorrect,” he said. “I leave the door open for the Communist Party to walk out of its past.”

A “peaceful transfer” would mean that workers “pay less in human life and blood.”

Han pointed to several recent campaigns in China that have proven workers' growing clout. These include a strike by 40,000 workers at Yue Yuen Industrial, global supplier of Adidas, Nike and other shoe brands, in April as well as protests and strikes by workers at the Chinese operations of WalMart, IBM and Pepsi. “Walmart had to bow its head and recognize the union,” Han said.

In Guangzhou in southern China last month workers at the Japanese-owned Sumida electronics factory participated in a groundbreaking democratic election to select union leaders, an important first step toward a true grassroots union. Furthermore, officials at a government State Council executive meeting promised better vocation training and other improved conditions for the nation’s 270 million rural migrants who moved to urban areas to find work.

Han pointed to subtle changes in the language used by the Communist Party at its congresses in recent years that have opened the way to a “collective wage negotiation system.” The government is striving for legitimacy with workers, Han said. The government-sanctioned All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which essentially operates like a company union, “does not know how to collective bargain,” Han said, but it could learn if it became independent from “management control.”

The brightest promise on the horizon is the workers themselves, he said. “Younger workers don’t remember Tiananmen Square or Mao, and they don’t have the fear. … I do think the term democracy can be a part of the future of the Communist Party.”

The others on the panel offered a more cautious view.

“It’s important to put labor rights within the context of human rights,” Sharon Hom said. “Fear doesn’t work any more. The unions are the core in protecting the workers.” Still, she said, “there are major disincentives to give up power. … The corruption is so widespread.”

In a later article for Talking Union, Meyerson said the Communist Party won’t relinquish power easily. “The truism remains true: Power seldom yields without a struggle,” Meyerson wrote, “If the transformation Han seeks ever arrives, it likely will be more wrenching and bloody than the gradualist one he sketched.”

In an interview with Labor South at his Hong Kong office in June 2013, China Labour Bulletin Communications Director Geoffrey Crothall said the Chinese government certainly wants foreign investment and the nation’s economy to continue to grow. At the same time, however, “the government realizes the workers’ demands are perfectly legitimate.”

(To the right, Geoffrey Crothall in the Hong Kong offices of China Labour Bulletin)

Labor South asked both Han and Crothall whether workers’ victories for better wages and conditions in China could eventually lead to a major exodus of foreign-owned companies there.  Both said that the huge industrial infrastructure already in place in China, the growing domestic market there, and simple size of the workforce make this unlikely.

(To the right, Han Dongfang and Labor South writer/editor Joe Atkins)

“A lot of these businesses discover that as soon as you try to relocate to Bangladesh or Cambodia on the basis of cheap labor, that labor is not going to stay cheap very long,” Crothall said.

Ultimately, Crothall said, “if wages in China are going up, that is good for workers in America, good for workers in Europe. That levels the playing field. It also means workers in China are much are more able and likely to buy products made in the United States.”


And back here in the U.S. South, a judge orders Kellogg to bring back Memphis workers

A U.S. District judge this week issued an order to the Kellogg Co. to allow more than 200 workers at its Memphis plant to go back to work and to negotiate contract issues with the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union.

The order from U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays came after a formal complaint from the National Labor Relations Board that the Battle Creek, Mich.-based cereal giant was in serious violation of federal labor law when it locked out 226 Memphis workers last October because of a union contract dispute.

The union opposed company plans to cut wages and benefits as well as hire new “casual” workers at lower pay. The locked-out workers have picketed outside the plant through snow and rain and summer heat since last October.

In another development, union workers in Memphis have filed a claim of racial discrimination in the lockout with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Memphis. The locked-out workers are predominantly African American.

The workers’ picketing won widespread support from the local community and as far away as the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C.

And an upcoming tribute to jazz great Charlie Haden

Expect soon a Labor South tribute to jazz great Charlie Haden, who died at 76 last month. The bassist, one of this writer's favorite musicians, helped change jazz forever when he and the rest of the Ornette Coleman’s quartet recorded The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959. Haden was also revolutionary in his politics and once was thrown in a Portuguese jail for his provocative music, leftist politics, and support of liberation movements in Angola and Mozambique.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Populists and Bourbons fighting again - 21st Century Style - in aftermath of Mississippi's U.S. Senate Republican runoff

 
(A 1904 Populist Party campaign poster for presidential candidate Tom Watson of Georgia)

OXFORD, Miss. – More than a century ago the “forgotten man” of Mississippi and across the South—the farmer, the common worker—decided he’d had enough of “Wall Street speculators who gambled on his crop futures; the railroad owners who evaded his taxes, bought legislatures, and over-charged him with discriminate rates; the manufacturers, who taxed him with a high tariff; the trusts that fleeced him with high prices; the middleman, who stole his profit.”

The forgotten man was so angry, historian C. Vann Woodward goes on to say, that he created a movement. It came as close to toppling our two-party system as any effort in the country’s history.

The parallels between the Populist movement of the 1890s and early 1900s and today’s Tea Party are striking, even though crucial differences also exist.

State Senator Chris McDaniel’s still-contested narrow loss to incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi’s Republican runoff last month exposed a divide with the Republican Party possibly as wide as the divide that ultimately split the one-party Democratic South in the 1890s between the “Bourbon” establishment and the rebellious “Populists”.

Voting in the June 24 runoff even paralleled the Bourbon-Populist split at the turn of the last century. McDaniel won the old Populist stronghold in the Piney Woods region of southeast Mississippi while Cochran secured the Bourbon stronghold of white voters in the Delta.

The ruling Bourbon Democrats who emerged after the Civil War were pro-big business and made sure government stayed friendly to the railroads and other Northern corporations. They fought any regulation or taxes on big business but ignored the needs of the little guy whose hard work made business leaders rich.

The very embodiment of Bourbon politics today is Haley Barbour, the prominent Washington, D.C., lobbyist and former Republican Mississippi governor who helped lead the charge for fellow Bourbon—“Country Club” is the preferred term today--Republican Thad Cochran’s re-election. Barbour’s nephews Henry and Austin worked in Cochran’s campaign, and an FBI investigator isn’t needed to see Haley’s fingerprints on millions that flowed into friend Thad’s campaign.

After all, Barbour’s oft-ballyhooed influence in Washington owes much to Cochran, a former chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. A prime example: the $570 million in federal housing assistance for Hurricane Katrina victims that Cochran helped divert into Barbour’s  “Port of the Future” project in Gulfport, Miss., which is thus far a boondoggle that has failed to deliver the promised jobs.

McDaniel and the Tea Party despise Barbour and his Country Club friends, who they feel are part of the Big Government-Big Business alliance that is responsible for the corporate bailouts of the 2008 recession, the $17 trillion-dollar federal debt, and soft-peddling of the immigration issue. They believe both parties ignore the daily struggles of average Americans.

Tea Partyers’ hands aren’t exactly clean of corporate stain. Billionaire oilmen Charles and David Koch are big backers. So is the anti-union Club for Growth organization, which spent millions on McDaniel’s campaign.

Still, they have a point regarding politics in Washington.

The mainstream Republican Party is essentially a tool of Wall Street and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. What the split Congress can’t deliver, the U.S. Supreme Court’s pro-corporate majority provides.

Tea Partyers see Democrats as practically socialists, but the sad truth is that many national Democrats are as cozy with Wall Street as Republicans. Former President Clinton gave us NAFTA and helped repeal the Glass-Steagall Act that regulated financial services. The presence of Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers and Robert Rubin in Obama’s first-term inner circle proved Wall Street still had a friend in the White House.

Big Corporations “want to be able to play both sides of the aisle,” writes historian Kim Phillips-Fein in the current edition of New Labor Forum, “and they want to be close to power regardless of which party holds Congress and the White House.”

The dilemma in American politics is that Wall Street is amoral, self-interested, and in today’s global economy incapable of allegiance to any nation. “Deep down, all of them know that they do not really care—that their own enrichment matters much more than any collective purpose or common vision,” Phillips-Fein writes.

Tea Partyers know this, but much of their anger is misdirected. Unlike the Populists of the 1890s, they despise organized labor. Their benefactors—the Koch brothers and the Club for Growth—would have it no other way. The old Populists wanted government to serve the people. The Tea Partyers want government to go away.

Led by Georgia politician Tom Watson, the old Populists initially welcomed blacks into their ranks—a rare enlightened moment in the South’s tortured history—but then became bitterly racist when black support turned to the mainstream parties. Jim Crow ultimately made black support irrelevant in the South.

Today’s Tea Partyers are overwhelmingly white, and their downfall may be their inability to accept the nation’s changing demographics. Their obsession with immigration and migrant workers, for example, betrays their failure to see a bigger picture, that brown-skinned and black-skinned folks are not the problem. Tea Partyers are too blind to see it.