Thursday, October 13, 2016

Labor South roundup: Trump & Joe McCarthy; prisoners strike & Native Americans protest; Jim Beam workers in Ky vote to strike; and longshoremen solidarity

It’s time for another Labor South roundup as the nation slouches toward election day, Jim Beam workers in Kentucky vote to strike, and the International Dockworkers Council meets in Florida.

Echoes of Joe McCarthy while no one’s talking about the nationwide prison strike and the Standing Rock protest

(U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wisconsin)

Back in February 1950, U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin appeared before a crowd in Wheeling, West Virginia, waving a sheet of paper that he said included a list of 205 communists in the U.S. Department of State. In later speeches, the number of communists he would cite ranged from as few as 10 to as many as 81 or even 205.

I was reminded of Joe McCarthy as I listened to Sunday’s presidential debate en route back to my home in Oxford, Mississippi, from a trip to North Carolina. At one point, Republican contender Donald Trump blasted his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton for destroying 33,000 emails from her time as secretary of state. At another, that number jumped 6,000 to 39,000.

It’s the same old demagoguery, and Clinton herself is not above a certain degree of it. When asked about the Wikileaks revelations of her speeches to Wall Street financiers, she quickly went ad hominem by attacking the Russians for leaking the material to Wikileaks. My old logic professor would have flunked me if I had tried that trick in his course.

I served on a panel discussion titled “Civil Discourse and the Role of the Media in the 2016 Presidential Discussion” here at the University of Mississippi Wednesday of this week. I joined the other panelists in acknowledging the challenges facing journalists in holding the candidates’ feet to the fire of truth this election, particularly Trump. A group of reporters found that Trump either misspoke, mislead or out-and-out lied 72 times in a single speech back in March.

Fox News journalist Chris Wallace, chosen to moderate the Oct. 19 debate,  has now famously said “I do not believe that it’s my job to be a truth squad” when serving as moderator. In other words, Wallace sees himself simply as a referee. Granted it’s mighty hard for anyone to be a “truth squad” this election cycle, much less a debate moderator. However, writing for Moyers & Company, Todd Gitlin had this to say: “If the boxer comes out of his corner with his glove dripping with some unknown substance, is it not the job of the referee to interfere?”

Beyond lies and misstatements, perhaps the worst disservice to the public this election is what’s not being discussed. Where are the statements from Trump and Clinton on the nationwide prison strike against poor prison conditions and what is largely unpaid labor by convicts in prisons in Alabama, South Carolina, Texas and beyond? This is labor that benefits huge corporations such as Walmart and McDonalds.

What about the huge protest by Native Americans against the Dakota Access pipeline planned near Standing Rock Sioux tribal lands in North and South Dakota? It’s an issue that pits a Dallas-based private company against one of the most put-upon groups of people on the continent, Native Americans, who want to protect their ancestral lands against a potential environmental disaster.

Jim Beam workers in Kentucky vote to strike

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 111D voted overwhelmingly this week to strike at two Jim Beam distilleries in Clermont and Boston, Kentucky, after weeks of bargaining failed to produce a new contract to replace the one that ends Friday.

Suntory Holdings Ltd., a Japanese company, owns Jim Beam. Company officials defended their offer of a contract that they said did away with a two-tiered wage system and included wage hikes.

Bourbon consumption on the whole is on the rise worldwide--most of it is produced in Kentucky--and the relative prosperity has led to generally good relations between management and labor in recent years. However, apparently all is not well with workers in bourbon land.

Dockworkers and longshoremen of the world unite!

Last month’s meeting of the International Dockworkers Council (IDC) in Miami, Fla., provided an opportunity for many delegates to praise the 97,000-member organization that has kept its grassroots identity with the rank-and-file.

The IDC prides itself on international solidarity with dockworkers and longshoremen around the world and keeping alive the old IWW/Wobblies motto of “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

In yours truly’s 2008 book Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press (University Press of Mississippi), I wrote about the importance of such solidarity in the International Longshoremen’s protest against a union-busting Danish shipping line in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2000.

“Hundreds of battle-ready, black-clad police and highway patrol officers stood in formation, armed with riot helmets, wooden clubs, and plastic shields” to put down the protest. Before long, protesters were throwing rocks at the police, and the police were beating protesters with sticks and firing smoke grenades at them, according to varying accounts of the event.

As indictments were filed against the so-called “Charleston Five”, dockworkers around the world kicked into gear and joined the protest, including the West Coast-based International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) (which the legendary Harry Bridges formed in the 1930s) and workers as far away as Spain. Criminal felony charges eventually were dropped against the Charleston Five, and the Danish shipping line agreed to work with the International Longshoremen’s Association local (ILA) in Charleston.    

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The South tops the nation in union membership growth, and mainstream media could care less, labor writer laments

Below is a link to a compelling article by labor writer and newly arrived Southerner (from Pittsburgh) Mike Elk about the growing labor movement in the South and the dearth of reporters covering it (lamentably he doesn't mention Labor South).

"Just as attitudes about race are changing in the South, attitudes about organized labor are changing just as rapidly," Elk writes, pointing out the growing pro-labor attitudes of young people in particular.

Elk says union membership is growing faster in the South than any other region in the nation, and "five of the top 10 fastest-growing states for union membership" in 2015 were in the South. Hey, maybe Labor South helped moved that process along!

Here's the link

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Trump denounces both TPP and its victims while a top Clintonista raises questions about Clinton's born-again opposition to it

An earlier posting touched on some of these issues, and this is the resulting column that ran recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss.

OXFORD, Miss. – I didn’t make it to the recent Donald Trump rally in Jackson, Miss., but I’m sure my ears would have perked up as soon as the Republican presidential candidate began attacking NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement.

“We will rebuild roads and bridges and infrastructure, and we will do it with our companies and our steel and our labor,” Trump told the cheering, chanting crowd. “I will be the greatest jobs president God ever created!”

To add fuel to a long-simmering fire, one of England’s top “Brexit” leaders, Nigel Farage also took the stage and urged American voters to do like his fellow Brits and take their nation back from the “big banks” and the professional “political class.” The British vote to exit the European Union was in part a rejection of EU neoliberal policies that push free trade for corporations and “austerity” for citizens.

At this point, I might’ve had to pinch myself and ask: Is this a Republican rally? A fair question given the fact that the Republican Party has long been the party of “big banks” and big corporations.

It’s a topsy-turvy world this 2016 presidential election. On one hand you’ve got a populism-spouting billionaire real estate and casino magnate who’s also a former reality TV star. On the other, you’ve got Hillary Clinton, a Wall Street-friendly millionaire Democrat (net worth estimated in the neighborhood of $40 million) who once ardently championed the TPP but now says she opposes it.

Like NAFTA, the TPP agreement pretends to represent modern global reality, a world where capital should flow freely across barrier-less borders. Only problem is, the jobs flow with it toward bottom-feeder countries where low wages, sweatshops, and miserable workplace and environmental conditions are the rule.

The drain on jobs can work both ways. NAFTA dumped so much subsidized U.S. products onto Mexico that it displaced an estimated 1.3 million Mexican farmers, the same farmers and their progeny whom Trump rails against in his speeches. Back home in the States, NAFTA cost Americans millions of jobs that went overseas, most of them in manufacturing.

Mississippi was one of the states hardest hit by NAFTA, a 1994 trade deal that then-President Bill Clinton was only able to secure after arm-twisting fellow Democrats with promises of labor protections that were never delivered.

TPP has been described as NAFTA on steroids, and indeed it takes trade deals to a whole new level by allowing corporations to sue governments that pass laws and regulations that might inhibit profits. Furthermore, those suits are argued in special courts where the corporations have a powerful say in who presides. This is the kind of deal—enthusiastically supported by President Barack Obama—you get when the dealmakers meet in secret without input from the public.

It’s a sign of the tragic decline of the modern-day Democratic Party that its leaders have become champions of jobs-killing trade deals that also force untold millions of migrant workers to leave their native countries in search of work and survival. Those migrant workers are victims of the very trade deals that Trump denounces even as he also denounces the migrant workers.

One of Hillary Clinton’s closest political friends, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the quintessential Clinton insider, told POLITICO this summer that she’ll switch again on TPP once the election’s over and support it. “Yes,” he said when asked if she’d switch. “Listen, she was in support of it. There were specific things in it she wants fixed.” When a public outcry resulted, including a denial from the Clinton camp, McAuliffe did some of his own switching and insisted he only was saying what he wanted Clinton to do, not what she will do.

The Associated Press recently noted that “Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton (are) the two least-popular presidential nominees in the history of modern polling.” Indeed, a recent GenForward poll shows that as many as 72 percent of young people in the country feel neither major political party is doing a good job looking out for their interests. This includes whites, Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans.

Who can blame them? Saddled with unprecedented college debt and an uncertain future with limited options, they don’t know where to turn.

Trump talks big about being the “greatest jobs president,” but his record as a business executive includes a long, dismal trail of citations, lawsuits and liens for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act and failure to pay workers and subcontractors.

Hillary Clinton’s husband railed against free-trade agreements as a candidate for president, then he became their biggest champion. Given her own record of switching back and forth, and those recent comments by major Clintonista McAuliffe, Hillary Clinton has given us little reason to believe she’ll be any different than Bill.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

UAW tilling what Sidney Hillman called the "unplowed fields" of the South with lopsided auto seating plant victory in Tennessee

The United Auto Workers continue to till what legendary Amalgamated Clothing Workers leader Sidney Hillman once called the "unplowed fields" of the South.

Workers at Magna Seating International in Spring Hill, Tenn., recently voted 192-1 to join the UAW, bringing a total of 230 workers into what UAW Region 8 Director Ray Curry called "the UAW family."

Located near the General Motors Manufacturing Plant in Spring Hill, the 122,500-square-foot Magna Seating International facility builds seats for the GMC Acadia and Cadillac XT5. It's a new, state-of-the-art facility touted by company officials for its commitment to good environmental conditions and open working relations.

The UAW has been slowing building a foundation in what has come to be called "Detroit South" for years, connecting with community leaders and area university students to change the traditionally anti-union hostility that Southern political, religious and economic leaders have fostered for decades. It has waged a nearly 12-year effort at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., that could produce a vote in coming months.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Americans: Facing a choice between the billionaire and the millionaire, and desperately needing a friend

It’s time for Labor South to check the nation’s temperature as we enter the Fall political season. The diagnosis? Blood pressure is up, people are nervous and they’re suffering from more than a little disillusionment. No surprise as they face a choice in November between a loud-mouthed billionaire demagogue and a long-compromised Wall Street insider-turned-“I feel your pain” Democrat for president.

(To the right, the billionaire (from Reuters' Lucas Jackson) and the millionaire)

A GenForward poll that was released this month shows that as many as 72 percent of young people in the country feel neither major political party is doing a good job looking out for their interests. This includes whites, Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans. The Democratic Party gets a little better numbers than the Republican Party, but neither can take much consolation. An Associated Press article on the poll noted that “Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton (are) the two least-popular presidential nominees in the history of modern polling.”

Young people have reason to be skeptical. Many are entering the workplace after college saddled with mind-boggling debt, the result of a political leadership that long ago lost interest in the post-World War II dream of a higher education system that can be a gateway to success for the non-millionaire class.

Both parties have also failed to push for an economy that means plentiful good jobs for those young people, embracing instead the neoliberal mantra of free trade and free flow of capital across borders. Trump’s speeches against the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement are enough to make even a lefty like me stop and listen, but then I remember this is the guy who also demonizes the migrant workers caught in the trap of TPP-NAFTA-like agreements.

J.D. Vance, author of the recent book Hillbilly Legacy: A Memoir of Family and a Culture in Crisis, makes the case that poor white people are embracing Trump because they feel abandoned by both the Republican and Democratic parties. Yes, Trump may be a demagogue, but at least he is paying attention to them and their concerns. “Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears,” Vance told Ron Dreher of The American Conservative. “He criticizes the factories shipping overseas. His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground. He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.”

Then there’s Hillary Clinton (net worth estimated at roughly $30 million to $45 million), once a champion of TPP who now says she opposes it. Her old buddy, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the quintessential Clinton insider, told POLITICO last month that she’ll switch again once the election’s over and support TPP. “Yes,” he said when asked if she’d switch. “Listen, she was in support of it. There were specific things in it she wants fixed.”

When a public outcry followed his comments, including a denial from the Clinton camp, McAuliffe did some of his own switching and insisted he only was saying what he wanted Clinton to do, not what she will do. Hmmmmm.

People wonder why the British rejected the European Union with their June “Brexit” vote. Racist anti-immigrant fools, many of my friends on the Left called them. Those friends seem to have no clue that the EU has become the flagship of neoliberalism today, a global economic policy that has been the prime mover in forcing people to migrate to other countries so they can find work and simply survive.

Oh, well. Bernie Sanders will never be president. The next president will either be a billionaire real-estate/casino magnate or a Wall Street-loving pol who pals around with Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein when she’s not kissing babies on the campaign trail.

(To the left, my friend)

I think I need a friend to help me deal with my own high blood pressure, nervousness and disillusionment.  Old Jack Daniel’s, you haven’t failed me yet. Yet.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The "Sans-Culottes" in Canton, Miss., get French support to organize at Nissan's Mississippi plant

(The Sans-Culottes in revolutionary France)

JACKSON, Miss. - A longstanding French tradition upholds the rights of working people—and it goes back as far as the 1789 revolution with the so-called “sans-culottes” who were too poor to afford the fashionable silk knee-pants of the nobility.

It’s that tradition that recently brought prominent French National Assembly member Christian Hutin to Jackson, Miss.

“For me, I believe there is something in the genes of the French people, in the French republic there is something that is human rights,” the vice president of the Commission on Social Affairs and mayor of Saint Pol Sur Mer told me during an interview at the ornate Fairview Inn near downtown. “It is very difficult for the French government not to react in this situation.”

(To the right, French National Assembly member Christian Hutin in Jackson, Miss.)

The situation Hutin referred to was the ongoing resistance by Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn to unionization efforts at the company’s 5,000-plus-employee plant in Canton, Miss.. In April of this year, Hutin asked the French National Assembly in Paris to use its leverage with Nissan’s partner company, Renault, to pressure the automaker to step back and allow Canton workers to decide without intimidation whether they want to join the United Auto Workers.

His trip to Mississippi was to fulfill a promise to see first-hand what is happening here.

With nearly 20 percent of Renault stock and 32 percent of its votes, the French government indeed can wield a heavy hand in Nissan affairs. Renault owns 43.4 percent of Nissan shares. Ghosn is chairman and CEO of both Nissan and Renault.

In Jackson and Canton, Hutin met with worker after worker at the Nissan plant who told of management’s arbitrary control over health and safety issues, how injured workers must go to the company’s medical personnel who tend to dismiss their claims and order them back to their jobs. Other complaints range from shifting work hours without notification, unsafe speed-up productions on the assembly line, and threats against and intimidation of pro-union workers.

Hutin said he asked for but was denied a meeting with the plant’s manager, Steve Marsh, and he was denied permission to visit the plant. “They hired security guards to prevent me from entering,” Hutin told me. “This is a sign that there is no dialogue at this plant and no transparency.”

I contacted the office of Nissan Corporate Communications Manager Parul Bajaj in Franklin, Tenn., and this is the statement I received:

“In every country where Nissan has operations, we follow both the spirit and the letter of the law. Nissan not only respects labor laws, but we work to ensure that all employees are aware of these laws, understand their rights and enjoy the freedom to express their opinions and elect their representation as desired.”

As for Hutin’s request for a meeting with Marsh, the statement said, “due to the demands of the business, we were not able to accommodate the request.”

Indeed, Nissan workers are represented by unions at the company’s other plants around the world. Ghosn told French National Assembly members in February that “Nissan has absolutely no tradition of not knowing how to cooperate with labor unions nor does it consider that it is a bad thing.” He also said that unions are present in all Nissan plants.

In other words, given the testimony of the workers in Canton, Ghosn lied. Born in Brazil of Lebanese descent, a British knight as well as French citizen, Ghosn has a long history of antipathy to unions—at least unions at plants his company operates in the U.S. South.

“It is unbelievable,” Hutin said about Ghosn’s statements. “It is not acceptable. To lie to a commission of Parliament is something that is unacceptable.”

Hutin said he wrote a letter to Ghosn that was co-signed was 35 members of Parliament asking the company to allow a fair vote if workers choose to decide on whether to join a union. Ghosn never responded. “Not to react to a letter signed by 35 members of Parliament is also something totally unacceptable,” Hutin said. “This reflects an attitude of contempt, of political contempt, of human contempt when you consider what is happening at the plant. I believe they can only respond to pressure.”

Nissan and Ghosn will soon be feeling pressure on a number of fronts. Not only did Hutin return to France with a renewed commitment to expose conditions at the Nissan plant in Canton—the issue has already gotten considerable media attention in France--but also protesters staged major public demonstrations against Nissan at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero this week. The IndustriALL Global Union says the company’s sponsorship of the Olympics is hypocrisy considering its treatment of its workers in Mississippi.

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

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

"The Free State of Jones", a film about Southern rebels against the rebellion known as the Confederacy

(Newt Knight)

OXFORD, Miss. – Newt Knight is described as a “deserter, renegade, and assassin” on the Web site of the local Sons of the Confederate Veterans chapter in Jones County, Miss., but Lew Smith in the nearby town of Sumrall has a different view.

“Old Newt is a big hero to me personally,” says Smith, who describes himself as a “life-long union man, white guy” who has been married to an African American woman for 45 years. “His willingness to stand tall for his ex-slave wife and bi-racial family.”

Add to that Knight’s willingness to challenge the “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight” that essentially was the Civil War.

Smith hasn’t seen the new film “The Free State of Jones”, starring Matthew McConaughey and Mississippi-bred talent such as Oxford’s own Johnny McPhail. “In a way I’m hesitant to watch the movie. … So often Hollywood screws things up.”

He needn’t worry. I’ve seen the movie, and it’s excellent. Director Gary Ross, whose credits include the now-classic “Seabiscuit”, spent two years researching the complex history of Jones County, Miss., during the Civil War, research that included Victoria E. Bynum’s book, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War.

It’s a 150-year-old story that resonates today as Mississippi still wrestles with the Confederate symbolism that rests on its flag as well as on its countless courthouse lawns. It’s a story that’s also still current in its challenge to the racial divisions that have forever haunted Mississippi and the South.

Newt Knight was a tee-totaling backwoodsman from southeast Mississippi who volunteered to serve in the Confederacy. He began his own rebellion against the Confederacy after passage of the so-called “Twenty Negro Law”, which allowed Southerners to avoid conscription if they owned 20 slaves or more. Most of the small farmers who dominated rural Jones County and surrounding counties owned no slaves and had little interest in preserving slavery.

Furthermore, the Confederacy allowed troops to confiscate small farmers’ crops and livestock as a kind of insidious “tax” to support the war effort. “You think they do that to the plantation owner in Natchez?” McConaughey’s Newt Knight tells his fellow Southerners as he launches his rebellion. “We got no country. We are the country. No man ought to stay poor so another can get rich.”

Knight leads an armed and violent resistance against the Confederacy that declares Jones County a “free state”. His break with Southern tradition extends to his personal life when he enters into a long-term relationship with a slave named Rachel and sires children by her. Their descendants still live today in the Jones County area.
“The Free State of Jones” stands out in the recent crop of Civil War or slavery-related films—“Lincoln”, “12 Years a Slave”, and Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation”. Each challenges the myths and stereotypes embedded in Hollywood classics like D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” in 1915 and David O. Selznick’s “Gone With The Wind” in 1939.

What distinguishes “The Free State of Jones” is its direct challenge to prevailing myths such as what Ross calls the “monolithic” ante-bellum South. “There were areas of Southern unionism all across the South,” he says in a Huffington Post Facebook video.

Jones County may one of the more famous examples, but another is the entire state of West Virginia, which exists because it refused to follow Virginia’s secession from the union. Many of the small farmers and mountain folk in the western portion of my own native North Carolina rebelled against the Rebels. They didn’t own slaves and saw no reason for the fight.

“The Free State of Jones” points to a dark consistency in Southern history that stretches from ante-bellum day until today. Soon after the Civil War, a landowning elite returned to power and instituted the so-called “Black Codes” that allowed black children to be taken into a forced “apprenticeship” that meant back to the fields. Of course, Reconstruction was eventually followed by Jim Crow, sharecropping and tenant farming, the entire retinue of the Southern elite’s insistence on cheap and, if possible, free labor.

Mississippi and the South as a whole are still dealing with the legacy of what forced Newt Knight to rebel against the Southern rebellion. Witness the ongoing controversy about the Confederate flag emblem in Mississippi’s state flag. At the University of Mississippi, a plaque is being placed next to the Confederate statue on campus that says the monument may honor Confederate soldiers’ sacrifice but it “must also remind us that the defeat of the Confederacy actually meant freedom for millions of people.”

Newt Knight’s story reaches beyond the South. His statement in the movie that “no man ought to stay poor so another can get rich” could be a rallying cry for the entire nation.

This column ran recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss.