Friday, January 12, 2018

Labor South Roundup: Organizing in the Big Easy, a pro-union U.S. Senator in Alabama, and a new Poor People's Campaign out of North Carolina

(The Rev. William Barber II of North Carolina during a visit to Selma, Alabama, in 2015)

Looking ahead at 2018 reveals some few hopeful signs on the horizon despite the scary mess in the White House and continuing Republican rule across much of the land.

Organizing in the Big Easy

In New Orleans, workers in the hospitality industry have organized to improve their lives at the workplace, a grassroots effort that is showing some real promise. A recent article in Gambit by Kat Stromquist says members of the New Orleans Hospitality Workers Committee (NOHWC) want to stop “the manager who skims tips from employees” and stop the practice making waitstaff pay “for kitchen mistakes out of their paychecks.”

They’d also like a “guaranteed 40-hour work week and a chance to earn overtime.”

Tourism is a big industry in post-Katrina New Orleans with 10.45 million people going to the Big Easy in 2016 and spending $7.41 billion while there, Stromquist reports.

Yet hospitality workers earn some of the lousiest wages in New Orleans, generally less than $10 an hour.

The NOHWC has proposed a 10-point Work Week Ordinance to give workers more say in their working lives, including input into scheduling and shift assignments.

A year ago this month, approximately 500 workers in the hotel industry joined UNITE HERE Local 2262, which already had representation at Harrahs New Orleans Hotel and Casino, Loew's New Orleans Hotel, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.

It’s Fair to Hope in Alabama

Democrat Doug Jones’ victory over Neanderthal Roy Moore in the recent U.S. Senate race may be just some kind of quirk to Fox News, but it provides a platform for a proud, much needed pro-union voice in the millionaires’ club known as the Senate.

Jones is the grandson of card-carrying union member steelworkers, and Jones himself was a steelworkers member at US Steel Fairfield Works during his college summers. He boasted of his union ties while on the campaign trail.

An openly pro-union Democrat from the Deep South in Congress? The Clintonistas must be as disgruntled about that as Republicans!

A Poor People’s Campaign coming out of North Carolina

The Rev. William Barber II, leader of North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement and one of the most dynamic social justice advocates in the country today, helped launched a new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival in December, taking inspiration from the Poor People’s campaign that Martin Luther King Jr. started 50 years earlier in December 1967.

According to Facing South, the campaign has “plans for massive civil disobedience at state legislatures to challenge regressive public policies that hurt the poor.”

Martin Luther King is smiling from heaven.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Hoping for fewer Scrooges among the politicians in charge in Mississippi

(1870s depiction by Fred Barnard of Bob Cratchit holding Tiny Tim)

This was my Christmas 2017 column for the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi, a column that looks to Charles Dickens to give us some hope for better things in 2018.

OXFORD, Miss. – I settled comfortably into my favorite chair one recent night and popped in a DVD of the best Christmas movie ever, the 1951 version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”.

No one ever portrayed a better Ebenezer Scrooge than Scottish actor Alastair Sim, who plays to perfection the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” whose ghost-and-spirit-inspired conversion later in the story will have him declaring, “I’m not the man I was!”

“I have endeavored in this ghostly little book to raise the ghost of an idea,” Dickens once wrote about his 1843 tale. “May it haunt (readers’) pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it by.”

I’ve seen the film a dozen times, yet I keep discovering new things in it. “You were a good man of business,” Scrooge tells the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley. “Business!” cries out Marley, rattling the heavy chains his life of greed and lack of compassion for the poor earned him in eternity. “Mankind was my business! Their common welfare was my business!”

Dickens scholar Norrie Epstein says the writer “never failed to weep” whenever he read his story out loud.  I’m afraid he’d be sobbing uncontrollably today if he saw how his “ghost of an idea” has fallen on deaf ears.

Here in Mississippi, nearly one out of every three children live in poverty worse than that of Tiny Tim, whose father Bob Cratchit is so poorly paid by Scrooge than he can’t get Tim the medical treatment he needs to save his life.

In fact, Tiny Tim might consider himself fortunate even to be alive if he were in Mississippi, which has the highest infant mortality rate in the nation. Mississippians are more likely to die prematurely than people from any other state. The fact is Mississippians, young or old, typically don’t live as long as people from other states.

When Bob Cratchit begs to take Christmas day off, Scrooge grumbles, “a poor excuse to pick a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December.” Who knows how the old miser (before his conversion) would’ve reacted if Bob had slipped and hurt himself after coming back to work on December 26?

Probably much like Mississippi’s Republican leadership. With their gutting of the state’s Workers’ Compensation protections in 2012, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and his fellow Scrooges in the state Legislature have made sure workers here are the nation’s least compensated for work-related injuries and thus the least protected. They are among the country’s most at-risk workers. A Mississippi worker is twice as likely to be killed on the job as the typical U.S. worker.

In fact, no one really knows how bad workers have it here in Mississippi because this is one of the nine states that refuse to collect reliable data on serious workplace injuries. Yet hear Gov. Bryant’s response to the 2012 Workers’ Compensation gutting—which added a host of hurdles for workers to jump before they can qualify for compensation: Mississippi has “the most job-friendly environment in America.” Friendly for whom? You know.

Here’s another way to say it: employers in Mississippi don’t have to worry about the “humbug” of being responsible for the safety of their workers.

Like Dickens himself, I confess to shedding a tear or two every time I get toward the end of “A Christmas Carol”. After Jacob Marley scares the wits out of the skinflint and then the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future do their work on him, Scrooge is a changed man. No more is he the soulless moneylender who tells a Christmas donation seeker that the poor might be better off dead. That way they could help “decrease the surplus population.”

At the end, Scrooge is indeed a new man, one whom people would come to say, “no man could keep Christmas as well as Ebenezer Scrooge.”

Dickens offers us hope at the end of his tale. Indeed, isn’t hope the very heart of the Christmas story? Maybe there’s hope even in poor ol’ Mississippi, hope that political leaders one day will see in those less fortunate a common humanity—not simply shirkers or ne’er-do-wells—and thus realize “their common welfare” is the business of us all.

Monday, December 18, 2017

A Christmas Carol revisited, and an immigrant family's search for refuge


(Charles Dickens)

Christmas is just around the corner, and I've pulled out my "Ultimate Collector's Edition" DVD of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens' wonderful story of the Cratchit family and mean old Ebeneezer Scrooge, whose greedy, miserly descendants are many today with few of them likely to experience a ghost-and-spirit-induced conversion! 

Of course, the DVD version I have is the best in my opinion, Alastair Sim's masterful portrayal of Scrooge in the 1951 version of the film.

Ah, Scrooge, the moneylender who, as Dickens expert Norrie Epstein has written, "controls others by keeping them in his debt." Sound familiar? Today, it's entire nations in bottomless debt, and their Scrooge is the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, European Union, and hedge fund operators on Wall Street.

Then there's Scrooge, the "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" who begrudges his poor clerk Bob Cratchit ever hour away from the chains of his desk. Pick a modern-day corporation--Nissan or Walmart's a good place to begin--and there you have an example of the descendants of Scrooge.

"I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an idea," Dickens once wrote. "May it haunt (readers') houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it by."

I'm sorry to say the folks who most need to read Dickens probably don't and never will.

Below is another familiar tale, my version of which I first presented back in 2010. I've re-published it several times in this space, and I offer it again this year for pondering as, I sincerely hope, all of you have a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Here it is:

(The Holy Family's flight to Egypt, as depicted by Giotto)

They were descendants of immigrants who themselves became immigrants.

Soon after the baby arrived, a dream came to the father that the little family would have to leave their homeland if they were to survive. Even the life of an innocent child was in danger in their homeland.

So the three of them—father, mother and child—left their tiny village and embarked on a treacherous journey through the desert wilderness. They were very poor and had little more than the clothes on their backs.

They traveled by day and by night, ever fearful they might be captured or attacked, until they finally crossed the border. They brought no documentation with them, only their humility and the father’s willingness to work hard to support his family.

He was a trained craftsman, good with his hands, and his work was valued even if he was paid so little he could never hope to rise out of his poverty. With his teenage wife tending to their baby, he went out among the people to earn bread and shelter for them.

He heard the whisperings among those in this new land. They called him and his family foreigners, outsiders, and even illegal aliens, as if they had come from the moon and their very existence was something less than human, a violation of not only the law of the land but also God’s law.

“They’re just here to take our jobs, to feed, house, and clothe themselves at our expense,” he heard one of them say.

“They don’t even take the time to learn our language,” said another.

“Why are they even here? Is their own country not good enough for them? Perhaps they’re spies,” said yet another.

“The way people like these spawn they’ll soon be everywhere, expecting their new offspring to be treated equally just because they were born here, like so many little anchors for their illegal parents. Anchor babies, that’s what they’ll be.”

Some of these whisperings came from the very people who benefited from his labors. They would say these things as soon as they walked away from the worksite and rejoined their neighbors and friends. Local leaders heard the comments, too, and saw an advantage in such fears, prejudice, and suspicions. So they began to talk among the crowds and, being leaders, talked loudest of all, loud enough for everyone to hear.

Even some of the priests joined the chorus, invoking God’s judgment from their pulpits, condemning the strangers for breaking the law and taking advantage of people’s hospitality.

The father and mother, already homesick, longed for their faraway families and friends. They knew many did not welcome them in this strange land, but they also feared for their child’s life if they returned home. Did their little child have any idea of all the troubles that surrounded them?

The father remembered how his ancestors had been immigrants to this very land many generations before and had prospered here, but then a new leader had turned them into slaves and they had left. Now he and his wife and child had returned because their own land had become hostile. When would it all end? Where was there a refuge?

Eventually the father, whose namesake had been a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams, had yet another dream, and this one told him the time had come to return home. So he and his wife packed their belongings, wrapped up their child to keep it warm, and journeyed back to their homeland. They had to be careful. Dangers still lurked, but at least they were home.

And back in the strange land where they had sought refuge, some indeed missed them. “He did good work,” one said. “You know, they never really bothered anyone,” another said.

But these voices were quickly drowned out by the leaders and their priests who cried “Good riddance!” and then looked for others to condemn.

Monday, December 11, 2017

NAACP protests Trump's visit to Mississippi's new Civil Rights Museum with one fist raised and the other fist full of cash from anti-union Nissan

(Union supporters at the giant "March on Mississippi" in support of unionization efforts at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, last March)

I was sitting down today to write a post on the recent grand opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Mississippi. As you may have read, the museum opened with major controversy because President Trump came to town to be part of the ceremonies.

Invited by Republican Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a stalwart Trump supporter who boasts of being the state’s first Tea Party governor, Trump arrived amid a storm of protest, including boycotts of the event by civil rights-era legends like John Lewis and major progressive leaders in the state.

At the heart of what I wanted to write, however, was an underlying hypocrisy that bothers me about a museum—and I’ve heard that it is an amazing place—whose founders accepted a $500,000 gift from the Nissan corporation, the same corporation that fought tooth and nail against a unionizing effort among its predominantly black workforce in Canton, Mississippi, last August.

Amid the hue-and-cry by state and national NAACP leaders over Trump’s presence at the museum opening—and I agree it was a disgrace to have him there—I kept thinking how that same NAACP has gladly accepted large sums of cash from Nissan, cash that I believe kept the organization from fully joining the unionization effort and condemning the bullying and threatening tactics Nissan employed that ultimately defeated it.

I’m not writing the post, however, because my star student at the University of Mississippi, Jaz Brisack, has written a much better piece that was published this week by LikeTheDew. Mark my word, Jaz Brisack, already an active organizer and fine writer, is a future force to be reckoned with on the labor/progressive front in not only the South but across the country as well. I couldn’t be prouder of her than I am today.

Below is a link to Jaz’s article. Read and enjoy!


Saturday, December 2, 2017

The shared mission of charter schools, vouchers, the GOP, and charter school-supporting Democrats is to destroy public education

OXFORD, Miss. – My high school had one, and maybe yours did, too—the toughest teacher in the school. Feared but respected, she (it was usually a “she”) was polite but didn’t smile much, and when you entered her classroom you knew you’d better sit up straight and pay attention.

Back at my high school in Sanford, North Carolina, her name was Freda Kriminger. She taught English, and her students finished the year knowing a gerund from a regular verb as well as why Lady Macbeth couldn’t wash the blood off her hands.

I thought about Mrs. Kriminger recently as I proudly stood among several high school teachers during our induction into the East Carolina University (my alma mater) Educators Hall of Fame. I’m sure they are doing their best to keep the Kriminger legacy alive.

Still, I know that’s getting harder and harder.

In North Carolina, a state that once served as a Southern model for good public education, the right-wing Republican General Assembly is doing its best to disassemble public education. Between 2002 and 2013, North Carolina’s ranking in teacher pay dropped from 19th to 47th in the nation. Although pay increases in 2016 lifted the state to 35th, millions of taxpayer dollars are being shifted from public schools to for-profit charter schools and private school vouchers.

With a few exceptions such as the administration of Gov. Paul B. Johnson Sr. in the 1940s and Gov. William Winter in the early 1980s, public education has never had much respect or support here in Mississippi.

This is a state that had fewer than 9,000 students in public schools by the beginning of World War I.  First it was the farmers decrying the loss of child labor in the fields. “Children were encouraged to work throughout the year without regard for the importance of completing the school year,” write James W. Loewen and Charles Sallis in their classic text, Mississippi Conflict & Change about early 20th century Mississippi. “Mississippi ranked last in the nation in average days of school attendance per child … . Mississippi also ranked at the bottom in over-all financial support for education.”

By mid-century it was the race-baiters screaming about mongrelization of their precious whiteness if their children were forced to go to school with blacks.

As reported recently in Arielle Dreher’s compelling story in the Jackson Free Press on Jackson, Mississippi, public schools, the segregationist white Citizens Councils told Mississippians in 1964 that “It is better to miss school altogether than to integrate.” Indeed at the time when Governor Winter was pushing his sweeping education reform package in 1982, school attendance in Mississippi was not compulsory.

Teacher pay in Mississippi today ranks next to last—just above South Dakota—in the nation. A teacher in Mississippi averages $42,744 a year. A teacher in New York state averages $79,637. Teacher pay in the South and border states is so low that some have qualified for Habitat for Humanity housing. Many have to work two jobs to survive.

School districts across Mississippi are experiencing such faculty shortages that the state Board of Education recently agreed to ease licensing requirements.

The ongoing saga of the Jackson Public School system and its failure to meet accreditation standards is a tale of racism, poverty, mismanagement, short-sightedness, and lack of support and will.

Of course, what is happening in Mississippi is reflective of the nation as a whole. Republican rule, aided and abetted by Obama-era charter school promoters like former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, have steadily undermined public school support everywhere. Charter schools and vouchers are Trojan horses, and their mission is to destroy, not to rescue.

“Will you teach me how to soar, to see things never seen before?” the poet Victor C. Johnson once wrote in homage to teachers. “But most importantly of all, will you teach me how to be, the only thing I can be … me?”

That’s the mission teachers like Freda Kriminger have always shared. Sadly, mission control is not in their hands.

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

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Werner Herzog: "Do something about it" if you're mad about GOP attacks on workers, education, the poor

(Werner Herzog at Rhodes College in Memphis in September)

German film director Werner Herzog, famous for films such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Nosferatu, and Lessons of Darkness, told an audience at Rhodes College in Memphis recently that grumbling about President Trump and Republican rule is meaningless unless you’re willing to do something about it.

“The heartland is the best of America, the real core of America,” Herzog said in a wide-ranging talk about film, actors, and current times after a screening of his 2005 film The Wild Blue Yonder. “For the first time, they combined their voices, and no matter who they elected, in this case, Trump, you better take it seriously. … It is very easy to denounce. If there is discontent among you with this president, do something about it. Stand up, vote, rally other people. Things might change.”

Certainly this is the winter of a lot of discontent. And certainly something needs to be done about it.

After losing a bitter election at the giant Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, in August, the United Auto Workers went on to lose another election at Fuyao Glass America in Dayton, Ohio, the culmination of an 18-month struggle. The vote was 886-441.

The Republican-led Congress is weighing a tax bill that will damage workers’ lives on a number of fronts, including changes in worker classification in the gig/platform/sharing sectors. Making workers independent contractors rather than employees has long been a trick by companies such as FedEx, and it’s their way to avoid paying pension and other benefits and to keep those workers from unionizing.

Another Republican proposal is to require students who are Pell Grant recipients to repay their grants if they fail to finish college within six years. At present, such repayments are not required. It is yet another assault on education led by elitist politicians who see education as a benefit for their own, not average working people.

According to a UAW statement this month, the GOP tax plan “will make it easier to ship even more good-paying manufacturing jobs overseas by eliminating taxes on offshore profit. This tax plan blows a hole in the federal deficit and sticks you and your grandchildren with the bill. The GOP plan also unfairly raises taxes on the middle class and retirees.”

More and more people in this country struggle while the Dow Jones industrial average grows by double digit numbers. Nation magazine columnist Eric Alterman reports that 5 million more Americans are “food insecure” at the same time the 400 wealthiest Americans saw their net worth grow to $2.4 trillion. In total, some 41 million Americans aren’t sure about their next meal.

Meanwhile Trump wants to cut $191 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a 25 percent cut.

Is the Democratic Party preparing massive resistance? Well, Will Marshall, a co-founder of the centrist, pro-corporate Democratic Leadership Council that nurtured the likes of former President Clinton, wants the party to adopt what Nation magazine calls a “$20 million program to discover how to talk to working people without alienating Wall Street.”

We wouldn’t want to alienate Wall Street, would we? Not that Wall Street gives a damn.

Not sure this is what Werner Herzog had in mind.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A post-election look at the union loss at Nissan's Mississippi plant, plus farm workers under attack in North Carolina

OXFORD, Miss. – Travis Parks, a 14-year veteran worker at Nissan’s plant in Canton, Mississippi, admits that losing the union election in August was hard.

“Putting a lot of time into it, it was a rough event for me,” says the 43-year-old, who works in the truck system at the plant, “but you have to step back and re-evaluate what went wrong. … I am pretty much taking an optimistic approach to this. I see an opportunity to educate workers who didn’t know what was going on.”

Parks worked hard to get fellow workers to see the benefits of belonging to the United Auto Workers. However, he and other pro-union workers couldn’t counter the anti-union barrage waged against them—the anti-union videos, the one-on-one meetings, the threats of lost jobs and a shut-down plant, the endless stream of anti-union commercials on television.

It was a typical union election in the South, where a phalanx of plant owners and management, politicians, preachers, and radio and newspaper commentators is guaranteed to decry the evils of workers having a joint voice in their working lives.

Parks says the Nissan-Canton management has made a few post-election changes—painting the bathrooms, improving some benefits for temporary workers--but the changes are merely cosmetic. “Small, insignificant things to make it appear that they are concerned.”

A source who works with the national UAW, asking to remain anonymous, says, “there is a natural period of time” after an election loss when people are “being introspective, retrospective.” The UAW still has an office in Canton, but it has reduced its staff there.

In These Times writer Joe Allen says the Nissan-Canton election loss “is nothing less than a knockout punch ending for the foreseeable future any efforts by the UAW to organize the large, predominantly foreign-owned auto assembly plants in the South.” He says the UAW’s loss of militance is partly to blame. “The UAW has become a prison of its modern history … a long track record of making concessions on wages, benefits, and working conditions.” 

What the future holds remains uncertain. Workers are at the mercy of the company, and they have nothing really to say or do about it. It’s a situation facing blue-collar workers across the nation these days.

Many of them voted for Donald Trump to be president. Unlike Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, Trump at least talked about bringing good-paying blue-collar jobs back to America and an end to job-killing trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.  

Trump ended TPP, but he’s done little else to live up to his campaign populism. His tax reform plan is the same old Republican saw that tax cuts to the rich trickle down prosperity to everybody else, the same lie today that it was when Ronald Reagan pushed that bill of goods.

Every demagogue has to have an “other” to blame for the nation’s troubles, and Trump’s was the immigrant. No Mexican-financed wall yet, but he has called for a major increase in jails and prisons for the tens of thousands of immigrants agents at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have been arresting. Some of these facilities are little more than modern-day concentration camps for people whose big crime is to seek work that U.S.-pushed trade deals destroyed in their home countries.

Trump is feuding with establishment Republican leaders like U.S. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. However, don’t kid yourself. Those Republicans are on the same page with Trump when it comes to serving their corporate friends and doing nothing for workers.

In my native North Carolina, the Republican-ruled General Assembly passed a law this year aimed directly at destroying the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, farm workers’ best hope for justice in the fields.

Republican N.C. state Senator Brent Jackson, a farmer fined and cited in court rulings repeatedly for mistreating his workers, pushed through legislation that bans farmworker unions from deducting union dues from workers’ wages. The law even prohibits farmers from agreeing to a union contract as a means to settle lawsuits.

To whom can workers turn for support? The Democratic Party? Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez has undertaken a purge of party leaders who supported pro-union Bernie Sanders during last year’s presidential primaries. In their place are Clintonite corporate lobbyists.

Travis Parks, I admire your optimism at a time like this. I often call myself the last optimist in the room, but I’m worried that maybe now you are.

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