Thursday, November 20, 2014

The real winner in the last election: The Politics of Money. It's where bipartisan love can always be found.

 
(Haley Barbour)

OXFORD, Miss. - What a gathering it was two years ago when Terry McAuliffe got together with his buddies Bill Clinton and Haley Barbour in Horn Lake, Miss., to celebrate the plant opening of GreenTech, a then-McAuliffe-led producer of battery-charged automobiles.

The three pols had a high-old time, lots of non-partisan backslapping, guffaws, a few off-color jokes, and general glee at the prospect of flowing cash that GreenTech offered.

McAuliff, the former national Democratic Party chair and now governor of Virginia, loved hanging out with his mentor and benefactor, former President Clinton, and his old sparring pal Barbour, former national Republican Party chair and governor of Mississippi.

After all, Barbour was key to GreenTech’s securing of $5 million in loans from Mississippi taxpayers plus the usual treasure chest of tax exemptions. And who but Clinton lays greater claim to the school of what New York Times Magazine writer Mark Leibovich called “Green Party” politics in his July 2012 article about the gathering?

McAuliffe, Clinton and Barbour are quintessential members of the “Washington Political Class,”  Leibovich wrote, “a vast and self-perpetuating network of friendships and expedient associations that transcend even the fiercest ideological differences. … One quaint maxim of the Political Class is that there is no such thing as Democrats and Republicans in Washington, only the Green Party. Green as in money, not GreenTech, or anything to do with clean energy.”

In other words, they are the very essence of what a growing number of Americans despise, even if people don’t always connect their anger and frustration to media darlings like McAuliffe, Clinton and Barbour.

It’s one reason why record numbers of voters, particularly Democrats, simply stayed home this past election day. What was their choice here in Mississippi? Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, Barbour’s premier benefactor in Washington’s money politics? Challenger Travis Childers, who signed the immigrant-hating, white-supremacist Federation for American Immigration Reform’s pledge of no “amnesty” for hard-working-tax-paying-but-undocumented migrant workers?

Both parties are so beholden to Wall Street and billionaire financiers that Main Street voters would simply rather watch reruns of “Gunsmoke” on election day. At least in Dodge City, Marshal Dillon (look him up, young readers) takes care of business, and the bad guys get their just deserts.

With the Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate in this month’s election, Cochran is in line to resume again the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee with all its promise of more taxpayer-financed pork for Mississippi. Tea Partyers, still smarting over the loss of Chris McDaniel in Mississippi’s Republican primary, hate Cochran’s pork-barreling prowess. They do raise an interesting question:

Why, after all those years of Cochran, the late U.S. Sen. John Stennis, D-Miss., and U.S. Rep. Jamie Whitten, D-Miss., chairing their respective Appropriations committees in Congress, is Mississippi still the nation’s poorest state? More than one of every five Mississippians live in poverty. Roughly the same number never finished high school. One of every four lacks health insurance. Why hasn’t all our pork-barrel done something about those statistics?

Maybe the story of GreenTech sheds some light.

Terry McAuliffe says he no longer has anything to do with the company. He resigned as company chairman five months after that backslapping party with Clinton and Barbour in Horn Lake. Not long after, the federal government launched an investigation into the firm and another outfit, Gulf Coast Funds Management LLC, in connection with the granting of permanent visas to major foreign investors. Production at the Mississippi plant was delayed, and the firm still faces penalties if it hasn’t hired 350 workers and invested $60 million by the end of December.

Barbour’s involvement with GreenTech is reminiscent of his “Port of the Future” deal on the Gulf Coast, where he recruited his friend Thad Cochran to help maneuver a redirection of $570 million in federal funds that had been targeted for Hurricane Katrina victims needing affordable housing. The funds’ new direction? An expansion of the Port of Gulfport that Barbour touted as the “Port of the Future”. The project has foundered ever since amid delays and shrunken promises.

The journalist Michael Kinsley once had this to say about Haley Barbour: “He manages to send the message: This is all a big game—a big wonderful game.”

Well, Haley Barbour and the rest of the Washington Political Class, it’s not a game to us folks out here in the hinterlands.  The economy is still a scary thing on Main Street. Too many people still lack health insurance. The migrant workers who make such great campaign fodder for Democrats like Travis Childers and Republicans like Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant only came here because of bi-partisan trade agreements that cost them their livelihood back home.

 Put Marshal Dillon on the ballot next time, and maybe people will show up.

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

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Jimbo Mathus: Preaching the gospel of rock 'n' roll in the Deep South

 
A couple of encouraging labor developments took place this week--Volkswagen's announcement that it will allow the United Auto Workers as well as other groups to represent workers in regular meetings with management about workplace issues at its Chattanooga, Tenn., plant, plus a growing national protest by pilots at Memphis-based FedEx over slow-paced labor negotiations. Labor South will keep an eye out on these matters, but in the meantime here's a feature story about a Mississippi "roots" musician who once said he seeks out in his music the "outsiders, the losers, the scrap-heap cast-off people."


(Above: Jimbo Mathus at his Taylor, Miss., home)

TAYLOR, Miss. – I’ve seen Bible-wagging Pentecostal Holiness preachers at revival time who couldn’t match rock ‘n’ roller Jimbo Mathus for fire in the belly.

“Music is the original peacemaker, the original desegregation tool! That’s what set America on its ear! When you get down to the nitty-gritty about race, music is the pioneer. It worked magic before the government could come in. Good golly, Miss Molly, whole lotta shakin’ going on!”

Mathus takes another sip from his can of Busch beer then pulls back his long, blond locks. He grins, flashing that gold tooth Dr. Sanchez got him down in central Yucatan to replace the original he lost working on a barge in the Mississippi River.

The Reverend continues his sermon. “It hadn’t been that long ago that rock ‘n’ roll changed the world. That’s still the thing. All the blues, gospel, honky tonk, everything leads into rock ‘n’ roll. You can still blaze a new trail!”

It might be time for a call to the aisle, but we are in a small trailer and just across the table from each other anyway. Besides, Mathus is preaching to the choir.

The 47-year-old musician, songwriter, and roots music evangelist says life is good these days. Dark Night of the Soul, the latest effort by him and his band, the Tri-State Coalition, on Fat Possum Records, has been called by one reviewer “closer to the bone” than any of his earlier eight albums, a “search for redemption” that also can “rejoice like a Saturday-night-into-Sunday-morning-house-rent party.”

The music ranges from Old Testament anger in Burn the Ships to the dark seduction of White Angel and the love rock-ballad that is Shine like a Diamond. Despite the CD’s title and some of its themes, “I’m actually very happy right now,” the artist says. “I’m happily married. I love what’s going on in my life, the artistic support I’m getting.” Gaining some distance from past darkness helped him write about it. “You don’t feel so close to it.  I’ve seen the ups and downs of life. On purpose. I didn’t want to shield myself from life.”

His landmark 2009 CD Jimmy the Kid has also just been re-released. This is the one that got my attention. Mathus takes you into lonely hotels, honky tonks for fallen angels, on the run from the law among “the sage and prickly pear” out West, and along a dark highway somewhere in America in search of “a little room to rest.” Echoes of Duane Allman, Keith Richards and Webb Pierce are in the air, but the music is still a Jimbo-special, roots-rooted “new trail.”

To many, Mathus is still best-known for being co-founder of one of the top alternative bands of the 1990s, the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Squirrel Nut Zippers, which did hot jazz, gypsy swing, New Orleans marches, and old vaudeville numbers and scored a major hit with the Calypso romp Hell. The band performed on the David Letterman show and at President Clinton’s 1996 inauguration.

Mathus grew up in a music-loving household in Corinth, Miss., that included a nanny who also happened to be daughter of one of blues’ early greats, Charley Patton. “She didn’t talk about him a lot. Blues was the devil’s music. He was a player in bootleg joints, whorehouses, gambling joints. That was nothing she would ever discuss. It was something not to brag about but to hide.

“Along about ’94 it came out she was the child of Charley Patton. At that time, I was of age. She was like family to me. One day I realized, holy-moly, Rosetta is Charley Patton’s daughter! It emboldened me in the blues field to pursue it even harder, to learn the guitar parts, every note.”

Even before he learned of the Charley Patton connection in his household, he was playing rock ‘n’ roll. An early effort was a punk band in junior high school named Johnny Vomit and the Dry Heaves. “We made a helluva racket. I was on a mission. I wanted to upset the applecart. I was not playing by the rules.”

Mathus considers himself a student of philosophy—he majored in philosophy at Mississippi State University—and he still probes the mysteries of Eastern and Middle Eastern as well as Western thought.  The South itself is his greatest study, however. “I had more than my plateful to know where I’m from.

“It’s important to know where you’ve been to map out where you’re going,” he says. “Not everybody cares about it. The majority of people could care less, but to me it’s important to feel a part of a bigger picture.”

Amen, preacher.

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

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A bluesman's take on Tuesday's election: "I been down so long it looks like up to me."


Just filed my analysis of Tuesday's elections for the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss., which will run the article in next week's edition. Will also post soon afterward in Labor South.

In essence, I look at the low voter turnout--records were set in a number of states--and the disassociation growing numbers of Americans feel with money-driven Washington politics.

Here's an excerpt:

"What was their choice in Mississippi? Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, (Haley) Barbour’s premier benefactor in Washington’s money politics? (Democratic) Challenger Travis Childers, who signed the immigrant-hating, white-supremacist Federation for American Immigration Reform’s pledge of no `amnesty' for hard-working-tax-paying-but-undocumented migrant workers?" 

The sad news is that the country is now jumping from the frying pan into the fire. An emboldened Republican Party, now in control of both houses of Congress, likely will do nothing (positive certainly) about major issues like immigration. Some pundits argue President Obama will take the initiative on this very issue and do what he can without Congress. I'm growing weary of expecting the president to do what he hasn't done in the past. After all, he's also the president who has overseen record numbers of deportations of immigrants.

Neither major party offers Americans much promise, although a handful of politicians here and there do. Like the old blues refrain says, "I been down so long it looks like up to me," and looking "up" may be our only choice right now.

A political friend once told me this about Republicans: "Give them enough rope and they'll hang themselves." Well, now that they've got Congress, they can only blame Obama for the obstruction that they themselves generally cause, and eventually this may ring hollow with the American public. Maybe that's the "up" in Tuesday's election.

Another is: What do Republicans do when they're not saying, "No"? Not much beyond offering more tax breaks to Wall Street and the rich, feeding the military-industrial complex, and spreading the divide between the wealthy and the rest of America even wider. If they ever were to can Obamacare, what plan are they going to offer in its wake?

People now get a chance to see the answer to those questions. That looks like "up" to me.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Labor South roundup: FedEx drivers' court victories, big win for airline employees union, contract negotiations for casino workers in New Orleans, and international solidarity for auto workers in Mississippi


It’s time for another Labor South roundup with reports coming in of significant gains for labor on several fronts in the South. That includes court rulings against FedEx’s contention that its drivers are “independent contractors,” union representation for thousands of airline ticket and gate agents, contract negotiations for casino workers in New Orleans, and an international gathering of labor leaders in Canton, Miss., on behalf of auto workers.

FedEx drivers’ campaign to be recognized as employees

Memphis, Tenn.-based FedEx lost three rounds in California, Oregon and Kansas in the last couple of months in its effort to keep its ground drivers designated as “independent contractors” rather than employees and thus stymie them in efforts to organize into a labor union.

The Kansas Supreme Court, hardly a liberal bastion, agreed last month with earlier opinions in the Ninth Circuit involving cases in California and Oregon that drivers should be considered employees. The cases were appeals of a 2010 court decision that upheld FedEx’s claim. That decision spread across as many as 23 states. A number of appeals were filed based on a wide variety of state laws and standards.

American Airlines gets a union

An estimated 9,000 ticket and gate agents at American Airlines in Texas, Florida and North Carolina won union representation in a September vote that The Guild Reporter called “the biggest union win in the South in decades.”

After a 19-year battle, the Communications Workers union scored a major victory with Dallas-based American Airlines. The vote was made possible by American Airlines’ merger 10 months earlier with US Airways, which already had union representation.

Casino workers negotiating contract in New Orleans

As many as 900 employees at Harrah’s Hotel and Casino are waiting and watching to see the outcome of more than six months of contract negotiations that will add them to the city’s unionized workforce.

A card check last March showed some 70 percent of eligible workers supported union representation. If things go well with the contract discussions, the hospitality union Unite Here will add some 750 housekeeping and food service employees to its ranks. The Teamster’s union local will add about 150 valets, front desk workers, bellmen, and warehouse workers, marking the first time the Teamsters local has entered the hospitality industry.

An estimated 2,000 workers are employed at Harrah’s in New Orleans.

International solidarity with auto workers in Canton, Mississippi

Labor leaders from Brazil, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, South Africa and Spain, representatives from auto unions in those countries and members of the IndustriALL Global Union, last month stood together in a show of solidarity with auto workers seeking union representation at the giant Nissan plant in Canton, Miss.

IndustriALL represents more than 50 million workers in 140 nations, including workers at Nissan and Renault plants around the world.

“For years, workers have weathered an environment of intimidation and implied threats from the company regarding the fundamental, internationally recognized human right to organize a union in the workplace,” a press release from the United Auto Workers said about the event.

Local community leaders and workers have testified to a management-spawned anti-union atmosphere at the plant and Nissan’s strong dependence on temporary workers who work for less wages and fewer benefits.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Two Southern heroes who stood up to the Fascists: the Rev. Ed King, author of a new book about the Civil Rights Movement, and the late crusading journalist Robert Sherrill


 (Civil rights leader Ed King during his recent reading in Oxford, Miss.)

Today Labor South looks a couple Southern heroes who took on the fascists who ruled the land.

The white Mississippian who stood alongside MLK and Fannie Lou Hamer during the Civil Rights Movement

OXFORD, MISS. - The Rev. Ed King was certain his days were numbered back during the long, hot summer of 1964.

“None of us in the leadership expected to live through the summer,” the lanky civil rights hero recalled during a recent reading from his book Ed King’s Mississippi (University Press of Mississippi) at Off Square Books here in Oxford.  “We were a band of brothers.”

What made King different from his “brothers” in the Mississippi Movement, however, was his whiteness. A chaplain at predominantly black Tougaloo College, King was on the front lines during throughout the movement, helping lead the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in its challenge to the whites-dominated state party and serving as an MFDP delegate to both the 1964 and 1968 national Democratic Party conventions.

The Vicksburg, Miss., native and Methodist minister paid a hefty price for his activism. Beaten and jailed, he suffered permanent facial scars in a car accident in 1963 that he blames on white supremacists out to kill him. His parents were forced to leave the state.

However, it is King’s work as a photographer and writer that was the focus of his recent visit to Oxford. With co-author Trent Watts, King offers in his new book dozens of photographs he took with his 35 mm camera, intimate shots of Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Bob Moses and other movement leaders not only at public gatherings but in private moments at COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) offices in Jackson, in pool halls, and in various Mississippi backwaters.

King proves himself a fine writer in the book’s narrative as well, drawing on the prevalent use of dogs by Mississippi law authorities as a metaphor to describe the horrors movement leaders faced. “The leaping, pawing, snarling police dog, the German shepherd—Nazi beast, fang-bared pet and tool of the white police—had by 1964 come to symbolize white racist power and opposition to the civil rights movement.”

Veteran Mississippi political journalist Bill Minor recalled in a recent column King’s dedication to the cause. “One of my most disturbing memories covering the civil rights era was seeing Ed King in clerical collar and ministerial garb yanked off the steps of the old federal courthouse and tossed into a Jackson paddy wagon. … He had gone that day with several black ministers to make Christian witness that blacks were not alone in the struggle for civil rights.”

King’s strong moral compass put him at odds with other civil rights era veterans during the 1990s when he opposed efforts to make fully public with names and all the secret documents of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, which had operated like a secret agency to fight racial integration through intimidation, threats, and smear tactics. King felt that victims of the agency’s spying might be victimized again if the files were simply opened with no protections for them. The files eventually were made public.

Now in his mid-seventies, King is an old revolutionary steeped in the tradition of religious leaders like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoeller. They all sacrificed of themselves to take a stand against fascism.


Robert Sherrill, Southern warrior against the demagogues

My first encounter with Robert Sherrill, one of the South’s premier warriors with a pen, was in the 1980s in a library in Jackson, Miss., where there on the shelf was his blistering indictment of Southern demagoguery, Gothic Politics In The Deep South: Stars of the New Confederacy. The 1968 classic ranks up there with A.J. Liebling’s The Earl of Louisiana and T. Harry Williams’ Huey Long among the best books ever written about Southern politics.

Sherrill died at the age of 89 this past August. The South lost a major voice, but, as is typical for the South, I’ve heard hardly a lament anywhere beyond major publications in the North. In his written memorial, former Nation editor Victor Navasky recalled the late Texas muckraking columnist Molly Ivins’ proposed epitaph for Sherrill: “Here lies a man who never kissed ass.”

A native of Frogtown, Ga., who spent many years in Tallahassee, Fla., Sherrill graced the pages of Nation, the New York Times Magazine, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, Playboy and other publications over the years with his no-holds-barred, searing prose.  No ink-stained wretch of the newsroom was better at tearing off the scabs of the many wounds Southern politicians have inflicted on their region and the nation.

At one point in Gothic Politics, Sherrill takes a moment to talk about himself:
“I started writing this in the sub-basement of the Florida capitol: a good place to begin measuring the Deep South. It is a building whose superstructure is appropriately half a foot out of alignment with its foundation. There is a sense of abandonment, a wistful archeological air about the capitol as of ruins nobody cares to dig.”

In other words, the Florida capitol was like the rest of the South—then and still today, a place “of great disrepair as the result of the business-industry power faction’s having ruled successfully for so long.”

Here are a couple of the mini-profiles of now-deceased Southern pols Sherrill gave us in Gothic Politics back in 1968:

Longtime Plaquemines Parish, La., political boss Leander Perez, “the Swamp’s Gift to Dixie”: “Perez has gathered into one spirit all the money lust, moon-spawned hatred for the black man and Jew and foreigner, and painful paranoiac reaction to federalism, that have marked the Deep South for many years; he has gathered them from many sources, and then slopped them back upon the land.”

U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland of Mississippi, longtime chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and “Child of Scorn”: “Like Miniver Cheevy, James Eastland, child of scorn, loves the days of old but does not know what to do about it. … He is a loyal Mississippian, and this loyalty, combined with his hold on the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has given Eastland both the motive and the position to shape, retard and pervert the civil rights movement more than any other man in America.”

Oh, could Sherrill skewer a politician who deserved skewering!

However, he also knew that the true secret to Southern politics lay beyond the ever-dominant issue of race, and that secret was MONEY.

Southern pols “never describe their control of politics as originating in financial motives; their objective, they will tell you, has always been purely to preserve the South as the last outpost of fundamental founding-father Americanism.” However, “it was not the NAACP’s … racial emphasis but the CIO and the specter of socialized production and medical care that … inspired the blackest fears.”

Sherrill spoke with the righteous indignation of an Old Testament prophet, and his words still ring true today.

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.