Saturday, September 14, 2019
Argentines rise up against neoliberal rule as the Ugly American in the White House weighs his options
(A tango in Buenos Aires' famed Cafe Tortoni)
Your Labor South correspondent hasn’t filed in a while because of deadline pressure for my book on the late actor Harry Dean Stanton. Postings should get back to normal once the manuscript is off to the publisher sometime in October. Meanwhile here is a development in the Global South worthy of our attention.
Argentines rise up again Macri’s neoliberal rule, but Trump is watching
After neoliberal Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s resounding defeat in the August presidential primary, know that the eyes of the “Ugly American” in the White House are watching as that nation prepares for the final October 27 election (with a possible November 24 runoff) to see if the Peronist candidate Alberto Fernandez and his running mate and former president Cristina Kirchner will do as expected and toss Macri out on his ear.
Labor South has had a strong interest in Argentine politics since your correspondent was there during Macri’s election in 2015. Macri’s victory that year ended 12 years of Kirchnerismo, a pro-worker, neo-Peronist movement that saw the nation finally begin to stand on its own feet and not under the shadow of the International Monetary Fund, Wall Street, and the world network of what Bernie Sanders calls “hedge fund vultures”.
The neoliberal world heralded Macri back in 2015. The Economist in Great Britain, for example, called his election “the beginning of saner economic policies” but then added a cautionary “perhaps”.
What happened under the wealthy former businessman subsequent rule, however, was a reversal of the decline in poverty that Kirchnerismo (under the late Néstor Kirchner and then his wife Cristina) had overseen. Two million Argentines joined the poverty rolls. Poverty has risen from 29 percent to 35 percent of the population, The Guardian reported last month. According to the Pope Francis-linked Movement of Excluded Workers (MTE), six million Argentines now roam streets and alleys and rummage through trash cans to keep from starving.
Furthermore, Macri, true to neoliberal tradition, has plunged his nation back into deep debt, twice what it was before he took office. He sought a $57.1 billion IMF loan just last year. Inflation is at 54 percent, and, of course, the only solution to any economic woe that the IMF, World Bank, and other neoliberal institutions ever offer is “austerity” and more austerity. Translation: cut back drastically on social programs, retirement plans, wages, and, of course, UNIONS.
Fernandez, a Peronist but generally moderate in his politics, smartly agreed to align with Cristina Kirchner (of course, she brilliantly orchestrated that alliance) for the August primary, defying the Macri forces that have tried desperately to put her behind bars in classic Latin American political tradition. Together they head the Frente de Todos ticket, and pulling together the poor and the strapped middle class to hand Macri a striking 15-point primary defeat.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump and his minions are weighing their options. The Obamas may have tangoed with the Macris, but Trump would love to waltz them across the finish line in December if he can. He’s already rattling sabers at Venezuela (as well as Iran and China), and the last thing he wants is another left-leaning country to the south putting his corporate friends’ profiteering at risk.
Sunday, August 18, 2019
Why hasn't billionaire Koch Foods Inc. CEO Joe Grendys been arrested in the recent ICE poultry plant raids in Mississippi?
Why hasn’t Koch Foods Inc. CEO Joe Grendys been placed under arrest? Apparently agents at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency much prefer going after low-wage immigrant workers at poultry plants than fat-cat billionaires whose economic welfare is protected by their friends among the nation’s political elite.
Over the years workers at Koch Foods Inc. in Morton, Mississippi, and other poultry plants across the country have had to deal with harassment, sexual discrimination, refusal to allow bathroom breaks, charges for normal workday activities, and politicians from Donald Trump on down who’ve worked to reduce workplace safety controls and punish those who complain.
The massive raids and arrests of 680 Latino poultry workers conducted by some 600 ICE agents in Mississippi this month fit perfectly into a pattern that has existed for some time.
Just last year the Chicago-area-based Koch Foods, a $3.2 billion company, agreed to pay Latino workers $3.5 million as settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for racial and national origin discrimination and sexual harassment at its Mississippi operations. The settlement came after claims that supervisors would touch and make sexual comments to female employees and even strike workers physically. Those who complained were fired.
ICE raids also followed complaints by workers of workplace conditions at plants in Salem, Ohio, and Morristown, Tennessee. Labor reporter Mike Elk wrote an ICE raid came one week after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Fresh Mark $200,000 for safety violations at the Salem, Ohio, plant.
The recent raids in Mississippi came one the first day of school, thus separating parents from their children—a situation not unknown in the ongoing anti-immigrant-demagoguery of the Trump Administration. Friends and relatives begged the ICE against to “Let them go!” as they carried them off to unknown fates and possibly the concentration-like camps the federal government has allowed in its arrangements with the private prison industry.
Those cries for mercy may have been an embarrassing enough to force ICE later to release temporarily 300 of those arrested.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican and stalwart Trump supporter, praised the raids.
As far back as 2005, workers at the Koch Foods poultry plant in Morristown, Tennessee, were complaining of the dehumanizing conditions at the plant. When one female worker asked a supervisor for permission to go to the bathroom, “the supervisor took off his hard hat and told her, `You can go to the bathroom in this,’” a worker told New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse.
Mississippians across the state have rallied on behalf of the arrested workers, collecting food and other items for families suddenly left without breadwinners and means to survive.
ICE is good at rounding up poor Mexican poultry workers but apparently maintains a hands-off policy on people like Koch Foods CEO Joe Grendys, a billionaire on the Forbes list of richest Americans. A raid at Koch Foods’ Fairfield, Ohio, plant in 2007 led to 161 arrests of undocumented workers, leading to a $536,046 fine for violation of immigration laws. The company maintains that it uses the federal E-Verify database to make sure its employees have proper documentation.
The nation’s political elite in the White House and Congress have no interest in arresting potential financial supporters like Joe Grendys. In fact, they see it as their mission to make life easier for him. Koch Foods is not related to the billionaire Koch brothers, although they seem to share the same attitudes about workers and worker rights.
“Laws are passed to manipulate labor, not help immigrants,” Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance Executive Director Bill Chandler told YES Magazine writer Adam Lynch recently.
(immigrant rights advocate Bill Chandler)
Back in 2017, the Republican-led U.S. Senate, backed by President Trump, voted to eliminate a mandate to disclose injuries and even fatalities that occur at the worksite in poultry plants, which are among the most dangerous worksites in the United States. Three years earlier, the U.S. Department of Agriculture came up with plans to allow poultry plants to increase the speed of processing birds from 140 to 175 per minute. A coalition led by U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., led the fight against the new rules. In February of this year the USDA proceeded with allowing the greater speeds.
Friday, August 2, 2019
Sharing a pint in London's pubs and watching a tyrant's tale at one of its theatres while the Trump-like Boris Johnson takes over as England's new prime minister
(Yours truly at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London)
LONDON – I complimented my Netherlands-stationed son Michael, who booked our hotel. It was in the perfect location. Southwark/Bankside, just south of the Thames, a red light district during the Roman Empire’s occupation of the area, called “Stew’s Bank” during Elizabethan times for the brothels then known as “stewhouses”. They stood alongside the bear-pits and bull-pits that were there. Also there were theatres like the Globe and the Rose, which hardly had a better reputation, but on their stages the plays of William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson were performed.
As I enjoyed a pint with my fish and chips at the White Hart pub, the wild-haired blond Boris Johnson was in another part of the city taking office as Britain’s new prime minister, promising that Brexit will be real in October and inspiring the same kind of sharp divisions that American citizens feel about Donald Trump.
(To the right, Boris Johnson)
Like Trump, Johnson presents himself as a straight-talker and thus kind of a working class hero, but, again like Trump, he’s not. A former London mayor and once-star journalist who was fired by a major newspaper in London for telling lies in his stories, Johnson is brash, boorish, and brazen—sound familiar?—but his pro-Brexit stand understandably appeals to Britons tired of the European Union’s neo-liberal rule with its pro-corporate austerity policies and tone-deafness to the real concerns people have about poorly controlled immigration and the terrorist acts that have become associated with it.
Still, Johnson is part of the long-ruling Oxford-Cambridge-and-Eton-educated British elite, and for all his brashness, he “is not just a product of that system but an advocate for it,” writes journalist Gary Younge in The Guardian Weekly. “When we see him call for a massive tax cut for the rich, we see a candidate who has had much and wants more.” Sam Knight of the New Yorker says much the same. Johnson “seems to subvert the existing order but (his) persona—quintessentially English, amateur, clownlike—serves only to reinforce it. … He makes people in power, including himself, appear ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean he would dream of handing power to anybody else. He is a fully signed-up member of the tribe.”
During my recent visit to London, I asked an Englishman at a pub in Soho what he thought of Johnson. “No comment,” he snapped back with a wry smile. “What do you think of Trump?”
As Younge further elaborates, British is very much the class-based society it claimed it no longer was after World War II. Only 7 percent of the British population as a whole went to private schools, but nearly 40 percent of the nation’s elite did. The stretch between the wealthy and everyone else grows wider every day, not that this much concerns media elites, who went to the same schools as the politicians and business leaders they cover.
Although I lived in Germany for several years during the 1970s and have since traveled widely over the European continent as well as in Ireland and Scotland, I never visited London until this recent trip. The Queen, Buckingham Palace, tales of Charles and Diana and Harry and Meghan, the Changing of the Guard, and all that have never interested me. A failed philosopher, I was always drawn to the French and German existentialists, never to the dry-and-dusty analytic tradition that dominated British philosophy.
Still, I love literature and writers, and the city of Shakespeare and Dickens finally seduced me. Only a week there, and I agree with Samuel Johnson’s 18th century declaration that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”
Michael and I roamed the latest version of Shakespeare’s Globe and the site where the old Rose theatre stood 400 years ago. We went to the 130-year-old Garrick Theatre in West End and saw actor John Malkovich perform as corrupt Hollywood tyrant Barney Fein in David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat. We went to Dickens’ house on Doughty Street in Bloomsbury, where he wrote Oliver Twist, that great novel about a poor orphan caught in the malicious web of Industrial Revolution grime and greed.
(Magic Betty and the Coach and Horses pub in Soho)
We spent a lot of times in London’s great pubs, including the Coach and Horses in Soho, one of many in the area where the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas drank and drank and drank. As the sky grew dark, the wonderful Magic Betty emerged in the pub full of spangles and smiles, sat at the piano, and banged away with “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and a hundred other songs in London’s great old Music Hall tradition.
That’s the London I came to see and saw--the great working class city that lies beyond the pomp and circumstance of Buckingham Palace, the city where Marx spent much of his life, where Churchill directed the war effort against the Nazis. There was a lot I didn’t see, of course. Seeing labor troubadour Billy Bragg would have nicely added to the experience, but maybe next time!
Friday, July 5, 2019
Death at Howard Industries of Laurel, Mississippi, a company showered by media love and political largesse despite its horrible record
(A 1912 cartoon by Art Young for The Masses)
Controversy still hangs over Howard Industries in Laurel, Mississippi, as the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration continues its investigation into the March 15 death of a 36-year veteran worker at the company.
Sixty-three-year-old Larry Moffett died as a result of what the company called a “crush incident” when a heavy piece of equipment fell on him. Details are sketchy beyond that point, but Moffett was a tank regulator and leak tester and only two years away from retirement.
In a subsequent blog post on the incident, the Grossman Law Offices in Dallas, Texas, noted that OSHA investigations give “people a false sense of hope” and can take up to 18 months and, if the agency finds fault with the company, it usually issues “paltry fines that hardly put a dent in the company’s bottom line, and then move(s) on.” Furthermore, “what does this do to help families facing medical bills, burial costs, lost wages, and the immense pain caused by the loss of a loved one? Not much.”
A billion-dollar maker of primarily electrical transformers that employs up to 4,000 workers, Howard Industries in Laurel has been showered with taxpayer-funded government subsidies and local media adoration as well as state media indifference for years even though its record makes it arguably one of the state’s worst companies.
The death of a Howard Industries worker at its nearby Ellisville, Mississippi, facility in January 2011 led to 17 OSHA safety violation citations. “Two serious violations related to the fatality include not requiring employees to use work safety practices dealing with live electrical circuits, and failing to use locks and tags when de-energizing test equipment,” an OSHA press release said in July 2011.
Workers had to be evacuated from the plant in March 2018 after two transformers caught on fire. OSHA fined the company $200,000 for 54 violations of work safety rules in 2008, the same year the plant was the site of the nation’s largest raid on undocumented workers at the work place in history. Three years later it pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate immigration laws and received a $2.5 million fine.
Thanks to the diligence of the Mississippi Immigration Rights Alliance, Howard Industries was shamed into releasing 283 paychecks to migrant workers that it had held back.
In 2012 the company agreed to a $1.3 million settlement of a discrimination lawsuit by four black women who said they were refused jobs because of the company’s preference for Latino workers.
Despite this dismal history, Howard Industries has benefited from local tax exemptions for years, a $31 million state subsidy in 2002, plus a $20 million bond issue from the county. Its horrible record for low wages among its majority African American workforce brought in the NAACP back in 2015 and led the Laurel City Council to support the NAACP’s plea that Howard Industries raise its wages and to threaten the company’s local tax exemption. Half the workforce belonged to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers but they still made between $3.55 and $6 an hour less than their counterparts in other nearby plants. The council eventually changed its mind and backed off amid a blistering attack by the local newspaper and likely behind-the-scenes pressure on council members.
Howard Industries also has a record of rewarding friendly politicians. It once rewarded state legislators with free laptop computers.
The Laurel Leader-Call is an embarrassment of a newspaper that heaps such praise on Howard Industries it could hardly be expected ever to do any real investigation of the company. “We were fierce defenders of HI when out-of-towners embarked upon a crusade to get its employees to unionize,” the newspaper editorialized some months ago, “and we smacked around some past councilmen editorially when they tried to pull HI’s tax exemption because of a handful of disgruntled employees.”
Ah, kowtowing, subservient, butt-kissing journalism remains strong in Laurel, Mississippi!
Friday, June 21, 2019
UAW loses in Chattanooga due to a political-corporate phalanx of opposition aided and abetted by UAW scandal and loss of will
(To the right, Marty Fishgold in Pittsburgh in 2009)
My late friend Marty Fishgold was an old-time union man who brooked no nonsense in his fight for the working stiff. A Brooklyn native and descendant of Russian socialist immigrants who’d escaped the Czar’s pogroms for a new life in the USA, Marty could be as tough on union bosses as he was on corporate bosses.
It’s these guys at the top with their big houses and their big cars, he’d warn me as we talked into the wee hours on the struggles of the labor movement. A former president of the International Labor Communications Association and longtime editor of The Unionist in New York City, Marty wasn’t talking about CEOs. He was talking about union leaders.
I thought about Marty when I heard the news that workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, narrowly voted down an opportunity to join the United Auto Workers at the June 12-14 election. The vote was 833 no and 776 yes. Just 29 more yes votes would have swung the election the other way, a closer margin than even the 712-626 vote at the plant in 2014.
Why did I think of Marty? Maybe this April 2 headline in the Detroit News had something to do with it:
`I wasn’t perfect,’ guilty UAW exec Jewell tells judge
In that story, former UAW vice president Norwood Jewell pleaded guilty to labor conspiracy in an investigation that tagged him as enjoying wine and cigar parties costing up to $30,000, $7,000 steakhouse meals, and other luxury life benefits on the tab of executives at Fiat Chrysler. In exchange, the executives wanted Jewell’s cooperation in getting his union to agree to contract concessions for Fiat Chrysler workers. Jewell is one of several UAW officials targeted in the federal investigation.
“I wasn’t perfect. I was getting stuff from Chrysler and I can’t do that,” Jewell admitted in the courtroom.
“I have to wonder if crap like this may have swung enough votes away from the UAW in Chattanooga to give VW/Republicans the win,” my good buddy and stalwart labor news source Lew Smith pondered in an email to me. A former seafarer, Smith is a lifelong union man.
Just how much the UAW scandal affected voting workers is uncertain, just as the effect of VW’s own scandal regarding diesel emissions—former VW boss Martin Winterkorn faces related fraud charges—is unclear. What is certain, however, is that it gave the entire phalanx of government officials, including Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, outside anti-union groups, and VW supervisors plenty of ammunition with which to attack the UAW in the days leading up to the election.
What has been interesting in the unfolding story of union organizing activity at VW in Chattanooga is the position of the German-based company itself. Organized in 43 of its 45 plants, VW has always boasted an open mind toward labor and pledged neutrality. Behind the scenes, however, its supervisors at the plant did their best to scare workers and talk trash about the union. The company refused to sit down at the bargaining table after the pro-union vote by skilled trades workers at the plant back in 2015, a source of subsequent litigation.
My suspicion is that the seeming VW turnaround on neutrality had at least something to do with pressure from Lee and other top Tennessee officials. The Republican leadership in that state, much like everywhere else in the South and beyond, see unions as the devil incarnate, the ultimate challenge to their oligarchical control not only the Southern economy but also Southern politics. Once Southern workers develop a union culture, what would that portend for the corporate subservient political leadership across the entire region?
I wrote about this kind of thing in my book Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press back in 2008. In 1984 the Japanese firm Mazda wanted to locate a plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, something you’d think would have local officials dancing in the aisles. What happened, however, is they stepped in the shadows and let the area’s largest employer, textile baron Eugene Stone, inform Mazda officials that their company was not welcome. Mazda’s coming would only force an increase in wages overall in the area, putting pressure on Stone and other local employers, and up the chances of an invasion by the UAW. When Mazda decided to locate the plant instead in Flat Rock, Michigan, the local Greenville News ran a story with the headline “Saved from Mazda”!
Beyond all this, however, is the UAW’s own culpability in the loss in Chattanooga. Perhaps exhausted after the 12-year-long losing struggle at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, in 2017, the union waged a limited campaign at the Volkswagen plant, depending heavily on radio and television ads to counter the barrage of anti-union ads bombarding viewers. Missing was the national and international campaign it waged on behalf the Nissan workers in Canton. Also missing was the kind of retail, gut-level campaign that worked successfully for the United Food and Commercial Workers at the Smithfield Food plant in North Carolina in 2008 and helped overcome the fierce efforts by anti-union forces to divide black, Latino, and white workers.
That election in North Carolina showed that Southern workers will join unions. Heck, the rise of the UAW back in the 1930s actually began with a strike at GM’s Lakewood Plant in Atlanta, Georgia, not in Flint, Michigan.
(Sit-down auto worker strikers in Flint, Michigan, in 1937)
The UAW today is just a shadow of what it was under the long leadership of Walter Reuther, whose own rise as a labor leader paralleled that of the UAW. When the union agreed some years back to a two-tiered wage system that divided veteran workers and new hires, it lost some of its soul. It’s still today struggling to find its soul again.
Friday, June 7, 2019
Hoping against hope that Walter Reuther's spirit would win the day when VW workers in Chattanooga voted recently on whether to join a union. West Virginia names a bridge after labor troubadour Hazel Dickens then its Senate votes to ban teacher strikes
UPDATE JUNE 17, 2019: As many of you know by now, Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga voted down the union by a narrow margin in their recent election. A Labor South analysis of that election will come later this week. Below is my pre-vote column.
Here’s another Labor South roundup as a major union vote looms in Chattanooga and West Virginia names a bridge after labor troubadour Hazel Dickens then its state Senate votes to outlaw teacher strikes.
Here’s another Labor South roundup as a major union vote looms in Chattanooga and West Virginia names a bridge after labor troubadour Hazel Dickens then its state Senate votes to outlaw teacher strikes.
Chattanooga needs Walter Reuther
(To the right, Walter Reuther)
Walter Reuther will be watching from heaven next week as workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, cast their ballots to determine if they will be represented by the United Auto Workers.
“I’m hanging on the last leaf on the last twig!” Reuther, the founding soul of the UAW, once told auto workers as he sat down with recalcitrant Ford Company officials to push for a pension clause in a new contract.
The same might be said for the UAW in the South as they watch the election results on June 12-14. They lost the last election five years ago, although they later did win a smaller victory with skilled trades workers at the plant. Back in those days, Volkswagen tried to appear open-minded about unionization—43 of its 45 plants are already unionized—but this go-round its anti-union mindset heart of hearts—something it shares with practically ever other corporation--has been obvious.
To vote union, workers not only have to battle pressures within the company but also from their governor and other political leaders as well as chambers of commerce, preachers, publishers, and the outside labor baiters that always ride into town crying how the union only wants their dues.
By the way, Reuther won the day at that long-ago bargaining table and got the pension clause inserted in the contract. Ford agreed to fund the cost of the workers’ pensions fully.
A bridge for Hazel Dickens and a slap for school teachers
The state of West Virginia recently approved the naming of a bridge after labor songster Hazel Dickens, whose wrenching tunes about the plight of mine workers contributed greatly to the proud legacy of labor songs that dates back to Joe Hill.
Hold your applause for West Virginia, however. Its Republican-led Senate then turned around and voted to ban future strikes by the state’s school teachers. That action certainly was prompted by the bad taste left in the mouths of corporate-bought-and-paid-for politicians by last year’s successful strike by teachers for better wages and health benefits.
The vote to rename what was known as the Montcalm Bridge over the Bluestone River on County Route 11 in Mercer County came in March, and a dedication ceremony took place earlier this month. Hazel Dickens was born in Montcalm in 1925. She died in 2011.
Dickens appeared in the film Matewan (1987) about the deadly 1920 coal miners’ strike in that West Virginia town and also in Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary Harlan County USA. Here’s her stirring rendition of one of her greatest songs, Black Lung, at the Highlander Center in New Market, Tennessee:
Dickens belongs in that great hall of legendary labor folksingers that includes Joe Hill, Utah Phillips, Florence Reece, Woody Guthrie, Ralph Chaplin, Sarah Ogan Gunning, Phil Ochs, and Pete Seeger. Billy Bragg, Anne Feeney, and others are continuing that tradition today.
The West Virginia Senate’s action to ban teachers strikes is ironic given that public sector strikes in the state are already illegal—that didn’t stop those heroic teachers last year, however! The state House may take up the bill later this month. What it could potentially do is further punish striking teachers by withholding pay and/or allowing the firing of striking teachers.
Friday, May 24, 2019
Remembering "Route 66", the landmark early '60s television series about two searchers who traveled America's "flyover" in a Corvette, doing blue-collar jobs, and found a rising counterculture
(To the right, George Maharis as Buzz and Martin Milner as Tod in Route 66)
I was just 12 years old when the idea of a Route 66 first entered my impressionable mind. It was the fall of 1960, and I was sitting on the floor in front of our television as Nelson Riddle’s jazzy moving-down-the-road theme first filled the room and the screen filled with Tod and Buzz making their across America in Tod’s Corvette.
Nothing, to me, was better than the CBS series Route 66, and I was a happy soul the other day when my complete DVD set of all four seasons by the Shout! Factory arrived. This was “the iconic television series of the 1960s,” writes Nat Segaloff in his biography of screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, whose hip, existential, Zen-like scripts made the show television’s own crossroads between 1950s Beat and late ‘60s Hip.
This was a series that put Yale-educated Tod Stiles, played by Martin Milner, and Hell’s Kitchen survivor Buzz Murdock, played by George Maharis, on the road every week “looking not for adventure but … for meaning,” journalist Michael Ventura has written. “Route 66 was not a television show, it was a promise. A weekly training film. A way out and through and over.”
Tod and Buzz traveled America, that vast, story-rich landscape many New Yorkers and Angelenos dismiss as the “flyover”. They went down the same road Woody Guthrie hitchhiked with his guitar, the same road John Steinbeck’s Okies in The Grapes of Wrath traveled in the Great Depression, the same road yours truly hitchhiked in 1969 and wrote about in a 2009 short story Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine liked enough to submit for an Edgar Award.
This was a working class show. Every week Tod and Buzz would roll their sleeves up to do a job on an oil rig or in a chicken farm or on a shrimp boat. A favorite character actor would usually join them—Keenan Wynn, Janice Rule, Susan Oliver, Robert Duvall, Whit Bissell, Martin Balsam, Nina Foch, Mike Yellin, Lois Nettleton. Occasionally a Sam Peckinpah or Robert Altman would direct. Silliphant’s magic pen, also seen in the earlier landmark TV series Naked City, made sure that plot didn't overrule character and also that the show always had something to say.
The pilot for the series took place way off Route 66 in Mississippi, where a local boss played by Everett Sloan rules his town like a little Mussolini. Another early segment puts Tod and Buzz on a shrimp boat at Grand Isle, Louisiana, where Charlotte Duval, played by Janice Rule, proves herself in a man’s world by saving her suitor’s boat during a hurricane.
Back in those days, the network execs gave Silliphant and producer Bert Leonard total control, a kind of artist’s paradise. Silliphant hit the highway ahead of cast and crew for the on location filming, staying in hotels and motels along “the mother road,” checking out the local hangouts and talking with folks about local stories and legends.
When the gig finally was up—Maharis left halfway through the third season, replaced by Glenn Corbett, and the show never quite recovered—and the last segment aired on March 13, 1964, the execs decided they’d allowed all the artistic license they could stand. “Before long, network executives whose hands-on experience had been limited to changing the channel were demanding to approve not just finished teleplays but story ideas, casting, locations, production crew, and even the costumes and wallpaper,” Segaloff writes. “Focus groups replaced intuition and experience.”
Hardly any life after life followed the end of the road for Route 66. Original negatives were hard to find. Lawyers and corporations tied up opportunities to show it to a new generation. When Shout! Factory came out with the DVD collection in 2012, the media paid little or no attention. “Route 66 represents something of an evolutionary dead end for the TV drama,” writes Todd VanDerWerff. “It was an attempt to blend the closed-off, social-issues-based storytelling of the best anthology series with the recurring characters of a more traditional drama series. It’s an approach that still works in other countries—Doctor Who springs to mind—but has more or less died out in the U.S.”
The show’s fate has been similar to the road that gave it its name. Route 66 was named one of the nation’s most endangered historic places in 2018, a victim both of development and neglect.
What television viewers saw in Route 66 was an “embrace of an American counterculture that was slowly moving into the mainstream eye,” VanDerWerff writes. “Characters on Route 66 did drugs or agitated for political positions that would have been seen as far left even a decade prior.” In other words, Route 66 was shaking things up years before the Sixties became the Sixties. Maybe that’s one reason my 12-year-old self liked it so much.