Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Was the police state that was Mississippi a model for the nation?

This column, a version of which ran recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss., is a follow-up to an earlier posting about the "What We Learn From The Snowden/NSA Files" panel discussion last month at the University of Mississippi.

OXFORD, Miss. – They wanted to know about your phone calls, your conversations, your meetings with others, your political leanings, your opinions, your friends, your confidantes, your extracurricular activities, your religious beliefs, your sexual habits.

Armed with such information, they knew how to deal with you if they considered you a troublemaker. At the least, they could make sure the whole world knew your every secret.

Who were they? In Mississippi between 1956 and 1977, they were the spies working for the state Sovereignty Commission, the taxpayer-funded, segregationist agency that targeted civil rights activists and sympathizers.

In East Germany during the Cold War, they were the spies with the Stasi, the secret security agency that compiled 6.5 million files on one out of every three of East Germany’s 16 million citizens, enough files to fill 120 miles of shelves.

Today, they are the employees of the National Security Agency and its contractors, and they not only spy on U.S. citizens but even the leaders of foreign countries. Among their files are the conversations German Chancellor Angela Merkel had on her cell phone.

Former President Jimmy Carter says he communicates with foreign leaders via snail mail because he believes the NSA may be snooping into his e-mail account. Since when can a federal agency violate the 4th Amendment constitutional rights against “unreasonable searches and seizures” of a former president?

Why do we know these things? Thank Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower now under the protection of former KGB officer Vladimir Putin in Russia. Snowden's leaks to The Guardian and the Washington Post regarding the NSA led to Pulitzer prizes for both news organizations this week.

Mississippians and Southerners in general should appreciate the importance of North Carolina-native Snowden’s actions, the topic of a panel discussion last month at the University of Mississippi that included me as a panelist along with former FBI agent and ACLU senior counsel Mike German, now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, and Ole Miss School of Law Senior Associate Dean Matthew Hall. Ole Miss Honors College Dean Douglass Sullivan-Gonzales was moderator.

Former top NSA executive Bill Binney, the creator of the agency’s surveillance program, says widespread government spying on regular citizens has turned the United States into a police state. Many of the NSA’s files go directly to law enforcement agencies to assist them in gathering information—without warrants—that can be used in legal cases against citizens, he says.

Is this why the United States has become the world’s largest gulag, accounting for 25 percent of the globe’s incarcerated population? One out of every four adults Americans now has a police record. Louisiana and Mississippi lead the nation in putting people behind bars.

In the Ole Miss panel discussion, Matthew Hall argued that Snowden is a villain because he became a fugitive after leaking the NSA files, rather than staying here to face the music like Daniel Ellsberg after leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

That argument fails to consider what has become of post-9-11 America. Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private whose funneling of government documents to WikiLeaks exposed the extent of civilian casualties from U.S. attacks in Afghanistan as well as the failure of U.S. counterinsurgency programs there, spent nearly a year in solitary confinement before his trial. United Nations investigator Juan Mendez told The Guardian in England that Manning’s treatment was “cruel, inhuman and degrading … torture.”

No state came closer than Mississippi to becoming a “police state” in the 1960s, and it was a model for much of the rest of the racist South. It investigated, intimidated and threatened anyone challenging the status quo. It interfered with murder cases against white supremacists, let loose police bullies on dissidents, and compromised many of the journalists who should have been exposing its evils. Mississippians can see it all for themselves in the more than 138,000 pages of Sovereignty Commission documents that were ultimately released.

In the wake of the NSA scandal, a wavering President Obama has both defended the agency and called for greater oversight of its powers. Snowden remains a fugitive with more than a few politicians still calling for his head. Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley, will spend much of the rest of her life in prison. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is a wanted man whom U.S. officials would love to see behind bars.

Memory fades across much of the world of the days when the FBI watched Martin Luther King Jr.’s every step, bugging his phone and photographing his whereabouts in the hope of catching him in a compromising position that would take him out forever and end his threat to the powers that be. Even the FBI itself now admits on its web site that its disgraced COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) spy network of the 1960s “was rightfully criticized … for abridging First Amendment rights.”

We haven’t forgotten here in Mississippi or the rest of the South. Have we?

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Another lying Tennessee politician exposed in the UAW-VW vote in Chattanooga

Another lying Tennessee politician has been exposed in the aftermath of the Valentine’s Day 712-626 vote rejecting United Auto Workers representation at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

NewsChannel 5/WTVF chief investigative reporter Phil Williams in Nashville reported Monday that state Gov. Bill Haslam apparently lied when he denied his administration’s role in a plot to make a $300 million offer of taxpayer-funded incentives to the company contingent on keeping the UAW out of the plant.

Williams cited a confidential document leaked to his station summarizing the Haslam administration’s “Project Trinity” program. The document, which state government officials had refused to give to a Nashville newspaper, described an offer of $300 million to Volkswagen to expand its Chattanooga plant with the requirement that “the incentives … are subject to works council discussions between the State of Tennessee and VW being concluded to the satisfaction of the State of Tennessee.”

Volkswagen had been in negotiations with the UAW to establish a German-style works council at the plant that would allow union representation for workers on wages, benefits, safety conditions and other issues.

Williams said rumors had circulated among Democratic politicians in Tennessee that incentives were tied to the union vote, but Haslam repeatedly denied these.

In other words, Haslam is a liar like his Republican friend, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. In the days before the election, and after pledging he would not get involved in the matter because “I do not think it is appropriate,” Corker came out from under his self-imposed rock and warned that Volkswagen will only expand its plant if workers reject the UAW. Volkswagen-Chattanooga CEO Frank Fisher denied Corker's claim.

Corker also said Volkswagen would become a “laughingstock” if it allowed a union to set up at the Chattanooga plant.

Although the workers did reject the UAW, Corker’s promise of a plant expansion announcement within two weeks of the election never materialized. In fact, the company’s top labor representative in Germany has said he and Volkswagen’s powerful works council in Germany may block any further expansion or investment in the U.S. South until workers there get union representation.

The revelations about Haslam’s role in the union vote at Volkswagen undoubtedly will add fuel to efforts by the UAW to get the National Labor Relations Board to invalidate the election. The union says outside interference undermined the integrity of the vote. The NewsChannel 5/WTVF report raises questions whether Haslam and Corker coordinated their attack on the UAW.

A hard-learned lesson about labor organizing in the South can be found in the 1987 movie Matewan, which tells the story of the violent confrontation between coal miners and company thugs in Matewan, West Virginia, in 1920.

“The coal company doesn’t want this union,” labor organizer Joe Kenehan, played by actor Chris Cooper, warns black, white and Italian immigrant miners arguing with each other rather than unifying against their common enemy. “The state government doesn’t want it. The federal government doesn’t want it. All of ‘em are looking for an excuse to come down and crush us to nothing.”

In the February vote in Chattanooga, the company said it was actually open to the union although low and mid-level management worked against it. Still, workers faced a barrage of anti-union propaganda, including more than a dozen billboards making such claims as the UAW is only a cover for the “United Obama Workers”.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into Chattanooga from Washington, D.C., and the pockets of Grover Norquist and his conservative Americans for Tax Reform. It was the local branch of Norquist’s organization, called the Center for Worker Freedom, that financed the billboards.

Labor organizer Joe Kenehan had some additional advice for his striking miners in Matewan that workers in the South need to remember today. “We got to pick away at this situation, slow and careful. We got to organize and build support. We got to work together.”

A united front by workers—black, white, immigrant and native-born—is the only way to deal with the united front that wants to keep unions out of the South.

Thanks go out to Lew Smith, a loyal Labor South supporter and key source for labor goings-on around the South, for the tip about the NewsChannel 5/WTVF story.

Friday, March 28, 2014

NLRB says Kellogg lockout in Memphis violates federal labor law


(Locked-out Kellogg workers in Memphis protesting the company's actions. Robert McGowen is to the left.)

Just days after a false report circulated that Kellogg Co. was finally willing to negotiate with the 226 unionized workers it locked out of its Memphis plant last October, the National Labor Relations Board has filed a formal complaint that says the cereal giant is in violation of federal labor law.

The New Orleans office of the NLRB has scheduled a hearing on the case to take place in Memphis May 5.

The Battle Creek, Mich.-based company locked out its Memphis workers after their union, the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers, opposed plans to cut wages and benefits as well as hire new “casual” workers at lower pay.

“We wish that we could go back in there,” says locked-out worker Robert McGowen, a 23-year veteran at the Memphis plant and one of workers protesting Kellogg’s actions on the road outside the plant, sometimes in freezing temperatures. “All they got to do is open the gates and let us negotiate if they’re serious about negotiating.”

WMC-TV in Memphis reported March 20 that a NAACP official claimed the company was finally willing to negotiate with the 226 workers. The television station said the Rev. Keith Norman announced the development during a NAACP gathering.

McGowen says the report was “a cross-up” and that the company only submitted to workers the same contract offer it had proposed before. “We got a letter from the company saying they want to negotiate the same package. … They’re supposed to be negotiating with our union. That is another violation.”

McGowen says he and his fellow locked-out workers plan to continue their protest until the issue is resolved. “We are going to ride it out. We’re still out there.”

Their picketing outside the plant has won them widespread support from the local community and beyond, including the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C. Most of the workers at the Memphis plant are African American.

Workers lay the blame for the lockout on Kellogg CEO and president John Bryant. Bryant took over leadership of the company in 2011. McGowen says he and other members of the union always got along well with Kellogg management until Bryant’s take-no-prisoners approach to union negotiations.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Labor South roundup: Snowden & the South's history of spying, and a reported breakthrough on Kellogg lockout

Here are a couple items for this Labor South round-up of the week's goings-on: a recent panel including Labor South’s Joe Atkins considers NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s status as hero or villain; and a possible breakthrough on the Kellogg lockout of its Memphis workers.

Southern history should tell you whether Edward Snowden is a hero or villain

Yours truly was on a panel titled “What We Learn from the Snowden/NSA Files” held at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at the University of Mississippi March 19.

Also on the panel were: Mike German, former FBI agent and former senior counsel of the ACLU and currently a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University; and Matthew Hall, senior associate dean at the University of Mississippi School of Law. The moderator was Douglass Sullivan-Gonzales, dean of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College at the University of Mississippi.

Given the history in Mississippi and the South of state-backed spying on innocent citizens, Southerners should be particularly sensitive to the sprawling international snooping and spying on private citizens by the National Security Agency that whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed last year.

Snowden, a North Carolina native given refuge for one year by the Russian government, appeared recently by video link at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, and urged citizens to assert their privacy rights against an overreaching government that seeks to know what we talk about on our cell phones and access on the Internet.

I pointed out that I reside in a state (Mississippi) where a government-funded spy agency, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, collected information on private citizens during the civil rights movement with the direct intention of using it to intimidate, threaten, and damage those citizens promoting racial integration. More than 138,000 pages of secret, sealed documents compiled by the Sovereignty Commission were ultimately released. Like the Stasi in the former East Germany and other spy agencies, the Sovereignty Commission was particularly interested in private sexual information that it could use to threaten or silence dissidents. NSA files are also believed to contain such information.

Former NSA official Bill Binney, who helped establish the agency’s surveillance program, recently said the United States has already become a “police state,” something Mississippi in many ways was in the 1960s. Binney said much of the NSA’s collected data has been funneled to law enforcement agencies across the land to assist them in gathering evidence and other information—without warrants—to use against citizens in criminal or other legal cases.

Is it any accident that the United States has 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. One in four adult citizens in this country has a police record. Snowden’s NSA revelations may be telling us why. By the way, Louisiana and Mississippi lead the nation in putting people in prison.

I’ll be writing more about this later, but below is the link to our recent panel, where Mike German and I took Snowden’s side on the issue, and Matthew Hall took the position that he is a villain.

The link to the panel discussion (I often have difficulty linking to YouTube on this blog, so you may have to copy and paste to gain access):

or try:

Video from March 19, 2014.

Possible new developments in the Kellogg lockout of its Memphis workers

WMC-TV in Memphis reported Thursday (March 20) that NAACP officials are saying that the Battle Creek, Mich.-based cereal giant, Kellogg, is now willing to negotiate with the 226 workers it locked out from their Memphis plant after a labor contract disagreement last October.

Their union, the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers, refused to approve a company plan to cut wages and benefits as well as hire new “casual” workers at lower pay. As a result, they were forced to endure five long months without jobs or benefits. Their picketing outside the plant in often-subfreezing temperatures and hard rains galvanized local support from many organizations.

Most recently, the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C., pledged its solidarity with the locked-out workers.

Let’s hope Kellogg will do the right thing.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Mississippi character actor Johnny McPhail takes a quantum leap from the cotton patch to HBO's "True Detective"


(Johnny McPhail)

Quentin Tarantino opens the door of his New Orleans penthouse with a big smile, open arms, a string of compliments. Johnny McPhail steps inside.

The famous Hollywood director leads McPhail to a long table in the room, telling him along the way how much he loved him in Ballast. Tarantino proves it by reciting McPhail’s lines from the movie.

The 70-year-old actor from Oxford, Mississippi, grins under his mustache. He’s proud of Ballast. It won the directing and cinematography awards at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. It’s why he’s in this penthouse, why he got the call.

They sit down at the table and read from a script Tarantino provides. After a while, Tarantino stops and stares at McPhail, the mustache, the bushy eyebrows, the shoulder-length hair, the big presence at 6’4”, 215 pounds, the screen-friendly eyes that can range from pixie to world-weary.

Still, McPhail is missing something. Tarantino is making a movie about sadistic slave traders, bounty hunters, and decadent plantation owners. He’s going to call it Django Unchained, and he needs bad, the sinister element, at least a whiff of foreboding.

What the director of Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds, and Reservoir Dogs wants is evil, and he’s not sure McPhail has it. “You are too kind of a character to play any of these parts,” Tarantino tells him. “These are bad men.”

McPhail is remembering the call, the casting director telling him on the phone, “Mr. Tarantino would like to meet with you in his penthouse in New Orleans. Can you make it?”

“Oh, heck, yeah, I can make it,” McPhail told the casting director.

Now his big break is slipping away because he's insufficiently evil. He leans toward Tarantino, using all six feet and four inches and 215 pounds to make his point. “Quentin,” he says, “I can play bad.”

Tarantino reaches over and grabs the actor’s face with both hands, a Hollywood pope blessing an up-and-coming, if aging, seminarian of the Big Screen. He promises McPhail he’ll write him a part in Django Unchained.

And he delivers. McPhail’s part is a records keeper in Greenville, Mississippi, where the characters played by stars Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz go in search of information about Foxx’s wife, the slave Broomhilde.

The scene winds up on the cutting room floor.

“Everybody said he’ll make it up to me,” McPhail recalled recently as he sat with me in a coffee shop called the High Point here in downtown Oxford, Mississippi, “but I’m not worried. Got to move on.”

McPhail has moved on.

After a 20-year career that began with bit parts and local theater productions, McPhail is now playing a bar owner opposite star Matthew McConaughey in the hit HBO series True Detective. His other film credits include The Chamber, A Time to Kill, People Vs. Larry Flint, Cookie’s Fortune, and Big Bad Love.

McPhail acted in seven of the films shown during the recently concluded Oxford Film Festival, including his role as a zombie killer in Last Call. McPhail’s wife Susan, a rising actress herself, co-starred.

“He’s got this great character ability,” said Oxford Film Festival development director Melanie Addington, who has directed and written roles for McPhail. “See Ballast. His scenes were remarkable.”

The north Mississippi farm boy-turned-actor actually has something in common with Lana Turner, the Hollywood sex siren of yesteryear.

Both got discovered in a café.

Turner was 17, skipping school and enjoying a soda in a Hollywood ice cream parlor. Soon she had a movie contract and was a rising star. McPhail was turning 50 and enjoying a cup of coffee at Smitty’s in downtown Oxford when the casting director for the movie The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag (which was filmed in Oxford) spotted him.

“You’ve got an interesting face,” the casting director said. “You ever thought about being in the movies? Come by and see me.”

“And I did,” McPhail recalled. “I come from a small farm in Bruce (near Oxford), never had any idea I could ever do this. Anybody wants to be in films. I have always wanted to try different things, so when I turned fifty I decided to see what the film industry is all about.”

After picking cotton as a youth, working in factories and saw mills, and serving a stint as a labor organizer, McPhail decided he liked acting. Through his work on The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag, a 1993 movie starring Penelope Ann Miller, Julianne Moore and Alfre Woodard, McPhail met Elvis Presley buddy and “Memphis Mafia” charter member Red West, who also had a role in the movie. West befriended McPhail and gave him acting lessons.

McPhail’s acting philosophy is simple: Be natural. “When I went down to New Orleans for True Detective, (writer/creator) Nic Pizzolatto said, `Johnny, one rule is nobody does any fake accents.’ … They are looking for everyday people. … It’s hard enough to act without putting on a fake accent. One of the first rules I learned was, `Don’t let them catch you acting.’”

McPhail did lots of stage work in his early acting years, including a production of Larry Brown’s novel Joe at Oxford’s legendary Hoka Theater. He later got a part in the movie version of Brown’s Big Bad Love with Debra Winger. He has been frequently cast as “Big Daddy” in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Tennessee Williams Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi. 

He prefers film to the stage, however. “That’s your epitaph, man. Your great-grandchildren are going to see you.”

A film actor no longer has to be in Hollywood to get roles, McPhail said. “We do it all through the Internet now. I can be auditioning with someone in L.A. in a matter of minutes. I do it from home. I’ve got the lighting to make it look good.”

Besides, he said, Oxford is an ideal place for an actor. “Oxford, Mississippi, is one of the best. We are equidistant from Shreveport—they make a lot of movies there—Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Atlanta, then we are closer to Nashville.”

Looking back, McPhail said his acting life still seems like a dream. “Another quantum leap from a cotton patch in north Mississippi.”

A much different version of this feature column ran recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Pro-union Nissan worker in Mississippi: The UAW-VW vote in Chattanooga only "made us stronger"

(To the right is a picture of the 1963 March on Washington with the late United Auto Workers leader Walter Reuther third from the right. Photo by Rowland Scherman of the U.S. Information Agency)

Chip Wells, 43, an 11-year veteran at the 5,200-employee Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., says the recent bad news coming out of the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., did nothing to deter him and fellow pro-union Nissan workers from their campaign to join the United Auto Workers.

“People think that derailed us,” says Wells, who works in Nissan’s paint department, “but we think it made us stronger. That plant (in Chattanooga) was only opened for two years. They’re still in the honeymoon phase.”

The UAW “made some mistakes and they realize it,” he says. “The demographics were different. Here labor rights are civil rights, actually human rights.”

Wells expects a union election at Nissan’s Canton plant by this summer.  UAW President Bob King has tied his legacy to organizing in the South, and he plans to step down in June.

Wells says he traveled to Chattanooga to witness the Valentine’s Day 712-626 vote rejecting UAW representation at the Volkswagen plant. “When we got there, they’d lost by 43 or however many there were. Some were crying. To me, they took it too hard. We don’t need to be feeling like this.”

Despite its closeness, the vote at the 1,560-worker Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga was called “a devastating loss that derails the United Auto Workers union’s effort to organize Southern factories,” by the Associated Press. The New York Times called it a “stinging defeat” for the UAW. Others talked of a “fatal blow” to UAW hopes to organize the foreign auto plants in the South.

What’s missing from this picture is the nine-year-old campaign in Canton that has grown from small gatherings of activists, organizers, and a handful of courageous workers in 2005 to rallies of hundreds at local churches and college auditoriums. Caravans of workers, students and activists have traveling to trade shows across the country and as far away as South Africa and Brazil, where national labor leaders have pledged their support.

Even beyond Nissan in Canton, the UAW has an active campaign at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala., where, as with the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, the potential exists to establish a German-style works council with the UAW representing workers on key issues such as wages, benefits and working conditions.

In Chattanooga, the UAW should have insisted on more time to establish a firm foundation of community support that would withstand the inevitable anti-union political-business-media juggernaut. U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and outside groups like Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform led a virulent campaign warning of lost jobs, plant closings and a Detroit-like future if the UAW won.

The UAW underestimated the forces aligned against it. The union figured that Volkswagen’s own willingness to allow a fair election and creation of a German-style works council at the plant was sufficient to ensure victory. The UAW was wrong.

Mississippi is different.

The workers who voted in Chattanooga were predominantly white in a Republican stronghold in a Republican-dominated state. Mississippi is also Republican-ruled, but the Nissan plant has an 80-percent black workforce and is located near the capital city of Jackson, one of the state’s few Democratic strongholds. Then there’s the legacy of civil rights in Mississippi.

“The politicians are going to get involved, and it is going to be ugly,” Well says. “Down here in the South this is a mindset. This is the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. They didn’t like people coming in from the outside to tell them how to do their business. They look at the UAW the same way.”

Indeed, the summer of 2014 will mark the 50th anniversary of the murders of civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney in Neshoba County, Miss. Goodman and Schwerner came to Mississippi as part of a wave of young idealists hoping to help establish freedom and democracy during what became known as “Freedom Summer”. Chaney was a native Mississippian and the only black among the three.

“Labor Right Are Civil Rights” was the banner carried by a delegation of preachers, activists and workers from Canton to the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit. That slogan has inspired a network of students at historically black colleges and universities who are constantly working their computers and IPhones to build support for a union election at the Nissan plant.

“Our movement is moving,” says Hayat Mohammad, a 19-year-old English major at predominantly black Tougaloo College near Jackson and a leader of the Mississippi Student Justice Alliance. “We have such amazing talent—photographers, journalists—such active young people. Nissan is feeling the pressure.”

What the workers in Canton and Chattanooga face is what workers face all across the South. Yet union campaigns were successful at places such as Smithfield Foods in North Carolina in recent years and, decades before, with the textile giant J.P. Stevens in North Carolina.  The Farm Labor Organizing Committee and Coalition of Immokalee Workers have also won better wages and conditions for migrant workers in North Carolina and Florida. These campaigns were all hard-fought and took years.

“You’ve got to train your local leaders, get your core group together and train them,” veteran Southern labor organizer Danny Forsyth once told me in an interview. “Whenever I left town, the local leadership could do what was necessary to do.”

Forsyth knows what he’s talking about. Over a four-year period in the 1980s, he helped secure 20 victories out of 22 campaigns in the South. That includes the successful battle to establish a union at the giant Pillowtex textile mill in Kannapolis, N.C., in 1999.

The best organizing is from the ground up, Forsyth said, and it utilizes the same methods espoused by famed community organizer Saul Alinsky. Workers learn where they fit in vis-à-vis the existing power structure in a plant and see they have power, too. Community is key to organizing, Forsyth said.

A workers’ organizing committee has a firm foothold at the Nissan-Canton plant, Chip Wells says. “We are fighting for each other. We love each other. We’ve gotten to know each other, really become friends from not even knowing each other a couple years ago. If something happens to one, we all get behind each other.”

Anti-union pressures inside the Canton plant continue, Wells says. Plant leaders no longer subject workers to the anti-union videos that were once a staple, but they still “tell us how many plants (the UAW) closed down, insinuate things.”

Unlike Volkswagen, Nissan has given no indication that it will allow a fair, intimidation-free election at the Canton plant. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has been a vocal opponent of unions at his company’s Southern plants.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, has already publicly invited outside groups to come in and help fight unions at the auto plants in his state. He and other Republican leaders can be expected to do what Haslam and Corker did in Tennessee.

“It is our blood, sweat and tears that is in these vehicles,” Nissan worker Wells says. “We are prepared for the politicians.”

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Locked-out Kellogg worker in Memphis: Company leaders "don't care about our families."

(Locked-out Kellogg workers protest in Memphis. McGowen is on the left, Steve Lamar on the right.)

(Labor South will have more to say about the recent UAW-VW election in coming days. However, interviews with locked-out Kellogg workers in Memphis this weekend show that Southern people will stand by mistreated workers and union members despite recent interpretations of that vote in Chattanooga.)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Robert McGowen, a 23-year-veteran at the Kellogg plant in Memphis, Tenn., waved to another passing carload of people beeping their support of the protest taking place on Airways Boulevard.

“I’m totally amazed at what Memphis has done,” said McGowen, who worked in Kellogg’s packing department until last October, when he and more than 200 other workers were locked out by the company over a labor contract dispute. “They’ve been supplying us with food. The whole community has been supportive.”

Carrying a sign proclaiming “It’s about Job Security”, McGowen and a handful of other workers stood in front of the plant Saturday continuing a protest that has been ongoing since the Oct. 22 lockout, four long months that have included subfreezing temperatures, hard rains, and dwindling family budgets since the company stopped medical, vision and dental benefits.

Locked-out worker Steve Lamar, an electrician with 27 years of experience at Kellogg, said his wife recently suffered a brain aneurysm that he blames on stress from Kellogg’s actions. “They’re hurting our families,” he said. “They don’t care about our families.”

Community support has included a call by political and religious leaders in Memphis for a full-scale national boycott of Kellogg products until the lockout ends. Backing the workers and the boycott are organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Congress of Racial Equality. An online petition on behalf of the workers has gained thousands of signatures.

An estimated 60 percent of the 226 locked-out workers are black.

The Battle Creek, Mich.-based cereal-making giant’s CEO and president, John Bryant, gets much of the blame. Bryant took over leadership of the company in 2011. McGowen and other members of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union said they always got along well with Kellogg management until Bryant’s take-no-prisoners approach to union negotiations.

The union refused to approve a company plan to cut wages and benefits as well as hire new “casual” workers at lower pay. The lockout focused on Memphis because the company’s contract agreement with workers there expired in October. The lockout does not extend to the Kellogg plant in Rossville, Tenn.

McGowen said the contract disagreement was about fundamental “master issues” that the union local simply couldn’t concede.

The workers say production of Frosted Flakes, Corn Flakes, and Froot Loops has dropped to less than half. Still, the company has brought in scabs to replace the workers, and it insists that production is keeping pace with consumer demand.

Kellogg reported a profit margin of nearly 24 percent for the quarter ending December 31, 2013, more than double the profit margin of the previous quarter. In an earlier report, it showed profits totaling $352 million for the quarter ending last June, up $28 million from the same period the previous year. CEO Bryant’s salary is roughly $6.6 million a year.