Friday, May 11, 2018

Latino journalist Manuel Duran sits in a Louisiana immigrant prison for trying to report the truth in a Trumpian world

OXFORD, Miss. – Manuel Duran is a Memphis journalist who covers the Latino community for Memphis Noticias, a Spanish-language news outlet he owns. He’s also a native of El Salvador, and that fact is a reason he’s in prison in Jena, Louisiana, one of the nation’s worst immigrant detention facilities.

My late friend Marty Fishgold, a longtime labor writer in New York City, liked to say that good “journalism is a subversive activity” because it tells truth to power. Veteran Boston journalist Tom Oliphant had this to say about it: “Good reporters are anarchists” because they question all ideologies and authority.

Those are good things, and that’s why journalism gets special protection in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It may be the best-known promise in that document and why the constitutions of nations as far flung as Poland, Brazil, Egypt and Bangladesh include such language as well.

One could argue that many of those countries don’t practice what they preach. Well, guess what, we don’t either.

The 42-year-old Duran came to Memphis after working as a reporter in his native El Salvador, a war-and-drug-torn country whose cruelest goons trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. He’s now facing deportation back to that country, perhaps the equivalent of a death sentence.

Let’s consider why Duran sits in prison—Jena is one of the “worst detention centers” in the United States for its treatment of immigrants, according to Father Michael McAndrew, who works with immigrant communities in Greenwood and north Mississippi.

On April 3 in downtown Memphis, police arrested Duran and eight others who were protesting immigration policies. Police said they were blocking a roadway and Duran refused to move as ordered. The protest also took place without a permit, police said.  Two days later, prosecutors dropped charges against Duran. Charges against most of the protesters are still pending.

Duran was far from a free man, however. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers immediately arrested him and sent him to Jena. ICE officials said Duran missed a scheduled appearance in an immigration court in Atlanta back in 2007 and thus had since been living in the States without legal status. Attorneys for Duran said he received no notice to appear that day in 2007, and they have asked the Atlanta court to reopen the case.

If Barack Obama were still president, Duran might be free since he has no criminal history other than misdemeanor driving offenses. Under President Trump, however, none of the 11 million immigrants in this country without full legal status is even temporarily safe from deportation.
“The actions pursued by government officials in this case threaten core First Amendment freedoms that are essential to our democracy,” says a federal petition by the Southern Poverty Law Center seeking Duran’s release. Those freedoms are “the right to criticize and expose the actions of government officials, and the rights of members of the press to write and publish about them.”

Duran’s greatest “crime” may be that he has been critical of the Memphis Police Department in his reporting.  For example, back in July 2017, he reported in a Facebook post allegations that immigration enforcement officials and Memphis police had joined in a traffic stop operation despite claims they do not work together. Memphis police asked Duran to take down the post. His coverage also raised questions about police handling of the case of a Latino immigrant whose body was found in a police impound lot 49 days after he was shot during a robbery.

A long tradition exists of Latino journalists suffering because of their commitment to truth. Perhaps the most famous Latino journalist in U.S. media history was Ruben Salazar, a courageous reporter for the Los Angeles Times and later Spanish-language television station KMEX in Los Angeles. After launching with fellow journalist William Restrepo an investigation into police and sheriff’s department brutality and criminality in early 1970, Salazar was killed later that year by a deputy-fired tear gas projectile while covering a Chicano demonstration. Deputies said they were answering reports of looting and being pelted by bottles and rocks when Salazar was killed.

Some questioned whether Salazar was assassinated because of his reportage. He has been called “la voz de La Raza”, the voice of the people, a martyr to good journalism. A U.S. stamp bears his image.

The Duran case evokes more recent memories of what happened in Jackson, Mississippi, to Daniela Vargas, a 22-year-old native of Argentina who had been living in the United States since the age of 7. Despite earlier protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, her more recent lapsed status resulted in a March 1 arrest and federal deportation proceedings. An SPLC petition helped win her release nine days later, but her fate remains as uncertain as Manuel Duran’s.

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

Monday, April 16, 2018

Former SNCC leader Bob Zellner and labor organizers Richard Bensinger and Rose Turner talk about "The Future of Labor" at University of Mississippi campus: Grassroots organizing can overcome both fear and "right to work" laws

(From left to right, Richard Bensinger, Rose Turner and Bob Zellner)

Civil Rights Movement SNCC leader and social activist Bob Zellner joined veteran labor organizers Richard Bensinger and Rose Turner last Friday for a panel discussion of “The Future of Labor” at the University of Mississippi’s Overby Center. A central point in their discussion was that grassroots organizing can overcome "right to work" laws as well as anti-labor forces' greatest weapon: fear.

Sponsored by the campus Radical South organization, which seeks through panel discussions and other events in April to provide an alternative view of the South from that of conservative politicians like Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, the panel offered a lively discussion on the status of labor today in the South and across the nation.

Bensinger, a top national labor organizer who helped coordinate the United Auto Workers’ recent campaign at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, and other auto campaigns in the South, said “right to work” laws across the region aren’t a good thing but also shouldn’t “stand in the way” of a successful campaign. Bensinger co-founded the Institute for Employee Choice, establishing organizing principles for both employers and unions to follow during union campaigns. He advises unions on organizing and experimental organizing strategies in the service sector.

Turner, who led the successful and historic catfish workers strike in the Mississippi Delta in 1990 and has continued to work with catfish and nursing home workers in the region ever since, said organizers “have to organize” and get down to the grassroots level with workers. Turner currently serves as organizing director and executive assistant to the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1529, based in Memphis.

Zellner, who fought side by side with Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael and other civil rights leaders during what he calls “The Second Emancipation” of the 1960s, said fear was the great weapon anti-civil rights forces used back then and it is the same weapon anti-labor forces use today. Zellner helped organize the Freedom Rides of 1961 and was the first white Southerner to serve as field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  He continues to be active in the Poor People’s Campaign and the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina with the Rev William Barber.

Fear can be defeated at the workplace just like it was in the South back in the 1960s, the panelists agreed.

Labor South’s Joe Atkins moderated the panel discussion, which included topics ranging from the current teacher strikes and student protests against gun violence to how corporate money has compromised groups such as the NAACP in their support of labor campaigns such as the one at the Nissan plant in Canton.

(To the right, at Ajax restaurant in Oxford, from left to right, Joe Atkins, Bob Zellner, pro-UAW workers from the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, Richard Bensinger and his activist wife Virginia Diamond)
The panelists’ visit to Oxford, Mississippi, featured dinner and lunch the next day on the city’s famous Square as well as opportunities to sing labor songs such as “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” and “Union Maids” with fire-breathing, labor organizing, Truman Scholar-winning University of Mississippi student Jaz Brisack. Also joining the group for lunch were several Nissan workers who had campaigned for UAW membership at the Canton plant.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Teachers protesting GOP cutbacks, students protesting gun lawlessness--Long Live the Revolution!

(Dorothy Day in 1934)

OXFORD, Miss. – The great writer and champion of social justice Dorothy Day once said that “fighting for a cause is part of the zest of life.”

She didn’t stop there. “What we need is a revolution. Each one of us can help start it.” A lifelong pacifist, Day wanted a “revolution” that would “build a new society within the shell of the old,” borrowing a slogan from the “Wobblies” in the turn-of-the-century Industrial Workers of the World union.

I remember doing a lot of “fighting for a cause” in my salad days—and later. I shouted, chanted, carried signs, sat in, demanded, wrote letters, and argued and plotted endlessly into the night with my fellow “revolutionaries”—whether the cause was civil rights, Vietnam or worker rights.

That’s why it gladdened my heart when I saw young people across the land—including students of mine like Jaz Brisack--marching and demanding an end to politically sanctioned gun lawlessness in the recent “March for Our Lives” in Washington, D.C., here in Oxford and Jackson, Mississippi, and across the nation.

“We’re not children anymore. We’re warriors,” 16-year-old Oxford High School junior Anna Claire Franklin told the University of Mississippi’s Daily Mississippian. The students are “letting our lawmakers on a state and national level know that the upcoming generations … won’t stand by and allow the ease of buying firearms to be prioritized over the safety of our nation’s students.”

How ironic that the protests took place as Mississippi legislators gave strong support to a bill allowing guns on college campuses. The protests have led to greater gun restrictions in Florida, where the deaths of 17 young people at Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland February 14 prompted the national outrage against the political bullying of the National Rifle Association.

Also tickling this old revolutionary’s heart are the massive protests by school teachers in West Virginia and Kentucky that have challenged the Koch Brothers and American Legislative Exchange Council-led effort to destroy public education by starving it of funds so that privately run charter schools can take its place.

That nine-day wildcat West Virginia teachers strike forced the state’s billionaire governor and GOP-led legislature to cough up a 5 percent pay hike for all state employees although the politicians planted enough poison in the deal to make sure teachers get blamed for cutbacks in Medicaid and other services.

Kentucky teachers followed suit this month, marching out of their classrooms en masse after state GOP political leaders proposed cutting their benefits. Under pressure, the Republicans dropped their plan although some cuts still loom on the horizon.

Mississippi school teachers are the lowest paid in the nation. A teacher in New York typically makes $37,000 more in annual wages than a teacher in Mississippi. In Mississippi, 13 percent of school teachers have to have second jobs to make ends meet.

Mississippi’s Republican leadership, like their counterparts in Kentucky and West Virginia, get their cues from the Koch Brothers and ALEX on public education just as they do on a host of other issues. They’ll never admit it, but the end of public education is their goal.

So should Mississippi teachers go on strike?

Well, I covered the last major strike by Mississippi school teachers back in 1985. Thousands of teachers across the state marched on Jackson during the 11-week strike, and they finally got the Legislature to agree to a $4,400-over-three-years pay increase. However, it came with a provision that they would never strike again. If they do, they could lose their licenses and their teacher organizations could face fines of up to $20,000 a day.

But, you know, those teachers in West Virginia and Kentucky faced risks, too, just as students protesting against NRA gun lawlessness have already come under attack from right-wing political groups.

When people get fed up enough to go to the streets, they take risks. They know there may “be a price to pay,” Dorothy Day wrote, “sometimes a heartbreaking price. … Neither revolutions nor faith is won without keen suffering.

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

Friday, March 9, 2018

West Virginia teachers challenge the oligarchs and send a message to working people across the country: Stand up for your rights!

The victory by West Virginia teachers in their nine-day strike for higher wages and more secure health benefits has already inspired teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky and other states to consider demanding the same of their legislators.

The wildcat strike was the latest act of public rebellion against the powerful forces that have taken over these United States--Republican legislatures across the land that starve state budgets in order to feed corporate greed, legislators little more than drones for the Koch brothers and the bills-writing ALEC organization, propaganda-spewing Fox “News” and a compliant corporate media that generally ignores worker needs or rights.

Add to that list, of course, the National Rifle Association, which preaches the 2nd Amendment but is really nothing more than the lobbying arm of a weapons industry more concerned with profits than the lives of school children.

The teachers’ strike in West Virginia is indeed viscerally connected to the public reaction to the horrible shooting at the Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. That shooting in February took 17 lives and led to massive protests by students there and across the country against the NRA-spawned madness of our gun laws.

Across the land, people want to know what has happened to this country.

Here’s a hint: comments by West Virginia Senator Lynn Arvon, R-Raleigh, to an aide about the teachers’ strike: “The teachers have to understand that West Virginia is a red state and the free handouts are over.”

Such is the contempt many of our politicians have for regular people like teachers, who’ve gone years without pay raises and who see their pensions and health care plans threatened by legislators who brag about fiscal accountability yet refuse to collect the taxes rightfully owed by corporations, politicians whose own accountability is only to the lobbyists who funnel money into their campaign chests.

Of course, the bipartisan agreement reached by billionaire West Virginia Governor Jim Justice (he is the richest man in West Virginia) and state legislators—with the approval of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and the West Virginia Education Association--to end what was an illegal strike is clearly aimed to make the teachers “look like the bad guy … greedy and selfish,” in the words of one teacher quoted by writer Will Morrow of the World Socialist Website.

The teachers indeed got the 5 percent pay raise they demanded, a pay raise that extended to other government employees such as janitors, secretaries and law enforcement officers. However, they failed to get a tax on energy companies to help fund a health insurance program and got instead a “task force” to look into various options.

To pay for their pay raise, the legislators vowed to cut Medicaid, funding aimed at repairing ailing state buildings, and tuition assistance for students at community and technical colleges. In other words, as West Virginia Senate Finance Committee Chairman Craig Blair said, “there’s going to be some pain.”

And don’t kid yourself. Blair, Justice and the rest of the oligarchy controlling the state fully intend that those suffering from that pain place the blame on school teachers.

What’s encouraging is that the teachers garnered much public support during their strike. West Virginians knew their children’s teachers deserved a pay raise and a securely funded health care plan, and they stood with them despite a mainstream media that here as in most cases either ignores strikes or portrays them through the prism of the inconvenience they cause. So-called “liberal” MSNBC mostly ignored the strike despite its national implications and continued the network’s confounding obsession with finding a Russian excuse for Hillary Clinton’s presidential election loss.

Ironically the strike took place as the U.S. Supreme Court was hearing the so-called “Janus” case aimed at stripping public employee unions of their ability to collect union dues from non-member employees who benefit from their collective bargaining efforts. The ruling could have significant impact on public employee unions across the country.

Back in early 1985, your Labor South reporter covered the historic 11-week public teacher strike in Mississippi. Teachers from across the state marched on the state Capitol in Jackson and finally won a $4,400-over-three-years pay raise agreement. However, in some ways, it was a Pyrrhic victory because the agreement came with a no-strike provision that would fine teacher organizations up to $20,000 a day for future strikes.

As the strike in West Virginia wore on this month, labor historians from far and wide came to the University of Mississippi to participate in a symposium on the 1930s organizing efforts of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America union in the South and elsewhere.

The union worked hard to organize both farm and factory workers at the height of the Great Depression but eventually focused on factory workers due to the legal and other difficulties organizing field workers.

“Strikes by field workers who can’t pay dues is costly and a problem,” said Jarod Roll of the University of Mississippi.

Field workers were often the most in need of union protection, yet they weren’t protected by national labor laws (thanks to the Southern Democrats in Congress) and the seasonal, nomadic nature of their work as well as their poverty and pitiably low wages made it difficult to organize them into a union.

(To the right, a Depression-era strike banner from the Southern Tenant Farmers Union on display at the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, Arkansas)

Still, Roll said, one of the most dynamic labor stories of the 1930s was that of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, a bi-racial organization founded in the Arkansas Delta which joined UCAPAWA and which won key victories against recalcitrant Southern landowners.

Like the SFTU, the school teachers in West Virginia had the deck stacked against them, but they carried the day even if their victory isn’t across the board. What they did was send a message across the land that people are getting sick and tired of what’s happening in this country. They’re ready to stand up for their rights, and the powers that be better listen.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Mississippi: Rich in the arts, poor in politics. The state celebrates the legacy of its musicians, writers & artists while many of its legislators want to allow guns on college campuses and in football stadiums

(Tommy Igoe in Oxford, Mississippi)

OXFORD, Miss. – Jazz drummer and Birdland Big Band leader Tommy Igoe’s enthusiasm was contagious. The hundreds in the audience at the Gertrude C. Ford Center were clapping, smiling, nodding to each other as the Grammy Award-winning New Yorker explained his music.

“Charlie Parker is our hero up here,” he said, referring to the saxophone-playing jazz giant who along with trumpet-playing bandleader Dizzy Gillespie helped create bebop jazz in the 1940s. “Rebels and renegades. He blew up the false set of rules on improvisation. He had many detractors as well as fans. If you want to blow something up, people are going to hate you.”

As Igoe’s 10-piece band prepared to do Parker’s “Donna Lee”, Igoe added, “the best music should have a little danger to it. We’re keeping it way dangerous.”

What followed was a rousing rendition of Parker’s conversion of the old standard “Back Home Again in Indiana” to a bebop anthem. The band also played Gillespie’s Latin classic “Tin Tin Deo”, Count Basie’s “Deacon”, and even some jazz-infused Steely Dan music.

A few days later the Oxford Film Festival got underway featuring filmmakers and films from around the world as well as closer-to-home films such as “Dear Mr. Bryant”, a plea to Mississippi’s governor for tolerance, “Cowgirl Up” about a Mississippi cowgirl, and “Hand Made”, a short feature about Vaughn woodwork artist Greg Harkins.

I wandered through it all with a recurring thought about the sharp contrast between artistic Mississippi and political Mississippi. At the same time Mississippi is hosting and contributing to great music and film many of its political leaders are voting “Yes” to a bill that would allow citizens to carry guns on college campuses. SEC officials are already decrying the prospect of gun-wielding fans in crowded stadiums watching hotly contested football games.

A few days before Tommy Igoe’s band wowed his Oxford audience, news surfaced that the Department of Human Services in the nation’s poorest state had to return $13 million in federal funds aimed at providing childcare for poor families. Mississippi, which along with local governments was able to hand Continental Tire a $650 million incentives package to build a plant in the state, couldn’t come up with the matching funds needed to get the $13 million for poor children.

This is a state justly proud of its contributions to the nation’s musical, literary and artistic heritage. A likeness of Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner was on the cover of the Oxford Film Festival program this year. Very fitting as one of the best-known Big Screen renditions of a Faulkner story, “Intruder in the Dust”, was filmed in Oxford. In fact, the 1949 film, starring David Brian and Claude Jarman Jr., premiered in Oxford.

(To the right, William Faulkner, photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1954)

Country musician Marty Stuart recently announced he’s going to develop a country music museum and performance center in his Philadelphia, Mississippi, hometown. The museum will include Stuart’s own personal collection of 20,000 artifacts such as Patsy Cline’s boots, Johnny Cash’s black suit, and handwritten lyrics by Hank Williams.

“Mississippi is such a wellspring for so many different musical traditions for our country and for the world,” Smithsonian musical curator John Troutman told the Associated Press. He is an advisor for the Stuart project.

(Lester Young in 1944, LIFE magazine)

Add a country music museum to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, B.B. King Museum in Indianola, Grammy Museum in Cleveland, and, of course, Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, and your next question is: Why not a jazz museum? Better known for its blues, Mississippi was also home to the great jazz bassist Milt Hinton (Vicksburg), pianist Mose Allison (Tippo), tenor sax genius Lester Young (Woodville), and modern-day jazz artists like singer-songwriter Cassandra Wilson (Jackson) and pianist Mulgrew Miller (Greenwood).

Yes, Mississippi loves and is rightly proud of its arts. Still, even with all that great jazz, country music, literature and let’s not forget painting and sculpture—from  Theora Hamblett (Oxford) and Walter Anderson (Ocean Springs) to Wyatt Waters (Clinton), many people first think of the blues when they think of Mississippi. The blues. Maybe the state’s politics have something to do with that.

This column was first published in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Labor South roundup: Union membership grows in the South; another effort to undermine public employee unions; a crusading newspaper in West Virginia files for bankruptcy; and the CWA fights for call workers in Mississippi

(The Battle of Blair Mountain, West Virginia, in 1921, one of the first major confrontations of the 20th century between Southern workers and company owners)

It’s time for another Labor South roundup, and this time we see union membership growing in the South despite two big losses in 2017, another case before the U.S. Supreme Court to undermine public employee unions, the bankruptcy of a crusading newspaper in West Virginia, and a fight by the Communications Workers of America for call center employees in Mississippi and beyond.

Dixie holds its own on the labor front despite two major hits in 2017

Facing South, the online magazine of the North Carolina-based Institute for Southern Studies, reports that union membership in the South rose by 130,000 to 2.3 million workers in 2017, increasing the percentage of workers in unions from 4.9 percent to 5 percent. While still less than half the 10.7 percent national rate, the South is at least moving forward rather than backward like membership in other parts of the country.

The numbers above don’t include the more than half a million Southern workers who enjoy the benefits of a unionized workplace but haven’t joined the union thanks to the so-called “right to work” laws in place across the region.

The region suffered two major setbacks in 2017: the lopsided vote against unionization at Boeing’s North Charleston, South Carolina, plant in February—nearly three-fourths of voting workers cast their ballots against the union; and the August vote against unionization that took place at Nissan’s plant in Canton, Mississippi. In both cases, however, state political and business leaders joined in a phalanx of opposition, spreading fear and intimidation via personal meetings with workers and anti-union ads on television.

“While these stinging defeats garnered national and international attention—and new speculation about the fate of labor in the South—the latest government data shows unions in the South were able to maintain their numbers, in part due to support from younger workers,” Facing South’s Chris Kromm wrote in his article.

Kromm cites a study that shows 76 percent of the union membership gains in 2017 came from workers under the age of 35.  A good sign for the future!

Another effort to weaken and even destroy public employee unions

The U.S. Supreme Court later this month will hear the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, a blatant effort by the state of Illinois to impose a so-called “right to work” rule on public employees, challenging unions’ right to collect dues from nonmembers for collective bargaining.

A similar effort was made two years ago in the Friedrichs. v. California Teachers Association case. The death of conservative justice Antonin Scalia before a ruling left the high court with a 4-4 tie on that case.

The Catholic Bishops of the United States issued an amicus brief last month supporting the AFSCME. Catholic bishops “have long and consistently supported the right of workers to organize for purposes of collective bargaining,” the group’s brief says. “Because this right is substantially weakened by so-called `right-to-work’ laws, many bishops—in their dioceses, through their state conferences, and through their national conference—have opposed or cast doubt on such laws, and no U.S. bishop has expressed support for them.”

The legendary labor priest, Monsignor George Higgins, once had this to say about those who claim “freedom of speech” as a justification for avoiding paying union dues: such a claim is “too absolute and extreme … the requirement of financial support for the union (is) a legitimate limitation on such a broad freedom.”

Also joining the fight for the union is the American Association of University Professors. “Public employees and supporters of public services and higher education from coast to coast will join hands in solidarity actions against the attacks on working people,” AAUP General Counsel Risa Lieberwitz and Senior Staff Counsel Aaron Nisenson said in a statement.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear the case February 26 with a decision expected by the end of the Court’s term in June.

A crusading West Virginia newspaper files for bankruptcy

I’ve long been a distant admirer of the Charleston Gazette in Charleston, West Virginia, and particularly its reporter, Ken Ward Jr., who covers the coal industry.

Eight months after winning a Pulitzer for its hard-hitting reportage, the newspaper has filed for bankruptcy. Declining circulation and a costly, federally challenged purchase of a competing newspaper in the city were factors leading to the filing.

A sale by the owning Chilton family to a buyer could extend the life of the paper, but many worry whether it will lose the cutting edge that allowed it to expose “corruption, greed and incompetence” for decades, New York Times writer Niraj Chokshi wrote recently.

In 2011, the newspaper called for the federal government to restore the designation of Blair Mountain in West Virginia as a historic site to protect it from those wanting to strip mine it. Blair Mountain was the site of a bloody confrontation between striking miners and machine gun-wielding thugs and deputies in 1921, an event that became in the words of a Charleston Gazette editorial “America’s biggest armed insurrection since the Civil War.”

The site got the federal designation in 2009 but then lost that designation in a delisting in 2011. A federal judge then in 2016 ruled against the delisting. The U.S. Department of the Interior appealed that ruling but later dropped its appeal.

In September 2002, reporter Ward put the lie to President Bush’s pat on the back to the “Quecreek Nine” after their rescue from a Pennsylvania coal mine. “His administration has done all it can to dismantle the safeguards meant to prevent coal miners from dying on the job,” Ward wrote in the magazine In These Times. “Since taking office in January 2001, Bush has proposed mine safety budget cuts, halted regulatory improvements and reduced enforcement efforts.”

CWA challenges General Dynamics’ treatment of its call workers in Mississippi and elsewhere

The Communications Workers of America wants the Wage and House Division of the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate alleged wage violations by General Dynamics Information Technology Inc.

The union says the company pays its call agents “at a lower prevailing wage than their job duties merit.” The workers assist callers on enrollment in and questions about Medicare, Medicaid and other government services.

Approximately 2,000 workers at the call center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, could see their wages rise from $3,600 to nearly $6,600 annually if the federal government required the company to classify and pay them properly, the union says. The company challenges these claims and even CWA’s right to make them since the workers aren’t members of the union.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Migrant families caught in a broken immigration system and torn apart because of it

(Father Michael McAndrew)

OXFORD, Miss. – Rigoberto Salas, his wife, and their five children of nearby Batesville, Mississippi, were elated last March when a Homeland Security court in Jena, Louisiana, agreed to cancel an order that would have deported Salas back to his native Mexico. Still, he was held in detention pending a federal appeal.

Eight months later the Immigration Board of Appeals reversed the court decision and ordered him deported due to his lack of documentation. He has lived in the United States since 1992.  His children, aged 3 to 14, grew up here.

Despite testimony that “two of his daughters are suffering from depression, his son suffers from learning disabilities and is in special education classes, and his youngest daughter is having nightmares and waking up screaming at night,” the Board of Appeals decided the children “will be cared for and supported” by their mother even though she is also undocumented. The Salas family has appealed this decision.

The Salas family is one of many in Mississippi and across the country caught in the madness of the immigration debate and politicians’ failure to pass real and meaningful reform of a broken system. As nationally syndicated columnist Michael Reagan, son of the former president, wrote recently, these families have become “a bargaining chip” in the battles between Republicans, Democrats and President Trump.

Trump owes his presidency in part to his demagoguery of the immigrant issue. He has ordered the end to DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), the program that provides some protection to undocumented children. He continues his ridiculous demand for a 1000-mile, $20 billion wall on the Mexican border.

Like Trump, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant occupies the state’s highest office in part because of his own anti-immigrant blusterings, including a highly questioned claim that migrant workers cost the state $25 million a year (where’s the thanks for rebuilding the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina?).

Migrant workers came to the United States in droves after NAFTA was signed in 1994. Countless numbers farmed small plots or held other jobs that NAFTA destroyed. The legendary independent journalist John Ross explained it succinctly: NAFTA “dumped so much bad corn in Mexico that millions … abandoned their homes and headed north.”

Even Trump recognizes that NAFTA was a bad deal, but he fails to make the connect to the hard-working migrants who had to leave behind home, extended family, and culture to make a livelihood for their loved ones.

“There are forces that crush the spirit of people on the move,” Father Michael McAndrew wrote in his 2013 book Migrant Faith.  Based in Greenwood and Bruce, Mississippi, the Catholic priest has worked with migrant workers for decades. “There is the separation from loved ones. There are feelings of guilt when the migrant is unable to be present with a parent or relative when they are ill or dying.”

Then there are those torn from their families and forced to return after building a new life here for years.

Seven days after the birth of his third child in March 2017, Miguel Torres of Batesville found himself in the custody of federal immigration officers and soon deported from the land he had called home for 15 years. Martin Duron of Greenwood, father of five, was a prospering businessman in irrigation systems management and on the parish council of his church in April 2017 when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested him. He and his family departed for Mexico in June.  

ICE arrests have increased 40 percent under Trump. Last year judges rejected 60 percent of those seeking asylum in the United States. Often those returning to Mexico do so in great danger.

Deportees are “prime targets for crime, since they (are) presumed to have money,” writes Sarah Stillman in a recent article on the issue in the New Yorker. 

“`Why do Americans hate Mexicans?’” a young Mexican named Samantha once asked Father McAndrew during a 2007 sabbatical in Mexico. “It was a question filled with pain and simply not understanding the animosity of so many Americans.”

It’s a question that shouldn’t have to be asked.

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