Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Harry Dean Stanton, Hollywood's Zen Loner, celebrated at the festival that bears his name in Lexington, Kentucky

 
(On the Red Carpet for the premiere of the film Lucky at the Harry Dean Stanton Festival in Lexington, Kentucky, this past weekend.)

LEXINGTON, Ky. – I first noticed him in the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke. He played Tramp, the guitar-picking inmate who crooned “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” as Paul Newman walked out to see his soon-to-die mother for the last time.

It was a film that evoked the bad old days of places like Mississippi’s own Parchman Farm, where a special kind of Southern cruelty ruled.

He was a Southerner himself, son of a Kentucky tobacco farmer and a hairdresser. His mother liked to dangle a black sock in front of her infant son just to scare him. After a tough Depression-era youth, he served as a ship’s cook during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, and he felt lucky none of the Japanese suicide bombers overhead hit their target.

Maybe those experiences added a degree of poignancy to his roles in the 100-plus movies he made and 50-plus television shows.

Maybe what attracted me most to Harry Dean Stanton, who died last month at the age of 91, was that lean, weather-beaten look of the classic underdog. He was a “character actor”, a term he didn’t particularly like, one of those working stiffs of the Big Screen whose faces are known to everyone but not their names.

Stanton’s life and work (I'm writing a biography of him for the University Press of Kentucky) were celebrated this past weekend at the seventh annual Harry Dean Stanton Festival in Lexington, Kentucky, an event that included the premier of his last film, Lucky, and its director, John Carroll Lynch, and co-writer Drago Sumonja. Also on hand was musician and actor John Doe, who joined Stanton in the cast of the 1987 film Slam Dance. Created and organized by Lucy Jones of the Lexington Film League, the festival not only draws Stanton fans from far away but also a good many Stanton family members.

(To the right, Lucky director and noted actor John Carroll Lynch with Labor South author Joe Atkins at The Kentucky Theatre in Lexington, Kentucky)

I’ve always loved character actors. Cool Hand Luke was full of them. Who’ll ever forget Strother Martin as the warden saying, “What we have here is a failure to communicate”? George Kennedy, Dennis Hopper, Joe Don Baker, Ralph Waite and Stanton perfectly portrayed “the great mix of faces and personalities” you might find in a prison, said director Frank Darabont, whose own prison films, The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999, with Stanton in the cast) are classics of the genre.

Countless hours in front of the television or in a movie theater in my youth made me as much a fan of actors like Royal Dano, James Best, Dub Taylor, Cloris Leachman, Thelma Ritter, and R.G. Armstrong as of the big stars I also loved, such as Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, and Robert Mitchum.

Many of the greatest character actors were Southerners. Stanton, Warren Oates and James Best were Kentuckians. Armstrong was from Alabama, Dub Taylor from Virginia. Let me add here Johnny McPhail and his wife Susan McPhail of Oxford, Mississippi, where I live.

Character actors are “not gorgeous enough to be stars,” write Melissa Holbrook Pierson and Luc Sante in their 1999 book O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors. “Their noses have been broken one too many times. … In short, they are real.”

Stanton is unique among them, however. His career began in the mid-1950s with cowboy and other roles that led to regular appearances on TV Westerns like Gunsmoke, Have Gun, Will Travel, Rawhide and Bonanza. He played an Oklahoma hitchhiker in Two-Lane Backstop (1971), a bogus blind preacher in Wise Blood (1979), a member of Billy the Kid’s gang in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), and the crew member in Alien (1979) who is killed by the monster after calling out “Kitty, kitty, kitty” to the crew’s missing cat, Jones.

Stanton finally got his big break to play a starring role in Wim Wenders’ 1984 film Paris, Texas. His character, Travis Henderson, was a silent, lone wanderer in the desert in search of some sort of penance for past sins. “It got more and more hard to say that this is Travis and this is Harry Dean,” Wenders has said of the film. Stanton himself agreed. “I don’t know what happened to Travis. I’d say … it’s me. Still searching for liberation, or enlightenment, for lack of a better way to put it, and realizing that it might happen, it might not.”

Such comments point to another side of the actor, a lifelong bachelor, the one in Hollywood known as “Harry Zen Stanton”. A philosopher of Buddhist-tinged fatalism, Stanton has attained a kind of cult status that may be due as much for his musings about life as for his work as an actor and his musicianship. “In the end, you end up accepting everything in your life—suffering, horror, love, loss, hate—all of it.”

Besides, he said, “It’s all a movie anyway.” Okay, Harry. Then I say what a great movie your life was.

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

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Confederate statues both offend and remind as the South still fights on old war

 
(The Confederate statue on the Square in downtown Oxford, Mississippi)

OXFORD, Miss. – My young self must have killed thousands of imaginary Yankees in the woods next to our house in central North Carolina. Inspired by Civil War-themed television shows like “The Gray Ghost”, I put on the nearest gray cap, armed myself with my toy rifle, and went to war to defend the South.

Even then, however, I knew that hanging over my TV heroes, Confederate Major John Singleton “The Gray Ghost” Mosby and crusty old Sergeant Myles Magruder, was the ugly specter of slavery.

Today, sad to say, we’re still fighting that war. With the events in Charlottesville and protests against Confederate monuments in Memphis, Durham, and Baltimore, the nation is going through what folks here in the Confederate-laden culture of Oxford, Mississippi, and the University of Mississippi wrestle with all the time.

What do you do with all the Confederate reminders that are everywhere in the South? I grew up in Robert E. Lee County, North Carolina. I live near Robert E. Lee County, Mississippi. I live in a town with two Confederate statues, one of them dedicated to those who “gave their lives for a just and holy cause.” They attract countless literary scholars who come here to see William Faulkner’s inspiration in writing, “the Confederate soldier … his musket at order arms, shading his carven eyes with his stone hand.”

Like most Confederate statues, they appeared long after the Civil War at a time when the white South was celebrating the rise of Jim Crow.

The Neo-Nazis and white supremacists came to Charlottesville ostensibly to protest the removal of a statue to Robert E. Lee. I’m sure they didn’t know about Lee’s own disdain for Confederate statues. According to Business Insider writer Daniel Brown, Lee wrote the statues “would have the effect of retarding rather than accelerating (the nation’s) accomplishment.”  

President Trump faced a political firestorm for his reaction to those white supremacists in Charlottesville. The CEOS on his Strategic and Policy Forum and Manufacturing Council walked out in protest. The corporate media got so enraged they even stopped talking about Russian influence in the 2016 election.

Maybe it’s just me, but I have to look askance when the CEOs of JP Morgan Chase and General Electric join the nation’s moral vanguard. Those guys never do anything that doesn’t have to do with the bottom line.

While Russia and Confederate statues deserve media coverage, they are also easy targets that don’t challenge the corporate state. Less easy are the Trump-and-GOP-led military buildup in this country and the systematic dismantling of the nation’s social safety net and environmental protections.

CNN health producer John Bonifield said this summer that CNN CEO Jeff Zucker actually told staff members to drop their climate accord reporting and “let’s get back to Russia.” Prior to Charlottesville, you couldn’t turn on CNN and MSNBC without hearing endless chatter about Russia, a neo-McCarthyite obsession that is manna from heaven for military contractors.

Money compromises everything in this country, including the media. In the late 1990s, CBS actually killed investigative reporter Roberta Baskin’s story about Nike’s connection to Vietnamese sweatshops after the two companies formed an Olympics partnership that made Nike a CBS sponsor.

Money even compromises civil rights organizations like the NAACP, the recipient of such Nissan largesse over the years that one of its Tennessee branches named the company’s North American operations “Organization of the Year” in 2016. Is this why the NAACP avoided boycotts or other pressure tactics to get Nissan to act fairly in the recent union election for the largely black workforce at Nissan’s Canton plant?

Yes, take down and replace the Mississippi flag with its embarrassing Confederate insignia. Take those statues of Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis and put them in a military park or a cemetery.

Still, for the adult version of that Yankee-fighting youth back in North Carolina, many of those statues deserve a place even if it’s just in a museum or a cemetery. Many of them depict a simple, country-boy soldier who fought a war not of his own making, upholding an evil, profit-obsessed institution of which he had no part, a soldier whose “carven eyes” and “stone hand” are the South’s most searing reminder of the horror and tragic waste of war, particularly one fought to enslave fellow human beings.

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

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Where were the NAACP boycotts and other major efforts to support Nissan's Canton, Mississippi, workers in their struggle for a union? Too many $$$$ from Nissan?

 
(Bernie Sanders at the March 4 "March on Mississippi" rally in support of the workers at Nissan's Canton, Mississippi, plant)

Looking back at workers’ rejection of a union at Nissan’s Canton, Mississippi, plant earlier this month, I, like many others, still wonder what might have made a difference in that election.

After a dozen years or more of slowly, methodically helping to build a pro-union community network that included civil rights-era veterans, area preachers, students from several colleges and universities, activists, supporters from as far away as France and Brazil, and, of course, workers, the United Auto Workers mustered only 36 percent of the vote on election day.

Here’s one thing I’ve come up with: One of the key elements that was missing was a national, concerted effort by the nation’s leading civil rights organization, the NAACP, to use it prestige and leverage to make a difference. The NAACP gave lip service to the rights of the 80 percent African American workforce at Nissan Canton to form a union, of course, but where were the boycotts or other high profile efforts to show its unity with those workers? Nowhere to be seen.

 “If Nissan allows workers in Brazil to collective bargain, why not workers in Canton, Mississippi?” Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson told thousands at the March 4 “March on Mississippi” rally in Canton in support of the union.

Echoing those sentiments was national NAACP President Cornell William Brooks at the rally.

Words are cheap, however. Where was the action?

Was it missing because Nissan has funneled plenty of cash in the direction of the NAACP, which partnered with Nissan for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in 2013? That same year Nissan gave $100,000 to the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute to commemorate the life of the martyred Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers. Although Hollywood celebrity and strong UAW supporter Danny Glover had been a featured speaker at past annual Medgar Evers dinners, he was significantly NOT invited at the 2013 event.

The NAACP’s Murfreesboro, Tennessee, branch was so thankful for Nissan’s largess in 2016 that it named the company’s North America operations “Organization of the Year”.

Yet this is the organization that virulently fought against its Canton workers’ efforts to organize, much as it did years before at its plant in Tennessee. Workers were subjected to meetings with management—interrogations might be a better word—and anti-union videos, threats of lost jobs and a shut-down plant. Charged by the National Labor Relations Board with various labor violations, Nissan waged such a media campaign that workers said they couldn’t turn on the television without seeing an anti-union commercial.

“Labor rights are civil rights” was the rallying cry of the union effort at the Canton plant. As former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders told workers and supporters at the March rally, “the eyes of the country and the eyes of the world are on you!”

The eyes of the NAACP were, too, but only briefly, very briefly, before they returned to the $$$$$$$$ signs that Nissan was waving in the distance.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Threats, intimidation and use of inmate labor to pull down union signs won the day in Canton, Mississippi, this week but not the war. A solid pro-worker community network promises the battle will go on.

 
(Actor Danny Clover--center-right--addresses Nissan workers at a pro-UAW rally in 2014. To the left with tie and sunglasses is veteran civil rights activist Bob Zellner)

Threats of lost jobs and a closed plant, fear-mongering, intimidation, interrogations of pro-union workers, and even the use of state inmate labor to pull down pro-union signs on roads and highways paid off Thursday and Friday as Nissan workers at the Canton, Mississippi, plant voted against United Auto Workers representation 2,244 to 1,307.

The 64 percent victory for anti-union forces, however, was quickly followed by UAW officials filing a new set of charges against the company for violating legal labor and labor election practices.

“The result of the election was a setback for these workers, the UAW and working Americans everywhere, but in no way should it be considered a defeat,” UAW president Dennis Williams said in response to the vote. “The courageous workers of Nissan who fought tirelessly for union representation alongside community and civil rights leaders should be proud of their efforts to be represented by the UAW.”

The National Labor Relations Board, which has already made previous charges against the company for labor violations, has the option of ordering a new election and also taking the case to federal court and even determining a fair election is impossible under present conditions.

With the ascendancy of the Trump Administration, the NLRB’s attitudes toward unions remain hugely in question, however.

The company and its allies in Mississippi’s political and business establishment formed a powerful phalanx of opposition that included filling the airways, Internet and newspaper pages with anti-union commercials and advertisements, speeches by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and state business leaders attacking the union, and a climate of fear within the plant.

“On my way to visit workers and discuss the upcoming vote, I saw someone removing the signs (“Union Yes” signs she’d earlier put up) along the highway exit ramp as a MDOT (Mississippi Department of Transportation) truck blinked idly nearby,” student labor activist Jaz Brisack (one of my stellar students at the University of Mississippi) wrote this week in the web magazine, LikeTheDew. “Looking closer, I noticed that the man yanking up our morning’s work was wearing striped trousers beneath his neon vest.

“The irony of the fact that these inmates’ forced, free labor is being used to silence the support for the beleaguered Nissan workers in their push for unionization is rich and complex. The prisoners are being subjected to the `involuntary servitude’ that the 13th Amendment continues to allow as a `punishment for crime.’”

Those familiar with labor history know that some of the greatest victories have come after heart-breaking losses. Crystal Lee “Norma Rae” Sutton and the members of the Textile Workers’ Union of America had to fight 17 long years before they finally won their victory at the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, in 1974. Legendary labor organizer Sol Stetin called J.P. Stevens the nation’s “number one labor outlaw.” Textile workers at Pillowtex in Kannapolis, North Carolina, waged a 25-year struggle, losing election after election before finally winning their union battle in 1999.

Critics of unions point to those victories as reasons to reject a union because those plants eventually shut down. NAFTA and other international trade deals were significant culprits in those shutdowns, however, as the textile industry moved wholesale into Asia and its world of cheap labor and sweatshops.

It’s one thing to shut down a textile mill, and quite another to uproot a mile-long, 6,400-worker plant that produces some of the top vehicles in the Nissan line and is a significant factor in the international company’s overall business plan.  Where would it go? Every other Nissan plant outside the U.S. South is already unionized.

A story on the Canton campaign by veteran labor writer David Moberg in In These Times this week was headlined “UAW Vote in Mississippi is a Battle for the Soul of the U.S. Labor Movement”. This echoes a quote I’ve often used in this blog as well as in my book on the Southern labor movement, Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press (University Press of Mississippi, 2008): Labor organizing in the South is a “venture into unplowed fields.”

Sidney Hillman, longtime leader of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, said this in 1946 as organized labor launched its “Operation Dixie” campaign. Mississippi AFL-CIO President Robert Shaffer adds this truth: “It’s a fight everyday of your life in this state.”

The workers in Canton and their advocates, such as labor organizers Richard Bensinger and Sanchioni Butler and student activist Jaz Brisack, worked countless long, hard hours on this campaign. For Bensinger and Butler, that effort stretches back many years. I’ve been its most faithful chronicler since 2005.

The 12 years of this struggle have created a rich and solid community network of workers, preachers, activists, students, organizers, politicians, and supporters that is not going away. These folks are in for the long haul. They’re fighting the good fight, and someday they’re going to win. The road to justice is hard and often treacherous, but the courage and steadfastness and faith that it takes to walk it have already been proven tenfold.  

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Nissan workers in Mississippi begin vote today on whether to join the UAW as state political and business leaders align with the company against the union

 
(A pro-union rally at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, in 2014)

On the podium in Jackson, Mississippi, stood Mississippi’s leading corporate boosters decrying a possible victory by pro-union workers at Nissan’s plant in nearby Canton in the August 3-4 election to determine whether they can join the United Auto Workers.

At their July 20 press conference, Mississippi Economic Council interim president and CEO Scott Waller, Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership President and CEO Duane O’Neill and others made clear whose side they’re on: the Nissan bosses whose threats and intimidation of workers have led to international condemnation.

On the other side are the workers, Mississippians, 80 percent of them African American, who have little say in work and safety conditions, complain of minimal at best medical treatment for work injuries, and even lost a colleague in 2015, Derick Whiting, who collapsed on the plant floor during working hours.

It’s not just the pro-union workers doing the complaining.

The U. S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fined Nissan tens of thousands of dollars for safety violations at the plant. The National Labor Relations Board has charged the company with violating workers’ rights. Nissan was forced to pay Iraq and Afghanistan military veteran Chip Wells $6,500 in disability and back pay after treating him with such hostility for his pro-union views that he had to go on medical leave.

(To the right, the mile-long Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi)

Joining Waller, a former business editor with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, and O’Neill on the side of the company bosses is Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, one of those old-school conservatives who always cry about outside interference in state affairs unless, of course, that outside interference is anti-union. If so, then welcome to Mississippi!

Hypocrisy—another word for lying--is a common phenomenon in union battles.

Witness Carlos Ghosn himself, the CEO of Nissan and partly French-owned Renault who told the French Parliament in February 2016 that Nissan always cooperates with unions. In fact, every single Nissan plant around the world is unionized except the ones in Mississippi and Tennessee. Yet this is the same Carlos Ghosn who told Nissan workers in Smyrna, Tennessee, the day before their union election in 2001 that a union “is not in your best interest.” They got the message.

When a union election was scheduled at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2014, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., initially pledged he’d stay out of it. He lied. He soon joined Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam in an anti-union smear campaign that included secretly making a $300 million state-funded expansion of the plant contingent on keeping the union out.

Poor ol’ Mississippi, so poor it can’t even keep its roads paved and bridges repaired, has thus far spent $1.3 billion on taxpayer subsidies to keep Nissan in Canton. Nissan is a $38.4 billion company. Carlos Ghosn earns $10 million a year and has a net worth of $100 million.

The biggest charge against Nissan workers organizing is that they already earn good wages for Mississippi. Nissan refuses to reveal what it pays its fulltime workers. However, an estimated 2,900 of its 6,400 workers in Canton are temporary or contract workers, with temporary workers earning between $13.46 and $14.21 an hour. Guess what the average central Mississippi production worker earns? The answer: $16.70.

Still, the campaign is not really about money. A decade ago, two years after it began, Nissan-Canton worker Yvette Taylor told a gathering at the Canton United Methodist Church how Nissan threw her into a tangled web of bureaucracy, disrespect, missteps in treatment, and finally dismissal after she injured her hands and knees on the job.

“So many things happened that I just don’t know where to begin,” the mother of 10 said. Finally “I got a letter in the mail saying I was terminated.”

Workers join a union to get respect, to have a collective voice that they can’t have as individuals, to have a say in working conditions. They have a legal right to join a union, yet when they try to exercise that right, they face life-crushing threats.

Veteran labor organizer Rose Turner knows all about this. She helped catfish workers at Delta Pride in Indianola win their historic union election in 1986: “We were at the crossroads. Either we were going to change things or … our kids were going to have the same situation, “ she once said. “I’ve never been afraid of anything because before I do anything, I put God first.”

This column also ran in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Union vote at Nissan in Canton, Mississippi, set for August 3-4

Thousands of workers at the giant Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, will be able to cast their ballots on whether to join the United Auto Workers in an election set for August 3 and August 4.

A petition had been filed earlier for a July 31/August 1 vote, so the actual election will come only a few days later.

The vote marks the culmination of a 12-year struggle by workers for an intimidation-and-threat-free union election at the plant, where the workforce is 80 percent African American. Local Nissan managers have strongly opposed unionization even thought the company ownership claims neutrality. Workers have been forced to watch anti-union videos, and pro-union workers have complained of harassment on the job.

With the rallying cry "Labor Rights Are Civil Rights", the campaign has include a widespread community grassroots effort with local ministers, civil rights-era veterans and students from nearby Jackson State University and Tougaloo College as well as the University of Mississippi standing side-by-side with the workers. International attention has also focused on the campaign--from as far away as Brazil and also France, where the government controls a percentage of Nissan's partner firm, Renault, and thus has influence on Nissan operations.

However, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and the Republican leadership of the state Legislature in Mississippi, along with the Mississippi Manufacturers Association and outside groups such as the influential Koch Brothers, can be expected to use their influence to help defeat pro-union forces. This is what happened in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2014, when workers at the Volkswagen plant sought a union. U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., even promised that Volkswagen would expand operations if the union was voted down. Workers narrowly rejected the union in the vote.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Nissan workers in Mississippi push for a union vote by the end of July / A call from LabourStart to help farm workers fend off legislative attacks in North Carolina

Workers in the South are standing up for their rights and making gains. Autoworkers at the giant Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, this week asked the National Labor Relations Board for a vote on July 31 and August 1 on whether to join the United Auto Workers. This marks the culmination of a 12-year campaign, which Labor South has followed more closely than any other news outlet. An NLRB petition for a vote requires that at least 30 percent of the workforce approve the vote. A union victory requires 50 percent plus one.


(To the right, civil rights-era SNCC activist Bob Zellner in sunglasses at the center and actor Danny Glover to the right of him at a pro-worker rally at the Nissan plant in 2014)

In North Carolina, farm workers have made steady gains in securing worker rights with the help of organizations like the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. However, the state's arch-conservative legislators, backed by deep-pocketed anti-union moguls like Art Pope (North Carolina's version of the Koch Brothers), aim to destroy those gains. LabourStart, the London-based international labor activist network and publisher of my recent collection of essays by writers around the world on the migrant worker issue, The Strangers Among Us: Tales from a Global Migrant Worker Movement, recently filed this report from the U.S. South, asking for help in keeping those farm workers' hard-earned gains. Labor South posts this call for help on behalf of Eric Lee, who heads LabourStart:

(To the left, a typical North Carolina tobacco field harvested by migrant workers from Latin America)

Following a series of recent farmworker wins in the southern United States, farmers elected to the North Carolina State Legislature are trying to use their legislative power to stop workers on their own farms from organizing for better wages and working conditions. 

On 28 June, the North Carolina General Assembly passed Farm Bill S615 with no debate. The bill aims to stop the progress that farmworkers are achieving by making it illegal for farmers to deduct dues from union members as well as making it more difficult for farmworkers to win union contracts.

The bill would make it illegal for farmworkers to ask growers to sign an agreement with their union as part of settling a lawsuit over wage or labor violations.

US farmworkers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act and other worker protections like minimum wage, child labor, and workers compensation laws, among others.

However, through the efforts of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), farmworkers have won union contracts that include wage increases, job security, and improved working conditions.

This bill aims to roll back this progress.

Please join FLOC and the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF) in calling on North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper to veto the bill. Your message will be sent by email to the Governor and delivered as part of a signed petition.

Click here to show your support for North Carolina's farm workers:

http://www.labourstart.org/go/floc

And please share this message with your friends, family and fellow union members.

Thank you!



Eric Lee