Saturday, August 23, 2014

Jazz great Charlie Haden's radical roots and Mississippi connections

 
(Charlie Haden, 2007. Photo by Geert Vandepoele in Gent, Belgium)

OXFORD, Miss. – I dragged my two young children to Memphis that night back in March 1997 with a promise: “Someday you’ll thank me.”

We went to see one of jazz’s great bassists, Charlie Haden, and his Quartet West. Rachel and Michael had never heard of him and had no interest in jazz, but going they were. Daddy insisted.

French berets, dark glasses, goatees, and black outfits were everywhere among the crowd at the University of Memphis concert hall. After high school and university jazz bands warmed things up, Haden and his group—tenor sax man Ernie Watts, pianist Alan Broadbent, and drummer Larance Marable—walked onto the stage.

“Dad, he’s so normal looking,” 14-year-old Rachel said.

That’s my gal. With just a few words, she went straight to the heart of the matter with Charlie Haden. With his short-cropped hair, thick glasses, clean-shaven, cornfed, Iowa-and-Missouri-bred looks, Haden hardly seemed the revolutionary who helped change jazz forever or the political radical whose “Song for Ché” honoring Che Guevara and liberation movements in Angola and Mozambique got him tossed in a Portuguese jail.

Haden, who died at 76 in July from post-polio syndrome, was what writer David A. Graham described as “the least likely revolutionary” in sax great Ornette Coleman’s quartet when they threw a bomb into the bebop establishment with their album The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959. After all, Haden had started out as little “Cowboy Charlie” with the country music-crooning Haden Family on radio back in the 1940s.

Yet it was Haden’s bass lines that held Coleman’s wild and soaring “free jazz” together and then guided it into the stratosphere. “His firm grounding in the roots seems to have been what enabled him to be such an effective radical,” Graham wrote in his tribute in The Atlantic.

It’s the bass that provides the bottom, the foundation, on which jazz and other roots music stand. A long tradition of great bassists have made jazz what it is. It includes Charles Mingus, who bridged the worlds of big band and bebop, and Vicksburg. Miss., native Milt Hinton, often called the “dean of jazz bass players.” With what record producer Jean-Philippe Allard has called his “huge, deep, dark tone, his perfect intonation and his melodic invention,” Haden is another giant in that tradition.

Haden’s devotion to roots is evident in one of his most evocative albums, Steal Away, with another Vicksburg native, jazz pianist Hank Jones. The duet offer a collection of ageless gospel and spiritual tunes that date back to pre-Civil War times and come out of African American as well as both white and black Protestant traditions.  Legend has it that the title tune was written by Nat Turner, best known for leading a bloody rebellion against slavery in Virginia. Haden also contributed his own “Spiritual”, a tribute to Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers and fellow martyrs Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Haden teamed up with another Mississippian, Jackson native jazz and blues singer Cassandra Wilson, later in his career on Sophisticated Ladies, a collection of torch songs from the 1940s and 1950s. Haden so badly wanted Wilson to do Johnny Mercer’s “My Love and I” for the album that he sang the tune to her on the phone to convince her.

Haden felt a life-long connection to the poor, the marginalized, and their struggles. Polio nearly cost him his voice as a teenager and precipitated his switch from vocals to bass. He saw jazz, like country, as the music of poor people fighting to make their way. His leftist politics were like his music, bold, revolutionary even, but always with an eye on roots, the basics.

The rich body of work he left behind ranged from his renditions of Spanish Civil War songs in his Liberation Music Orchestra album in 1970 to the ultimate film noir soundtrack that is his classic Haunted Heart in 1992. The latter was part of a trilogy devoted to Haden’s longtime home city, Los Angeles, and the noir world there that writer Raymond Chandler captured so well in his novels.
   
On that night in 1997, Haden’s quartet played at least four tunes from Haunted Heart, my favorite of all his records. I remember he would let out a “Whoop!” after a good solo by a fellow musician. It was the same whoop you hear on “Lonely Woman” back in 1959 with Ornette Coleman. On the day after I heard the news of his death, my wife Suzanne and I flew to Los Angeles to visit Rachel, a social worker there. She took us to Vibrato, one of the city’s best jazz clubs, a perfect place to drink a silent toast to one cool cat whose cornfed looks belied the revolutionary fire that was behind them.

(This tribute to Charlie Haden appeared in the Aug. 13-19, 2014, edition of the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss.)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Kellogg Co. workers in Memphis finally back at work--no thanks to Kellogg or CEO John Bryant

 
(To the right, locked-out Kellogg Co. workers in Memphis protesting outside the plant last February. Robert McGowen is on the left.)

Robert McGowen holds no bitter feelings about the 10 months he stood on the highway outside the Kellogg Co. plant in Memphis protesting the company’s lockout of him and 225 other workers because of a disagreement over a union contract.

The 23-year-veteran Kellogg Co. worker is just glad to be back at work. “We cranked it (the plant) up,” McGowen told Labor South. “We are running good cereal. Everybody’s getting along. The supervisors are glad to get us back. Some of us are fourth generation. I am second generation. It is like our kitchen. We can run it better than anyone else.”

The workers are back no thanks to Kellogg Co. CEO and president John Bryant, whose leadership of the company since 2011 has treated the generations-stretching loyalty of workers like McGowan with contempt.

Thanks go to U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays and his recent ruling that the National Labor Relations Board was essentially correct in seeking an injunction against the Battle Creek, Mich.-based cereal maker for serious violations of federal labor law. The company locked out the workers last October when their union, the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers, refused to agree to contract concessions that would cut wages and allow the hiring of new “casual” workers at lower pay. Mays ordered the company to allow the workers to report back to work Monday, August 11. With the order, workers resume getting wages, health insurance and other benefits, which they lost during the long lockout.

Administrative Law Judge Ira Sandron followed Mays’ order a week later with a separate ruling against the NLRB complaint. Kellogg Co. leaders responded by saying they would reconsider plans to bring back the workers.

McGowen said Mays’ ruling ultimately carries more weight than Sandron’s ruling, and he and most of the other workers are indeed back at their jobs. Still, the Memphis Commercial Appeal this week profiled one 38-year-veteran Kellogg worker, Glen Mason, who told the newspaper “I can’t work for that company anymore. I’ve never seen the company stoop so low as it has done this past year.”

An estimated 60 percent of Kellogg workers in Memphis are like Mason: African American. Those workers have filed a claim of racial discrimination against the company with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

McGowen said supervisors at the plant welcomed him and other workers back this week “with a `glad your back’ (and) handshaking. … The supervisors were in turmoil (during the lockout). The supervisors didn’t have anything to do with it.”

Kellogg is a profitable company, reporting an increase in revenue from $14.2 billion in 2012 to $14.8 billion in 2013, plus a profit margin of 24 percent for the quarter ending Dec. 31, 2013. CEO Bryant’s salary is roughly $6.6 million a year.

During the 10-month lockout, workers protested along the roadside outside the plant, often in rain, snow and both cold and hot weather. They went without pay, health insurance, or any assurance that the lockout would ever end. They received widespread support from the community and beyond—although Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton was noticeably quiet during the fray.  Political and religious leaders in the city called for a full-scale national boycott of Kellogg products. Organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Congress on Racial Equality, and Black Congressional Caucus all expressed their support for the locked-out workers. An online petition on their behalf gained thousands of signatures.

McGowen said he’ll never again be able to drive by the protest site outside the plant without thinking about the lockout. “I was on that highway for 10 months. I drove back Monday, drove by that spot. It was all cleaned up, but I’ll never forget it.”

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Labor activist Han Dongfang on the rise of Chinese workers, plus a Kellogg-Memphis update and soon-to-come tribute to jazz great Charlie Haden

 
(Han Dongfang at the Washington, D.C., panel)

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A democratic election by workers at a factory in Guangzhou to select trade union leaders and a promise by the Chinese government to provide better vocation training for migrant workers bring a new perspective to recent comments by Hong Kong-based labor activist Han Dongfang at a panel discussion here. Labor South covered the event.

Han, founder and executive director of the China Labour Bulletin in Hong Kong, said at the one-day “Chinese Labor Movement: Which Way Forward?” panel discussion sponsored by the Albert Shanker Institute that Chinese workers are increasingly asserting their rights and that the Chinese government is responding. He called on workers and activists to push for a “peaceful transfer” that could eventually transform China’s Communist Party into a social democratic party that recognizes and protects worker rights.

“Chinese workers are fighting back,” Han said. “They are no longer the victim. They don’t need sympathy. That makes you feel weak. … If you are afraid of the dark, and the dark knows this, it will be aggressive.”

Han served on the June panel with Human Rights in China Executive Director Sharon Hom and columnist and The American Prospect editor Harold Meyerson.

A correspondent with Radio Free Asia and arguably the most prominent activist for labor rights in China, Han served 22 months in a Chinese prison for his role in founding the Beijing Autonomous Workers Federation at the time of the crackdown at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. After contracting tuberlosis in prison, he was released and spent a year in treatment in the United States. He lost most of a lung as a result and was banned from returning to China and expelled to Hong Kong.

Despite his imprisonment by the Chinese government, Han sees potential for significant change and the promise for more worker freedom in the country. “I’m very politically incorrect,” he said. “I leave the door open for the Communist Party to walk out of its past.”

A “peaceful transfer” would mean that workers “pay less in human life and blood.”

Han pointed to several recent campaigns in China that have proven workers' growing clout. These include a strike by 40,000 workers at Yue Yuen Industrial, global supplier of Adidas, Nike and other shoe brands, in April as well as protests and strikes by workers at the Chinese operations of WalMart, IBM and Pepsi. “Walmart had to bow its head and recognize the union,” Han said.

In Guangzhou in southern China last month workers at the Japanese-owned Sumida electronics factory participated in a groundbreaking democratic election to select union leaders, an important first step toward a true grassroots union. Furthermore, officials at a government State Council executive meeting promised better vocation training and other improved conditions for the nation’s 270 million rural migrants who moved to urban areas to find work.

Han pointed to subtle changes in the language used by the Communist Party at its congresses in recent years that have opened the way to a “collective wage negotiation system.” The government is striving for legitimacy with workers, Han said. The government-sanctioned All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which essentially operates like a company union, “does not know how to collective bargain,” Han said, but it could learn if it became independent from “management control.”

The brightest promise on the horizon is the workers themselves, he said. “Younger workers don’t remember Tiananmen Square or Mao, and they don’t have the fear. … I do think the term democracy can be a part of the future of the Communist Party.”

The others on the panel offered a more cautious view.

“It’s important to put labor rights within the context of human rights,” Sharon Hom said. “Fear doesn’t work any more. The unions are the core in protecting the workers.” Still, she said, “there are major disincentives to give up power. … The corruption is so widespread.”

In a later article for Talking Union, Meyerson said the Communist Party won’t relinquish power easily. “The truism remains true: Power seldom yields without a struggle,” Meyerson wrote, “If the transformation Han seeks ever arrives, it likely will be more wrenching and bloody than the gradualist one he sketched.”

In an interview with Labor South at his Hong Kong office in June 2013, China Labour Bulletin Communications Director Geoffrey Crothall said the Chinese government certainly wants foreign investment and the nation’s economy to continue to grow. At the same time, however, “the government realizes the workers’ demands are perfectly legitimate.”

(To the right, Geoffrey Crothall in the Hong Kong offices of China Labour Bulletin)

Labor South asked both Han and Crothall whether workers’ victories for better wages and conditions in China could eventually lead to a major exodus of foreign-owned companies there.  Both said that the huge industrial infrastructure already in place in China, the growing domestic market there, and simple size of the workforce make this unlikely.

(To the right, Han Dongfang and Labor South writer/editor Joe Atkins)

“A lot of these businesses discover that as soon as you try to relocate to Bangladesh or Cambodia on the basis of cheap labor, that labor is not going to stay cheap very long,” Crothall said.

Ultimately, Crothall said, “if wages in China are going up, that is good for workers in America, good for workers in Europe. That levels the playing field. It also means workers in China are much are more able and likely to buy products made in the United States.”


And back here in the U.S. South, a judge orders Kellogg to bring back Memphis workers

A U.S. District judge this week issued an order to the Kellogg Co. to allow more than 200 workers at its Memphis plant to go back to work and to negotiate contract issues with the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union.

The order from U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays came after a formal complaint from the National Labor Relations Board that the Battle Creek, Mich.-based cereal giant was in serious violation of federal labor law when it locked out 226 Memphis workers last October because of a union contract dispute.

The union opposed company plans to cut wages and benefits as well as hire new “casual” workers at lower pay. The locked-out workers have picketed outside the plant through snow and rain and summer heat since last October.

In another development, union workers in Memphis have filed a claim of racial discrimination in the lockout with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Memphis. The locked-out workers are predominantly African American.

The workers’ picketing won widespread support from the local community and as far away as the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C.

And an upcoming tribute to jazz great Charlie Haden

Expect soon a Labor South tribute to jazz great Charlie Haden, who died at 76 last month. The bassist, one of this writer's favorite musicians, helped change jazz forever when he and the rest of the Ornette Coleman’s quartet recorded The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959. Haden was also revolutionary in his politics and once was thrown in a Portuguese jail for his provocative music, leftist politics, and support of liberation movements in Angola and Mozambique.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Populists and Bourbons fighting again - 21st Century Style - in aftermath of Mississippi's U.S. Senate Republican runoff

 
(A 1904 Populist Party campaign poster for presidential candidate Tom Watson of Georgia)

OXFORD, Miss. – More than a century ago the “forgotten man” of Mississippi and across the South—the farmer, the common worker—decided he’d had enough of “Wall Street speculators who gambled on his crop futures; the railroad owners who evaded his taxes, bought legislatures, and over-charged him with discriminate rates; the manufacturers, who taxed him with a high tariff; the trusts that fleeced him with high prices; the middleman, who stole his profit.”

The forgotten man was so angry, historian C. Vann Woodward goes on to say, that he created a movement. It came as close to toppling our two-party system as any effort in the country’s history.

The parallels between the Populist movement of the 1890s and early 1900s and today’s Tea Party are striking, even though crucial differences also exist.

State Senator Chris McDaniel’s still-contested narrow loss to incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi’s Republican runoff last month exposed a divide with the Republican Party possibly as wide as the divide that ultimately split the one-party Democratic South in the 1890s between the “Bourbon” establishment and the rebellious “Populists”.

Voting in the June 24 runoff even paralleled the Bourbon-Populist split at the turn of the last century. McDaniel won the old Populist stronghold in the Piney Woods region of southeast Mississippi while Cochran secured the Bourbon stronghold of white voters in the Delta.

The ruling Bourbon Democrats who emerged after the Civil War were pro-big business and made sure government stayed friendly to the railroads and other Northern corporations. They fought any regulation or taxes on big business but ignored the needs of the little guy whose hard work made business leaders rich.

The very embodiment of Bourbon politics today is Haley Barbour, the prominent Washington, D.C., lobbyist and former Republican Mississippi governor who helped lead the charge for fellow Bourbon—“Country Club” is the preferred term today--Republican Thad Cochran’s re-election. Barbour’s nephews Henry and Austin worked in Cochran’s campaign, and an FBI investigator isn’t needed to see Haley’s fingerprints on millions that flowed into friend Thad’s campaign.

After all, Barbour’s oft-ballyhooed influence in Washington owes much to Cochran, a former chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. A prime example: the $570 million in federal housing assistance for Hurricane Katrina victims that Cochran helped divert into Barbour’s  “Port of the Future” project in Gulfport, Miss., which is thus far a boondoggle that has failed to deliver the promised jobs.

McDaniel and the Tea Party despise Barbour and his Country Club friends, who they feel are part of the Big Government-Big Business alliance that is responsible for the corporate bailouts of the 2008 recession, the $17 trillion-dollar federal debt, and soft-peddling of the immigration issue. They believe both parties ignore the daily struggles of average Americans.

Tea Partyers’ hands aren’t exactly clean of corporate stain. Billionaire oilmen Charles and David Koch are big backers. So is the anti-union Club for Growth organization, which spent millions on McDaniel’s campaign.

Still, they have a point regarding politics in Washington.

The mainstream Republican Party is essentially a tool of Wall Street and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. What the split Congress can’t deliver, the U.S. Supreme Court’s pro-corporate majority provides.

Tea Partyers see Democrats as practically socialists, but the sad truth is that many national Democrats are as cozy with Wall Street as Republicans. Former President Clinton gave us NAFTA and helped repeal the Glass-Steagall Act that regulated financial services. The presence of Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers and Robert Rubin in Obama’s first-term inner circle proved Wall Street still had a friend in the White House.

Big Corporations “want to be able to play both sides of the aisle,” writes historian Kim Phillips-Fein in the current edition of New Labor Forum, “and they want to be close to power regardless of which party holds Congress and the White House.”

The dilemma in American politics is that Wall Street is amoral, self-interested, and in today’s global economy incapable of allegiance to any nation. “Deep down, all of them know that they do not really care—that their own enrichment matters much more than any collective purpose or common vision,” Phillips-Fein writes.

Tea Partyers know this, but much of their anger is misdirected. Unlike the Populists of the 1890s, they despise organized labor. Their benefactors—the Koch brothers and the Club for Growth—would have it no other way. The old Populists wanted government to serve the people. The Tea Partyers want government to go away.

Led by Georgia politician Tom Watson, the old Populists initially welcomed blacks into their ranks—a rare enlightened moment in the South’s tortured history—but then became bitterly racist when black support turned to the mainstream parties. Jim Crow ultimately made black support irrelevant in the South.

Today’s Tea Partyers are overwhelmingly white, and their downfall may be their inability to accept the nation’s changing demographics. Their obsession with immigration and migrant workers, for example, betrays their failure to see a bigger picture, that brown-skinned and black-skinned folks are not the problem. Tea Partyers are too blind to see it.

Monday, July 14, 2014

UAW Local 42 in Chattanooga latest example of creative organizing in the South

 
The United Auto Workers’ decision last week to move forward with establishing UAW Local 42 for Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tenn., shows the creativity that’s necessary to break through the Southern oligarchy’s locked-arm opposition to organized labor.

The decision came just days before Volkswagen announced that it was adding a new product line to the Chattanooga plant with the aide of state and federal incentive funds. The company is pumping $600 million into its Tennessee operations to build a new SUV plus add a research and development center. The new line and center will bring an estimated 2,200 workers to the plant.

Although workers rejected union representation by 712-626 vote in February, “the election was so close, we don’t feel it’s right to turn our backs on these workers,” UAW Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel told the Tennessean in Nashville.

The UAW decided to forego pursuing a legal challenge of the February election to the National Labor Relations Board despite widespread accounts of anti-union interference by top Republican politicians like Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and organizations like Americans for Tax Reform.

“The UAW knew that withdrawing its objections to February’s tainted election, in consensus with Volkswagen, would expedite the company’s decision on the new product line,” Casteel said in a formal statement. “The fact that the new line is being announced four days after the rollout of UAW Local 42 in Chattanooga reinforces the consensus that the UAW has reached with the company.”

Casteel said “a cornerstone of Volkswagen’s business model” is the Global Groups Works Council that provides employee representation on work-related issues at Volkswagen plants around the world.

In fact, Global Works Council chairman Bernd Osterloh, a strong supporter of union representation at the Chattanooga plant, was recently appointed to the board of directors of Volkswagen's American operations. At one point, Osterloh said he would work to prevent the new SUV line from coming to Chattanooga if workers there didn't get union representation.

Local 42 will not collect dues for the time being, and participation is voluntary. However, the UAW hopes membership will grow to a size that gives it weight in representing workers’ concerns at the plant. No formal agreement exists with Volkswagen regarding the local, but a “consensus” exists that allows the local to work with the company in the future, Casteel said.

This non-traditional approach to worker representation is somewhat similar to other efforts across the South to help those who have no collective voice vis-à-vis management. Examples include the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in North Carolina and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, both of which have won agreements with major corporations despite the fact that farm workers aren’t covered in the National Labor Relations Act.


Friday, July 4, 2014

"Labor rights are civil rights!" declare hundreds of students, civil rights & labor vets, ministers and workers at Nissan's plant in Mississippi


(College students and veteran activists rally for a union election at the Nissan plant in Canton June 27)

CANTON, Miss. – The June 27 pro-union rally by an estimated 400 students, activists, ministers and workers in front of the mile-long Nissan plant here was the perfect culmination of the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary Conference in nearby Jackson.

College students from as far away as New York and Missouri joined with students from historically black schools in the area such as Jackson State University and Tougaloo College to demand that Nissan allow a fair election for the thousands of workers in Canton to decide if they want to join the United Auto Workers.

At the event were legendary civil and labor rights activists like Bob Zellner, still working in the trenches today in Wilson, N.C., prominent actor Danny Glover, veteran labor organizers Bruce Raynor and Richard Bensinger, labor priest Fr. Jeremy Tobin,  political strategist Marshall Ganz, and many more. Of course, the students were central to the event, chanting “Ain’t No Power But The Power Of The People!” and joining Glover in delivering a petition to company security officers at the front gate that declared: “Labor rights are civil rights.”

(To the right, in forefront, veteran labor activists Bruce Raynor, Ray Curry, Tom Savage, Fr. Jeremy Tobin, and Bill Chandler. In the background is the Nissan plant in Canton)

Nissan has strongly resisted efforts to allow a union in its Southern plants although its workers are organized in other countries. Workers in Canton have complained of cutbacks in health care benefits, arbitrary changes in work hours, increased use of temporary workers, and anti-union harassment.

Here are some of the comments and photographs I collected at the event:

“It’s for the people,” said Akilah Fuller, a 19-year-old mathematics major at Jackson State University who is from Detroit. “It’s always good to show support. They’re not alone out here. We’re here to show that they don’t have to be scared.”

(Akilah Fuller and Nathaniel Fuller Jr.)

“It’s for the workers,” agreed her brother Nathaniel Fuller Jr., 19, an engineering major at Jackson State.  A union would “help them have good working conditions.”

Brandon McMillan, 31, a 10-year veteran worker at the Nissan plant in Canton, said he’s hopeful of eventual victory. “I truly believe we have a real good shot. We have to keep a level head. We have a lot of supporters. Fifty years ago this exact same thing happened for civil rights.”

More than 1,000 student volunteers came to Mississippi during "Freedom Summer" 1964 to help bring an end to racial segregation. Among those working for civil rights in the state were Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, who were murdered by racists that summer in Neshoba County, Miss.

(To the right, Nissan-Canton worker Brandon McMillan)

“We’re here because workers have a right to a fair election in the spirit of Christian morality,” Father Tobin said.

The Rev. Isiac Jackson, who chairs the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan (MAFFAN), had this to say to the hundreds gathered in front of the plant: “Nissan is exploiting the workforce of Mississippi with a plantation mentality! Union today! Union tomorrow! Union forever!”

Danny Glover told the crowd workers need a union to give them a united voice and a seat at the table across from management. “We’ve got to organize to get what we want on the table. We need to organize to keep what we’ve got on the table. We’re going to win this! We can’t win it without you! We want a better America, a better Nissan! We’re going to create another Nissan that respects human rights!”
(Danny Glover rallies the crowd. The man with the tie and sunglasses is civil rights-era veteran Bob Zellner)

Among those at the rally was 88-year-old Arthur Duncan of Tchula, Miss., who joined the UAW in 1945 and participated in a 113-day strike at General Motors in Michigan. “With the union, if something happens and it’s not your fault, you have someone to speak for you. If you don’t, you’re out. It’s like having a lawyer to plead your case.”

(To the right is veteran UAW member Arthur Duncan)

Duncan recalled seeing legendary UAW leader Walter Reuther at rallies and meetings many years ago. “I thought the guy was a great man. He was doing things to help people.” As for the current campaign in Canton, Duncan said, “I believe Nissan will come around. Can’t say when.”


Thursday, June 26, 2014

SNCC veterans and young activists testify to workers' rights as civil rights at Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary Conference

 
(To the right, the FBI's "Missing" poster in 1964 for martyred civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwerner) 

JACKSON, Miss. – Larry Rubin, field secretary of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s, figured his time to die had come when a Mississippi law enforcement officer showed up at the door and told him to take a ride with him in his patrol car.

“We all knew we were going to die,” Rubin told a roomful of activists at the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary Conference at Tougaloo College in Jackson Wednesday.

After all, fellow civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney had died at the hands of a band of white racists that included local law enforcement in Neshoba County, Miss. Why not Larry Rubin, a white, Jewish, Antioch College-educated son of a construction worker from Philadelphia, Pa.?

The Mississippi officer took Rubin to a remote spot in the piney woods and stopped the car. Instead of shooting the labor and civil rights activist, however, the officer began asking questions about labor unions and whether they might be able to protect his brother from mistreatment at his blue-collar job. The officer may have been a racist, but ironically he had a sense of the need for workers’ rights against oppressive management, Rubin said.

“That incident changed my life,” Rubin said.

It also raised a key issue at this week’s commemoration of the SNCC-led voter registration drive and other civil rights activism during what became known as Mississippi's “Freedom Summer” in 1964. The fierce opposition those activists faced crystallized with the murders of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney.

As veterans like Rubin meet with today's young activists at the five-day conference, a frequent message being heard at the event is that workers’ rights are at the heart of the movement today. Along with multiple panels and discussions on workers’ rights, a scheduled highlight is a rally Friday by student activists from around the country at Nissan’s giant plant in nearby Canton, where they will demand fair treatment of workers and a fair union election.

A United Auto Workers release said the rally is part of “a growing movement of over 1,000 students from over 60 colleges nationwide (who) are again a major influence on the civil rights struggle today—labor rights for Nissan workers.”

Workers at the plant--its workforce is predominantly African American--have complained of a climate a fear inside its walls and active hostility by management to any prospect of a unionized workforce to address ongoing issues such as wages, benefits and working conditions. Nissan officials insist workers’ best option is what spokesman Travis Parman has called “direct, two-way communication as opposed to involving a third party.”

During a conference panel discussion on "Organizing the South" Wednesday--yours truly was a panelist--speaker after speaker from the audience stressed the importance of blacks, whites, Latinos, and all races working together if a labor movement is to be successful in the South. Workers must look beyond race, gender and other differences to see that the fight for their rights as human beings and workers is what should unite them, the speakers said.

Predominantly black Tougaloo College on Jackson's northern edge, site of the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary Conference, was a hotbed of activism during the Civil Rights Movement.