Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Happy birthday, Stanley Aronowitz, lion of labor intellectuals and activists, plus a few comments about the U.S. health care system

(Stanley Aronowitz in 2007. Photo by David Shankbone)

Stanley Aronowitz, a lion of labor intellectuals who spent years on the front lines as a factory worker and labor organizer before entering academia, celebrated his 86th birthday this week. It’s an event that all who seek betterment in the lives of working people should mark. Perhaps no other labor writer/activist in this country has contributed more to the understanding of our own labor history, how we got to where we are, and where we need to go to revitalize the movement.

Born and bred in New York City, Aronowitz has written eloquently about the need to organize the U.S. South. Calling the region “labor’s Achilles heel,” Aronowitz wrote in his compelling foreword to my 2008 book Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press, that “the South has become, in essence, another country. … Anti-unionism in the South is preserved and protected by measures that resemble the actions of antidemocratic governments in Asia and Latin America more than the ideal that America is the land of a free people. The struggle for Southern labor is perhaps the greatest struggle for democracy in the land.”

In the 2008 Manifesto for a Left Turn: An Open Letter to U.S. Radicals, Aronowitz and a group of leftist writers offered a plea for a workers’ party that finally will end the largely one-sided allegiance labor has given the Democratic Party and become truly a force for workers’ rights. In a detailed, step-by-step outline describing how labor can once again become a social movement, the manifesto calls for a committed radical media that will help encourage a deepened sense of class solidarity, one that dispenses with all the distracting “middle class” mumbo-jumbo politicians and neo-liberalism-embracing “liberals” use to distract us.

As detailed by Aronowitz’s daughter, writer Nona Willis Aronowitz, in her New York Times op-ed piece in December, this lion of labor activists and intellectuals has suffered health problems since having a stroke a few years ago and even with a decent pension has experienced financial strain like many older Americans because of this country’s broken health care system. Her sister, fighting breast cancer, has faced a similar struggle.

Even as a respected and honored intellectual, philosopher, and author of many books, Stanley Aronowitz has always stood with the working class, and their fight has always been his fight.

Speaking of our health care system ...

I’ve had my own experience with this broken system with the recent injury of my stepson in a serious truck accident in Little Rock, Arkansas. Having started a new job just a couple months before with still a few days before his health insurance kicked in, Andy soon found himself not only in a hospital with serious leg and hip injuries but also without a job and then without insurance to pay for his care. His company let him go nine days after the accident. Shortly thereafter, his scheduled departure from the hospital got expedited from weeks to days to one day.

He’s now on Medicaid and staying with his mother and me in Oxford, Mississippi, as he recuperates. The latest struggle is to find him a primary care physician, and so far it’s not easy.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Phil Ochs wanted Mississippi to "find another country to be part of." Now it's the very heart of America

(Phil Ochs in the 1960s)

OXFORD, Miss. – Way back in 1964, the year of “Freedom Summer” and the disappearance and death of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, the “singing journalist” Phil Ochs offered this elegy:

 “Here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
  Mississippi, find yourself another country to be part of”

More recently an anonymous writer who calls himself the “Socialist Wizard” composed and published a new version of Ochs’ classic with President Trump taking Mississippi’s place. In the song, the singer asks that the president find “another country to be part of”—another sign perhaps of what writer Peter Applebome has called “the Americanization of Dixie.”

As 2018 draws to a close, and 2019 looms ahead, Mississippi, as extreme as it has always seemed to many Americans, is indeed a microcosm of the nation. In the 2018 election, Mike Espy, a black Mississippian with impressive credentials as a former congressman and U.S. secretary of agriculture, came closer than any Democrat since 1982 to winning, garnering 46 percent of the vote in a racially divided state.

Still, he lost to Trump devotee Cindy Hyde-Smith, who made her president, gun rights and the evils of abortion and illegal immigration the most important election issues to her white supporters in the nation’s poorest state. No matter that Mississippi already has the nation’s most restrictive laws on abortion, or that illegal immigration is at a 12-year low.

Espy, hardly a wild-eyed radical as a former supporter of Republican Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association, campaigned largely on the need to do something about the state’s (and nation’s) deteriorating health care system.

Nationally, the Democrats took over the U.S. House of Representatives in the elections, but they lost ground in the U.S. Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already indicated he’s once again going after Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid along with the complete dismantling of the Affordable Care Act. The pretext for a renewed assault on Social Security and other popular safety net programs? The U.S. budget deficit, of course! Never mind that McConnell and his fellow Republicans deeply worsened that deficit with the gigantic 2017 tax cut they bestowed on the nation’s richest (and most solidly Republican voting) citizens.

With Democrats in charge of the U.S. House, new momentum in the longstanding investigation into Russian meddling in U.S. political affairs can be expected. Looking beyond just the 2016 election and Trump’s White House, let’s hope investigators will give close scrutiny to K Street lobbyists such as former U.S. senator from Mississippi Trent Lott, who gave up his office to join with his buddy and former Democratic U.S. senator from Louisiana, John Breaux, to form a powerful lobbying team in 2008. Lott and Breaux were principal lobbyists for Gazprombank, a subsidiary of Russia’s biggest natural gas supplier, in 2014, according to journalist Craig Unger’s new book House of Trump, House of Putin.   

Unger goes on to write that Haley Barbour’s lobby firm, Barbour Griffith & Rogers, has been the beneficiary of $2 million in payments from the Russian conglomerate Alfa. These are all part of a wide-ranging network of Russia’s big money influence in Washington, D.C.

These days Trump is rattling his saber at General Motors for the firm’s recent announcement that it was shutting down five plants, four of them in the United States, and cutting 14,000 jobs, all in the wake of Trump’s self-ballyhooed deal to replace NAFTA with a  new, worker-friendly trade deal.

Just days before GM’s announcement, Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn was arrested and soon to be fired in connection with allegations he had dipped into company coffers for his own further enrichment and at the same time underreported his earnings at the company.

Yes, this is the same Carlos Ghosn who bitterly fought workers’ efforts to organize at his plants in Mississippi and Tennessee and who was welcomed in Mississippi as a corporate hero for bringing Nissan’s giant plant to Canton.

Phil Ochs, what would you say to this turn of events? Mississippi, no need to find another country to be part of. You’re very much the heart of this one.

A version of this column will appear as my last regular monthly column for the Jackson Free Press, although I hope still to appear in those pages from time to time. My Labor South blog continues, of course, and I hope to be able to devote more time to it and make it stronger than ever. I’ve been writing a regular column for Mississippi newspapers for 35 years, the last six at the Jackson Free Press, but book writing, teaching and other duties have made it difficult to continue. The column has been a great ride, but I’ll be still firing away in this blog and elsewhere! Best wishes to all for a wonderful Christmas and Happy New Year!

Friday, December 7, 2018

Jazz guitarist Calvin Newborn jumped and flew while his pianist brother Phineas Jr. quietly pondered, and both created magic. A Memphis jazz dynasty comes to an end.

The best thing about Beale Street in Memphis some years back was at the King’s Palace where the great jazz guitarist Calvin Newborn played regularly. He was with organist Charlie Wood’s small band at the time, and he was the highlight with his wry smile and long, mellow, perfect riffs.

Long after Calvin left his native Memphis and moved to Florida, I found a copy of his CD New Born at Shangri-La Records on Madison Avenue. For the next few months, I rarely drove in, around, into or out of Calvin’s city without having “The Streetwalker’s Stroll” or “Spirit Trane/Omnifarious” playing on my car’s CD player. Both tunes had an urban vibe that matched the scenery around me, a uniquely Memphis urban vibe that’s never too far from the same rich Delta soil that has forever fed the city musically.

Calvin died this week at the age of 85 at his home in Jacksonville, Florida. With his passing goes a Memphis jazz dynasty that included his father, bandleader Phineas Newborn Sr., and his brother Phineas Jr., whom jazz critic Leonard Feather once called “the greatest living jazz pianist.”

(To the right, Phineas Newborn Jr.)

Even in death, Calvin remained somewhat in the shadow of his more famous brother. Phineas Jr., whose troubled story was beautifully told in Memphis-based writer Stanley Booth’s classic 2000 book Rythm Oil: A Journey Through the Music of the American South, suffered mental problems his entire life—he had his first nervous breakdown before he turned 30—yet produced music of such surpassing beauty and genius that Count Basie and another Memphis jazz great, bandleader Jimmie Lunceford, became two of his biggest champions. Phineas Jr. and Charles Mingus joined to do the soundtrack for John Cassavetes’ 1959 film Shadows.

Among my vinyl treasures is a copy of Phineas Jr.’s album Solo Piano with its cover depicting the pianist as the Sphinx he truly was in life.

Calvin and Phineas grew up in the working class Orange Mound neighborhood in south Memphis, where “on nearly every block, there’s a reputed crack den covered in gang graffiti, or a few stray bullet holes from a recent drive by shooting,” writes Andria Lisle in the liner notes to New Born. “In the summer time, the kids play outside, but not too far from their own doorsteps.”

Their father was a famous bandleader who would hang out with traveling musician friends like Count Basie and Jimmie Lunceford when they came through town. When the boys got old enough, they’d play in their father’s band at Plantation Inn in West Memphis, where whites went to party at night. Then they’d cross the river back into Memphis and go to Mitchell’s on Beale Street, where they’d jam into the early morning.

Phineas Jr. was a year older than Calvin, and the two boys were as different as night and day in many ways. Phineas Jr. was quiet, cerebral, withdrawn, all he wanted to do was sit at the piano and play, play, play. Calvin was like his grandfather, who played electric guitar at the Church of God in Christ and jumped around the altar shouting the glory of God to the hand-clapping, foot-stomping congregation. Memphis writer Robert Gordon tells the story through the eyes of the boys’ mother, Mama Rose, in his recent book Memphis Rent Party.

“That’s why Calvin’s got to move,” she said about her youngest son, who never knew his grandfather. “It was just in ‘em both to move! And it was in their daddy and me, too. I used to dance and play the piano, played organ at church. Just music lovers.”

Calvin was the extrovert all right, full of antics and jumping high on stage. “I was about six feet in the air, playing the guitar” he told Robert Gordon.

Phineas Jr. just sat at his piano, the Sphinx weaving beautiful melodies or bebop magic with his gliding, sliding, jumping fingers, letting those fingers do the acting up.

By the time I got to Memphis and saw Calvin, he had slowed down a bit, no longer jumping six feet high, calm in his chair, watching his fingers glide and slide up and down the neck of his guitar. Still, he’d glance up at the audience from time to time, a little grin on his face, a glint in his eye that told you he was still his own man, and he still might jump if he had a mind to.  

Monday, November 19, 2018

Union buster Carlos Ghosn is gone as Nissan chairman, accused of dipping into company coffers for his own enrichment and understating his earnings at the company

(Carlos Ghosn in 2009)

Japanese authorizes places Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn under arrest today (November 19) for claims that he dipped into the company till to enrich his already handsome earnings and that he has been lowballing the amount of those earnings for years.

The Reuters news agency reports that the Nissan Board will fire Ghosn this week, and his chairmanship and status as CEO of partner firm Renault is in question as French President Emmanuel Macron said the company’s top shareholders, the French government, is monitoring developments closely.

“To have so greatly violated the trust of many, I feel full of disappointment and regret,” Hiroto Saikawa, who took over from Ghosn as Nissan CEO last year, said at a news conference. “”It’s not just disappointment, but a stronger feeling of outrage and, for me, despondency.”

Saikaway had worked closely with Ghosn for years.

Nissan Representative Director Greg Kelly has also been accused of financial misdeeds.

Ghosn's earnings at the company were estimated at $10 million annually in late 2017, and his total worth was estimated at $100 million. Nissan is a $38.4 billion company that received a $363 million incentives package from the nation's poorest state, Mississippi, in 2000 to build a plant there. Those incentives have increased substantially since 2000, according to the United Auto Workers. In 1980, the state of Tennessee gave Nissan $44 million in incentives to build a plant in Smyrna, Tennessee.

Both Nissan and Renault stock values have dropped as the business world reels from the news about one of its most public and highly esteemed figures.

Labor South readers know Carlos Ghosn’s name well as he led Nissan through long years of union battles at the company’s plants in Tennessee and Mississippi, the only non-unionized plants in a corporation that stretches across the globe. Ghosn fought those union efforts tooth and nail although he told the French Parliament in 2016 that Nissan always cooperates with unions.

In 2001, however, he famously (infamously, I should say) warned Nissan workers in Smyrna the day before a union election there that voting “Yes” to a union “is not in your best interests.” They got the message and voted “No”, just as they did at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, in August 2017. That vote came after intense pressure from Nissan management to keep the union out, pressure that included direct violations of international labor standards, according to a 2013 report commissioned by the United Auto Workers.

Ghosn actually rose to fame in the corporate world by slashing so many jobs that he became known in France as “le cost killer”.

Born to Lebanese parents in Brazil and a French citizen as well as a British knight, Ghosn is a comic-book hero in Japan who formerly oversaw the North American operations of the Michelin tire company. Operating out of Greenville, South Carolina, Ghosn’s Michelin successfully prevented the documentary Uprising of ’34 from being shown at the Spartanburg Technical College in 1995. The landmark documentary dealt with the killing of seven striking textile workers in nearby Honea Path, South Carolina, in 1934.

Friday, November 9, 2018

U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy could make history in Mississippi's Nov. 27 runoff but he faces an uphill battle

(To the right, U.S. Senate candidate and former Mississippi Congressman and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy)

OXFORD, Miss. - I covered Mike Espy during his historic winning bid in 1986 to become Mississippi’s first black congressman since Reconstruction, and I covered him in Washington, D.C., during the first two of his three terms in Congress. He was a young fellow still in his thirties then with a practical, moderate brand of politics that enabled him to keep winning in a predominately black-but-still largely white dominated district.

Espy was different from his successor, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, another Democrat but more the firebrand. Knowing he was less able to reach across the aisle than Espy, Thompson helped negotiate the redistricting of Mississippi’s “Delta” district, extending its border farther south to give black voters a sure majority and in the meantime siphon those votes away from neighboring districts and making them more white.

While serving as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Clinton, Espy began a four-year battle against allegations that he had taken gifts from companies he was regulating as secretary. He could have pleaded a deal, but he fought for his innocence and he won. The legal battle cost taxpayers $26 million and $1.3 million out of Espy’s own pocket and from the pockets of his friends. “The political experience was searing for me,” Espy recently told the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi.

After 24-year hiatus from politics, during which time he practiced law, remarried, and rebuilt his life, Espy is back in the fray, running for the seat vacated by U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, a Republican who retired in March after a nearly 40-year career in the Senate. On Tuesday, Espy carried 41 percent of the vote, enough to face Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith in a runoff November 27. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith to fill Cochran’s seat after he retired.

Espy comes out of the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party and is no raging liberal. He won an award from the NRA in 1988, although he now says “I didn’t leave the NRA, the NRA left me” and laments the organization’s turn to the “really right wing.” Labor organizers still bristle at Espy’s silence during the historic catfish workers strike in the Mississippi Delta in 1990. Espy supporters say he was working on behalf of the strikers behind the scene, but critics wonder whether he simply didn’t want to alienate wealthy Delta benefactors.

In 2007, he endorsed Republican Haley Barbour's bid for a second term as Mississippi governor.

However, in this election, he has campaigned vigorously on behalf of better health care for Mississippians and raged against the closing of rural hospitals that came from Bryant’s opposition to Obamacare and refusal to expand Medicaid. Mississippi is in desperate straits these days after years of Republican rule, the poorest state in the nation with the most threadbare of safety nets for its poor and a political leadership that largely could care less.

Democrats took back the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday but lost ground in the U.S. Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is already stirring the pot for another Republican-led assault on Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, and using the growing deficit caused by the Republican-sponsored tax cut to the wealthy as an excuse. The Senate needs Espy, but he faces an uphill battle on November 27.

In the November 6 primary, Republicans split their vote between the establishment candidate, Hyde-Smith, and Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel. President Trump, a Tea Party hero, gave his endorsement to Hyde-Smith, which McDaniel says doomed his candidacy. Still, McDaniel is urging his voters to support Hyde-Smith, saying loyalty to the president is necessary even when it means voting for an “establishment” candidate.

Hyde-Smith, a former Mississippi commissioner of agriculture, has raised some $3 million for her campaign, and Espy’s campaign chest is around $2 million. Expect a lot of frenzied activity in both camps over the next two weeks. After initial resistance, Hyde-Smith has agreed to debate Espy. Either way, the race is historic with the opportunity for Mississippi to have either its first female elected U.S. senator or its first elected black U.S. senator since Reconstruction.

Let’s hope history is made in a way that Mississippi needs it to be made.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Trump replaces a rotten deal--NAFTA--with a new trade deal but is it a good deal?

(Bill Mauldin)

OXFORD, Miss. – When the great World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin returned from Europe in 1945, he saw a dark side to the great citadel of democracy he’d been defending. He found an America riddled with fast-talking shysters, scam artists, religious zealots and big talking politicians who loved to pat the backs of the veteran and working stiff but did little or nothing for them.

“Demagogues have winning ways, especially with the man who has no one else to whom he can turn in his troubles,” Mauldin wrote in the 1947 book Back Home.

Mauldin, creator of the scraggly bearded, foxhole-digging infantrymen Willie and Joe in his Stars and Stripes cartoons, would have a field day with Donald Trump, another demagogue who talks the talk but rarely walks the walk.

On first inspection, Trump seems to have indeed walked the walk with the recent new trade deal that replaces NAFTA with the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Under the agreement, a significant percentage of a newly manufactured automobile—estimates range from 30 to 45 percent—must be made by workers earning no less than $16 an hour.

Furthermore, 75 percent—compared to NAFTA’s 62.5 percent—of the parts in that automobile must be made in the three-nation region.

The new deal also partially eliminates the odious Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) process that allowed a corporation to sue a government if it imposes discriminatory regulations that inhibit that corporation’s profits. ISDS has been scratched between the United States and Canada, but not between the United States and Mexico.

NAFTA was a rotten deal from the minute President Clinton signed it into law in 1994. Within three years, it had cost the United States 100,000 jobs, a toll that would rise to 1 million by 2005, most of them in manufacturing. The U.S. textile industry dissolved as companies packed up and moved to the sweatshops of Mexico and the Far East. At one point, Mississippi, the nation’s poorest state, ranked third among states hardest hit by NAFTA.

Between January and August 1997, nine garment plants here in Mississippi shut down, including Carhartt in Drew, Sunsport Apparel in Lena, Active Sportswear in Kosciusko, Action Apparel in Starkville. In August 1997 nearly 900 workers at MagneTek in Mendenhall learned their plant was moving to Mexico.

The fact that your town—wherever it is—now has a Latino community can be traced at least in part to NAFTA, which tripled U.S. corn exports to Mexico and forced countless farmers there north to support their families.

Only a corporate-schmoozing Democrat like Bill Clinton could have pushed through NAFTA in those days—a Republican president could have never secured the Democratic votes—and he did it by promising protections for U.S. workers, a promise never delivered.

So is Trump a hero for what he calls “the most important trade deal we’ve ever made”? He reminds me of those old Mississippi pols James K. Vardaman and Theodore Bilbo, who pushed for increased funding for schools and hospitals, prison reform, and free textbooks for indigent children yet poisoned their speeches with such vile and odious racism that that’s all we remember.

When Trump came to Southaven this month, he bragged how his Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency “grabs (undocumented immigrants) by the neck, and they throw them the hell out of our country, or they throw them into jail.” Never mind that many of those immigrants are the victims of the same NAFTA deal he claims to despise.

Trump’s new trade deal—which still needs congressional approval--also incudes a huge boost to Big Pharma and agrochemical giants like Monsanto, which will get to keep patents on drugs, seeds, and pesticides a decade or more, driving prices further up, and to Big Oil & Gas by encouraging environmentally destructive fracking practices. Even the wage promise to autoworkers may be a double-edged sword as U.S. autoworkers average $22 an hour. Will there be pressure to bring those wages closer to $16?

Like Mauldin wrote 71 years ago, the man and woman who have no one else to turn to are vulnerable to demagogues. A Democrat sold them down the river back in 1994, and now a Republican claims he’s their savior.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

CoreCivic's private prison in the Mississippi Delta may now be housing hundreds of asylum seekers who've committed no crime

(The Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi)

OXFORD, Miss. – Father Walter J. Ciszek’s only crime was to minister to laborers in a remote Ural Mountains village, but it was 1941 and the American-born priest soon found himself swept into the Soviet Gulag, where he would spend the next two decades.

“I could not overcome the shock occasioned by the total loss of freedom and the sense of complete control held by someone else over my every action, my every liberty, my every need,” Ciszek would later write. “People could disappear into those prisons and never be heard of again.”

The world’s largest gulag today is in the United States, where a quarter of the world’s prison population is behind bars, and Mississippi is at the heart of that gulag with the nation’s fifth highest incarceration rate.   

Although the state has reduced its prison population in recent years, new arrivals from as far away as India and Nepal may reverse that trend, and what’s more, many of these new arrivals have committed no crime.

The epicenter of this new trend appears to be the for-profit, CoreCivic-owned Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in the Delta town of Tutwiler. The U.S. Marshals Service this summer contracted to send 1,350 federal inmates to the 2,672-bed prison, and sources say hundreds of asylum seekers are also being housed there.

Like Father Ciszek, asylum seekers have committed no crime. They came to the United States believing the words on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty and seeking refuge from either gut-wrenching poverty or the violence and corruption of drug cartels and dictatorships in their homeland.

“These are people who spent their last dime to get here, probably being picked up God knows where,” says Lisa Graybill of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. “Asylum seekers don’t know what rights they have.”

I contacted the prison, CoreCivic, and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and none of them is willing to break down the numbers or provide specifics on what is going on inside the prison walls. Many of the detainees or inmates may be undocumented migrants. At least some have come from prisons in other states like South Carolina.

President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy on undocumented migrants has been a boon to the private prison industry, in this writer’s mind an abomination that turns the judicial system into a profit-seeking enterprise.

The month that the U.S. Marshals Service announced its plans for the Tutwiler facility, CoreCivic’s stock rose 3.5 percent. One of the nation’s largest private prison companies, CoreCivic, like the industry as a whole, benefits not only from government largesse but also from the financial backing of major banks like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

CoreCivic, by the way, was a financial contributor to Trump’s inauguration.

Asylum seekers are supposed to be given a court hearing and vetted in a process that shouldn’t take longer than a month. However, CoreCivic and ICE won’t confirm or deny their presence, much less their length of stay, their access to family and legal counsel, the scheduling of hearings.

If the past is prelude to the future, the situation must be scary for anyone behind the walls of the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility.

“The Tutwiler facility has a sordid record,” says Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance.

Indeed, it was the scene of a violent riot in 2004 in which inmates set fire to a portable toilet, clothing and mattresses. Another CoreCivic facility, the Adams County Correctional Center, was the scene of an inmate riot in 2012 with inmates taking guards hostage. One correctional officer died in the incident.

So, you tired, poor, “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and who’ve just arrived at Tutwiler, welcome to Mississippi.

This column appears in the current edition of the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Mississippi.