Thursday, November 12, 2015

Tav Falco: expatriate torchbearer of Memphis music, the artist as outsider with a clear view of what's inside

(To the left, Tav Falco with yours truly in Memphis)

 MEMPHIS – Tav Falco, enfant terrible of the 1980s, still the provocateur and “psychobilly” master, walked onto the stage at Lafayette’s Music Room here, dressed in black, his hair a Nuevo-‘50s coif, picked up his guitar and let loose.

I listened from the balcony to an indictment of ethnic arrogance.
These people don’t look like us—they don’t smell like us
We are the masters of their miserable fate
For mercy they get down on their knees to pray
But we’re superior in every way—they’re insects in every way
It's doomsday baby

Falco was the Antonin Artaud of the Memphis punk and post-punk scene who in his first performance in the late 1970s took a chainsaw to his guitar and sliced it into pieces before passing out on stage. But no longer must he bear insults such as when local TV host Marge Thrasher told him his band Panther Burns’ just-finished gonzo performance of Johnny Burnett’s “The Train Kept A Rollin’” “may be the worst sound I’ve heard come out on television.”

Falco’s live-TV response to her insult was Tom Waits-precious: “Well, the best of the worst is what we’re after.”

(To the right, Tav Falco performing in Mempis)

 “The artist, he is never really on the inside,” the Arkansas native told me in one of two recent telephone interviews he gave me while on his just-ended cross-country tour, a tour that included stops in Clarksdale as well as Memphis. “He can see what is happening on the inside, but he moves around on the outside. … He’s never quite assimilated.”

Falco today is an expatriate living in Vienna, Austria, another river town, a Memphis-like outpost on the Danube River where money and profits “are not the defining criteria” of the artist.

Even when Falco was living in Memphis and performing with legends like Jim Dickinson and Big Star leader Alex Chilton, he stood apart, a “torchbearer” of the city’s music at its post-Sun and post-Stax nadir yet bringing to it what writer Robert Gordon called “country blues … with a punk aesthetic.”

He named his band Panther Burns after the Mississippi Delta town, which got its name from a troublesome panther whose ungodly shrieks after being caught and burned alive are still supposed to haunt the nights there. The band played everything from rockabilly to tango.

“As far as punk aesthetic, I never ascribed to that,” Falco told me. “I am just a working artist. I don’t ascribe to these labels. I use the term rock ‘n’ roll to cover a broad spectrum.”

Along with his “Whistle Blower” tour, Falco has just released a new album, Tav Falco: Command Performance, and a new book of his early black-and-white photographs, An Iconography of Chance: 99 Photographs of the Evanescent South. Some of these photographs also appeared in Falco’s monumental 2011 book, Ghosts Behind The Sun: Splendor, Enigma & Death, a surreal history of Memphis in which Falco, as alter-ego Eugene Baffle, travels through time alongside figures as diverse as General Nathan Bedford Forrest and Machine Gun Kelly.

A noted filmmaker and actor as well as musician, photographer and author, Falco acknowledged his art has taken on a new edge, overtly socially conscious and acutely aware of injustices both here and abroad. “I’m all for art for art’s sake, but there comes a point where the artist, the rank-and-file artist citizen, can no longer remain silent, because silence is complicity.”

On his new album, the song “Whistle Blower” warns of a creeping fascism in American society where figures like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning are hounded and punished for revealing the dark underbelly of the nation’s politics and policies. Another song, “Doomsday Baby”, is a broadside against Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians.

Falco said he’d like to return home someday but things stand in the way. “Arkansas is so crazy, so benighted and so fascist, I find it difficult to entertain that idea,” he said. “Arkansas used to be a marvelous place to live.”
Yet in some ways he has never left. Along with its protest songs, Tav Falco: Command Performance also includes paeans to Memphis and Southern music: Memphis Minnie’s “Me and My Chauffeur Blues”, Alex Chilton’s “Bangkok” and Charlie Feathers’ “Jungle Fever”. And his book of photographs, the first in a planned series of three, pays homage to an “evanescent South” that is always with him.

“There is a landscape that draws people … a social fabric,” he said.

He remembers his first trip from backwoods Arkansas to the big city of Memphis and hearing blues musicians such as the Memphis Jug Band, Napoleon Strickland, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Bukka White. “I was enthralled. … I saw how they mesmerized the audience and how the ladies and gentleman were throwing silver dollars at them.”

It’s not something an artist easily forgets.

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

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Labor needs an old-time revival in the South with preachers shouting a new gospel that champions working folks!

(To the right, a 1930s strike banner on display at the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, Ark.) 

I’ve long preached about the need for labor and progressives in general who want to win over the South to tap into a Southern tradition that doesn’t get much attention but which is every bit as real as those other, darker traditions that have held the region back much of its history. I’m talking about populism, real populism, not the faux kind pushed today by Fox News, but a rock-ribbed belief that blue-collar, small farmer, black and white and brown Southerners deserve their seat at the table and a voice in their lives.

You saw that tradition in Myrtle Lawrence, a white, uneducated, snuff-dipping sharecropper who became one of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union’s best organizers in the 1930s. She was a major force in rallying the poorest of the South’s poor to demand their rights as human beings, and to do it  she had to withstand the condescending snickering of white Northern liberals and Southern black activists as well as the threats of landowners and right-wing politicians.

Today, most Democrats are too weak-kneed and compromised to reach out to modern-day Myrtle Lawrences who might help turn around the region that spawned the poisonous Tea Party movement that is pushing the Republican Party even further to the right.

“Democrats should demand that Tea Party rebels explain why they are in league with a party that intends to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security in order to finance more tax cuts for billionaires,” William Greider writes in the latest edition of The Nation. “If common folks ever understand the corrupt nature of the Republican coalition, we will see a popular rebellion that makes the present chaos look like, well, a tea party.”

The depth of that corruption can be seen in the current series running in the New York Times, “A `Privatization’ Of the Justice System’”, that details how corporations have sidetracked the nation’s judicial system into corporate-friendly arbitration in handling consumer and employee lawsuits and complaints.

“All it took was adding simple arbitration clauses to contracts that most employees and consumers do not even read,” reporters Jessica Silver Greenberg and Michael Corkery wrote. “Yet at stake are claims of medical malpractice, sexual harassment, hate crimes, discrimination, theft, fraud, elder abuse and wrongful death.”

The Democratic Party’s long record of cuddling up to labor during campaigns and generally ignoring it after the election shows that working people—whether in the South or beyond—cannot rely on mainstream political parties. A viable labor movement would do more than anything else to bring about real revolutionary change.

Labor organizer Tefere Gebre told Facing South’s Chris Kromm recently that organizing the South is crucial to labor’s future and to the region itself. “The South has become a dumping ground for the global multinationals. As Americans we feel offended that multinationals are seeking the South for cheap labor and unregulated labor and profiteering when they come and set up here.”

Gebre talked about a new focus by organized labor on major Southern cities like Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Orlando and Miami. All well and good, but more will be needed. The soul of the South has never been in its major cities. It’s out in the country and in the small towns and medium-sized cities. Labor and other  progressive groups have to reach the South’s soul.

Myrtle Lawrence and the STFU did. Their meetings “had come to resemble a southern evangelical revival more than a labor organization,” historian Elizabeth Anne Payne has written. “Women … gave testimony about the power of the STFU in Holiness style, witnessing that the Holy Spirit could instantly transform lives through the union.”

A revival. That’s what labor needs, and so does the South. Good preachers, too, and a gospel that champions regular working folks of all races and stands up to the dark, old, bankrupt traditions and ideas and their hypocrite apologists.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Labor South Roundup: Pols on the stump at an old-time political rally in rural Mississippi; Punk artist Tav Falco returns to Memphis: Guitarist Jimmie Vaughan makes every lick count at the "King Biscuit" blues festival in Helena, Ark.

(To the left, at Johnny Morgan's "Good Ole Boys and Gals" political rally in rural Mississippi)

A cultural excursion into the Deep South – Pols on the hustings at an old-time political rally in rural Mississippi; punk rocker-photographer-poet-filmmaker Tav Falco returns to Memphis; and Jimmie Vaughan channels Jimmy Reed at the Helena, Ark., “King Biscuit” blues festival

At the “Good Ole Boys and Gals” political rally in rural Lafayette County, Miss.

A couple hundred state and local courthouse pols gathered to give and hear stump speeches, sip bourbon and munch on barbecue chicken at Lafayette County Supervisor Johnny Morgan’s “Good Ole Boys and Gals” political rally near Oxford, Miss., Wednesday night.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, up for re-election this year, told everyone how good he’d been for the Magnolia state over the past four years. Incumbents and challengers took turns bashing President Obama while the occasional brave soul called for an expansion of Medicaid and more spending on public education.

Morgan, a veteran politician and former state legislator, is chief organizer of the event, which takes place several times a year and always draws a large crowd. Peanuts, hoop cheese, delicious barbecue chicken, and a generous bar add to the festivities.

 Tav Falco returns to Memphis

(To the right, Tav Falco and Panther Burns performing in Memphis)

Tav Falco, a controversial, sometimes polarizing multi-media artist who burst onto the Memphis music and art scene with his band Panther Burns in the late 1970s, returned to his old stomping grounds last week with a performance with his band at Lafayette’s Music Room in the city’s Overton Square district.

Falco has been living in Europe—earlier Paris and now Vienna—for many years, and he included songs in French, a tango, as well as cuts from his new CD “Tav Falco Command Performance” for the crowd.

The CD is a paean to Memphis in some ways with renditions of rockabilly master Charlie Feathers’ “Jungle Fever”, Big Star leader Alex Chilton’s “Bangkok”, blues meister Memphis Minnie’s “Me and My Chauffeur Blues”. Also included is Falco’s own sharply political “Whistle Blower” with its warning against growing American-style fascism.

Falco also has a newly published book of his photography, An Iconography of Chance: 99 Photographs of the Evanescent South, that is getting attention here and in Europe. In a telephone interview this week, Falco said the book is the first of three that will include his photography. It features photographs he took of the South decades ago.

“There is a landscape that draws people, photographers, a social fabric,” Falco said about the South. “This is the area I grew up in, pictures of my formation, my aesthetic. An artist works with what is at hand. I think it is important where an artist works and lives.”

The next book in the series will “reflect a more international view,” he said.

Falco’s art—whether photographs, music, books or film--today reflects a continuing commitment to his own aesthetic, as described in his strange, fascinating, monumental 2011 book, Ghosts Behind The Sun: Splendor, Enigma & Death, volume one in a two-part series called Mondo Memphis:

“The image of the artist or musician as alchemist is utterly fascinating. Music—an unseen force—magic, the occult, and alchemy all seem to be interconnected. … The first thing I do when I go onstage is to cast a spell.”

Jimmie Vaughan at the Helena, Ark., “King Biscuit” blues festival

(Jimmie Vaughan in Helena, Ark.)

Veteran guitarist Jimmie Vaughan may offer a less complicated “aesthetic” to his music, but he is no less compelling. Brother of the late guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan is a master of simplicity with his playing. Each note says something, each lick lean and mean, never showing off, just what’s needed to send a message. In jazz terms, Jimmie is Miles Davis to his brother’s Charlie Parker.

Performing with long-term sidekick vocalist Lou Ann Barton, Vaughan offered a wide range of his music over the past several decades, tipping his hat to his late brother in his classic homage to dead-and-gone blues singers, “Six Strings Down”. He also played songs by greats such as Jimmy Reed, another preacher of the gospel of “simplicity” in music. “Who doesn’t love Jimmy Reed?” he asked the crowd. They shouted back an affirmation.

(To the right, a bluesman on Helena's Cherry Street during the "King Biscuit" blues festival)

Vaughan was the headliner of this month's blues festival, located in the heart of downtown Helena, Ark., where Sonny Payne’s famous “King Biscuit” radio show featured Sonny Boy Williamson and other blues great as far back as the 1940s.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Flag-waving Southern secessionists square off against anti-Rebel flag University of Mississippi students

Within minutes of a rally today by University of Mississippi students calling on the university to take down the state flag with its Confederate emblem, a group of Southern secessionists marched onto the scene waving giant Confederate battle flags and a sign calling on the South to "SECEDE".

A racially mixed crowd of 100 or so students and faculty had gathered by the pole carrying the state flag on the campus "Circle" to protest that last-remaining state flag that still includes a Confederate battle flag as part of the design. "Take it down! Take it down!" they chanted. The Circle is immediately in front of the university's historic Lyceum, site of the most intense shooting and rioting when James Meredith was enrolled as the university's first black student in 1962.

(To the right, the state flag flying on the campus "Circle" at the University of Mississippi)

As the rally began to come to a close, a small group of Confederate flag-waving whites--children as well as adults--marched onto the scene. Campus police came quickly to the scene as students from the rally began to shout at the group.

"Are you a racist?" one asked.

"Absolutely," said one of the flag-bearers, whose sign also indicated that he was a member of the Killen, Alabama-based League of the South, a Southern secessionist organization.

(University of Mississippi students and faculty calling for the university to stop flying the state flag on campus)

Other members of the group wore T-shirts with the sign "International Keystone Knights".

"You are leftist commies," a group member shouted at the students.

"Can you spell communism?" a student fired back.

"We are the blood of conquerers," another group member responded.

On the League of the South Web site today, group member Jeremy Walls filed a report of the incident and said this:

"I knew immediately there would be some problems with the crowd. Plenty of self-loathing whites were present along with the usual smattering of minorities. I couldn't help but wonder how many of these kids were from out of State and how many were residents. ... We are indeed being watched by the Marxist forces in the area. ... One thing is clear: Marxism is alive in Mississippi. We have much work to do here if we hope to hold the line in our fight for our ancestral homeland."

The choice of the University of Mississippi campus for today's confrontation is no accident. No university in the South was burdened by more Confederate symbolism after the Dixiecrat revolt of 1948 than "Ole Miss". In fact, the vice presidential candidate on the Dixiecrat ticket that year was Mississippi Gov. Fielding Wright. The university has struggled in recent decades to divest itself of that symbolism, but never without intense protest.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Southern working-class folks have a reason to feel rebellious - they're just waving the wrong flag to show it

(To the right, Benny Wint)

MARSHALL, N.C. – Benny Wint grew up as one of the few whites in a black neighborhood of a small South Carolina town. Today, if customers come into his roadside stand with a racist attitude, he wants them to leave.

Yet what Wint sells at his roadside stand are Confederate flags--all kinds, from the traditional Beauregard battle flag to a Southern Cross with purple bars on a yellow background. He says he has black and Mexican customers as well as white.

“The Confederate flag means freedom, the right to do what you want to do,” says the 56-year-old, who has been selling the flags for nine years. “The right to do what you want to do is something you can’t do in this country any more.”

(Benny Wint's roadside stand near Marshall, N.C.)

What the flag evokes for many African Americans is the image of 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, gun in one hand, Confederate flag in the other, in a photograph taken before he allegedly walked into an historic black church in Charleston, S.C., and killed nine people. What they see in that flag are Klan rallies, Jim Crow and slavery.

“The Confederacy and what it stands for is treason,” said Charles Steele Jr., who heads the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta.

More than likely, a Wint ancestor fought under that flag in a war that killed more than 600,000 soldiers—a toll equivalent to 6 million with today’s population. One out of every four white Southern males between 16 and 45 years of age was either killed or disabled in the Civil War.

Southern apologists have long claimed that the war was about states’ rights, union aggression, trade disputes. The great abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass would have none of it. “The very stomach of this rebellion is the negro in the form of a slave.”

Yet most of those white Southerners on the frontlines of the Civil War owned no slaves. In fact, the 1862 Confederate Conscription Act exempted well-to-do slave owners from serving in the military.  Southern dissension against the war was much more prevalent than so-called Southern heritage groups would have you believe.

This “is a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight,” North Carolina’s Civil War governor, Zebulon Vance, said. “The great popular heart is not now and never has been in this war. It was a revolution of the politicians and not the people.”

Yet the people fought that war to preserve slavery, the human property of the South’s rich elite. And they kept waving the war’s flag as Jim Crow loomed over the land, subjugating blacks once again and even many poor whites who also couldn’t afford the poll taxes levied to restrict voting.

Working-class white Southerners waved that Confederate flag into the 21st century while the successors of the Southern ante-bellum elite mouthed “Southern virtue” and kept the region the nation’s poorest.

The flag “is a sign of defiance, a sign of pride, a declaration of a geographical area that you’re proud to be from,” country singer Charlie Daniels has said.

Daniels is one of many Confederate flag-waving Southern musicians-- David Allan Coe, Hank Williams Jr., Lynyrd Skynyrd--whose music embodies a spirit of rebellion from the corporate norm in Nashville or New York.

I remember going to a concert by the ground-breaking rock group Buffalo Springfield in North Carolina in the mid-1960s. Fans yelled uproariously when the concert began with the unveiling of a giant Confederate flag across the back of the stage. However, those same fans then walked out in droves when Neil Young and other band members ventured into the long, mind-bending guitar riffs that foretold of the music that would later come from Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa.

Like many blacks, working-class Southern whites feel alienated from much of U.S. society. Their wages stagnated while the earnings of the top 1 percent went through the roof. They’re fed Fox News’ race-tinged, anti-Obama, anti-Obamacare pablum 24 hours a day, yet the politicians Fox News pushes aren’t putting food on the table or gas in the car.

Unlike struggling blacks, working-class Southern whites don’t have a natural support base among Northern—or Southern—liberals or the Democratic Party, which today is nearly as dependent on corporate funding as the Republican Party and which has eschewed the working class in favor of identity politics.

They’ve got a right to feel rebellious. The problem is they’re waving the wrong flag to show it.

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

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Pope Francis praises radical Catholic journalist Dorothy Day for taking up the "cause of the oppressed"

(Dorothy Day in 1934)

Pope Francis' visit to the United States has reinvigorated debate about the excesses of capitalism in the world's most capitalistic nation, the threats those excesses pose to workers, the poor, the marginalized, and the environment itself. In his historic speech to Congress last week, the Pope cited the examples of several Americans who've pointed the way toward a more humane country that values social justice and not just free enterprise. One of those Americans was the radical Catholic journalist Dorothy Day, whose work has been discussed in Labor South on several occasions. 

"A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did," the Pope told Congress, "when it fosters a culture which enables people to dream of full rights for all their brothers and sisters as Martin Luther King sought to do, when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton."

(To the right, Pope Francis, photo by Korean Culture and Information Service)

Below is a 2011 Labor South review of the most recent of several biographies of this amazing woman, whose life was a testament to commitment to social justice:

I didn’t waste much time when I learned that a new biography of Dorothy Day had been published. I had to order it, of course, since books by or about Day seem never to find themselves to the shelves of your local corner bookstore.

At last it arrived, All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day, by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books, and even though I’ve read and studied her life many times, I’ve now learned that there was so much I didn’t know about this enigma in American literature and social consciousness.

Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, social activist, newspaper editor and writer, author of the classic autobiography The Long Loneliness, and resurrectionist of the grand-but-almost-forgotten tradition of Catholic social teaching, is a haunting, even troubling figure in modern-day America.

Few have stood farther to the Left on many social issues—from labor rights to civil rights—or bore as many bona fide credentials—from her jailing as an card-carrying IWW Wobbly and suspected revolutionary during the original Red Scare at the end of World War I1 to marches with United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez and with civil rights leaders in the segregated South in the 1960s.

Yet her Christian faith was unwavering, a faith that embodied both a clear-eyed look at the cold realities of this earthly life and a mystical union with the crucified Son of Man and the church he entrusted to his disciple Peter.

Forest, an old hand at the Catholic Worker and friend of Day, captures this dichotomy well. I’ll make a confession here: I’ve not yet completed the book. I plan to read it slowly, too slowly to wait before offering this review. However, I’ve read enough to know that it offers a new, in-depth look at Dorothy Day, filling in many gaps with wonderful details about her life and her views. Yet perhaps what I love best about it are the photographs.

The photographs are wonderful—from the book’s cover photo by Bob Fitch showing her busy at her typewriter in a cluttered room with her beloved books lining the shelves behind her to the closing photographs of her funeral procession through the streets of New York in 1980.

The story of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker is familiar to many, but it’s still a fascinating one. The daughter of an itinerant sportswriter, Day saw poverty and the marginalized up close and personal at an early age. A radical and a rebel from her last days in high school and first days at the University of Illinois, she dropped out of school and launched her writing career with socialist publications like The Call. She had a lover, became pregnant, had an abortion, lived the bohemian life in New Orleans and later Provincetown, befriending Eugene O’Neill, and taking in a common-law husband who was an atheist. Pregnant again, she vowed she would have this child, and the religious impulses that she had long resisted became too strong to ignore.

An Episcopalian by birth, she found herself drawn to the Catholic Church and had her daughter Tamar baptized in it. She and her common-law husband parted. Later in New York she met the vagabond French poet Peter Maurin, who with her co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement at the beginning of the Great Depression and the Catholic Worker newspaper that was at the movement’s heart. They and a long line of volunteers who would eventually would include such folks as The Other America author Michael Harrington fed and sheltered the poor and jobless in the movement’s “houses of hospitality” while growing their own food at communal farms outside New York and elsewhere. Meanwhile, they put out a newspaper that hit hard at the issues of the day while searching the issues of the soul as well.

Day, whose father came from Tennessee, kept an eye on the South even as she wrote about urban life in New York. The first issue of The Catholic Worker (cost 1 cent per edition, 25 cents per year’s subscription—still true today) in May 1933 dealt with the treatment of black labor on the levees of the South. The newspaper’s third issue focused on child labor and the Carolina textile mill strikes.

In 1935 Day traveled to Memphis to get a first-hand look at the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union and its struggles to improve workers’ lives in the area. “During that trip I saw men, women, and children herded into little churches and wayside stations, camped out in tents, their household goods heaped about them, not one settlement but many—farmers with no land to farm, housewives with no homes. I saw children ill, one old man dead in bed and not yet buried, mothers weeping with hunger and cold. I saw bullet holes in the frame churches, and their benches and pulpits smashed up and windows broken. Men had been kidnapped and beaten; men had been hot and wounded. The month after I left, one of the organizers was killed by a member of a masked band of vigilantes who were fighting the Tenant Farmers’ Union.”

Such was Day’s evocative writing, a pared-down, even simple, style yet one brimming with compassion and righteous indignation against social injustice.

Day was an activist as well as a journalist. As a result of that Memphis trip, she telegrammed First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who in turn contacted Tennessee’s governor. The governor was unmoved, and so was the Memphis Commercial Appeal, which editorialized against outsiders like Day “who came to criticize.”

My hope is this new biography will help excite further new interest in Day. A movement is already underway to have her declared a saint, something she likely she would have opposed. Her life is a testament to the validity and strength of Catholic social teaching, however, a tradition nearly forgotten until recently.

The phenomenon of once-staunchly Democrat Catholics, all of them immigrants or descendants of immigrants, siding with the Republican Party in recent decades is, as the late and fiery Catholic labor priest Monsignor Charles Owen Rice of Pittsburgh once lamented, “another cross in my old age.”

This writer recalls attending the annual meeting of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists here in Oxford, Miss., in October 2009, and hearing speaker after speaker attempt to brand even fascism and Nazism as sins of the Left, not the Right.

In a Labor Day speech in 2011, however, the head of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockdon, Calif., praised unions and pointed to Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 and subsequent papal encyclicals and statements as unassailable proof of the Church’s deep commitment to the right of workers everywhere in the world to unite and to be treated justly as workers and human beings.

Dorothy Day would have approved.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Mississippi's Howard Industries pays bottom-feeder wages but enjoys plaudits & subsidies


OXFORD, Miss. – Politicians and local editorial writers love Howard Industries of Laurel, Miss. The editors at the Laurel Leader-Call shower their blessings on Jones County’s largest employer and castigate any naysayer who might want to offer an alternative viewpoint.

Politicians shower the producer of electrical transformers with money—taxpayers’ money--to the tune of at least $60 million in local and state subsidies so far, plus a $20 million bond issue from the county.

Howard Industries rewards its friends. Besides taking out newspaper ads, it recently gave $8,000 worth of new helmets and face shields to the Laurel Police Department. Each of the state’s legislators once received a Howard Industries laptop computer, a nice little thank you for their $31.5 million taxpayer-funded gift to the company back in 2002.

The only thing politicians asked of company CEO Billy Howard was that he use the money to create more jobs.

And there’s the rub. What kind of jobs?

Many of the company’s predominantly black workers say they’re underpaid for the hard, grueling work they do, but negotiations with management went nowhere after at least 16 meetings. A recent union-backed study shows a top-line Howard Industries maintenance worker earns just 61 percent of the wages paid a similar worker at the ABB transformer manufacturing plant in Crystal Springs, Miss.

Defying the local newspaper and the power Howard Industries wields in the community, the Laurel City Council voted 5-1 in July to support the workers’ call for higher wages. Those five council members quickly found out what happens when you stand in solidarity with workers rather than their bosses. In August, the council reversed its vote.

The council members initially “decided to pander to a handful of disgruntled workers,” the Laurel Leader-Call editorialized. The council’s support of the workers “got our community crossed off the list of every major company that would think about locating and hiring a large workforce here.”

Nowhere in the Leader-Call’s August 10 editorial was there mention of the dismal record of arguably one of the state’s worst employers.

This is the company that seven years ago became the site of the largest raid against undocumented migrant workers in the history of the United States. Approximately 600 workers from Mexico, Panama and points farther south were summarily arrested by federal immigration agents. Most of them were hauled off to a prison camp in Jena, La., where they languished for weeks in overcrowded cells without formal charges. Female workers who were mothers avoided jail but had monitoring devices locked onto their ankles.

This is the company that then had to be shamed by the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance into releasing 283 paychecks it still owed to the migrant workers it had hired.

Howard Industries is also the company that subsequently pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate immigration laws and received a $2.5 million fine in 2011. A year later, the company agreed to a $1.3 million settlement of a discrimination lawsuit by four black women who said they were refused jobs because of the company’s preference for Latino workers. As many as 5,000 non-Latino workers were eligible to receive funds from the settlement.

This is a company that was fined nearly $200,000 for 54 violations of work safety rules by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the same year as the immigration raid. “It is unconscionable for an employer to tolerate serious injuries, including amputations, as just a cost of doing business,” said Clyde Payne, Jackson’s OSHA director at the time.  

Apparently the company is still going on the cheap as regards its workers.

“For the type of work they do, (wages) are incredibly low,” says Roger Doolittle, a Jackson-based attorney who represents the 2,000-plus workers at the 4,000-worker plant who belong to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 1317.  “It is a travesty that the city of Laurel supports hundreds of thousands in tax exemptions to that kind of employer. … It defies belief.”

Attempts to get a response from Howard Industries have been unsuccessful.

The workers protesting the low wages are IBEW members, a fact that sticks in the craw of both company leaders and the Laurel Leader-Call.  This is the solution offered by the newspaper: “If you’re unhappy with your pay or working conditions, get another job.” And remember, the newspaper editorialized, “unions fleece workers under the guise of working in their best interests.”

Ironically, the city of Laurel was the site of one of the greatest victories of the pro-union movement known as Operation Dixie after World War II. Some 3,500 workers at the Masonite plant there joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), prompting Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hodding Carter in Greenville later to write, “CIO union contracts have added more than five million dollars to Laurel’s annual payrolls.”

Worker payrolls apparently aren’t a priority with Howard Industries’ friends in the news business and legislative halls. Keeping Howard Industries happy is their priority.

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