Friday, June 24, 2016

Labor South roundup: Brexit & neoliberalism; a visit with veteran Hollywood character actor Nehemiah Persoff; and Nissan hypocrisy in Mississippi

 
It’s time for another Labor South roundup, plus a heads-up on things to come.

The Brexit vote and neoliberalism

The British vote this week to exit the European Union is causing huge disruption in U.S. and international markets while being treated to a lot of handwringing by a head-scratching mainstream press. Yet Enrico Tortolano of openDemocracyUK says the following:

“Voting to leave the EU is a no-brainer for the Left. The European Union is remote, racist, imperialist, anti-worker and anti-democratic: It is run by, of, and for the super-rich and their corporations. A future outside austerity and other economic blunders rests on winning the struggle to exit the EU.”

Furthermore, “Neoliberal policies and practices dominate the European Commission, European Parliament, European Central Bank, European Court of Justice and a compliant media legitimises (sic) the whole conquest.”


Of course, anti-immigrant forces have also been on the Brexit side of the issue in this complex development. What we’ve seen in Britain is some of the same populism that has helped drive the Trump and Sanders presidential campaigns in the United States—a deep disdain for the longstanding collusion of Big Banks, Big Corporations and Big Government, yet on the Trump side one that is confused by an equal disdain for the migrant workers victimized by that same collusion.

Still, it is hard to argue with Tortolano’s description of the EU and its worship of the “neoliberal Holy Trinity of public spending cuts, privatisation (sic) and the removal of trade union rights.” Witness European leaders’ hard-fisted policies toward Greece and other economically struggling countries in Europe.

 Tortolano believes migrants actually suffer more under the EU because it supports the policies that force workers to leave their home countries in an often tragic search for better work and a better life.

In California with veteran actor Nehemiah Persoff

(To the right, Nehemiah Persoff in 1960)

Yours truly recently returned from a week-long trip to California, where I, among other things, interviewed veteran character actor Nehemiah Persoff, approaching his 97th birthday, at his Cambria, Calif., home. I’m doing a profile of Persoff for Noir City magazine.

Jerusalem-born Persoff, a painter for the past quarter century, was once one of Hollywood’s most familiar faces in film and on television, beginning with his brief appearance in On the Waterfront (1954) to major roles in Humphrey Bogart’s last movie, The Harder They Fall (1956), Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), and—my favorite--as Nazi Carl Lanser in the segment “Judgment Night” on television’s Twilight Zone (1959). Each of these films addressed important social justice issues without being didactic. Persoff also was memorable as Little Bonaparte in Some Like It Hot (1959) and Barbara Steisand's father in Yentl (1983)

 Persoff began his career with theater and acting groups in New York City, including the famed Actors Studio, and recalled during my interview his early work performing for striking union members and for workers on the picket line.

Be on the lookout for Noir City’s next issue at the end of the summer!

UAW fighting Nissan hypocrisy in Mississippi

Students and activists will join with the United Auto Workers this weekend in bringing attention to the hypocrisy of the Nissan corporation’s sponsorship of a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of civil rights activist James Meredith’s 1966 “March Against Fear”.

Many among the predominantly black workforce at the company’s Nissan, Miss., plant have complained of its virulent anti-unionism, its use of temporary workers at lower wages and benefits, arbitrary decisions regarding work hours and medical treatment, and the overly restricted use of its air-conditioning units during Mississippi’s hot summer months.

Popular Resistance, a University of Mississippi student organization led by rising sophomore Jaz Brisack, is among the groups planning to bring light to Nissan’s hypocrisy this weekend.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The heart of darkness: Mississippi and North Carolina politics


(To the right, my front porch. It's dark in Mississippi.)

This column, which appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press, in Jackson, Miss., is a follow-up to an earlier Labor South posting in which I republished the original 2011 column cited below. Here I take a look at Mississippi and my native North Carolina, both the heart of darkness in their politics these days.

OXFORD, Miss. – I told you so.

Yes, I did. It was way back in November 2011 when the Republicans took over the Mississippi Legislature as well as the state’s Governor’s Mansion.

At the time, I was telling you about relatives coming to visit me and one of them remarking how “it sure is dark in Mississippi.” She was referring to the long, unlit roads and highways they traveled during the night to get here. “It’s about to get a lot darker,” I told her.

And then I told you, my column readers, this:

“Better roads and highways? Not on this watch. Better public transportation? Education? Health care? Mental health services? Social services? Are you kidding? It’s going to be Tea Party heaven down here. People finally get to see what it will be like in a Tea Party world.”

Thank you, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and state House Speaker Philip Gunn for proving what a prophet Joe Atkins is. I always knew it. Now the world does!

In the poorest, most woe-begotten state in the United States, the Mississippi Troika and their loyal minions have managed to cut even deeper into woefully underfunded state education, health care, mental health care, roads and highways maintenance. As they slashed away at agency budgets like machete-wielding tribesmen clear-cutting a scraggly forest to make way for more desert, they even found they had overestimated revenue projections by $56.8 million!

And this is the state government that wants to take over the Jackson, Miss., airport. One of the minions at the state Capitol has even proposed that the state take over all of Jackson, that black-run state capital that’s wont to challenge the Tea Party revolution from time to time. State Rep. Mark Baker, a Republican from Brandon, came up with that brilliance. Should we call it “Revenge of the Suburbanites”?

As they slashed budgets and services, however, the Troika and its minions did manage to find the wherewithal to give $274 million plus lots of juicy tax breaks to Continental Tire the Americas and Edison Chouest of Louisiana, two more companies promising jobs and Nirvana in exchange for big taxpayer-funded handouts. They both saw the $363 million handout poor ol’ Mississippi gave Nissan back in 2000 and the $356 million it gave Toyota a few years later, and they wanted their share.

At the time of the Toyota deal, the state wouldn’t even fund a burn center and had to send burn victims to Memphis.

The state’s pols also managed to kill efforts to limit themselves in how they spend their campaign money, making them the envy of politicians across the country who face jail terms for doing what Mississippi politicians can do with impunity.

Something else they did during the past legislative session, of course, was make discrimination legal and call it the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act”.

When I first arrived in Mississippi back in the early 1980s, many folks told me how much they admired my home state of North Carolina. They talked about the beautiful mountains and beaches. Many talked with a degree of envy about North Carolina’s longheld commitment to public education and wished Mississippi were more so inclined.

Well, here we are more than three decades later, and we find Mississippi politicians actually are looking at North Carolina as a model. Trouble is, North Carolina today is a Jesse Helms dream come true—and that’s not a good thing.

The Tarheel state’s so-called HB2 legislation, known as the “bathroom bill”, preceded Mississippi’s HB 1523 (now the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act) in putting state authorities on bathroom detail. North Carolina leaders took it a step further, however, by also making it illegal for troublesome cities such as Charlotte (where the whole bathroom controversy began) to adopt regulations contrary to what state rulers prefer. This includes raising the minimum wage, an issue far removed from gender identity.

So both North Carolina and Mississippi share something besides a strong connection to Joe Atkins. Their leaders are the kind of hypocrites my Pentecostal Holiness preaching Uncle Eb would’ve raked over the coals in his Sunday sermons. They talk of the sanctity of local government when it comes to defying federal mandates, but they’re quick to impose state rule over municipalities, whether it’s a minimum wage hike in Charlotte or airport control in Jackson.

Don’t let anyone pull the wool over your eyes. It’s already dark enough in Mississippi.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

LabourStart conference in Toronto promotes worker solidarity and new Atkins book on migrant workers; the neoliberal takeover in Latin America

 
(To the right, Larry Cohen in Toronto)

TORONTO, Canada – LabourStart “might be the most efficient campaign organization for global labor” in the world, former Communications Workers of America international president and current top Bernie Sanders labor adviser Larry Cohen told activists and organizers from around the world here this month.

Cohen was one of several key speakers at LabourStart’s May 6-8 Global Solidarity Conference in Toronto. The London-based organization indeed calls itself the “news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement” and reaches a global audience of thousands of labor activists around the world. Its campaigns have helped free jailed activists as well as boost and gain success for labor campaigns.

Workers need organizations like LabourStart in a global economy where mega-corporations work hand in hand with governments to push a neoliberal agenda that enriches the powerful while impoverishing the working class and the poor, Cohen and others at the conference said.

“U.S. labor is trapped,” Cohen said. “It’s in this box. … Under 7 percent of workers in the private sector are organized. When I grew up in Philadelphia, it was 35 percent.”

Cohen pointed to the importance of ongoing campaigns such as strike by some 40,000 workers against the practices of corporate giant Verizon. “It’s a real strike, not a symbolic strike. The Verizon CEO makes $18 million a year and wants to limit the health care options of workers.”

Other speakers at the conference included Lee Chuck-Yan, general-secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions. Labor South interviewed Lee during a visit to Hong Kong back in the summer of 2013. (See Labor South: http://laborsouth.blogspot.com/2013/07/hong-kong-communists-capitalists-versus.html)

(Leaflet promoting The Strangers Among Us)

Another highlight of the Toronto conference was a panel discussion with yours truly, Labor South founder and writer Joseph B. Atkins, talking about my new book, The Strangers Among Us: Takes from a Global Migrant Worker Movement. The book will be published by the conference sponsor, LabourStart, in June and features essays by 10 writers from around the world on the global migrant worker issue and workers’ rising consciousness of their rights.

“From tobacco workers in North Carolina to Vietnamese domestic workers in Taiwan and the network of organizations that support them, a movement is emerging that will pose a growing challenge to neoliberal rule,” says a flyer promoting the book that was distributed at the conference.

LabourStart has hosted several international conferences in cities as far-flung as Sydney, Istanbul and Berlin. The Toronto conference wasn’t without controversy. An estimated 60 of the hundreds of activists who registered to come were denied visas, and at least one was detained at the Toronto airport. Those denied visas were coming from places such as Bangladesh, Jamaica and Afghanistan.

The neoliberal class war is underway

Recent international developments in Central and South America point to the desperate need for progressive, pro-labor forces to join together and fight the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that is leading to right-wing takeovers in Brazil, Argentina, Honduras and other Latin American countries.

The recent ouster of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in a bogus impeachment effort essentially amounts to a coup by the right wing, which has succeeded in putting into power unelected former vice president Michel Temer, a pro-corporate shill himself implicated in a widespread corruption scandal involving the oil company Petrobras.

Supporting the Brazilian Senate’s impeachment efforts against Rousseff, of course, is fellow right-winger Mauricio Macri in Argentina.

Labor South has followed closely Macri’s rise to power in Argentina after visiting there in 2015. (Labor South: http://laborsouth.blogspot.com/2016/02/what-eva-peron-would-say-to-mauricio.html)

Former Secretary of State and current Democratic presidential candidate Hillary  Clinton has anything but clean hands in the rise of a brutal dictatorship in Honduras that overthrew a reformist regime. Under Clinton’s watch, the United States gave its approval to a takeover that has turned Honduras into one of the world’s most dangerous and repressive countries.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Top French official calls on French government to use its leverage on behalf of worker rights at Nissan plant in Mississippi

 
OXFORD, Miss. – A top deputy in the French National Assembly is calling on the French government to weigh in on behalf of workers at the giant Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., who want to have a union vote without management intimidation and threats.

Christian Hutin, deputy chairman of the Social Affairs Commission and a member of the French National Assembly, addressed that nation’s governing body last month and asked that it help Mississippi workers by using its leverage as a major stockholder in the Renault corporation and thus a power broker with Renault’s partner, Nissan.

The French government controls nearly 20 percent of Renault stock and 32 percent of its votes. Renault, in turn, shares an “alliance” with Nissan and owns 43.4 percent of Nissan shares. Carlos Ghosn is chairman and CEO of both Nissan and Renault.

“The situation in (Canton) is dire and sadly not new, with the rights of workers seriously being compromised,” Hutin said in a recent statement. “Every possible step is taken to prevent the personnel from organizing a union inside the plant. Pressure, threats, harassment, routine propaganda … .

“Every possible step is taken to prejudice the rights of workers in what is known as a historic cradle of the civil rights movement in the United States of America.”

Hutin is right. In the global economy that exists today, global corporations only respond to pressures at the highest level. Nissan’s Ghosn appeared before three leading French National Assembly members in February and actually lied about his company’s views on unions in Mississippi, claiming that Nissan respects and upholds U.S. labor laws, respects workers’ right to organize, and works with unions at its plants around the world.

In an April 14 letter to Ghosn, Hutin called out the man once known in France as “le cost killer” for his slashing of 25,000-plus jobs en route to his status as corporate super star. “The affirmations (Ghosn made to French National Assembly members) do not correspond with the facts,” Hutin wrote. “In effect, two weeks after your testimony, management at the Canton plant showed an anti-union video to the 5,000 workers at the site, which we have now seen.”

Workers at the plant enjoy some of the best blue-collar wages in Mississippi. However, many of them believe recent hikes in pay came directly as a result of pressure from the United Auto Workers and a grassroots pro-union movement that has evolved in Canton over the past decade. Workers say management harasses anyone with pro-union sentiments. Management holds all the cards regarding medical treatment for injuries on the job, shifts in work hours, and production speed on the assembly line. Workers have no say when company doctors dismiss their health complaints, in arbitrary or sudden changes in work hours, or with safety concerns.

As many as 50 percent of the workers at the Nissan plant were hired as “temporary” workers, which means lower wages, fewer benefits and little or no job protection—this at a plant that enjoyed an initial $363 million Mississippi taxpayer-funded infusion to come to the nation’s poorest state. More government-spawned incentives were to follow.

“There are unions in all the factories were Nissan is located,” Hutin quotes Ghosn as telling the French National Assembly members in February. “Nissan has absolutely no tradition of failure to knowingly cooperate with unions nor does it consider this a bad thing.”

Wouldn’t such obviously false statements be considered contempt of Congress here in the United States?

Sources have indicated to me that a union vote could take place at the Canton plant as early as this summer. However, worker fear is a cold reality in the face of what UAW activists say is intensifying anti-union activity in Canton, and it could still kill any union effort.

Anti-union allegations are nothing new to Ghosn. Back in the early 1990s, he was based in Greenville, S.C., as head of the French tire-maker Michelin’s North American division. When plans became known that a Spartanburg Technical College class wanted to show the groundbreaking documentary Uprising of ’34, Ghosn’s Michelin weighed in and helped squash the showing. The documentary depicted the tragic slaying of seven striking textile mill workers in Honea Path, S.C., in 1934.

Ghosn is notorious for appearing in an anti-union video that was required viewing for workers at Nissan’s Smyrna, Tenn., plant on the day before a union election there in 2001. “Bringing a union into Smyrna could result in making Smyrna not competitive, which is not in your best interest or Nissan’s,” Ghosn told the workers. The workers voted down the union, of course.

I’ll bet their hands were shaking as they cast those ballots.

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

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Independent filmmakers deliver what Hollywood often doesn't: Movies as Art

 
(To the right, independent filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox talks about challenges to directors at a recent gathering of film lovers in Memphis)

OXFORD, Miss. – The scene might have come out of a Nicholas Ray movie. The famous Hollywood director, his best work, “Rebel Without A Cause”, “In A Lonely Place”, “Johnny Guitar”, years behind him, sits alone in his Madrid bar at midnight, a half-empty bottle in front of him, eyeing the half that’s left.

Maybe he’s thinking of that conversation with the great, low-budget filmmaker Luis Buñuel a couple years back. “You’re the only (director) who does what he wants,” Ray told him. “What is your secret?”

“I ask for less than fifty thousand dollars per film,” Buñuel responded, suggesting Ray try the same. “You’re a famous director. Why not try an experiment? … See for yourself how much freer you are.”

(Nicholas Ray)

Ray shook his head. “If I did that in Hollywood … I’d never make another movie.”

Nicholas Ray’s “glorious failure” to break free of Hollywood’s chains of gold and become “the avant-garde, independent moviemaker” he always wanted to be—eloquently described in Patrick McGilligan’s 2011 biography—provides a glimpse into Hollywood today, where the typical movie costs from $20 million to $80 million to make, while high-end pictures reach $300 million or more.

No wonder studios and directors are looking beyond Hollywood to places like Mississippi and Louisiana to make movies. And even more important than in Nicholas Ray’s day is the role of independent filmmakers in preserving movies as an art form, not simply an industry H.L. Mencken once blasted as “too rich to have any room for genuine artists (and) too much under the heel of the … gorillas who own them.”

Folks in Jackson, Miss., got a chance to enjoy the art of independent filmmaking March 31-April 3 at the Crossroads Film Festival. It’s one of at least 15 film festivals that take place in the state throughout the year.

I got my own chance in February here at the Oxford Film Festival, where I feasted on narrative shorts like “Three Fingers”, the account of a female war veteran dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome, and full-length pictures like “Texas Heart”, the cast of which included Mississippi actors Johnny McPhail, Susan McPhail, and Clarksdale, Miss., Mayor Bill Luckett.

This coming November, the “Indie Memphis” film festival in Memphis, Tenn., kicks into gear. John Beifuss of the Memphis Commercial Appeal calls it “arguably the region’s top film festival.”

Like neighboring Louisiana, Mississippi is increasingly a place where films are made and talent is sought. From the feature film “Gentleman from Mississippi” in 1914 to 1950s classics “Baby Doll”, “Raintree County”, and “This Property is Condemned” to more recent films such as “Ghosts of Mississippi” and “Black Snake Moan”, the state has always had a cinematic lure.

Actor, producer, writer and director Johnny Remo, whose 2016 movie “Saved by Grace” was filmed in Canton, said filming in Mississippi beats filming in California. “I cannot say enough how amazing the people were. Everybody waves. … In California once, we were filming and the guy next door started mowing his lawn. It took $500 to get him to stop.”

(From left to right, director Johnny Remo and Ward Emling and  Nina Parikh, both of the Mississippi Film Office)

Ward Emling of the Mississippi Film Office agreed. “The communities of Mississippi are unbelievable. They make my job easy. A movie anywhere in Mississippi is going to be well-liked, treated fairly.”

Mississippi and its local communities benefit when the cameras roll here, whether they’re big studio Hollywood cameras or those of independent filmmakers.

“Forty nine cents on a dollar is what the state spends on film,” Luckett said during a panel discussion in Oxford on “Producing Films in Mississippi”. “We’re the best in the country as to what that dollar spent brings back.”

Emling said the 2001 hit film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was filmed in 11 counties in central Mississippi. “We’re competing on locations” as well as with other incentives to filmmakers, he said.

At a recent “Shoot & Splice” event at the Crosstown Arts Center in Memphis, independent filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox talked about the challenge to the director in making a film that does indeed qualify as art. It’s important, he said, to be “a student of life. You need to understand what’s important and a priority. … We need to see humanity on the screen conveying honesty.”

The reason is “people can detect dishonesty like this,” the Memphis-based director said with a snap of his fingers. “What is the emotional spine? A drive that is not easily changed?”

Craig Brewer, a Memphis native and noted director of successful films such as “Hustle & Flow” and “Black Snake Moan”, was in the audience and added that the director should ask of characters, “Where are they in their lives?”

(To the right, "Hustle & Flow" director Craig Brewer in Memphis)

Later in an interview, Brewer told me that big budget films can be art just like smaller budget films. “What’s important (is) to have a solid point of view.”

During a trip to Hollywood some years back, I made a stop at one of my favorite restaurants, the Musso & Frank Grill, which has been serving dishes like corned beef and cabbage, homemade chicken pot pie, and potato pancakes to its movie star clientele since 1919. My waiter pointed out the table where Mississippi writer William Faulkner liked to dine.

Tales of Faulkner in Hollywood are some of that city’s best. He left Yoknapatawpha to make some money in Tinsel Town in the 1940s, and he had some notable successes. The hard-boiled novelist and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides tells of rooming with Faulkner, his heavy-duty drinking, his impenetrable silences, Hollywood’s cavalier attitude toward the great author.

Movie mogul Jack Warner once “boasted that he had the best writer in the world for `peanuts’,” Bezzerides recalled. Faulkner “had contempt” for movie work, and when Bezzerides once pressed him to get busier on a screenplay, responded, “`Shucks, Buzz, it ain’t nuthin’ but a movin’ picture.’”

The old man might have a better attitude if he were alive today. I can see him now at Rowan Oak, his home in Oxford, banging away at his script, having a helluva time, and making some real art in the process.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

"It sure is dark in Mississippi," my friend said back in 2011. "It's about to get a lot darker," I replied.

(To the right, the Mississippi state Capitol, where the Legislature meets and where state Rep. Steve Holland gave his speech)

"Unbelievable! Apparently it is your mission (to) destroy this government!" cried my good friend, Mississippi House Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville, in a fiery speech before the state House of Representatives recently.

What he lamented was the systematic destruction of state government in Mississippi by a Republican "super majority" and Republican governor who just signed into law a "North Carolina"-style discrimination-is-okay bill. The destruction didn't begin with that bill, however. It has been going on ever since Republicans took over, and it has led to seriously underfunded schools and mental health facilities, roads and highways and bridges in desperate need of repair, absolutely gutted workers' compensation protection, yet millions in state taxpayer subsidies to major corporations.

And here is my prediction of all this in a November 2011 column that ran in Mississippi newspapers:

By JOE ATKINS

OXFORD – It was late at night, and my relatives were tired after their seven-hour journey from Pensacola, Fla. Within minutes came the inevitable comment.

“It sure is dark in Mississippi,” one of them said, repeating an observation I’ve heard many times. “Between Jackson and Oxford is the wilderness.”

Just wait until your next visit up here, I told them. “It’s about to get a lot darker in Mississippi.”

Anyone disagree? With its Republican-controlled Legislature, Republican governor, Republicans in every statewide office except attorney general, Mississippi is all prepped to dim the lights even more, not make them brighter.

Better roads and highways? Not on this watch. Better public transportation? Education? Health care? Mental health services? Social services? Are you kidding?

It’s going to be Tea Party heaven down here? People finally get to see what it will be like in a Tea Party world. The lion-tamers are in the cage now, and the big, bad, ugly beast known as GOVERNMENT is cowering in his corner.

“They have been tasting this blood for many years,” says state Rep. Steven Holland, the Plantersville Democrat, outspoken populist, and perennial thorn-in-the-side to right-wingers before their Nov. 8 ascendancy. “You are going to see `personhood’ through statute. You’ll see an immigration bill, Alabama style, come through. English will be the official language. Drug testing for welfare recipients. It is going to be fairly bizarre.”

Holland’s own party, of course, is in shambles--divided by race and the fact that many white state Democrats hardly remember what their party even stands for. Like Ole Miss football, the party is about as far down as the saddest blues song to ever come out of the Delta. Much the same can be said for the Democratic Party elsewhere in the Deep South.

“Over 29 years, I have watched the slow destruction of the (Mississippi) Democratic Party. We have been so outfoxed with technology and money and organization. Eight years of (outgoing Republican Governor Haley) Barbour has left me completely bruised.”

Old-style populism like Holland’s, one that calls for a progressive, people-serving government and casts a distrustful eye at fat-cat Wall Street types who serve their wallets and nothing else—seems ready for that funeral home Holland runs when he’s not legislating. “If it gets bad enough, education so assaulted, public transportation so assaulted, this `big, ole, fat government,’ I can imagine the people who have now voted against their own interests in the last two elections will rise up and revolt,” Holland says.

Hmmm. Maybe. The “revolt of the rednecks” that barnstormers Bilbo and Vardaman led a century ago indeed expanded education, state health services, and state regulations against child labor and other corporate abuses, but the revolt came on the backs of black people. Modern-day racial demagoguery tends to go after brown rather than black, and state Republicans have largely cornered that market.

It’s not that Republicans simply won’t spend taxpayer money. The reason has to be right.

As Holland predicts, the new Republican Legislature is poised to take up the “personhood” initiative that voters rejected Nov. 8 as well as an Alabama-style immigration law, both of which will likely involve costly legal battles in court and ultimately result in rejection and failure.

Haley Barbour was quick to call for cuts in Medicaid and other social programs, yet he always seemed to find the cash for big incentives packages to pay out to private corporations looking at Mississippi.

In fact, while we’re at it, what does Barbour, a man held in Reagan-like awe by many conservatives in Mississippi, have to show for his eight years as governor? Mississippi remains the nation’s poorest state. It ranks 51st in teenage births, 51st in percentage of homes struggling with hunger, 49th in child poverty, 47th in high school graduation rates.

What did he do to change any of this?

I’ll be asking Mississippi’s new Republican leadership the same question four years from now, even though I already know the answer.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Students protest working conditions and anti-unionism at Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi


(Students protest Nissan's anti-union policies in Canton, Miss., Saturday, April 2)

CANTON, Miss. - Students and activists marched past the front door of the main office of Nissan’s mile-long plant here Saturday chanting a modern-day version of Florence Reese’s Great Depression-era labor anthem, “Which Side Are You On?”

“Which side are you on?” began the call-and-response by students from the University of Mississippi, Tougaloo College, and Jackson State University. “On the people’s side!” they shouted.

The rally by 30 or more students and veteran activists aimed to bring attention to poor working conditions within the 5,000-plus employee plant, which has resisted a decade-long unionization effort by the United Auto Workers and a growing grassroots organization of workers, ministers, civil rights-era veterans, and college students.

“Students have always been the cornerstone of any movement,” said Michelle Wheatley, a senior at Tougaloo College. “We ask students to take a stand. To have Ole Miss here means a lot.”

Prior to the Saturday rally, pro-labor student activists came primarily from historically black colleges and universities like Tougaloo College and Jackson State University, both in the Jackson, Miss., area. On Saturday, a half-dozen or more students from the state’s flagship university, the University of Mississippi, joined them. An estimated 80 percent of Nissan’s workers in Canton are African American.

“We stand against corporate tyranny!” University of Mississippi freshman Jaz Brisack told the group.

(To the right, University of Mississippi students join Saturday's protest)

“When you have a company that’s exploiting its workers, that company needs to be held accountable,” said Buka Okoye, who heads the NAACP chapter at the University of Mississippi. “When we speak against oppression, we speak against exploitation in general.”

“The labor movement is not dead! Unions are not dead!” said Dominique Scott, who heads Local 121 of Students Against Social Injustice at the University of Mississippi. “It’s important that we students acknowledge the power that we have and be in solidarity with workers.”

Former Mississippi Rep. Jim Evans, also a veteran labor organizer, said student solidarity with workers is very important. Nissan needs to “live up to its promises” and make good on taxpayers’ huge investment in bringing the company to Mississippi by allowing workers “to have respect and a voice at work,” Evans said.

Sources say that a union vote at the Canton plant is likely to take place within the next three months.

Although Nissan workers earn comparatively good wages for Mississippi workers, they have complained of harassment and poor medical treatment of workers injured on the job, the hiring of temporary workers (estimated at up to 50 percent of the workforce) at lower pay and minimal benefits, and punitive actions against those who express pro-union sympathies. Workers and activists say that the company showed employees at the Canton plant an anti-union video as recently as last month.

United Students Against Sweatshops, the Mississippi Student Justice Alliance, Young Democrats of America, and students activists and organizers with the national AFL-CIO in Washington were among the groups organizing the rally, the latest in a series of events in Canton and around the world challenging Nissan’s anti-union policies in the U.S. South.

A UAW delegation left for Paris, France, Saturday to meet with French parliamentary members about Nissan’s anti-union stand in Mississippi. Nissan workers are represented by unions at company plants around the world. Yet the company has joined other foreign-owned automobile manufacturers in resisting unions in the U.S. South. The French government owns nearly a fifth of the shares in Nissan stock with double-voting rights and thus has significant power to influence company actions.