Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Dimming the lights: The Republican Takeover in Mississippi

(To the left is an 1892 campaign poster of the People's Party, also known as the Populists, promoting James Weaver for president)

OXFORD, Miss. - 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 the Nov. 8 Republican takeover of the state House and now 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.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The battle goes on for Ikea workers in Danville, and the world is watching

(To the right is Ikea founder and former Nazi sympathizer Ingvar Kamprad)

Workers at the Ikea-owned Swedwood plant in Danville, Va., are still struggling for their rights against union-hostile supervisors despite workers’ 221-69 vote last July to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM).

“Supervisors are targeting union supporters for discipline, violating workers’ rights to be represented by stewards, threatening and intimidating pro union workers, and making numerous unilateral changes which by the law must be bargained,” writes IAM official William V. Street Jr. in the latest issue of the London-based International Union Rights magazine.

The July vote was heralded as a major and rare victory for labor organizers in the U.S. South, a region whose business and political leaders have fought against labor rights since before the Civil War. The vote came after workers complained of stretch-out-like conditions on the assembly line that evoked images of 1930s textile companies, mandatory and unpaid overtime, eliminated raises, and racial prejudice. “In many ways, work conditions more akin to Dickens than Keynes,” writes Street, director of IAM’s Woodworkers’ Department.

In addition, workers in Danville were paid considerably less than Ikea workers in Sweden, whose minimum wage is $19 an hour with five weeks of paid vacation. Ikea workers in Danville start at $8 an hour and get 12 vacation days. In the fall of 2010, packing department workers saw their wages drop from $9.75 an hour to $8 an hour. This came despite a 6 percent-plus hike in company profits in 2010 and a $12 million incentives package from local and state governments to get Ikea to locate in Danville. The median wage in Danville is more than $15 an hour.

Ikea calls itself a Swedish company but “is actually chartered in The Netherlands while controlled by a family trust in Luxemburg,” Street writes. It was founded in 1947 by former Nazi sympathizer Ingvar Kamprad, one of the world’s richest men whose personal wealth is estimated to be anywhere from $6 billion to many times that much.

When an organizing effort started in Danville, the company hired the union-busting Jackson Lewis law firm to help keep the union out.

All of this proved an embarrassment to a company that had touted its code of conduct recognizing workers’ rights to join a union.

It also inspired an international effort to support the Danville workers. IAM ran a sophisticated campaign that put the spotlight on Ikea back in Sweden, prompting extensive coverage in the Swedish media and producing countless phone calls and emails and picket lines as far away as Australia.

“The capacity of the IAM and the need to educate both EU (European Union) affiliates and US citizens as to the backward nature of US labour law all were part of the decision making process,” Street writes. “In the US, this discussion was characterized as the US becoming Sweden’s Mexico, meaning a place for global business to exploit lax laws in order to exploit both workers and the environment.”

Meanwhile, however, the battle goes on at the Danville plant. “The media has left, the story is over,” Street laments.

However, IAM is fighting back, and so is the international labor community, which sees the Danville situation as part of a bigger picture of neo-liberal economic policies being pushed globally by the United States and organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. These policies are hostile to unions as they push to increase corporate profits and work to inhibit government oversight. “Swedish union leaders are planning to visit Danville to see the fight for social justice first hand,” Street says, adding that university-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the U.S. are also planning boycotts if workers’ rights continue to be abused in Danville.

Ikea is a classic example of a modern-day “hollow” corporation that attempts to evade labor and environmental standards through the use of wholly owned subsidiaries like Swedwood and supplier companies, Street says.

A “hollow” company works something like this: It publicly pressures its subsidiaries and suppliers to be good corporate citizens and meet acceptable standards, but when they do, it proceeds to squeeze those same operations to lower their costs to the very minimum, ultimately forcing wages down and hurting working conditions.

It’s the same kind of hypocrisy Walmart has engaged in for years. Once again, the South is in the middle of a battle that stretches around the globe.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Writers who've stood up to the "Grindles" of the world

(To the left is Nelson Algren)

When the inspiration’s getting low, I usually don’t have far to look before I find it. It’s right there on the bookshelves in my office at home. I just round up the usual suspects, and there they are, words on paper, in the books that have been milestones in my life, written by the writers I’d admired most, the ones who cut through the fog the best and got to the hard, cold stone of reality that each of us faces in his or her own way.

At or near the top of the list is Nelson Algren, the great Detroit-born Chicago writer who has never gotten his due from the American literati, but, hey, who’s surprised by that? As with many writers I admire, it’s not his best-known novel that really struck me to the core. It’s one of the others. In this case, Never Come Morning, Algren’s 1942 novel about the Polish ghetto in Chicago, the neighborhood around Milwaukee Avenue and West Division Street, where the evil Bonifacy Konstantine ran his Tonsorial Palace of Art & Barber Shop.

The book is full of lines where Algren just nails it. I’ll pick one: “The lower the wage the greater the morality demanded of you off the job.” We got echoes of that 60 years later when Barbara Ehrenreich went to work waiting tables, cleaning rooms, and sorting clothes at Walmart in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. If blue-collar workers aren’t getting tested for drugs, they’re taking tests to make sure they’re not trouble-makers. “You weed out all the rebels with drug tests and personality `surveys’” and get “a uniformly servile and denatured workforce, content to dream of the distant day when they’ll be vested in the company’s profit-sharing plan.”

Jack London was one of the writers who inspired me to take up the profession. This was way back when I was fourteen years old. The former oyster pirate, gold prospector, and tramp whose philosophy was a curious mix of socialism and Nietzschean individualism wrote like a fiend during his brief 40 years, and the writing holds up well even a century later. My favorite was not his dog stories but The Sea-Wolf, a great adventure tale that pits the brutal Captain Wolf Larsen against the effete intellectual Humphrey Van Weyden.

(Below is a 1905 photograph of Jack London)

Here’s Larsen’s contemptuous assessment of Van Weyden’s soft life before he came aboard the captain’s ship, Ghost: “You have slept in soft beds, and worn fine clothes, and eaten good meals. Who made those beds? And those clothes? And those meals? Not you. You never made anything in your own sweat. You live on an income which your father earned. You are like a frigate bird swooping down upon the boobies and robbing them of the fish they have caught.”

Would make a nice poster for “Occupy Wall Street”, wouldn’t it? London wrote it more than a century ago, and it still resonates today.

Want to read some real anger at the “frigate birds” on Wall Street and in the corporate executive offices? Read William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley, a 1946 classic of the hard-boiled genre that was made into a film noir classic movie. The novel is a phatasmagoric, hallucinatory trip via literature through the world of carnivals, séances, and mentalism that nevertheless never loses sight of the naked-eyed greed at the dark heart of unhinged capitalism. Embodying that dark heart is Grindle, a name worthy of Charles Dickens and with the same rank arrogance and heartlessness of Mr. Bounderby in Dickens' Hard Times.

(To the right is Charles Dickens)

While we’re at it, let’s take a look at Dickens. Here’s Mr. Bounderby talking about the workers—the “Hands” in his words--in Coketown, an industrial city not unlike Algren’s Chicago: “There’s not a Hand in this town, Sir, man, woman, or child, but has one ultimate object in life. That object is to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon. Now, they’re not a--going—none of them—ever to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon.”

How many Wall Street executives in the privacy of their sanctuaries high in the sky have said much the same? Wouldn’t we like to know?

I could go on and on. I’ve done this before as you early readers of this blog recall. I’ve written about Hammett, Cain, Thompson, Woolrich, and the other hardboiled writers who stood side-by-side with the working class, and produced great literature in the process. Lots of males here, but I've also paid homage to female writers who stand shoulder to shoulder with every one of them, none moreso than Dorothy Day.

They're all inspiring, and their words are still with us even if they aren't, and we don't need to forget them.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Writers and protest

Just a quick notice about an upcoming posting that will be another of my occasional reports on "writers and protest" and how our best wordsmiths still can give us inspiration to fight the good fight in society today.

I've been re-reading some old favorites this fall season--Nelson Algren, Jack London, Dorothy Day--and I'm struck by how much their writing still resonates and still says important things about mankind and, more specifically, the struggle of those who get the raw end of the deal to make themselves heard in the U.S. and beyond.

These are heady times. The Greek prime minister is castigated for attempting to insert democracy into the nation's financial crisis and to put to a popular vote the latest "austerity" deal European and U.S. bankers want to impose on the people. It's a neo-liberal mantra that draconian cuts are better than tax hikes in offsetting debt. In some ways, it's a Tea Party-Gone-Global philosophy, and the Greek people have rightly protested in the streets to have some say-so in the matter.

Here in the states, voters in Boulder, Colo., joined citizens in Madison and Dane County, Wisconsin, by supporting a bid to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens' United ruling through a constitutional amendment. If our politicians are too scared to take it on, then let the people have their say!

"Occupy Wall Street" protesters are continuing to refocus the national dialogue despite arrests and police harassment from Nashville, Tenn., to Oakland, Calif., and more power to them!

"Behind Business's billboards and Business's headlines and Business's pulpits and Business's press, and Business's arsenals, behind the car ads and the subtitles and the commercials, the people of Dickens yet endure," novelist Nelson Algren once wrote.

Jack London wrote a weekly column on the labor movement, Jim Thompson was a former Wobbly, and James Cain worked as a reporter covering the plight of mine workers in West Virginia. They all saw then what we're seeing today.

Stay tuned as I take a fresh look at these writers and see what they have to tell us.