Friday, July 27, 2012

Activism in the Volunteer State: New Calls for Social Justice


The old, tired image of the laid-back Southerner too happy and content with his lot to protest is being laid to rest—again—in Tennessee, where grassroots activism is popping up in the cities of Nashville and Memphis and challenging a status quo that keeps the state and region near the bottom.

Our Vanderbilt is an exciting, self-described “labor-community-religion partnership” that is making its presence known in one of the region’s most prestigious universities and beyond. “We are workers, students, alumni, faculty, and people of faith and conscience working for economic and social justice at Vanderbilt University,” proclaims the organization’s Web site (www.ourvandy.org).

Leaders say the organization is gearing up for the coming Fall semester with 30 new members on board. Members are applying their research as well as organizing skills to bring attention to issues such as Vanderbilt’s “high executive pay and sweet deals for trustees.” While the chancellor was rewarded with a $210,027 bonus last year, good-performing service workers at the university got a 10-cent-an-hour bonus.

Members are busy developing videos, petitioning for social justice, and spreading the news. Let’s see if their activism is contagious beyond Tennessee.

Folks in Memphis certainly aren’t going to let Music City outdo them! Members of the Occupy Memphis movement recently joined with the Workers Interfaith Network to push for a “living wage” for working folks in the Bluff City. Their protest is part of a national push to get Congress to increase the current $7.25-an-hour minimum wage.

According to a 2010 study by David Ciscel, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Memphis, the parents in a family of four would need to earn $11.62 an hour just to survive without government assistance.

Another study by the National Employment Law Project shows that the largest corporations with low-wage workers have successfully recovered from the recession and the top executives earned an average $9.4 million in 2011.

Like much of the South, Tennessee suffers from an underinvestment in its people, a true contagion that now has spread from the South to the rest of the nation. The Volunteer state ranked in the bottom 10 of states in education, according to a national report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Other Southern states in that bottom 10 (all lower than Tennessee, which ranked 42nd) included: Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia.

Given its recent record on immigration and right-wing politics, Arizona qualifies as an honorary Southern state. It, too, was in the bottom 10 in education.

The ranking assessed states according to reading and math skills, delayed or lack of graduation among high school students, and 3 and 4-year-olds not attending preschool programs.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Watching the UAW in Miss., poultry workers in Maryland, Appalachian musicians & coal miners, and Let's Call Them Working Class, Not Middle Class! Please!

Watching the UAW and Nissan in Canton, Miss.

Just finished an in-depth package of stories on the United Auto Workers and the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., which runs in today's edition of the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss. The package includes a sidebar on actor Danny Glover's involvement in the UAW's push for an election at the 3,300-worker plant. This is a huge story of national--make that global--implications. Veteran labor organizers like Bruce Raynor and Richard Bensinger are also part of the action.

A version for this blog will be coming in the days ahead.

In the meantime, a quick look across the South shows there are all kinds of labor stirrings.

Workers on Maryland's Eastern Shore
 
I heard recently from Baltimore-based writer Bruce Vail, who publishes with the Working In These Times web magazine and other outlets. He said he's writing about Maryland's Eastern Shore and the poultry industry there. Apparently owners are trying the now-familiar game of pitting black workers against Latino workers, something we saw in the huge drive by workers at the Smithfield pork processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C. Those workers finally overcame such divisive tactics to win their union.

Locked-out musicians in Kentucky win the day

Ira Grupper of Labor Paeans writes that members of the Louisville Orchestra in Louisville, Ky., overcame an effort by management to "break (the) back" of Local 11-637 of The American Federation of Musicians and ended a worker lockout with a newly signed agreement.

Management at the struggling orchestra--many orchestras are struggling nowadays--had hired scabs to replace musicians after they refused what they considered to be an unacceptable contract. The musicians hung in there, however, found some political support as well as help from Kentucky AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan, and eventually won the day.

Black lung cases in Appalachia on the rise

Black lung cases in the coal mining country of Appalachia are on the rise, according to a recent investigation by National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity. The disease rate among miners has doubled in the past decade.  Howard Berkes of NPR All Things Considered reports that worst stage cases have actually quadrupled since the 1980s in parts of Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia.

Why? Blame the mining industry and federal regulators who apparently look the other way rather than enforce protections. If he were alive today, United Mine Workers leader John L. Lewis would ask (no, he would demand!) to know why are we turning back the clock to the horrible conditions that existed a century ago.

We are the working class, thank you very much!

I've been harping at this issue for a long time. We need to start using the term "working class" instead of the mollifying "middle class" term that President Obama and even national labor leaders want to continue to embrace even though it's clearly an example of the kind of language that seeks to eviscerate worker solidarity.

In an essay in the Spring 2012 edition of New Labor Forum, noted labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein comes out strongly for the "working class" in an article titled "Class Unconsciousness: Stop Using `Middle Class' to Depict the Labor Movement".

Maybe labor leaders at least will hear Lichtenstein even if they refuse to hear Atkins.

"Unionists and those who advocate on their behalf need to use the kind of language whose emotive power and historic resonance match the political audacity of those who occupied both the Wisconsin statehouse and the Wall Street parks," Lichtenstein writes.

Three years ago, in a May 29, 2009, letter to Cindy Estrada of the United Auto Workers in Detroit, yours truly, Joe Atkins, wrote the following: "My suggestion is to mount a `Worker Pride' campaign that really identifies all of us as workers--`If you have a boss, you're a worker'--and not to shy away from `working class identity'. This identity today can be shared by assembly line workers and high-tech workers and educators (and journalists). Even Silicon Valley workers could be made to identify with it these days! Believe me, you're never going to get `middle-class solidarity', and I'm not sure if the middle class even exists any more."

So there! I said it again!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Injured workers in the Magnolia state beware! Mississippi weakens its already weak workers' compensation law


J. K. Morrison turned over in his grave on July 1.

A little-known part-time investigator, slight in build, who looked older than his 68 years, Morrison was a private citizen who believed Mississippi desperately needed a law to protect people who get injured on the job.

He was the chief warrior for the last 10 years of a 26-year struggle, and he shed tears when Mississippi became the last state in the nation to adopt a workers’ compensation law in April 1948. “Now when I go to bed at night,” he told Mississippi columnist Bill Minor after the bill’s passage, “I have the comforting feeling that I have done a good duty to somebody who will lose a leg or an arm on the job.”

The clock turned back on July 1, however, when the state’s newly revised workers’ compensation law went into effect, putting the burden on workers to prove injuries are job-related and that they weren’t drinking or taking drugs, to provide medical evidence within a strict deadline and show they had no pre-existing condition.

The new law tells corporations Mississippi “is the most job-friendly environment in America,” crowed Gov. Phil Bryant during a May press conference.

Mississippi Manufacturers Association President Jay Moon proclaimed the new law actually promotes “the safety of the individual,” pondering no doubt the Cheshire cat grins on the faces of his MMA membership.

J.K. Morrison would not agree. Neither would the “four horsemen”, the World War II veterans in the House who, as Minor wrote in an April 11, 1948, column, fought hardest for injured workers. Two became the stuff of legend in Mississippi politics: future Gov. William Winter and famed “Whiskey Speech” author N.S. “Soggy” Sweat.

(To the right is Mississippi labor attorney Roger Doolittle)

In a word, the new law “is terrible,” says Jackson labor attorney Roger K. Doolittle, who commissioned a study two years ago that showed a distinct bias on the part of the state’s Republican-dominated Workers’ Compensation Commission in favor of employers in worker injury claims. “This law is going to create an atmosphere that will be the most litigious in the history of the workers’ compensation act. … The intent is to deprive workers of access to the courts … a deprivation of due process.”

Doolittle says he and other attorneys may seek an injunction that would prevent the law’s enforcement until its constitutionality is determined.

(To the left is Mississippi AFL-CIO President Robert Shaffer)

Mississippi AFL-CIO President Robert Shaffer agrees that “the thing is horrible” but fears an injunction may be premature given Mississippi’s pro-corporate judiciary. He prefers to wait until after this year’s elections to see if a more worker-friendly state Supreme Court emerges.

 Waiting for a worker-friendly court in Mississippi, however, may be like Waiting for Godot. The fellow just may never show up, particularly if the deep-pocketed U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Legislative Exchange Council, and billionaire right-wingers Charles and David Koch do show up, as they’ve done before.

The irony is that the new law emerged out of a debate over the pro-employer bias of the current Workers’ Compensation Commission, led by former Gov. Haley Barbour’s hand-picked man, Liles Williams, for the past seven years. Doolittle’s study prompted the bipartisan Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) itself to conduct a months-long review of the commission. Its January 2012 findings described a commission that rejected administrative law judge rulings without stating “clear, principled legal grounds” and that acted in a manner that delayed the resolution of cases by an average of nearly two months.

With the Republican takeover of the state House in the November elections and continued Republican control in the Senate and Governor’s mansion, the issue turned from the commission’s performance to the law itself. Under intense lobbying from the MMA and Mississippi Association of Self-Insurers, conservative legislators saw an opportunity and took it.

Not without a battle, however. The state AFL-CIO set up phone banks, pleaded unsuccessfully with House Insurance Chairman Gary Chism, R-Columbus, an insurance agent, for public hearings. After the House flipped on its earlier rejection of changes to the law, a fight actually broke out between Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, and Rep. Bennett Malone, D-Carthage. Malone was one of three Democrats who switched their votes.

Despite claims the changes establish a needed balance, the original purpose of workers’ compensation law was to give workers the benefit of the doubt in injury cases in exchange for them forgoing further legal action.

July is historically the month with the most worker injuries. Statistics are hard to find in Mississippi but at least 13,000 job-related injuries take place every year and many more may go unreported. Eighty Mississippians died as a result of such injuries in 2008.

J.K. Morrison fought for 10 hard years on behalf of those workers. Is his own work now to be in vain?