Friday, March 8, 2013

Labor South roundup: Blues in Mississippi, stretch-out in Alabama, wage theft in Virginia, desperation in Memphis, and a contract in Louisiana

Here’s a quick roundup of what’s going on and what’s coming up for Labor South. I’m heading out for a cross-South trip Saturday, traveling from Mississippi to North Carolina. I’ll be visiting friends and relatives but also poking around to see what’s happening in our Southland.

Howlin’ mad blues

(Bill "Howl-N-Madd" Perry)

I just finished a piece for the Jackson Free Press on Mississippi bluesman Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry, who has been performing and recording since the 1960s and who got his start with legendary Chess Records in Chicago. He has worked and performed with blues greats like Willie Dixon, T-Bone Walker, Clarence Carter and Little Milton.

Perry is also an actor and a raconteur with enough stories to fill an encyclopedia! He’s a living testament to the South’s oral tradition. I’ll be posting my story on him soon.

Alabama poultry workers endure the stretch-out on the assembly line

(To the right is 1920s cotton mill worker, troubadour and labor martyr Ella May Wiggins)

The Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice released a study this week on the Alabama poultry industry and the injuries and other health issues that plague its workers—and eventually consumers as well-- because of  “stretch-out”-like conditions on its assembly lines. You thought the “stretch-out” was a thing of the past, something from the days of Ella May Wiggins in the 1920s cotton mills? Not in the poultry industry, not in the automobile industry, and not in any industry at a time when unions are down and the government watchdogs are in bed with management.

“Making matters worse, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is poised to implement a new regulation in April that will allow poultry companies to increase the speed of a plant’s processing line even though plant employees say current line speeds make their work more dangerous,” the SPLC said in a March 5 release. “This proposal also threatens consumer safety by removing hundreds of federal inspectors from processing lines and burdening plant workers with the responsibility of removing tainted chicken from the line.”

Wage theft

The Chicago-based magazine In These Times provided a compelling report in its March 2013 edition on wage theft across America. Spencer Woodman’s article profiled Charlottesville, Va., worker Anthony M. Van Buren’s efforts to get his due pay from Star Valley Painting Contractors Inc.

The Star Valley company owed Van Buren $1,000 in back pay, the 59-year-old worker said. He said he was fired when he complained about it. Even though such nonpayment violates the law, the Virginia Bureau of Labor informed Van Buren that it is “no longer taking wage-and-hour claims and that it was up to him to investigate and prosecute the crime,” Woodman writes.

Apparently this is increasingly the case across the nation as “austerity”-minded legislatures cut budgets and funds needed for labor bureaus and other agencies that supposedly protect workers.

A desperate worker hits the streets of Memphis

Pamela Bridgeforth-Freeman told the Memphis Commercial Appeal this week that “I screamed out to the Lord” and the Lord told her to take her case to the streets.

So the 59-year-old former medical transcriber at a local medical facility in Memphis went to Union Avenue “dressed up with pearls and a bright red coat” and asked passers-by for a job. This was her first day out of work after losing her job. She has been unsuccessful in finding a job in the traditional way since she learned she was losing hers five weeks ago.

Stop: Meet your new employee said the sign she carried to Union Avenue. If the homeless can beg for food on the streets, why can’t she ask for a job, she said.

Due to new technology that replaced the need for workers like Bridgeforth-Freeman, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis has laid off 15 transcriptionists.

Bridgeforth-Freeman told the Commercial Appeal she has had a job ever since she was 13, and she prefers to work rather than get unemployment checks.

Steelworkers and Carey Salt end three-year dispute in Louisiana

Local 14425 of the United Steelworkers and Carey Salt in Cote Blanche, La., have ended their three-year dispute and agreed on a new contract that provides a 3 percent wage increase over each of the next three years plus additional worker benefits.

The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that Carey Salt, a subsidiary of Compass Minerals Inc., wrongly implemented a contract offer without worker agreement in 2010. The NLRB, however, also faulted workers for going on strike as a result. These issues remain and aren’t resolved by the new contract.

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