Friday, September 27, 2013

Labor South featured on "The People's Station" in Cleveland, Ohio

It has been a busy week for yours truly. Ed “Flash” Ferenc of WERE-AM 1490 in Cleveland, Ohio, interviewed me Wednesday, Sept. 25, about the United Auto Workers campaign at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss. WERE-AM is “The People’s Station”, a radio station devoted to talking about labor issues and telling the stories of working class people, and it’s living proof that corporate media haven’t quite yet shut down the discussion on those stories or on labor issues in general.

On Ferenc’s “America’s Work Force” show, we discussed the labor movement in the South, its obstacles, how the image of the union-hostile, low-wage, low-benefits, environmentally lax South lamentably has become a model for the rest of the nation. The UAW’s success at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., also came up. The union says it has enough signed cards from workers for a German-style works council to be set up at the plant. Check out the show at:

The UAW’s turn to the South is also the subject of a lengthy piece I just completed for upcoming edition of the New Labor Forum in New York. The NLF is arguably the finest journal devoted to labor issues in the country today, and I was proud to write for them.

The South indeed is again a battleground, and the outcome will affect the entire nation. Workers need a united voice. That’s the only way to counter the Republican-backed corporate juggernaut. I shouldn’t let Democrats off the hook here. A lot of them spend too much time acting like Republicans. Working people have to look past party lines to see who their real friends are.

Teachers are protesting in North Carolina. They ought to protest. They’re the lowest-paid teachers in the nation, according to one recent report. Fast food workers have had it with sub-minimum wages and disrespect at the workplace. Auto workers get better pay than most folks in the South wearing a blue collar these days, but they know it isn’t only about the pay. It’s about respect. The United Auto Workers and other unions realize that, and it’s why their message is getting heard in Dixie. Let it ring loud and clear!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Palestinian makes a go of a Middle Eastern restaurant that serves falafel but no alcohol in a Southern college town

  (To the right is restaurant owner Maher Alqasas)

(The following feature column by yours truly appeared in a recent edition of the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss. For this reason, please cite the Jackson Free Press when publishing this elsewhere.)

 OXFORD, Miss. – The great journalist, raconteur, and connoisseur of good food A.J. Liebling loved to venture off the beaten tracks of New York and Paris to find little restaurants and bistros overlooked by the culinary critics and trend-setters but where a man with a taste for good dining could enjoy himself.

Liebling knew such places—“lost Atlantises” he called them--often have a precarious existence. “The small restaurant is evanescent,” he writes in his 1959 classic Between Meals. “Sometimes it has the life span of a man, sometimes of a fruit fly.”

A more recent writer, the former chef and current TV food and travel personality Anthony Bourdain, had this to say about the perils of the restaurant business in his own book Kitchen Confidential: “To want to open a restaurant can be a strange and terrible affliction. What causes such a destructive urge in so many otherwise sensible people? Why would anyone want to pump their hard-earned cash down a hole that statistically, at least, will almost surely prove dry?”

Maher Alqasas, 50, a native of the Mount of Olives in Palestine and longtime resident and veteran restaurant owner here in Oxford, acknowledges the risks. “This is a tough business. Imagine working 12 hours a day and having a smile on your face for 12 hours, and to like what you do. The kitchen is a fireball, booming, loud, and I have to be a part of that. What makes it worth it at the end of the day in seeing the smile on their faces.”

He’s talking about the smile on the faces of customers at his Middle Eastern-Mediterranean restaurant Petra Cafe, open since February, a long, narrow stretch of a place in the corner of the town’s famous Square that once housed Wiley’s shoe shop and later Parrish’s bar. “Food is the moment of celebration,” says Alqasas, who grew up in Qatar, “because when you are hungry you are willing to eat anything, but if you know you are eating something good, it is a joy. You are nourishing your body.”

The food at Petra--falafel, kibbeh, hummus, labneh, dolmas, chicken shawerma, shish kabob, gyros with tiziki sauce—isn’t exactly what you’d find on the tables of most Southern homes. But it’s just as homemade and just as likely from old family recipes, says Petra chef and Alqasas’ wife, Angela, also a native of Palestine. “My customers come to my kitchen and tell me it’s the best falafel they’ve ever had, customers from Chicago, Michigan,” she says with pride. “I love it. I remember when I was a kid, my mom asked me to do the falafel. We used to help my mom. I learned from my mother and my mother-in-law.”

The Alqasas—their three children work at Petra, too--like the idea of a homey atmosphere, even though home for them would be exotic to most Oxonians. The walls feature paintings of street scenes and merchants from Old Egypt. The music is Turkish, the carpet at the front door is Persian. “I’m trying to keep the Oxford look, too, the old and new,” Maher Alqasas says. “This is an old building (a century old, he estimates) but with fresh legs … new ceiling, new floor, new electrical, new everything.”

Still, running a successful restaurant on Oxford’s Square can require more than good food and good atmosphere. Most of the two dozen or more restaurants and bars on or near the Square also serve alcohol. They’re why the town’s thriving night life rivals that of much larger cities. Petra allows brown-bagging but serves no alcohol.

Does it hurt business? “It does,” Alqasas admits, “but eventually it is going to be known. Customers can bring their own. It is worth the wait. It is all about the food.”

Alqasas is Muslim. His religious faith is one reason he wants to avoid serving alcohol. Another is the bar he once had in an earlier version of Petra a few blocks away. “It made my life miserable as far as inventory, keeping kids working, no stealing. … I don’t want to be a part of it.”

At least some of his customers don’t mind. “It didn’t stop us,” said Ole Miss student Shelby Herring, a 21-year-old hospitality management major from Houston, Texas, during a recent meal there with her friend and fellow Ole Miss student Molly Thrush. “I like Mediterranean food. I’m a vegetarian, so I like the falafel (fried ground vegetables), the salads, the hummus. Back home, I’d go once a week to a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean restaurant.”

Restaurants typically take a couple years to turn a decent profit. Petra just suffered through the summer doldrums that tend to hurt the bottom lines of most college town businesses. Many tables remained empty during the summer evenings.

“I am a patient person,” Alqasas says. However, he admits, he was more than ready for the fall invasion of Ole Miss students.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Labor South roundup: Calls for a new "Operation Dixie", GOP-appointed "Czars" in Democratic strongholds, and striking fast-food workers in Dixie

 In this latest roundup. Labor South looks at calls for a new “Operation Dixie”, GOP-appointed “Czars” in Democratic strongholds, and striking fast-food workers.

Calls for a modern-day “Operation Dixie”

Delegates at the 2013 convention of the AFL-CIO in Los Angeles this week adopted a a resolution proposed by the Savannah (Ga.) Regional Central Council “to develop a Southern organizing strategy” as “one of its top priorities” and one that will “include a long-term commitment to organize the South.”

Resolution 26 decries the fact that the U.S. labor movement “has never successfully developed a concerted and coordinated effort to organize workers in the 11 Southern states” of the Southern Region, thus “allowing the most conservative political forces in the South to operate without effectively being challenged by organized workers.”

The South today is “a major player in the new global economy,” the resolution says, “and has become a haven for US manufacturing, foreign investments and finance capital, and because of this reemergence is now playing an integral role in shaping US labor and social policies.”

Yet “corporations in the South have not only exploited Southern workers but have also been responsible for the negative environmental impact on many working class families, especially the African American, Latino, Native American, Asian and poor white communities.”

Conservative Southern politicians have okayed “billions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives” to corporations “at the expense of these struggling communities.”

Even as convention delegates adopted this resolution, however, much work is already underway to, indeed, organize the South, an effort tracked closely by Labor South.

The United Auto Workers, in a do-or-die effort to rebuild, is actively working with the IG Metall union in Germany and even some company officials to establish German-style works councils at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., and the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala. Despite opposition from political leaders in both states, VW officials are talking with union leaders about the move, and Mercedes-Benz officials say they’re neutral to the idea.

In fact, in a major breakthrough, Gary Casteel, UAW regional director for the South, said this week that a majority of workers at the VW plant in Chattanooga have now signed cards supporting a works council. Casteel told Associated Press that the cards are the legal equivalent of an actual election. He declined to say when the union would seek formal recognition.

Besides its work at the German plants, the UAW has helped build a wide-ranging grassroots campaign over the past eight years to organize the 5,200 workers at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss. That campaign has taken activists around the country and as far away as Brazil and South Africa to make the case for a union vote in Canton. Hundreds now attend union-related events, even as Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and other state leaders lock arms in opposition. Bryant attacked a recent study showing Nissan will receive up to $1.33 billion in government incentives over a 30-year period despite never living up to all the promises that came with its arrival in Mississippi. To counteract the UAW, Nissan has waged a high-stakes campaign to endear itself to the area black community—an estimated 80 percent of the workforce at the plant is black—offering hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to local schools and civil rights organizations.

Even back in 1946, when the original “Operation Dixie” was launched, labor leaders recognized the crucial importance of the South to labor’s future, the potential for Southern-bred anti-unionism to spread to the rest of the country. The campaign ended in failure in the early 1950s, but the predictions that prompted it have proven true. The South has to be organized, or the U.S. labor movement will eventually shrink into nonexistence.

Who needs democracy? Let’s appoint a “Czar”!

Detroit’s fiscal woes are widely known, and the Republican version of what caused them is the familiar tirade against a government-run-amuck with fat pensions and greedy unions at the heart of the problem. Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, and the financial manager, Kevyn Orr, he chose to rule over the bankrupt city have targeted pension plans in their plan to restore fiscal integrity.

The plan fails to take into account the myriad reasons why Detroit got into such trouble, including NAFTA and other trade deals that put U.S. workers at a disadvantage (Michigan lost more jobs to NAFTA than any other state). Like Republican pols in the South, Michigan’s “fiscal conservative” pols aren’t above spending taxpayer money for causes they do support, such as $283 million for a pro-hockey stadium.

Oh, and by the way, Orr refused requests by the AFSCME to meet despite promises that union leaders would be part of the discussion about Detroit’s future.

When Tennessee State Comptroller Justin Wilson issued a warning to the city of Memphis this spring regarding its finances, local media and other observers wondered, “Is Memphis the next Detroit?”

Wilson told Memphis that its future depended on city leaders getting their fiscal act together in fixing the city’s ailing $622 million operating budget. Memphis has long been a Democratic stronghold in a very Republican state. Local economists insist Memphis is a long way from a Detroit-style state takeover, but how much will pension holders and other regular folks in Memphis have to suffer to keep that from happening?

Eerily similar to these developments is a recent decision by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) in California to take away San Francisco City College’s accreditation by the summer of 2014 if it fails to implement a multi-part plan that critics say essentially moves the school toward privatization.

San Francisco City College has been a democratic haven—known for shared governance, strong unions, and local activism—for years, and thus a burr in the saddle of conservative Republicans and even some Democrats.

Fast-food workers tired of working for less than living wages

The nationwide strikes and worker actions against low wages in the fast-food industry had spread to the South by the end of August, according to the North Carolina-based Institute for Southern Studies’ Facing South online magazine.

Fast-food workers in at least 11 Southern cities joined the nationwide strike, including workers in the Triangle region of North Carolina. North Carolina is perennially the nation’s least-unionized state.

Workers struck in Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, Atlanta, Houston, Austin, Dallas, Memphis, New Orleans and Gretna, La.

The workers are seeking an hourly pay of $15. Their current average pay nationwide is $8.94 an hour.

This is a $200 billion industry. McDonald’s last year posted profits of $5.47 billion.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Labor South looking at Republican "czars" overseeing Democratic strongholds, and the rise of fast-food worker protests

Labor South is still on the watch although other writing duties have kept yours truly from posting recently.

Coming soon will be a look at a potential trend among conservative state political leaders to take over local entities that don't fit their preferred political profile.

We've seen this already with the state takeover of the city of Detroit, a city that granted has a lot of problems but which as a Democratic stronghold also makes a mighty juicy target for Republican pols. A recent warning from state officials in Tennessee that city leaders in Memphis better get their fiscal house in order raised concerns that Memphis could be another Detroit--another inviting target, that is.

More recently, students at City College of San Francisco have protested the possible loss of accreditation and shutdown of the school, popular for its low tuition and strong network of campus and community activists.  CCSF has an active teachers' union and a tradition of shared and democratic leadership. It has also been under attack by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. The state community colleges chancellor has designated a "czar" to oversee campus operations. These political entities question the college's budget decision-making, among other things.

Of course, another growing issue is the spreading protest by fast-food workers about their wages, a protest that has included several Southern cities.

Labor South will be taking a look. Keep posted.