Friday, January 29, 2016

Bernie Sanders is saying what most Americans believe - and his against-great-odds tie in Iowa shows it

OXFORD, Miss. – Back in 1947, Republican and FBI witch-hunters, led by their Russian-born right-wing guru Ayn Rand, went on the attack against the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” as Communist propaganda because it depicted powerful banker Henry Potter as the paradigm of vicious, immoral capitalist greed.

The only thing that saved Frank Capra’s Christmas classic was Hollywood screenwriter John Charles Moffitt’s testimony before the U.S. House for Un-American Committee, pointing out that the movie’s hero, played by actor Jimmy Stewart, was himself a small businessman and the local Italian immigrant community’s only hope of owning a home.

The movie “showed that the power of money can be used oppressively and it can be used benevolently,” Moffitt told the committee.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders took that same message to the Iowa caucuses, and that's what he did successfully in the New Hampshire primary in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Now that he won in New Hampshire after scoring a tie in Iowa, expect a lot of ramped-up talk about “socialism” down the road, maybe as much from his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton as from the gaggle of Republicans also wanting to be president.

Sanders calls himself a “Democratic Socialist,” the first major politician in U.S. history since Eugene Debs (way back in 1920) using the term “socialist” in a serious bid for the presidency.  What Sanders means by that nebulous word seems to be a literal understanding of Lincoln’s call for a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Polls indicate American voters are no longer scared of the term. Not only has Sanders given Clinton a run for her money, a recent national poll by CBS News/New York Times shows that a strong majority of all Americans:

-       Support raising the minimum wage;
-       Believe U.S. corporations have too much power;
-       Support more even distribution of wealth in the country
-       Oppose cuts in Social Security
-       Support workers’ right to join a union

In other words, most Americans stand with Bernie Sanders on these issues and in opposition to most Republican politicians.

The big question for Hillary Clinton is: Where does she stand? “No one knows what she really believes,” The Economist once noted. It’s a fair point.

The former secretary of state and U.S. senator once supported the NAFTA-like Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which promises to further enrich her Wall Street friends but at the expense of workers. Now she opposes it.

On the campaign trail, she has been mildly critical of Wall Street—a reaction to the Amos-like Bernie Sanders’ fiery condemnation of the princes of greed. Yet she remains close to Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, a major financial supporter, and she and her husband benefitted from hundreds of millions of dollars Blankfein’s firm and other financial giants steered their and their foundation’s way.

The Clinton brand has enjoyed strong support among African Americans over the years—at least up until Bill’s attacks against Barack Obama in the 2008 election—and Hillary looks to the South and its Super Tuesday primaries after Iowa and New Hampshire as what has been called her “firewall” because of the powerful black voting block in Southern Democratic primaries.

Yet closer scrutiny of both Clintons shows little substantial support of black communities. Hillary Clinton was a forceful advocate of her husband’s welfare reform measures in the 1990s as a way to get “deadbeats” off the government dole. Bill Clinton’s welfare reform did nothing to alleviate poverty, but it did do something Republicans love: cut the federal deficit.

Hillary Clinton today talks about criminal justice reform, yet she has never acknowledged how Bill Clinton’s Violent Crime and Enforcement Act (VCEA) in 1994 made black communities targets in the “get tough on crime” campaign while marching untold numbers of black males off to prison for minor crimes.

Democrat and economic populist John Bel Edwards’ victory in Louisiana’s recent gubernatorial race may be a harbinger to Clinton that Southerners—like in the nation as a whole—are tired of the status quo. They’re not seeing benefits from Wall Street profits. As important as the social triggers of abortion, gender and gay rights may be to many, the economy is the issue to most in 2016.

Bernie Sanders has made serious inroads into Clinton strongholds like black voters and women voters. And what’s ironical for a 74-year-old politician his strongest constituency is young voters, many of them strapped by college debt and uncertain job prospects.

Hillary Clinton’s biggest weapon in her arsenal remains money, but Sanders’ grassroots fundraising is even challenging her on that front.

In many ways, this is an election about money. Those who have it wield lots of power. However, if this country is still the democracy we’d like to think it is, so do the people who don’t have it.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Labor South Roundup: On the UAW in Canton, Miss., sooner or later you got to vote; At the vanguard of the "Fight for $15" in the Deep South

Expect some historical labor battles ahead in 2016 as the nation watches with fascination the Republican presidential campaign circus, and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders wrestle for the Democratic nomination.

Sooner or later you got to vote

Here in the South keep an eye on Canton, Miss., where the United Auto Workers is slowly, methodically moving toward a major showdown after waging a decade-plus-long grassroots effort that has contained elements both of a modern-era corporate campaign and old-fashioned union organizing.

I’ve said this before, and I’ve been wrong, but I have a feeling things are coming to a head in Canton. The UAW doesn’t want to lose another major vote like it did with Nissan in Smyrna, Tennessee, and with Volkswagen in Chattanooga. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn helped scuttle the vote in Smyrna in 2001 with his day-before-the-election threats to workers, and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, both Republicans, did much the same in Chattanooga in 2014.

That’s why the UAW has proceeded slowly, making the campaign one that is truly local and grassroots, not one of an outside union riding into town. Attendance at local meetings has grown from a dozen or two in 2005 to hundreds strong today. Proclaiming that “Labor Rights Are Civil Rights”, the campaign has tapped into a still-resilient and passionate civil rights community in Mississippi, including ministers from a wide range of denominations and students from several (historically black) universities. The UAW also recognizes the modern-day reality that major labor campaigns have to be global—just like corporations—and it has brought activists, students and workers in from as far away as Brazil to show international solidarity.

The UAW got a big boost in December with the skilled trades workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga voting to join the union. However, even at a plant where the company insists it is neutral toward a union, workers have complained of a pervasive fear there that their pro-union sympathies could eventually cost them their jobs.

Organizing in the South is not for the faint-hearted, and it probably never will be. Still, as one veteran labor organizer told me some time back, sooner or later you have to put it to a vote. I believe it’s going to be sooner rather than later in Canton.

Fighting for Fifteen in the South

“The love for the union, and the unity, that’s what drives me,” Shawnte Poynter told The Guild Reporter for its Winter edition.

The Little Rock, Ark.-based NewsGuild-Communication Workers of America (CWA) member and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) employee is an organizer for the “Fight for $15” movement in the Deep South. She’s one of more than a dozen organizers in the United Media Guild active in a region that stretches from St. Louis, Mo., to Nashville, Tenn, to New Orleans, La.

A former plastics factory worker, Poynter told The Guild Reporter that she has found 40 to 50 activists to help her serve as the vanguard of the regional effort to get fast-food workers and other low-wage workers a $15-an-hour wage.

Poynter said the movement has spread to include home health care workers and others on the low end of the nation’s service economy today.

“The people I meet, oh my goodness, so many circumstances that have gotten them where they are,” she told the publication. “They are not lazy, they’ve had bad luck. I really care about helping them have a better life.”

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Finding hope in 2016 despite Republican saber rattling on the presidential campaign trail and Southern fried "austerity" closer to home

(A version of this column ran recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss., Mississippi’s largest alternative newspaper. It includes some information from a recent post detailing recent labor/left victories in the South)

OXFORD, Miss. – When I take a peek into 2016, I’m sometimes not sure whether to get depressed or elated.

On the down side is the presidential campaign with Donald Trump and the other Republican wannabees one-upping each other on how they’re ready to go mano a mano with Vladimir Putin, build a mile-high wall between the United States and Mexico, ban Syrian refugees and their families from entering the country, and bury the memory of Barack Obama forever.

Here in Mississippi, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and the three-fifths Republican majorities in both houses of the state will assume untold power to continue underfunding public education, highways, and other state needs while looking for ways to fatten the wallets of their corporate sponsors.

Immigrants should beware—not only nationwide but also in Mississippi.         Republicans need to keep their constituents pre-occupied with a scapegoat, preferably dark-skinned, while they accomplish the further corporatization of nation and state. Many Democrats are in on the deal, but others do try their best to expose this ruse. The problem is they can’t shout louder than Fox News.

“Democrats should demand that Tea Party rebels explain why they are in league with a party that intends to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security in order to finance more tax cuts for billionaires,” journalist William Greider wrote in a recent edition of The Nation magazine. “If common folks ever understand the corrupt nature of the Republican coalition, we will see a popular rebellion that makes the present chaos look like, well, a tea party.”

The reason Mississippi doesn’t already have an Arizona or Alabama-style anti-immigrant law on the books is the hard work of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance in coalition with the Black Legislative Caucus and a handful of other progressive legislators. However, MIRA Executive Director Bill Chandler and the organization’s other activists are worried.

“It will be a dangerous, unpredictable time for immigrant and worker rights,” MIRA announced in a recent release about the upcoming legislative session. “With Republicans holding an overwhelming majority in both sides of the Legislature, they will be almost unstoppable. On the national political stage, candidates in both parties are spreading xenophobic, discriminatory messages, which is stoking the fires here in Mississippi.”

Still I’ve got some reasons for cheer in the coming year.

Nearly three-fourths of the skilled trades workers—71 percent--at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., recently voted to join the United Auto Workers. The ground-breaking victory sent shock waves across the corporate South, where CEO’s like Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn thought he’d found non-union heaven and anti-worker politicians like Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., thought their Valentine’s Day 2014 demagoguery in the UAW’s previous Chattanooga election had nailed the union’s coffin shut in their state.

In another shock to Southern conservatives, Louisiana state Rep. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, defeated conservative Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter in that state’s November 21 gubernatorial race. Edwards won by a commanding 12 percent over the scandal-ridden Vitter, becoming the only Democratic governor in the once solidly Democrat Deep South.

Edwards, conservative on some social issues, is a progressive populist on economic issues. His message resonated with voters sick of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s disastrous leadership, which endangered education and health care while Jindall sought the national limelight as a short-lived presidential candidate.

Edwards has pledged to expand Medicaid, support public schools, and roll back government give-aways to big corporations in an effort to secure greater tax fairness.

Closer to home, 80 percent of Laurel, Miss., firefighters have agreed to join a reorganized Local 207 of the Laurel Firefighters Association.

Chartered in 1919 as part of the International Association of Firefighters, the union endeared itself to the community for years not only for its support of its members’ safety and good working conditions but also for its Christmas toy drive for needy children. After a decline in membership, new life has been breathed into a reorganized local.

Another story out of Laurel this column has followed closely is worker unrest at giant Howard Industries, beneficiary of more than $60 million in state and local largesse and site of the nation’s largest raid on undocumented workers in its history.

Workers at this pampered company earn just 61 percent of what their counterparts earn at a similar plant in Crystal Springs, Miss.

Seeing voters in Louisiana and workers in Mississippi and Tennessee finally stand up to the political and corporate fog machine and assert their rights gives me hope for 2016. Challenges lie ahead, but I’m doing what I can to spread the good news.