Sunday, September 10, 2017

Confederate statues both offend and remind as the South still fights on old war

 
(The Confederate statue on the Square in downtown Oxford, Mississippi)

OXFORD, Miss. – My young self must have killed thousands of imaginary Yankees in the woods next to our house in central North Carolina. Inspired by Civil War-themed television shows like “The Gray Ghost”, I put on the nearest gray cap, armed myself with my toy rifle, and went to war to defend the South.

Even then, however, I knew that hanging over my TV heroes, Confederate Major John Singleton “The Gray Ghost” Mosby and crusty old Sergeant Myles Magruder, was the ugly specter of slavery.

Today, sad to say, we’re still fighting that war. With the events in Charlottesville and protests against Confederate monuments in Memphis, Durham, and Baltimore, the nation is going through what folks here in the Confederate-laden culture of Oxford, Mississippi, and the University of Mississippi wrestle with all the time.

What do you do with all the Confederate reminders that are everywhere in the South? I grew up in Robert E. Lee County, North Carolina. I live near Robert E. Lee County, Mississippi. I live in a town with two Confederate statues, one of them dedicated to those who “gave their lives for a just and holy cause.” They attract countless literary scholars who come here to see William Faulkner’s inspiration in writing, “the Confederate soldier … his musket at order arms, shading his carven eyes with his stone hand.”

Like most Confederate statues, they appeared long after the Civil War at a time when the white South was celebrating the rise of Jim Crow.

The Neo-Nazis and white supremacists came to Charlottesville ostensibly to protest the removal of a statue to Robert E. Lee. I’m sure they didn’t know about Lee’s own disdain for Confederate statues. According to Business Insider writer Daniel Brown, Lee wrote the statues “would have the effect of retarding rather than accelerating (the nation’s) accomplishment.”  

President Trump faced a political firestorm for his reaction to those white supremacists in Charlottesville. The CEOS on his Strategic and Policy Forum and Manufacturing Council walked out in protest. The corporate media got so enraged they even stopped talking about Russian influence in the 2016 election.

Maybe it’s just me, but I have to look askance when the CEOs of JP Morgan Chase and General Electric join the nation’s moral vanguard. Those guys never do anything that doesn’t have to do with the bottom line.

While Russia and Confederate statues deserve media coverage, they are also easy targets that don’t challenge the corporate state. Less easy are the Trump-and-GOP-led military buildup in this country and the systematic dismantling of the nation’s social safety net and environmental protections.

CNN health producer John Bonifield said this summer that CNN CEO Jeff Zucker actually told staff members to drop their climate accord reporting and “let’s get back to Russia.” Prior to Charlottesville, you couldn’t turn on CNN and MSNBC without hearing endless chatter about Russia, a neo-McCarthyite obsession that is manna from heaven for military contractors.

Money compromises everything in this country, including the media. In the late 1990s, CBS actually killed investigative reporter Roberta Baskin’s story about Nike’s connection to Vietnamese sweatshops after the two companies formed an Olympics partnership that made Nike a CBS sponsor.

Money even compromises civil rights organizations like the NAACP, the recipient of such Nissan largesse over the years that one of its Tennessee branches named the company’s North American operations “Organization of the Year” in 2016. Is this why the NAACP avoided boycotts or other pressure tactics to get Nissan to act fairly in the recent union election for the largely black workforce at Nissan’s Canton plant?

Yes, take down and replace the Mississippi flag with its embarrassing Confederate insignia. Take those statues of Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis and put them in a military park or a cemetery.

Still, for the adult version of that Yankee-fighting youth back in North Carolina, many of those statues deserve a place even if it’s just in a museum or a cemetery. Many of them depict a simple, country-boy soldier who fought a war not of his own making, upholding an evil, profit-obsessed institution of which he had no part, a soldier whose “carven eyes” and “stone hand” are the South’s most searing reminder of the horror and tragic waste of war, particularly one fought to enslave fellow human beings.

This column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Where were the NAACP boycotts and other major efforts to support Nissan's Canton, Mississippi, workers in their struggle for a union? Too many $$$$ from Nissan?

 
(Bernie Sanders at the March 4 "March on Mississippi" rally in support of the workers at Nissan's Canton, Mississippi, plant)

Looking back at workers’ rejection of a union at Nissan’s Canton, Mississippi, plant earlier this month, I, like many others, still wonder what might have made a difference in that election.

After a dozen years or more of slowly, methodically helping to build a pro-union community network that included civil rights-era veterans, area preachers, students from several colleges and universities, activists, supporters from as far away as France and Brazil, and, of course, workers, the United Auto Workers mustered only 36 percent of the vote on election day.

Here’s one thing I’ve come up with: One of the key elements that was missing was a national, concerted effort by the nation’s leading civil rights organization, the NAACP, to use it prestige and leverage to make a difference. The NAACP gave lip service to the rights of the 80 percent African American workforce at Nissan Canton to form a union, of course, but where were the boycotts or other high profile efforts to show its unity with those workers? Nowhere to be seen.

 “If Nissan allows workers in Brazil to collective bargain, why not workers in Canton, Mississippi?” Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson told thousands at the March 4 “March on Mississippi” rally in Canton in support of the union.

Echoing those sentiments was national NAACP President Cornell William Brooks at the rally.

Words are cheap, however. Where was the action?

Was it missing because Nissan has funneled plenty of cash in the direction of the NAACP, which partnered with Nissan for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in 2013? That same year Nissan gave $100,000 to the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute to commemorate the life of the martyred Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers. Although Hollywood celebrity and strong UAW supporter Danny Glover had been a featured speaker at past annual Medgar Evers dinners, he was significantly NOT invited at the 2013 event.

The NAACP’s Murfreesboro, Tennessee, branch was so thankful for Nissan’s largess in 2016 that it named the company’s North America operations “Organization of the Year”.

Yet this is the organization that virulently fought against its Canton workers’ efforts to organize, much as it did years before at its plant in Tennessee. Workers were subjected to meetings with management—interrogations might be a better word—and anti-union videos, threats of lost jobs and a shut-down plant. Charged by the National Labor Relations Board with various labor violations, Nissan waged such a media campaign that workers said they couldn’t turn on the television without seeing an anti-union commercial.

“Labor rights are civil rights” was the rallying cry of the union effort at the Canton plant. As former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders told workers and supporters at the March rally, “the eyes of the country and the eyes of the world are on you!”

The eyes of the NAACP were, too, but only briefly, very briefly, before they returned to the $$$$$$$$ signs that Nissan was waving in the distance.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Threats, intimidation and use of inmate labor to pull down union signs won the day in Canton, Mississippi, this week but not the war. A solid pro-worker community network promises the battle will go on.

 
(Actor Danny Clover--center-right--addresses Nissan workers at a pro-UAW rally in 2014. To the left with tie and sunglasses is veteran civil rights activist Bob Zellner)

Threats of lost jobs and a closed plant, fear-mongering, intimidation, interrogations of pro-union workers, and even the use of state inmate labor to pull down pro-union signs on roads and highways paid off Thursday and Friday as Nissan workers at the Canton, Mississippi, plant voted against United Auto Workers representation 2,244 to 1,307.

The 64 percent victory for anti-union forces, however, was quickly followed by UAW officials filing a new set of charges against the company for violating legal labor and labor election practices.

“The result of the election was a setback for these workers, the UAW and working Americans everywhere, but in no way should it be considered a defeat,” UAW president Dennis Williams said in response to the vote. “The courageous workers of Nissan who fought tirelessly for union representation alongside community and civil rights leaders should be proud of their efforts to be represented by the UAW.”

The National Labor Relations Board, which has already made previous charges against the company for labor violations, has the option of ordering a new election and also taking the case to federal court and even determining a fair election is impossible under present conditions.

With the ascendancy of the Trump Administration, the NLRB’s attitudes toward unions remain hugely in question, however.

The company and its allies in Mississippi’s political and business establishment formed a powerful phalanx of opposition that included filling the airways, Internet and newspaper pages with anti-union commercials and advertisements, speeches by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and state business leaders attacking the union, and a climate of fear within the plant.

“On my way to visit workers and discuss the upcoming vote, I saw someone removing the signs (“Union Yes” signs she’d earlier put up) along the highway exit ramp as a MDOT (Mississippi Department of Transportation) truck blinked idly nearby,” student labor activist Jaz Brisack (one of my stellar students at the University of Mississippi) wrote this week in the web magazine, LikeTheDew. “Looking closer, I noticed that the man yanking up our morning’s work was wearing striped trousers beneath his neon vest.

“The irony of the fact that these inmates’ forced, free labor is being used to silence the support for the beleaguered Nissan workers in their push for unionization is rich and complex. The prisoners are being subjected to the `involuntary servitude’ that the 13th Amendment continues to allow as a `punishment for crime.’”

Those familiar with labor history know that some of the greatest victories have come after heart-breaking losses. Crystal Lee “Norma Rae” Sutton and the members of the Textile Workers’ Union of America had to fight 17 long years before they finally won their victory at the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, in 1974. Legendary labor organizer Sol Stetin called J.P. Stevens the nation’s “number one labor outlaw.” Textile workers at Pillowtex in Kannapolis, North Carolina, waged a 25-year struggle, losing election after election before finally winning their union battle in 1999.

Critics of unions point to those victories as reasons to reject a union because those plants eventually shut down. NAFTA and other international trade deals were significant culprits in those shutdowns, however, as the textile industry moved wholesale into Asia and its world of cheap labor and sweatshops.

It’s one thing to shut down a textile mill, and quite another to uproot a mile-long, 6,400-worker plant that produces some of the top vehicles in the Nissan line and is a significant factor in the international company’s overall business plan.  Where would it go? Every other Nissan plant outside the U.S. South is already unionized.

A story on the Canton campaign by veteran labor writer David Moberg in In These Times this week was headlined “UAW Vote in Mississippi is a Battle for the Soul of the U.S. Labor Movement”. This echoes a quote I’ve often used in this blog as well as in my book on the Southern labor movement, Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press (University Press of Mississippi, 2008): Labor organizing in the South is a “venture into unplowed fields.”

Sidney Hillman, longtime leader of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, said this in 1946 as organized labor launched its “Operation Dixie” campaign. Mississippi AFL-CIO President Robert Shaffer adds this truth: “It’s a fight everyday of your life in this state.”

The workers in Canton and their advocates, such as labor organizers Richard Bensinger and Sanchioni Butler and student activist Jaz Brisack, worked countless long, hard hours on this campaign. For Bensinger and Butler, that effort stretches back many years. I’ve been its most faithful chronicler since 2005.

The 12 years of this struggle have created a rich and solid community network of workers, preachers, activists, students, organizers, politicians, and supporters that is not going away. These folks are in for the long haul. They’re fighting the good fight, and someday they’re going to win. The road to justice is hard and often treacherous, but the courage and steadfastness and faith that it takes to walk it have already been proven tenfold.  

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Nissan workers in Mississippi begin vote today on whether to join the UAW as state political and business leaders align with the company against the union

 
(A pro-union rally at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, in 2014)

On the podium in Jackson, Mississippi, stood Mississippi’s leading corporate boosters decrying a possible victory by pro-union workers at Nissan’s plant in nearby Canton in the August 3-4 election to determine whether they can join the United Auto Workers.

At their July 20 press conference, Mississippi Economic Council interim president and CEO Scott Waller, Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership President and CEO Duane O’Neill and others made clear whose side they’re on: the Nissan bosses whose threats and intimidation of workers have led to international condemnation.

On the other side are the workers, Mississippians, 80 percent of them African American, who have little say in work and safety conditions, complain of minimal at best medical treatment for work injuries, and even lost a colleague in 2015, Derick Whiting, who collapsed on the plant floor during working hours.

It’s not just the pro-union workers doing the complaining.

The U. S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fined Nissan tens of thousands of dollars for safety violations at the plant. The National Labor Relations Board has charged the company with violating workers’ rights. Nissan was forced to pay Iraq and Afghanistan military veteran Chip Wells $6,500 in disability and back pay after treating him with such hostility for his pro-union views that he had to go on medical leave.

(To the right, the mile-long Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi)

Joining Waller, a former business editor with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, and O’Neill on the side of the company bosses is Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, one of those old-school conservatives who always cry about outside interference in state affairs unless, of course, that outside interference is anti-union. If so, then welcome to Mississippi!

Hypocrisy—another word for lying--is a common phenomenon in union battles.

Witness Carlos Ghosn himself, the CEO of Nissan and partly French-owned Renault who told the French Parliament in February 2016 that Nissan always cooperates with unions. In fact, every single Nissan plant around the world is unionized except the ones in Mississippi and Tennessee. Yet this is the same Carlos Ghosn who told Nissan workers in Smyrna, Tennessee, the day before their union election in 2001 that a union “is not in your best interest.” They got the message.

When a union election was scheduled at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2014, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., initially pledged he’d stay out of it. He lied. He soon joined Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam in an anti-union smear campaign that included secretly making a $300 million state-funded expansion of the plant contingent on keeping the union out.

Poor ol’ Mississippi, so poor it can’t even keep its roads paved and bridges repaired, has thus far spent $1.3 billion on taxpayer subsidies to keep Nissan in Canton. Nissan is a $38.4 billion company. Carlos Ghosn earns $10 million a year and has a net worth of $100 million.

The biggest charge against Nissan workers organizing is that they already earn good wages for Mississippi. Nissan refuses to reveal what it pays its fulltime workers. However, an estimated 2,900 of its 6,400 workers in Canton are temporary or contract workers, with temporary workers earning between $13.46 and $14.21 an hour. Guess what the average central Mississippi production worker earns? The answer: $16.70.

Still, the campaign is not really about money. A decade ago, two years after it began, Nissan-Canton worker Yvette Taylor told a gathering at the Canton United Methodist Church how Nissan threw her into a tangled web of bureaucracy, disrespect, missteps in treatment, and finally dismissal after she injured her hands and knees on the job.

“So many things happened that I just don’t know where to begin,” the mother of 10 said. Finally “I got a letter in the mail saying I was terminated.”

Workers join a union to get respect, to have a collective voice that they can’t have as individuals, to have a say in working conditions. They have a legal right to join a union, yet when they try to exercise that right, they face life-crushing threats.

Veteran labor organizer Rose Turner knows all about this. She helped catfish workers at Delta Pride in Indianola win their historic union election in 1986: “We were at the crossroads. Either we were going to change things or … our kids were going to have the same situation, “ she once said. “I’ve never been afraid of anything because before I do anything, I put God first.”

This column also ran in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Union vote at Nissan in Canton, Mississippi, set for August 3-4

Thousands of workers at the giant Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, will be able to cast their ballots on whether to join the United Auto Workers in an election set for August 3 and August 4.

A petition had been filed earlier for a July 31/August 1 vote, so the actual election will come only a few days later.

The vote marks the culmination of a 12-year struggle by workers for an intimidation-and-threat-free union election at the plant, where the workforce is 80 percent African American. Local Nissan managers have strongly opposed unionization even thought the company ownership claims neutrality. Workers have been forced to watch anti-union videos, and pro-union workers have complained of harassment on the job.

With the rallying cry "Labor Rights Are Civil Rights", the campaign has include a widespread community grassroots effort with local ministers, civil rights-era veterans and students from nearby Jackson State University and Tougaloo College as well as the University of Mississippi standing side-by-side with the workers. International attention has also focused on the campaign--from as far away as Brazil and also France, where the government controls a percentage of Nissan's partner firm, Renault, and thus has influence on Nissan operations.

However, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and the Republican leadership of the state Legislature in Mississippi, along with the Mississippi Manufacturers Association and outside groups such as the influential Koch Brothers, can be expected to use their influence to help defeat pro-union forces. This is what happened in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2014, when workers at the Volkswagen plant sought a union. U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., even promised that Volkswagen would expand operations if the union was voted down. Workers narrowly rejected the union in the vote.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Nissan workers in Mississippi push for a union vote by the end of July / A call from LabourStart to help farm workers fend off legislative attacks in North Carolina

Workers in the South are standing up for their rights and making gains. Autoworkers at the giant Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, this week asked the National Labor Relations Board for a vote on July 31 and August 1 on whether to join the United Auto Workers. This marks the culmination of a 12-year campaign, which Labor South has followed more closely than any other news outlet. An NLRB petition for a vote requires that at least 30 percent of the workforce approve the vote. A union victory requires 50 percent plus one.


(To the right, civil rights-era SNCC activist Bob Zellner in sunglasses at the center and actor Danny Glover to the right of him at a pro-worker rally at the Nissan plant in 2014)

In North Carolina, farm workers have made steady gains in securing worker rights with the help of organizations like the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. However, the state's arch-conservative legislators, backed by deep-pocketed anti-union moguls like Art Pope (North Carolina's version of the Koch Brothers), aim to destroy those gains. LabourStart, the London-based international labor activist network and publisher of my recent collection of essays by writers around the world on the migrant worker issue, The Strangers Among Us: Tales from a Global Migrant Worker Movement, recently filed this report from the U.S. South, asking for help in keeping those farm workers' hard-earned gains. Labor South posts this call for help on behalf of Eric Lee, who heads LabourStart:

(To the left, a typical North Carolina tobacco field harvested by migrant workers from Latin America)

Following a series of recent farmworker wins in the southern United States, farmers elected to the North Carolina State Legislature are trying to use their legislative power to stop workers on their own farms from organizing for better wages and working conditions. 

On 28 June, the North Carolina General Assembly passed Farm Bill S615 with no debate. The bill aims to stop the progress that farmworkers are achieving by making it illegal for farmers to deduct dues from union members as well as making it more difficult for farmworkers to win union contracts.

The bill would make it illegal for farmworkers to ask growers to sign an agreement with their union as part of settling a lawsuit over wage or labor violations.

US farmworkers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act and other worker protections like minimum wage, child labor, and workers compensation laws, among others.

However, through the efforts of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), farmworkers have won union contracts that include wage increases, job security, and improved working conditions.

This bill aims to roll back this progress.

Please join FLOC and the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF) in calling on North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper to veto the bill. Your message will be sent by email to the Governor and delivered as part of a signed petition.

Click here to show your support for North Carolina's farm workers:

http://www.labourstart.org/go/floc

And please share this message with your friends, family and fellow union members.

Thank you!



Eric Lee

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A visit to Munich and a reminder of the poor state of mainstream U.S. journalism--from Fox News propaganda to MSNBC's Russia obsession

 
(To the right, Munich's famous Rathaus in the heart of the city)

MUNICH, Germany – After my stint in the Army and Vietnam, this city became the scene of my salad days, where I enjoyed the carousel of my mid-20s studying philosophy and journalism at the university, working part-time in a warehouse, and spending far too many hours in the beer halls and beer gardens.

A flood of memories passed through me when I recently returned to my old stomping grounds. One of them was something my journalism professor here said. “If you really want to learn journalism, go to the United States.”

(To the left, my old apartment--the red-tiered rooftop in the center of the photograph--in Munich's Schwabing district) 

It was the mid-1970s. Woodward and Bernstein were chasing Richard “I am not a crook” Nixon out of the White House. Vice President Spiro T. Agnew was so busy fending off bribery charges he had to stop attacking the media’s “nattering nabobs of negativism.” I took my professor’s advice. My expatriate days were over.

This go-round I couldn’t help making all sorts of comparison, and the good ol’ USA came up short on many of them. Why does Europe have such a fantastic train system at a time when Donald Trump wants to end subsidies for the last passenger train service in the United States? Why do so many Americans have to worry about health care when Germans like my 89-year-old farmer cousin Georg know they’ll get the care they deserve after a life of hard work?

And then there’s that great U.S. journalism that my professor at the University of Munich cited as the crown jewel of my craft.

I thumbed through the pages of Munich’s major mainstream newspaper, the Süddeutsche Zeitung (South German Newspaper). The Wednesday, June 21, edition included 41 news-and-feature-filled pages, the kind of news hole (newsroom lingo for written content) U.S. reporters can only imagine in some drug-induced fantasy. The pages themselves are 30 percent larger than those of major U.S. newspapers. And, yes, there’s an online edition, too.

Even tabloids like Munich’s Abendzeitung (Evening Newspaper) with their screaming headlines and giant photographs have far more stories than most mainstream U.S. newspapers.

The contrast really hit home when I arrived at the Memphis International Airport and read in the local alternative newspaper that the Gannett Corporation, master of the shrunken news hole and owner of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, and many other papers across the country, has put the headquarters for its newly purchased Memphis Commercial Appeal up for sale. Plans are to move elsewhere into smaller space.  Gannett is doing the same at its newspaper in Nashville.

I read further and learned the Memphis Newspaper Guild has filed a complaint against Gannett for its refusal to make severance payments to the 23 Commercial Appeal employees it laid off when it bought the newspaper. Several current workers have joined the protest by hanging “Shame on Gannett” signs around the newspaper office.

Of course, these kinds of developments in Memphis and elsewhere are taking place at a time when U.S. journalism is under severe attack by President Trump, Congress, and other politicians across the land.

Television journalists were recently forbidden to interview U.S. senators outside the Senate chamber. Trump is waging a constant battle with what he considers the purveyors of “fake news”, while those same news outlets struggle to keep up with the stream of misinformation and falsehoods coming out of the White House. Case in point: Trump’s claim of a United Nations “slush fund” to support the Paris climate agreement.  What he referred to is actually the so-called “Green Climate Fund” to aid poorer countries put into place better environmental policies and actions.

A Repubican state senator in Alaska recently slapped a reporter because of a story the reporter wrote. Montana Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte physically attacked reporter Ben Jacobs after Jacobs asked a question he didn’t like during the campaign. Gianforte subsequently received a donation from the director of a conservative broadcasting group, and voters elected him despite the attack.

The nation’s most popular news outlet, Fox News, is largely a mouthpiece for conservative propaganda, while its supposed ideological opposite, MSNBC, spends most of its time on a constant drumbeat about Russia’s alleged interference with the 2016 presidential election.

Speaking of that drumbeat about Russia, FAIR, the flagship publication of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, noted recently how all the reporting on Russia and the 2016 election has come at the expense of other reporting on climate, the economy, healthcare and President Trump’s proposed travel restrictions despite polls that show people want to know more about those issues.

The Russian focus “helps to defuse the ticking time-bomb of accountability for last year’s electoral loss” by Democrats, and it “shifts activist energy and attention away from the issues that could challenge the interests of the elites who run the networks,” FAIR says. In fact, CNN CEO Jeff Zucker told his staff to go back to the Russia story after its recent coverage of climate accords, according to a report by Project Veritas. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow spends an estimated 53 percent of her air time on the Russia story, Intercept says.

Thank goodness, good journalism is out there if you look hard for it.  As most reporters on the national scene scurried to find the latest “revelation” about Russian subterfuge, Alec MacGillis of Pro Publica probed the financial holdings of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and found that he’s a slum lord in Baltimore whose “Kushnervilles” are home to 20,000 low-income residents and countless rats, maggots, clogged pipes, and sewage-ruined carpets. Residents who complain have to face Kushner’s lawyers and a court system that mimics the legal maze Charles Dickens described in his 19th century novel Bleak House.

That’s the kind of reporting my professor in Munich had in mind. Just wish we had more of it.

 A shorter version of this column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Mississippi.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

"Mojo Rising" and "The Last Ballad" prove the ongoing power of Southern writing--tales of old gumshoes, Beale Street conjurers, and a cotton mill ballad singer who was murdered because she stood up for workers

 
Just returned to the USA from a trip to Europe, where I bicycled from Maastricht, Netherlands, into the little corner where that country meets Belgium and Germany, then rented a car with my family and drove the autobahn to Munich. We stopped along the way to spend time with my German relatives in Wallerstein and the nearby Medieval town of Nordlingen along what the Germans call the “Romantische Strasse” (Romantic Road).

All along the way people asked us about Donald Trump and what is happening to Americans. Can’t blame them. We Americans aren’t really sure what’s happening to us. I was also struck by how much more efficient everything is in Europe compared to us. The infrastructure is solid—whether along the highways and bridges or in the personal lives of Europeans who by and large don’t have to worry about health care or retirement. More about that later.

One thing we do still have going for us here in the USA, however, is our writers. Maybe it’s the pressures of U.S. society, with its unhinged greed and that greed’s hold on our institutions, the recklessness of our politics, the insecurities at practically every level of life. Writers have a lot to write about—and certainly the South’s long and proud literary traditions attest to that.

So let’s look at a couple upcoming books from the South, one of which I edited and served as a contributor, and see what they tell us about ourselves.

Mojo Rising: Contemporary Writers (Vol. 2)
Edited by Joseph B. Atkins (Sartoris Literary Group)

Edgar Allan Poe called the short story the supreme literary art, one that requires the “loftiest talent.” Poe, a Southerner from Richmond, Virginia, was a master of the genre, and he’d be proud of his fellow Southerners---particularly in the fertile land of the Deep South writer/publisher James L. Dickerson calls the “Mojo Triangle”—for proving him right over the years.

The short story tradition that includes masters like William Faulkner and Eudora Welty continues in the South today, and proof of that is in this collection of short stories by contemporary Southern writers, already available for pre-order on Amazon’s Kindle and other venues. A September 23 event at Nobel Literary Prize winner William Faulkner’s home of Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi, will celebrate its publication that month along with its companion, Mojo Rising: Masters of the Art (Vol. 1). That companion volume, edited by James L. Dickerson, will include stories by Faulkner, Welty, Richard Wright and many others.

As I say in my introduction to Mojo Rising: Contemporary Writers, most Southern writers share with their Russian counterparts a visceral connection with the poor, and like literary editor Thomas Seltzer once wrote, they see the poor “as human beings like the rest of us”—multi-dimensional, good, bad, ugly and beautiful, not as charicature or ideological constructs.
From the old gumshoe in Ace Atkins’ The Long Last Ride of El Canejo and Sheree Renee Thomas’ vision-haunted protagonist in Aunt Dissy’s Policy Dream Book to Larry Brown’s lost soul Fay in Girl on the Road, these stories share a gritty earthiness even if the people find themselves in sometimes fantastical situations.

I’ll shamelessly here put in a pitch for my own story in the collection, The Singapore Holy Man, which takes you from a rooftop in downtown Memphis to the streets of Singapore and Hong Kong, where the deals are made to use sweatshop and slave-shop labor to make shoes, clothes and computers for Westerners.

The Last Ballad
By Wiley Cash (William Morrow)

When Wiley Cash, a fellow North Carolinian, asked me to be a reviewer of this book, a novel based on the life of martyred labor leader Ella May Wiggins, I was both flattered and eager to read it. Cash, a New York Times bestselling author, resurrects the life and times of a real working class hero who should be familiar to all high school history students but sadly is not, and likely never will be.

Cash deftly shifts from character to character as he builds his tale of the poor, uneducated mother of five who decided she’d had enough of the injustices of cotton mill life and became a leader of the protest at the notorious Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina, in 1929. She became a balladeer as well as an organizer, but her conviction, her determination to cross racial barriers, and her beautiful, inspiring voice ultimately led to her murder. Five men were later indicted for her murder, but they walked away free men after less than a half-hour of deliberation at the trial. Justice was never served.

(Ella May Wiggins)

Central to Cash’s powerful novel are his characters. We get to know Ella, her children, her friends. We go inside the mansion on the hill where the aristocrat Katherine McAdam wrestles with the injustices taking place down below in the cotton mills that made her family wealthy, and we see her reach out to Ella. We understand just how much courage was needed when we see the workers confronted by the menacing presence of Percy “Pigface” Epps, the mill security boss who uses every means available to him to make sure unions never gain a foothold in his mill.

The novel will be published in October.

Good reading ahead, folks, and that’s some good news to share!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Mississippi with its poverty, lousy roads and ruling clique looks like the 1920s Louisiana Huey Long vowed to change


(To the right, Huey Long)

OXFORD, Miss. – When Huey Long first swept onto the political scene in Louisiana in the 1920s, the state was the quintessential Southern backwater. Ruled by a wealthy oligarchy of landowners, sugar and lumber magnates, and oilmen, it had less than 200 miles of paved roads.

It was sunk in a dismal swamp of poverty, isolation, corruption and ignorance. Its workers had little or no say over their pitiful wages or working conditions. Some 16 percent of its adult population was illiterate.

“The hierarchy was smug, satisfied with things as they were, devoted to the protection of privilege,” writes historian T. Harry Williams in his classic 1969 biography, Huey Long. “The ruling hierarchy was little interested in using what resources the state had available to provide services and was even less interested in employing the power of the state to create new resources so that more services could be supported.”

Then Huey Long bounded onto the political stage, first as railroad and public service commissioner, later as governor and finally U.S. senator. Hearing the cries of the voiceless, he chased the moneylenders out of the temple. He pushed through a severance tax on the pampered oil industry, revamped the state’s tax and bonding system, and used the money to put free textbooks into the hands of school children and 2,300 miles of paved roads and 111 new bridges across the state.

With its own ruling oligarchy entrenched in the Governor’s Mansion and state Capitol in Jackson, Mississippi is looking more and more like pre-Huey Long Louisiana.

Just like the ruling clique in Baton Rouge and New Orleans in the 1920s, the ruling clique that gathers in Jackson every legislative session is less concerned about public education, good roads and highways, public health, mental health, and child poverty than it is about corporate welfare and the proper pampering of the state’s wealthy.

With all the talk of charter schools and vouchers, the underfunding of public education in Mississippi has resulted in an adult illiteracy rate of 16 percent, exactly what it was when Huey Long began his political career. In the gulag that the modern-day South has become, Mississippi has always excelled in throwing people behind bars. Today 60 percent of the state’s prison inmates are functionally illiterate.

The Republicans in charge won’t raise taxes, so some of them now talk about instituting a lottery system to ease pressure on the shriveled state budget. Here’s a prediction: they’ll do the same with lottery revenues that they did with gambling revenues, which is to use the money as an excuse for another tax cut on the rich and corporations.

Look at Nissan, a global firm with a current market value of $38.4 billion. After an initial $363 million incentives package to get the Nissan plant in Canton back in 2000, Mississippi has provided the company with an additional $1 billion in tax breaks and other subsidies over the years.

Politicians defend such corporate welfare by saying it provides citizens with needed jobs. Yet when those citizens complain about poor working conditions and ask for a fair vote to decide whether they can have union representation, the politicians raise a hue and cry, and in the case of Gov. Phil Bryant, extend an invitation to outside groups to come in and help him fight against Mississippi workers who want a union.

Mississippi lawmakers say the state simply cannot afford good medical and mental health services. That’s why the Department of Mental Health is eliminating 650 positions, and the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson has cut nearly 200 jobs.

Poor Ol’ Mississippi has the lowest median income in the nation, the highest poverty rate, and one of the highest child poverty rates. Her roads and bridges are terrible. However, she’s not so poor that she can’t continue to pamper Nissan and Toyota (beneficiary of an initial $356 million state handout) while handing out $274 million in tax breaks to Continental Tire the Americas and Edison Chouest last year.

“Where are the schools that you have waited for your children to have, that have never come?” Huey Long asked voters in his famous “Evangeline” speech in St. Martinsville, Louisiana, 90 years ago. “Where are the roads and the highways that you send your money to build, that are no nearer now than ever before? Where are the institutions to care for the sick and the disabled?”

After casting out the temple’s moneylenders, Huey reached for more and more power, and an assassin finally brought him down. Still, those questions he asked in St. Martinsville so long ago could be asked today in Mississippi.

This column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi. 
 


Monday, May 29, 2017

Watching "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" with Kris Kristofferson in Lexington, Kentucky--It's a film still that resonates today

 
(Kris Kristofferson at the Kentucky Theatre in Lexington, Kentucky, last week)

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Billy the Kid is fighting a hopeless battle in Sam Peckinpah’s classic 1973 Western, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. He refuses to concede the freewheeling West that is fading around him to big landowner John Chisum or the Big City moneymen who are coming in Chisum’s wake to divide among themselves the spoils of an emerging new West.

However, Billy’s longtime friend-turned-lawman Pat Garrett has made his peace with Chisum and the moneymen and accepted their offer to hunt down the West’s most notorious gunfighter.

Folks in Lexington, Kentucky, last week got a chance to see Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid again on the big screen at the downtown Kentucky Theatre, a fundraising event for the upcoming Harry Dean Stanton Festival. Actor-singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, who starred as Billy the Kid, spoke at the event and even sported the same pair of boots that he wore in the film.

“Working with Sam Peckinpah was definitely a wild ride, one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Kristofferson told the crowd of 650 at the May 23 showing. “Working on this film was a dream come true. We got to ride horses, shoot guns.”

The film showing was organized by Lucy Jones, creator of the annual Harry Dean Stanton Festival in Lexington. Stanton was also in the cast of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Your Labor South correspondent attended as part of his research for an upcoming biography of Stanton.

Peckinpah’s film, written by Rudy Wurlitzer with a musical score by Bob Dylan (who also co-stars), tells a different side of the story than the 1970 Western Chisum, which starred John Wayne in the title role. In that film, Chisum teams with Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett to fight the bad guys.

Peckinpah’s film depicts Chisum as the last of a dying breed of uniquely American landowners, larger than life, often self-made, hard-working men of achievement but also rigid in their views, unwilling to relinquish power, judgmental of others less fortunate and removed from their daily struggles. Coming in Chisum’s place are new-fangled city investors and finance men, anonymous and rapacious, interchangeable, early versions of those modern-day venture capitalists who don’t make or create but enrich themselves by skimming off the hard-earned gains of others.

This is a 44-year-old film that still resonates today as Wall Street continues to further separate itself from the rest of America, and its servants in the White House and halls of Congress make that separation ever more profitable, much as they did in the Teapot Dome Scandal of 1920. In that scandal, which inspired Peckinpah in the making of this film, officials in the Harding Administration colluded with wealthy oilmen to help them grab lucrative oil leases in the West that had earlier been under the control of the federal government.

Filmgoers in Lexington applauded loudly at the Kentucky Theatre last week. They watched a great movie with one of its stars sitting among them. They also got a chance to see the importance and value of art well done, how it can remind us that we face many of the same challenges our ancestors faced, that we have yet another chance to overcome those challenges, that the human story goes on, debased at times, sure, but noble and inspiring, too, and ever in need of compassion.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Clinton Old Guard in the Democratic Party is not backing Berniecrats in elections even if it means Republicans win

 
OXFORD, Miss. – Thousands cheered back in March when Bernie Sanders stood on the podium at the “March on Mississippi” in Canton, Mississippi, and told them “the eyes of the country and the eyes of the world are on you!”
           
The Vermont senator and unsuccessful Democratic presidential contender was the big draw of that event, and his presence indeed put a national spotlight on the longstanding struggle of Nissan workers in Canton to be able to have an intimidation-free union election.

“One worker has zero power,” Sanders said, “but when workers stand together, you have power. There is a reason why large multinational corporations have come to the South. They’re told workers in the South will not stand up. It’s a race to the bottom. Our job is to tell Corporate America they cannot have it all.”

If the eyes of the nation and world were on Canton that day, were the eyes of the national Democratic Party?

It’s unlikely, a great irony when you consider how organized labor has been the party’s most stalwart supporter since before Franklin Roosevelt.

Under the leadership of the Democratic National Committee and its new chair, Tom Perez, today’s party looks backward, not forward. Its eyes are still searching for excuses for its miserable failure in the 2016 presidential election.

Why? The Clinton wing still rules the DNC, and thus the endless groaning about alleged Russian interference in the election rather than the soul searching it needs to move forward.

The party has poured more than $8 million into Democrat Jon Ossoff’s congressional bid in a wealthy suburban Atlanta district in Georgia. Ossoff is the classic Clinton Democrat--a darling of Hollywood celebrities who is fluent in French and studied at the London School of Economics and Georgetown University. He’s also hoping to win conservative support by talking about cutting $16 billion in “wasteful spending” out of the federal budget.

In other words, he’s not a Bernie Sanders kind of guy who can easily work a crowd of blue-collar assembly line workers—whether it’s Mississippi, Michigan, Ohio or Minnesota. Yet many of those are among the folks who used to vote solidly Democratic but turned to Donald Trump last November because at least he talked about issues important to them.

The DNC had a chance last month to support such a candidate in Kansas, James Thompson, a progressive populist in the Bernie Sanders style who was running for Congress in a special election. What did the DNC do? Practically nothing. Thompson had a real shot in the election but lost after getting only token support from the Democratic Party bigwigs.

The same was true in populist Democrat Rob Quist’s congressional campaign in Montana, where he got a groundswell of support from voters during the campaign but little from the national Democratic Party in face of a Republican juggernaut to defeat him. Quist lost the election to Republican Greg Gianforte.

“By refusing to fund the campaigns of anyone but centrist, establishment shills, the Democratic Party aims to make the Berniecrats’ lack of political viability a self-fulfilling prophecy,” The Guardian’s Jamie Peck wrote recently. “Starve their campaigns of resources so they can’t win, then point to said losses as examples of why they can’t win.”

DNC Chair Perez won his position after defeating Keith Ellison, the candidate supported by Sanders. His two predecessors, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Donna Brazile, both resigned amid allegations of supporting and using their positions to push for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries.

Meanwhile, Sanders continues to rally young people and blue-collar workers around the country in an effort offer future voters a real choice in the next election. He has launched an interview show broadcast on Facebook that allows for serious discussion of issues that matter to Americans in their day-to-day lives. In other words, something other than tired conspiracy theories about last November’s election.

Among Sanders’ guests has been the Rev. William Barber, leader of North Carolina’s “Moral Monday” movement and that state’s NAACP president. Barber is one of the most dynamic social justice activists in the country today, the kind of fiery supporter of civil rights and labor that used to be the heart of the Democratic Party.

The Barber broadcast got nearly a million viewers. Another show featuring science educator and global warming critic Bill Nye was watched by 4.5 million viewers. Who were these watchers? Most of them ranged in age from 18 to 45.

Hillary Clinton thought she could win the 2016 presidential race on the same politics of her husband, a politics that seems liberal on the surface—pro-choice, multicultural, racially sensitive—but which is just as wedded to Wall Street, big banks, and race-to-the-bottom corporations as your garden variety Republican.

Bernie Sanders offered a different vision in 2016, and the party under whose banner he campaigned did what it could to undermine him. It’s a vision that still inspires many and gives them hope, but don’t expect the Democratic old guard to be among them.
  
A shorter version of this column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Mississippi.   

Monday, May 8, 2017

India: Murder charges against labor activists eerily similar to the Haymarket tragedy of 1886


Here is a guest article from Sindhu Menon, a labor journalist in India who writes for Equal Times, Labour File, International Union Rights and other publications.  She was a contributor to my recent book The Strangers Among Us: Tales from a Global Migrant Worker Movement (LabourStart, 2016). The incidents described in this article eerily remind us of the Haymarket Square Tragedy in Chicago in 1886, when law enforcement used a deadly bombing incident to "round up the usual suspects" and crack down on labor activists and the labor movement.

From Equal Times

India: workers vow to fight Maruti Suzuki murder charges

By Sindhu Menon
 April 18, 2017

One of India’s most acrimonious workers’ struggles in recent memory continues to reverberate following a court judgment which found more than a dozen workers guilty of murder.

On 18 March 2017, the Gurugram District and Sessions Court in the northern India state of Haryana sentenced 13 workers at the Maruti Suzuki India Limited plant in Manesar to life imprisonment for criminal conspiracy, destruction of evidence and murder for their alleged involvement in the deadly clashes that broke out at the car plant in July 2012.

In 2011, both permanent and contract workers at the plant sought to form an independent union in a bid to end the mass casualisation of jobs and improve working conditions, but they were denied registration by the Maruti Suzuki management, backed by the state government of Haryana. Although the workers eventually managed to form a union in 2012, the management refused to recognise it.

Tensions eventually escalated into violence on 18 July 2012. An accidental fire left the company’s HR manager Awanish Kumar Dev dead, and over 100 workers were injured by the police and security guards. Crucially, there is no proof that any of the condemned men were even present when the fire started; they were arrested on the basis of a list of names handed to the police by the management.

Once arrested, it is reported that the workers were tortured while in police custody. Campaigners across India are calling the case a miscarriage of justice.

Of the 148 workers arrested and jailed over the incident, 117 workers were acquitted on 10 March 2017. But four workers have been sentenced to five years in prison for trespassing, unlawful assembly, rioting and possession of deadly weapons, while another 14 workers were sentenced to three years on the same charges.

Kushiram, a provisional committee member of Maruti Suzuki Workers Union (MSWU), tells Equal Times: “Out of 13 workers sentenced for life imprisonment, 12 are Maruti union officials. 117 workers are declared innocent by the court, but without any reason they have served more than four years in jail without bail. Who will compensate them for their years in prison? Another 14 workers were sentenced to three years, and the irony is that they have already spent four years in prison. Now who will address their loss and grievances?”

The defence team representing the Maruti workers say that the union leaders are “paying the price of championing the cause of workers”. Since 16 March, solidarity action by various worker, student and human rights organisations have taken place in over 20 cities, as well as internationally, while over 100,000 workers across India have participated in work stoppages in support of the Maruti workers. On 4 and 5 April, an all-India and international day of solidarity and protest was also held. And while the MSWU is not affiliated to any central trade union, it has also won support from various trade unions.

“The workers have been convicted on the basis of concocted evidence manufactured by the state administration, police and employer nexuses by shamelessly misusing and abusing power,” says Tapan Sen, general secretary of Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

“The current judgment too blindly acknowledges management’s position without even recognizing the events of the day as part of the persistent attack of the Maruti Suzuki management on the workers’ right to form a union of their own choice and its refusal to negotiate with the union, over fair and just workers’ demands,” states a press release by the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI).

“It is the failure of industrial relations and the management is equally responsible for what has happened”, says Virjesh Upadhayay, general secretary of Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the union affiliated to the ruling government and the largest trade union centre in India. “The state government, eyeing foreign investments, were in full support of the Maruti management and had shut their eyes to the violation of the fundamental rights of workers,” he tells Equal Times.

A history of repression

The Maruti Suzuki case is widely considered an attack on the right of workers to freedom of association, and has become an unprecedented example of class solidarity in India. But it is also seen as a case study of the way in which employers work closely with the government and the judiciary to criminalise Indian workers and deny them their fundamental constitutional rights.

The exploitation and harassment of car sector workers – the bulk of whom come from poor rural villages – is nothing new. India’s automotive industry is one of the largest in the world, accounting for 7.1 per cent of the country’s GDP, according to statistics. The Indian government wants to make sure that foreign auto manufacturers feel that their investments are protected in India – even if this at the expense of auto workers who are faced with poverty wages, ever-increasing production targets and insecure work.

In 2005, for example, workers at the Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India in Gurugram, Haryana tried to organise around the issue of fair wages. A number of workers were sacked, leading to violent protests, which resulted in the injury of more than 100 workers at the hands of police and plant security. Similar unrest occurred in 2006, 2009, 2010 and 2016.

In 2008, a labour struggle at the Swiss-Italian automotive parts company Graziano Trasmissioni in the northern city of Greater Noida resulted in the death of its CEO/MD Lalit Kishore Chaudhary and the termination of more than 200 jobs. Unrest has also been reported at other plants in India including Hyundai, Bosch and Toyota.

“They expect the workers to continue working in any situation and do whatever the management demands,” says AD Nagpal, national secretary of the Indian trade union centre Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS). “But once they try to form union and raise their voices on their fundamental rights, the suppression and oppression begins.”

According to DL Sachdeva, national secretary of All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the situation in Manesar provides a clear example of this. “The Maruti Suzuki management refused to recognise the union and negotiate with them. It’s quite obvious that the intensification of the [situation] on 18 July 2012 was a ploy of Maruti Suzuki management to get rid of the union and its leadership,” he tells Equal Times. “Besides the criminalisation of labour, large scale victimisation too happened. 546 permanent and 1800 contract workers were terminated from their jobs.”

Maruti Suzuki has not yet released a statement following the judgment and the press office failed to respond to our request for an interview.

While the defence team for the convicted workers plans to challenge the judgment at the High Court, Maruti workers have promised to increase the pressure on the management to free those convicted, reinstate victimised workers and improve working conditions at the plant.