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.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Marseilles, the multicultural birthplace of the Le Pen rebellion, signpost of the rightful rejection of neoliberalism that sadly spawned Trump

 
(Marseilles' Vieux Port)

MARSEILLES, France – The 20-year-old salesman spoke in hip, nearly perfect English. American rock ‘n’ roll played in the background at his store near this city’s magnificent Vieux Port.

“There’s a lot of racism here against Muslims, Africans,” said the native of south central France.  “It’s not only our fault. It’s their fault, too. The kids are not educated by their parents.”

He tells me stories of once being insulted and harangued by Arabs after they invited him to their table at a café. He tells of a friend who was attacked by Arabs.

“I have a lot of hate in me. How can I not be a racist?”

It’s Frenchmen like this Marseilles salesman who are helping fuel the presidential campaign of Marine Le Pen, whose National Front party was born here in Marseilles. Yet, this is a city that has long prided itself on its immigrant tradition, one that dates at least back to biblical times when, legend has it, Mary Magdalene herself migrated here and preached in the streets.

My visit to Marseilles coincided with a long-brewing fixation on the great Marseilles crime novelist, Jean-Claude Izzo, whose books help explain--but not excuse--the young salesman’s rage and the rise of the National Front.

“The only future for Marseilles lay in rejecting its own history,” Izzo writes in Solea, the last book in his Marseilles Trilogy.

Pushing that rejection has been the European Union, which cares little about Marseilles but definitely wants the city’s port to serve the neoliberal interests of the global corporations that rule the world today. Recent years have seen shiny, high-rise development along Marseilles' outer port area, but poverty and unemployment remain higher here than in much of the rest of France.

For Izzo, it's an amoral world that aligns global economic interests with organized crime.

“`Organized crime is inextricably interwoven with the economic system,’” his crusading journalist Babette Bellini says in Solea. “`The opening up of world markets, the decline of the Welfare State, privatization, the deregulation of international finance and trade: all these things have tended to favor the growth of illegal activity as well as the internationalization of a rival criminal economy.’”

What Izzo’s fictional character here has done is issue an indictment against the neoliberal economic model that has nearly strangled countries as far afield as Greece and Argentina, upended the lives of millions upon millions of poor workers by forcing them to cross international borders in search of jobs, angered and threatened native workers with that huge immigration, and thus fueled the populist uprisings that gave us Donald Trump in the United States and Brexit in England.

In my most recent book, The Strangers Among Us: Tales of a Global Migrant Worker Movement (LabourStart, 2016), 10 writers from across the globe, including me, describe how workers are standing up to the world’s neoliberal rulers and asserting their rights. It’s a hard fight against very powerful forces, however.

Teachers in Argentina have been on strike for more than a month to protest President Mauricio Macri’s pro-corporate agenda and his gutting of the social fabric that has seen annual inflation approach 25 percent and individual buying power decline by 11 percent last year alone. Teachers want a pay raise that will enable them to survive in Macri’s Argentina. Here’s wishing them success!

This blog has followed developments in Argentina since I visited that country during the 2015 elections that gave Macri victory. He has done his best to undo the good work done by prior presidents Nestor Kirchner and Christina Fernández de Kirchner in the wake of the 2001 economic collapse. That collapse was created by 1990s deregulation, foreign indebtedness and pressure from that neoliberal citadel, the International Monetary Fund.

A hopeful sign on another front came last December when a U.S. judge allowed victims of the Chiquita Brands firm’s ties to a terrorist group in Colombia to sue the company. The judge’s ruling allows the victims to make their case in the United States rather than in Colombia, where the company has ceased its operations.

Again, Labor South has written previously about Chiquita’s disgusting, immoral behavior in Colombia and other Central and South American countries, its use of the cancer-causing pesticide Nemagon on its fruit trees in Latin America, its ties to the anti-leftist, anti-union terrorist group United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUC).  Nearly 700 members of the largest banana labor union in Colombia were murdered between 1991 and 2006.

France’s contentious presidential election takes place in May, and a strong showing from Le Pen is expected. The country’s history of tolerance and its revolutionary legacy have been tested by persistent high unemployment, a growing divide between the rich and everyone else, the murders of 240 citizens at the hands of terrorists since 2015.

“What credibility do the failing elites have to give lessons on what does or does not work?” a political counselor in outgoing President François Hollande’s administration told Nation magazine.

It's like echoes of the Weimar Republic amid the growing clamor of pitchforks and shouting voices outside the castle walls!

Hollande is ostensibly a socialist, but he’s one with a neoliberal capitalistic bent. In other words, he’s cut from the same cloth as former British labor leader and prime minister Tony Blair and U.S. Democratic wunderkinder Bill and Hillary Clinton, Big Money, elite-loving wolves in bleating-heart sheep’s clothing!

Whether France, England or the United States, the working class has no party representing its interests, and thus its turn to the right. British voters rejected the European Union because the EU has evolved into a neoliberal fortress like the IMC and World Bank, preaching austerity to average folks and tax benefits and cushy trade policies to corporate heads and their political cronies. Le Pen isn’t anti-government like Donald Trump, but she has capitalized on anti-immigrant resentment, a resentment that blames immigrants rather than the global power brokers who helped create mass immigration.

In the United States, workers struggle to make sense of their lives today.  Their biggest battle, as always, is with fear. That’s why workers at the Boeing plant in North Charleston, S. C., voted down a union earlier this year. It’s also the biggest obstacle pro-union workers face at the giant Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, in their effort to bring in the United Auto Workers to represent them.

Unsuccessful presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spoke eloquently to those workers in Canton last month, the only major politician to do so at their “March on Mississippi”. “All of our people deserve decent wages and decent benefits,” Sanders told them. “What this struggle is about is decency.”

Meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., the Clinton machine still rules the Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee.

Clinton-friendly Tom Perez won the DNC chairmanship over pro-Sanders candidate Keith Ellison and despite some initial gestures toward the Sanders camp showed his true colors by ignoring Democrat populist James Thompson’s strong congressional bid in Kansas while showering $8 million onto the campaign of Clintonite Jon Ossoff’s congressional campaign in Georgia.

Ossoff endorsed Hillary Clinton in last year’s primary, plus he studied at Georgetown University and the London School of Economics, and thus makes a nice fit for the meritocracy the Clinton machine has long envisioned not only for the party but the nation.

As for the rest of us, the Great Unwashed out there, well, we can just simply eat cake, as one famous French meritocrat from the past once told us.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Bill Minor, a courageous journalist who kept his "eyes on Mississippi" for 70 years

 
(Bill Minor with friends celebrating his 90th birthday at a party in Jackson, Mississippi, a few years ago)

OXFORD, Miss. – Over the intercom in the Mississippi Capitol pressroom in Jackson one day back in 1984, a House member harangued his colleagues on the floor over a stalled bill. “When are we ever going to enter the 20th century?” the politician cried.

“Never!” our mentor and senior Capitol press corps member, Bill Minor, shouted into the wall speaker.

We younger reporters all got a good laugh out of that but perhaps a little apprehension, too. Minor had been covering Mississippi since 1947. Maybe he wasn’t joking.

That memory came back to me late last month when I learned of Bill Minor’s death at the age of 93. He was indeed a mentor, a comrade-in-arms, a hero to me then and now. I began my journalistic journey in Mississippi in late 1981 around the same time Minor published the farewell edition of his amazing alternative newspaper, The Capital Reporter. I still have a treasured copy of that edition.

“The Ten Most Powerful: Who are the movers and shakers in Jackson?” was the top-of-the-fold headline. In an editorial inside, Bill wrote of the paper’s unabashed “sympathetic treatment of the underdog” and his “hope that there will be others to take up the slack in keeping the pressure on public officials” as well as “those in the private sector who enjoy the public trust.”

Bill wrote with authority. He had been a frontlines warrior ever since his first big story in the state, the funeral for Mississippi’s ranting, racist U.S. Senator Theodore Bilbo. From there he had gone on to cover practically every major event in the state’s bloody civil rights-era history. As a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Capital Reporter editor, and later statewide syndicated columnist, he suffered the slings and arrows—death threats, cross burnings, smashed windows, even a stolen typesetting machine.

A compelling collection of Bill's columns and writings appeared in 2001 under the title Eyes on Mississippi: A Fifty-Year Chronicle of Change (J Prichard Morris Books).

I was proud to be part of a new generation of journalists in Mississippi taking up his challenge, and I kept in close touch with Bill over the years to see how we were doing. Not always so good, he would sometimes lament.

Too much of “our journalism is unfortunately go along, get along,” he told an audience of students and professors at the University of Mississippi in 2004. “To be a journalist is to be prepared to take a risk. Newspapers are the closest to my heart. … I see us engaged in an endless war. This is not just a cozy little political sideshow, it is serious business. … Journalists are still the first eyes and ears of the nation, but it takes reporters out there on the ground. There’s no substitute for reporters on the ground.”

He didn’t let the professors in the audience off the hook either. He recalled one who lost his job for exercising “academic freedom” and standing up for civil rights in the 1960s, former Ole Miss history professor James Silver. “James Silver, a great old professor here back in the day any professor who spoke up against the system was run out of the state.”

 I was fortunate to come to Mississippi at a time when a lot of the legends were still alive. I once interviewed James Silver and also civil rights crusader and journalist Hazel Brannon Smith. I’ll never forget talking with another legend from that era, reporter Homer Bigart, and I actually worked for the great Claude Sitton in my native North Carolina before coming here.

However, none of them impressed me more than Bill Minor, a Louisiana native who could have easily left Mississippi for a glorious career in Washington, D.C., but instead chose to stay.

“I used to yearn for Bill to come to Washington and take on such sacred cows as Russell Long and Jim Eastland,” New York Times and former Mississippi newspaper and wire reporter John Herbers once wrote. “But he may have succeeded better, as a reporter, by staying in Mississippi. I know of no other state that has been transformed as much. And as the eyes and ears for many outside the state, as well as in, he may have contributed more to that transformation than any other journalist.”

Over the past years Bill and I would catch up on life and politics with a phone call every few weeks or at an occasional gathering. I loved those conversations, which usually included a good bit of grousing over the politics of the day and the fact that dammit, Mississippi was still trying “to enter the 20th century” more than a decade into the 21st! Then we’d have a good laugh and talk about the latest hell he had given a deserving politician.

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

Monday, March 27, 2017

Labor South reading roundup - The dark side of "Detroit South" and still waiting on the Russia-2016 presidential election smoking gun

A couple of interesting articles appeared recently that are worth passing along (apologies if you can't access these links here. I'll keep trying, but you may just have to copy and paste to access):

The dark side of "Detroit South"

Peter Waldman's report, "Inside Alabama's Auto Jobs Boom: Cheap Wages, Little Training, Crushed Limbs", in Bloomberg puts the lie to the glorified tales about "Detroit South" that politicians and chambers of commerce want to tell us. A worthy read given the major union campaign taking place at the giant Nissan plant in Canton, Miss.

See: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-03-23/inside-alabama-s-auto-jobs-boom-cheap-wages-little-training-crushed-limbs


Now back to Russia and the 2016 presidential campaign

Interesting points by Stephen Cohen in Nation magazine recently that challenge MSNBC's constant drumbeat since its candidate lost. I don't like Trump, and I don't like Putin. However, I'm still waiting on the smoking gun regarding Russian hacking. Is it going to come? What I do know unequivocally is that the DNC actively worked to undermine Bernie Sanders' campaign, and that was reprehensible and I'm not forgetting it.

See:https://www.thenation.com/article/why-we-must-oppose-the-kremlin-baiting-against-trump/


Sunday, March 5, 2017

Bernie Sanders to Nissan workers in Mississippi: "The eyes of the country and the eyes of the world are on you!"

 
(Bernie Sanders in Canton, Miss., Saturday)

CANTON, Miss. - U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont told an estimated crowd of 3,000 Saturday that “the eyes of the country and the eyes of the world” are on Mississippi and the workers at Nissan’s giant plant here.

“All of our people deserve decent wages and decent benefits,” Sanders told the cheering crowd. “What this struggle is about is a struggle for decency.  … One worker has zero power, but when workers stand together, you have power.”

Sanders was one of several prominent speakers at the “March on Mississippi” in Canton Saturday, arguably the largest labor rally in the state’s history.  The crowd included labor leaders from France and Brazil, United Mine Workers members, and students from the University of Mississippi, Jackson State University, and Tougaloo College.

(To the right, Sanders in Canton talking about inequality in the United States. My apologies if the video cannot be accessed!)

They came to champion the right of the more than 5,000 workers at the mile-long Nissan plant in Canton to have a free, intimidation-free election to decide whether they want to join the United Auto Workers. Union leaders, local activists and workers have long complained of harassment against pro-union workers, the hiring of temporary workers at less wages and fewer benefits, unsafe working conditions, and the lack of a voice in company decisions on everything from working hours to the speed allowed on the assembly line.

Nissan employee Derick Whiting died recently after passing out at the worksite. Workers said they were forced to continue at the assembly line, a charge Nissan officials have denied. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently fined Nissan more than $20,000 for safety violations at the plant.

"They said we lied about what happened," 14-year veteran Nissan worker Travis Parks told the crowd. "I saw him lying on the floor."

Sanders said a company reporting more than $6 billion in profits and that pays its CEO $9 million a year could do better by its employees. “Share some of that wealth! … Our job is to tell corporate America they cannot have it all. What justice is about is allowing the freedom to workers to vote their conscience. If you stand up to the power of corporations in Mississippi, it’s a huge vote of confidence to the nation.”

UAW President Dennis Williams also told the crowd of the importance of what happens in Canton to the nation. “This is about you raising your fist. It’s about solidarity, empowering people, a movement. The only path to have economic justice is through collective bargaining.”

Sierra Club President Aaron Mair agreed. “If organized labor fails here, we all fail. You cannot make America great again on the back of degraded labor.”

The organizing campaign in Canton has been underway for 12 years now, beginning with a small group of UAW organizers, local activists, workers and clergy. Labor South was there at the beginning, attending those early meetings as the sole media representative for a long time.

Nissan workers earn comparatively good wages for blue-collar workers in Mississippi. However, many have complained of going years without pay raises, poor working conditions, arbitrary rules changes, and having to endure anti-union videos and other pressures against joining a union.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Actor Danny Glover: Come to Saturday, March 4, rally in Canton, Miss., to support Nissan workers' right to organize

 
(Actor Danny Glover speaking to students at the University of Mississippi)

OXFORD, Miss. – I’ll never forget Danny Glover as the drifter Moze in the 1984 film Places in the Heart. It was a Depression-era story of a widowed mother in the South trying to keep her children and save her farm with the help of Moze and a blind war veteran.

I loved that story because it reminded me of my grandmother, Minnie “Mama” Atkins, herself a rural Southern widow during the Great Depression who had to fend off local authorities wanting her to give up her four small children.

Later I saw Glover as Joshua Deets in the 1989 television series Lonesome Dove. He was one of my favorites among the large cast of characters in that 19th century cattle drive tale that my family watched religiously, episode after episode.

I never imagined I would eventually get to meet Glover, not so much as an actor but as a champion of working folks and their rights to organize and have some control over their lives at the workplace.

Glover was here in Oxford recently to rally students and citizens to come to Canton, Mississippi, March 4 and join U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in the “March on Mississippi” against voter suppression and for workers’ rights, particularly in the ongoing union organizing effort at the giant Nissan plant in Canton.

He told the crowd of more than 100 a story about legendary actor, singer and human rights activist Paul Robeson, who suffered the blacklist and widespread scorn because of his political advocacy. Asked if he regretted anything in his life, Robeson said, “`There’s not one thing I’d change in my life. It’s about the journey.’”

Young people today would do well to think about their own journey in life, said Glover, 70, whose labor advocacy and human rights efforts have earned him an international reputation. They need to listen to the stories of those around them, particularly the shared humanity of those who work hard and play by the rules yet whose rights as humans are constricted by the powerful.

“I think about the journey. Over 50 years ago as a student, I didn’t know where that journey was going to take me. … You have an opportunity to look at the stories and make them part of your story. “

In Canton, thousands of men and women work at an automobile plant that was built with the help of $1.4 billion in tax breaks and other incentives provided by the poorest state in America. While they earn good wages in comparison to other Mississippians, they live in fear that they’ll lose their jobs due to injuries in a workplace recently fined $20,000 by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration for poor safety conditions.

They see their jobs increasingly threatened by management’s hiring of temporary workers who receive fewer benefits and lower wages.

They worry that reasons will be found to get rid of them if they show support for joining a union despite federal laws that prohibit such intimidation by management.  For more than a decade, a community-wide effort has been underway to get Nissan to desist in the kind of voter suppression that makes a free union election impossible.

“The South has changed,” said Glover, a native of San Francisco whose family came from Georgia. “The South I heard about in 1964, it’s not the same South. The Civil Rights Movement opened up the South.”

Yet, he said, the fight for workers’ rights in the South continues.

“The rights of workers have been curtailed, stepped upon,” he said, adding that those rights will continue to be curtailed “without a union, a place where workers can go to collectively bargain, to have a conversation.”

Glover, who also would participate in the 14th Annual Oxford Film Festival while in town, said it was his first trip to Oxford, but he has come to Mississippi several times over the years to bring attention to the cause of the Nissan workers in Canton, 80 percent of whom are African American.

“When I see people win, they stand a little taller,” he told Nissan workers during a visit in 2012.  “I want people to win. People lifting themselves up. I’m always blown away by that.”

Glover told them that he came from a union family. His parents were postal workers who were also active in the Civil Rights Movement. “I had health care all my life because the union created the situation where I could have health care.”

He also told the workers something that was echoed during his more recent visit to Oxford. “You are all part of a much larger legacy,” he said. “Your story is going to resonate.”

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