Thursday, September 20, 2018

CoreCivic's private prison in the Mississippi Delta may now be housing hundreds of asylum seekers who've committed no crime

(The Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi)

OXFORD, Miss. – Father Walter J. Ciszek’s only crime was to minister to laborers in a remote Ural Mountains village, but it was 1941 and the American-born priest soon found himself swept into the Soviet Gulag, where he would spend the next two decades.

“I could not overcome the shock occasioned by the total loss of freedom and the sense of complete control held by someone else over my every action, my every liberty, my every need,” Ciszek would later write. “People could disappear into those prisons and never be heard of again.”

The world’s largest gulag today is in the United States, where a quarter of the world’s prison population is behind bars, and Mississippi is at the heart of that gulag with the nation’s fifth highest incarceration rate.   

Although the state has reduced its prison population in recent years, new arrivals from as far away as India and Nepal may reverse that trend, and what’s more, many of these new arrivals have committed no crime.

The epicenter of this new trend appears to be the for-profit, CoreCivic-owned Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in the Delta town of Tutwiler. The U.S. Marshals Service this summer contracted to send 1,350 federal inmates to the 2,672-bed prison, and sources say hundreds of asylum seekers are also being housed there.

Like Father Ciszek, asylum seekers have committed no crime. They came to the United States believing the words on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty and seeking refuge from either gut-wrenching poverty or the violence and corruption of drug cartels and dictatorships in their homeland.

“These are people who spent their last dime to get here, probably being picked up God knows where,” says Lisa Graybill of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. “Asylum seekers don’t know what rights they have.”

I contacted the prison, CoreCivic, and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and none of them is willing to break down the numbers or provide specifics on what is going on inside the prison walls. Many of the detainees or inmates may be undocumented migrants. At least some have come from prisons in other states like South Carolina.

President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy on undocumented migrants has been a boon to the private prison industry, in this writer’s mind an abomination that turns the judicial system into a profit-seeking enterprise.

The month that the U.S. Marshals Service announced its plans for the Tutwiler facility, CoreCivic’s stock rose 3.5 percent. One of the nation’s largest private prison companies, CoreCivic, like the industry as a whole, benefits not only from government largesse but also from the financial backing of major banks like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

CoreCivic, by the way, was a financial contributor to Trump’s inauguration.

Asylum seekers are supposed to be given a court hearing and vetted in a process that shouldn’t take longer than a month. However, CoreCivic and ICE won’t confirm or deny their presence, much less their length of stay, their access to family and legal counsel, the scheduling of hearings.

If the past is prelude to the future, the situation must be scary for anyone behind the walls of the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility.

“The Tutwiler facility has a sordid record,” says Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance.

Indeed, it was the scene of a violent riot in 2004 in which inmates set fire to a portable toilet, clothing and mattresses. Another CoreCivic facility, the Adams County Correctional Center, was the scene of an inmate riot in 2012 with inmates taking guards hostage. One correctional officer died in the incident.

So, you tired, poor, “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and who’ve just arrived at Tutwiler, welcome to Mississippi.

This column appears in the current edition of the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Mississippi.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Labor South Review: "City of Devils", a book about Old Shanghai and its underworld rulers before the Japanese took over in World War II

This is my review of the new book City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai by Paul French. It is running in the current edition of the New Orleans Review of Books, and I thought Labor South readers might enjoy it. 

You can access the magazine at

It was 1972, and I was drinking beer with my sergeant in our little base north of Saigon, quietly listening to his war stories when he caught my attention with one word: “Shanghai”. “You were in Shanghai?” I asked. “Yep,” he said, beaming. “1949.”

I pumped him with questions. After all, Shanghai is one of those cities that evoke mystery, intrigue, the exotic. It’s even a verb, something other exotic cities like Marseilles, Casablanca, Kathmandu, and, yes, New Orleans can’t even claim.

He talked about arriving in the port city just before the Communists took over, the crazy scramble before one world ended and another began.

I thought about my old sergeant as I read Paul French’s latest book, City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai (Picador, 2018). It’s a fascinating look at a city that in the 1930s was a freewheeling, expatriate-filled island of gambling, whoring, and partying while the rest of China, and the world for that matter, teetered toward destruction.

A list of the descriptive names people gave Shanghai gives you an idea—the “Paris of the Orient”, the “the insanity of Sodom incarnate”, “the rim of a volcano”, “the city of fear”, and finally “the city of the dead”.

“The neon-bright city feeds off its host of four hundred million peasants barely surviving in China’s fetid hinterlands and laughs at their degradation,” French writes.

The city wouldn’t laugh for long, however, as the Japanese tightened their net around it, and finally after Pearl Harbor in 1941 marched in and took control. Chiang Kai-shek’s “Free China” forces offered little protection against the Japanese hordes as the city’s denizens were “bombed, shot, strafed, burnt, diseased, frozen, and starved,” an attack that included “the worst aerial bombing of a civilian city in history.”

Still, the core story of City of Devils takes place just before the Japanese arrive, and it centers on two men who ruled the gambling dens and show palaces with their Russian dancing girls, imported Chicago jazz bands, and countless slots and roulette wheels.

“Dapper Joe” Farren, a showman who wowed audiences with his Astaire-like moves on the dance floor, had escaped the Nazi takeover of his native Vienna and the concentration camps that awaited Jews like him. “Lucky Jack” Riley was the volatile, tough-as-nails Navy vet and escaped con from the USA Midwest who had his fingertips acid-burned to erase his former identity.

Farren controlled the nightclubs, including the one that bore his name, while Riley was Shanghai’s “Slots King”, and they ruled from the western part of Shanghai known as the “Badlands”. The two eventually work together, but what two kings ever worked together very long? They will meet separate fates as the flag of the Land of the Rising Sun unfurls over Shanghai.

With this book and his earlier book Midnight in Peking, French does for the wartime Far East what novelist Alan Furst has done for wartime Europe. He recreates a danger-ridden, intrigue-filled world endlessly fascinating at this safe distance, if less so for those who suffered through it. City of Devils joins a worthy literature about Old Shanghai that includes, of course, André Malraux’s Man’s Fate and more recently Tom Bradby’s The Master of Rain.

French’s writing is a hardboiled staccato that races along at breakneck speed like a book-length Walter Winchell column. You want him to slow down sometimes, but you’re along for the ride, and you’re damned sure not going to let go.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Labor South roundup: Rural Mississippi private prison may be getting asylum seekers as it benefits from Trump's migrant crackdown; Coca-Cola strike on Gulf Coast ends with no contract but hope for better negotiations

It’s time for another Labor South roundup: Strange goings-on at a private prison in rural Mississippi, and the Teamsters end their strike at Coca-Cola facilities in Mississippi and Alabama without a contract but hope for better negotiations
Trump inaugural contributor CoreCivic gets nearly 1,400 new federal detainees and maybe hundreds of asylum seekers, too

(This includes updated information from the earlier post. More updates may be coming)

News broke in late June that the Tallahatchie Correctional Facility in the Mississippi Delta town of Tutwiler is getting 1,350 new federal detainees, courtesy of the U.S. Marshals Service. That’s the kind of thing Wall Street loves to hear, and accordingly CoreCivic—formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America---saw a 20 percent increase in the value of its stock between early April and late June.

Shares of its stock rose 3.5 percent on the very day President Trump signed an executive order ending the migrant family separations on the U.S.-Mexico border, according to Michelle Liu with Mississippi Today.

Analysts say Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy toward undocumented migrants crossing the border has been a boon to CoreCivic and other private prison companies.

What makes the Tutwiler story even more intriguing is that a source who has had dealings with the private prison told Labor South this month that as many as 500 of its latest residents may be asylum seekers who have committed no crime but sought asylum in the United States due to war, terrorism or other threatening issues in their home countries.

Earlier media efforts to get CoreCivic and the U.S. Marshalls Service to clarify who would be housed at the facility after the Marshals Service deal have been unsuccessful.

CoreCivic spokesman Rodney King in Nashville, Tennessee, told Labor South this week, however, that the Tutwiler facility houses inmates and detainees from six federal, state and local partners, including South Carolina, Wyoming, U.S. Virgin Islands, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and those who came through the U.S. Marshals Service. "Regarding asylum seekers, CoreCivic does not enforce immigration laws or policies or have any say whatsoever in an individual's deportation or release. Decisions related to asylum status are solely the discretion of our government partners," King said in an August 30 e-mail letter.

The Labor South source says asylum seekers at the Tutwiler facility come from Latin America, Africa and Asia, with many coming from India and Nepal.

The Tallahatchie facility was the scene of a violent riot in 2004 in which inmates set fire to a portable toilet, clothing and mattresses. Another CoreCivic facility in Mississippi, the Adams County Correctional Center, was the scene of an inmate riot in 2012 with inmates taking guards hostage. One correctional officer died in the incident. The next year CoreCivic lost its contract with the state of Mississippi to operate another facility in Wilkinson County.

Coca-Cola workers end their strike with hope for better negotiations

Workers at Coca-Cola Bottling Company facilities in Mississippi and Alabama are hoping the 11-day strike that ended last week will ultimately lead to a better contract with the company even though they went back to work without an agreement.

Some 250 Teamsters with Mobile, Alabama-based Local 991 went back to work after protesting the company’s treatment of new employees—their pay is up to $8 an hour less than what it had been in the past—plus higher insurance costs. “We needed to go back to work,” union steward David Stephens told Real-Time News from Alabama. However, “I think the company realized that they needed us back. Progress is being made in negotiations.”

Picketing during the strike took place at Coca-Cola bottling plants in Mobile and Ocean Springs on Mississippi's Gulf Coast, plus two other sites.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Let's look at U.S. interference in the politics of other countries if we're going to continue this "tsunami of coverage" about Russian involvement in the 2016 election

(The front entrance to the old headquarters of the United Fruit Company in New Orleans)

Back in 1910, New Orleans fruit company boss Samuel Zemurray got sick and tired of Honduran tax levies on his business interests there and sent a gang of mercenaries to overthrow the Honduran government. They did, and his United Fruit Company, today known as Chiquita, became a giant in the region.

Eighteen years later, the U.S. Navy helped the United  Fruit Company overcome a crippling workers’ strike in Colombia by supporting army leaders there in an attack on the strikers that killed as many as 2,000. Famed writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote about this in his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

In 2009, almost exactly a century after the Zemurray-engineered coup d’etat, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her support to the overthrow of Manuel Zelaya, the democratically elected president of Honduras.  Not liking Zelaya’s left-leaning politics, Clinton preferred the military-backed regime that replaced him and has since made Honduras one of the world’s most dangerous, crime-ridden countries.

I wonder what the average Honduran today thinks about U.S. corporate media’s obsessive coverage of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

In 2017, MSNBC, the “liberal” counterpart to right-wing Fox News, ran 1,385 broadcasts on Russia and its political meddling. By comparison, Yemen and its deadly bombing by Saudi Arabia with U.S. military assistance got 82 MSNBC broadcasts.

It’s not unusual today to see terms such as “traitor” and “treason” in USA Today and other corporate media applied to President Trump because of his relationship with the man U.S. media increasingly love to refer to as Russia’s “thug” leader, Vladimir Putin.  As valid as the story of Russian interference may be, is it worth this “tsunami of coverage”, media critic Norman Solomon asks? And why, in this “tsuanami”, are there so many missing elements to the story?

“It’s very rare … to see any mention of the fact that each country, Russia and the US, has several thousand nuclear weapons basically pointed at each other,” Solomon says, “4,000 in each country … at the ready to basically be able to incinerate, not just the two countries, but billions of people on the planet.”

Trump has rankled not only liberals and the Democratic Party but also corporate interests because of his trade policies and also military-industrial interests that would love to see another Cold War, or even hot war, with Russia.

Missing in all this discussion is a sense of history and awareness of the utter hypocrisy of much of the U.S. handwringing about outside interference in a sovereign nation’s politics. Politicians on both sides of the aisle join in this hypocrisy.

Trump loves to wave his saber at Iran, threatening it and raising the specter of yet another war as if the American people weren’t sick to death of war after 17 consecutive years of it.

Why is Iran no longer the close U.S. friend that it was under the pro-Western rule of the Shah of Iran?  Let’s examine.

When Mohammed Mossadegh became Iran’s prime minister in 1951, Iranians cheered at his strong stand against the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company that had soaked Iran’s resources while only paying back as much as 16 percent of its profits.  England’s response was to join with the United States in launching Operation Ajax to oust Mossadegh and install in his place a CIA puppet. They succeeded, and the Shah subsequently consolidated his rule into a dictatorship that lasted until the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

A long list of countries could be added to Honduras, Yemen, Colombia and Iran as examples of U.S. political interference—Guatemala, Libya, Vietnam, Cuba, Chile, the Democratic Republic of Congo, among them.

(To the right, a 1952 poster supporting agrarian reform in Guatemala) 

Let’s look at Guatemala. When Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán tried to redistribute land to benefit the legions of poor in his country in 1952, the United Fruit Company raised a hue and cry in Washington, D.C., which was all the CIA needed to get its tentacles into the country and assist with Guzmán’s overthrow in 1954.

And we have to have a few words about Vietnam. Now there’s a story. Consider the U.S.’s crucial supportive role in Ngo Dinh Diem’s consolidation of power in South Vietnam in the mid-1950s, and then in his overthrow by South Vietnamese generals in 1963. That coup d’etat, intended to find a more suitable leader in the fight against the Communists, resulted in the United States’ irrevocable involvement in Vietnam’s political future and the bloody war that lasted into the 1970s.

I could go on, but this is a column, not a book.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Labor South roundup: Betsy DeVos wants eternal student loan debt for your children and grandchildren; XPO Logistics' toxic anti-worker climate in Memphis and beyond; Labor South editor's two-week journey across the South

Here’s a short roundup of activity across the region and nation that caught Labor South’s attention:

Betsy DeVos wants eternal student loan debt for your children and grandchildren

(To the right, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, an heiress and billionaire's wife who came to office with a Gordian Knot of ties to debt collection agencies and for-profit education service companies, is pushing a new rule that will make it more difficult for student victims of fraudulent loan companies or for-profit colleges to get relief from their debts.

Claiming taxpayers shouldn’t bear the burden of that debt relief, DeVos wants to end an Obama-era program that provided federal assistance to students burdened with debt incurred from bogus colleges and barracuda-like loan operations. The new rule will put more of the burden on students to prove fraud with each case being considered independently and not jointly, as was often the case during the Obama Administration.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a Republican and chair of the Senate Education Committee who once was considered a champion of public education, supports DeVos’ plan.

The Obama-era rule was implemented after the 2015 fall of Corinthian Colleges, which had lured students with bogus claims of job placements after graduation and then saddled them with debt that would take them years to retire.

During her confirmation hearings, DeVos had refused to say she would enforce federal rules protecting citizens from predatory institutions such as the ITT Technical Institutes and Trump University. As reported by The Center for Media and Democracy last year, Trump University had to settle a $25 million lawsuit accusing it of fraudulent activities. The Obama Administration shut down ITT Technical Institutes.

Here in Mississippi, state Attorney General Jim Hood, the lone Democrat among statewide officeholders, has joined with the Mississippi Center for Justice in taking legal action against the Delaware-based student loan company Navient, formerly known as Sallie Mae. Hood claims the company pushed loans that guaranteed failure and targeted low-income students.

Student loan debt totals $1.5 trillion and is steadily increasing. Students who graduated in 2016 averaged $37,172 in debt as they went out searching for jobs and a new life. With Mississippi and other states across the South and beyond refusing to adequately fund state universities and colleges, tuition is rising each year, and so is the individual debt to attend those institutions.

In the past 10 years, the cost of attending the University of Mississippi has risen from $4,932 to $8,190 per year. Students in Mississippi have the fourth highest default rate—at 14.6 percent—in the nation.

Of course, if DeVos gets her way, the legal action sought by Hood and the Mississippi Center for Justice may be moot.  The U.S. Department of Education in February proposed a new policy that would put the federal government in charge of all oversight of student loan collectors and thus block states from their own regulatory oversight. As reported in The Hill, a dozen or more states have passed or considered passing legislation to regulate loan companies more closely.

XPO Logistics in Memphis accused of “anti-worker” behavior

LabourStart, the London-based organization that monitors and promotes workers’ rights around the globe, is waging a campaign to bring pressure on XPO Logistics to change a “toxic corporate culture” that LabourStart says has already claimed the life of at least one victim.

According to LabourStart, Lindo Jo Neal, a worker at XPO Logistics’ Memphis warehouse, “died on the shop floor after management denied her medical aid for 56 minutes” in October 2017. Other women have complained about issues at the company that include gender discrimination, sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, and unsafe working conditions.

XPO Logistics is one of the world’s largest logistics companies, and it has faced accusations both in Europe and the United States of anti-worker and anti-union actions.

LabourStart is working with unions representing workers at XPO across the world as well as the international trade movement to get the company to address the claims against it.

LabourStart is also a publisher and its published books include The Strangers Among Us: Tales from a Global Migrant Worker Movement, a 2016 collection of essays by writers around the world that was edited by Labor South founder, writer and editor Joseph B. Atkins.

Labor South editor back from two weeks of travel across the South

Settling in at my desk now after a two-week journey through the South that included a visit to Lexington, Kentucky, where my wife Suzanne and I enjoyed the annual Harry Dean Stanton Festival. We watched several of Harry Dean’s classic films, heard lots of music from actor and musician friends like Dennis Quaid and Jamie James, and visited and chatted with family and friends like festival organizer Lucy Jones.

As Labor South readers may recall, I’m writing a biography of the iconic actor and musician for the University Press of Kentucky, so we also paid a visit to Harry Dean’s hometown of Irving and nearby West Irving, Kentucky, where he was born. This is where “the bluegrass kisses the mountains,” as they say around Irving, and I could see firsthand his classic Southern small town roots while also meeting cousins and former neighbors.

Then it was on to the Florida panhandle, where I got together with my own family in Pensacola and enjoyed a high-old birthday celebration given me, traded tall tales, enjoyed the beaches, and came back refreshed to wage battle once again with the corporate takeover of our nation.

Coming soon will be Labor South’s somewhat different take on the ongoing investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election, and a review of the U.S.’s own past involvement and sometimes catastrophic interference in the political affairs of other nations.

Friday, July 13, 2018

The final chapter of the Eastland Machine ends in Mississippi, where there's now a new machine with absentee rulers like the Koch brothers

(To the right, a photo of U.S. Sen. James "Big Jim" O. Eastland of Mississippi)

OXFORD, Miss. – A politician friend came up to me at a restaurant the other day, shook his head slowly, and said in hushed tones, “Well, that’s the end of the Eastland Machine.”

He was referring to the passing of Brad Dye, who served as Mississippi lieutenant governor from 1980 to 1992 after stints as state treasurer, other offices, and back in 1954 driver for U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland during his re-election campaign that year.

Like his mentor Eastland, whose long stretch of power included a statewide network of lieutenants, cronies, operatives, and ward heelers that could make or break a upcoming politician’s career, Dye came out of a different era, one with some striking contrasts to the politics of today.

As a much-younger columnist who’d covered the state Legislature in the early 1980s, I once described Dye as “King Brad”, then the state’s most powerful politician who ruled from his perch in the state Senate and decided whether missives from the state House or even the Governor’s Mansion down the street deserved attention.

Guess I’m getting old, but I look back at Dye’s reign with a hint of nostalgia these days. Yes, cut from the Eastland mold, he was a conservative Democrat back when Republicans were what his mentor called a “zero” who offered voters “mighty dern little.” Still, Dye supported Governor William Winter’s landmark education reform package in 1982, the highway expansion program of 1987, and decent funding for the state’s universities.

Dye lost power when Republicans began taking over the state’s reigns in 1991—ironically the same year I called him “King Brad”!--and that transition has proven Eastland’s words to be prophetic as well as true when he said them. Mississippi voters still get “mighty dern little” from Republicans other than an occasion to rail against liberals, minorities and immigrants.

Sure, politicians like Dye early in his career often took their cues from Eastland in Washington, D.C.—back then not a good thing if you were African American--but at least Eastland was a Mississippian with a constant eye on Mississippi. Perhaps that’s why he finally seemed to soften in his last years, befriending civil rights leader Aaron Henry, accepting the reality of civil rights gains, and making his office more responsive to the concerns of blacks in his state.

Today, the state’s Republican rulers take their cues from powerful ideological forces far beyond Mississippi with no non-political interest in the state or its people.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a charter member of the FOD (Friends of Donald) club, sends Mississippi National Guardsmen to the Texas-Mexico border in support of President Trump’s immoral immigration policies. Bryant recently withdrew support for a $70 million three-state plan involving Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama that would have restored Amtrak passenger rail service from New Orleans through the Mississippi Gulf Coast to Mobile, Ala. The states would have split the cost with the federal government.

These days the billionaire Wichita, Kansas, and New York City-based Koch brothers, their Americans for Prosperity organization, and the arch-conservative American Legislative Exchange Council call the shots for Republicans politicians across the country, including Mississippi. The Koch brothers, rich with oil holdings and major producers of gasoline, asphalt, tires, and seatbelts, don’t like public transit, and they recently helped kill a much-needed $5.4 billion mass transit plan in Nashville, Tenn. Trump wants to slash Amtrak funding, something the Koch brothers would applaud.

Oh, well, enough nostalgia. In reality, machine politics still rule in Mississippi. It’s just that this go-round Mississippi’s politicians only take orders. They don’t give them.

This column was published recently in the online edition of the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Mississippi.             

Friday, July 6, 2018

Janus & the Democratic divide, an Obamacare-supporting Democrat overcomes a cash deficit to win the U.S. Senate primary in Mississippi while a Clinton-era moderate seeks a political comeback, plus taking inspiration from Obrador's victory in Mexico

(Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1944, portrait by Leon A. Perskie)

A couple decades ago, I was a widower learning how to date again, and I met a younger woman who seemed to share my leftist views on life. It made for a great, fun relationship for a while. Then I began to notice serious cracks in what I had thought were some solid political agreements—perhaps more a question of priorities than fundamental beliefs.

“You know what?” I told her. “The problem here is I’m a New Deal liberal, and you’re a New Age liberal.”

We broke up long ago, but I’m sure she, like me, rages against Donald Trump, and I’m just as sure she strongly supported Hillary Clinton in the last election. You, Labor South readers, know where I stand on that, banner-waving Bernie Sanders supporter that I was.

Our divide was very similar to the divide within the Democratic Party today.  Some party faithful may not realize it, particularly the still-powerful Clinton wing, but it wasn’t only unions that received a horrible body blow with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 Janus decision. That decision effectively means public employees no longer have to pay union dues even if a union is fighting for them, their wages, their working conditions, their health care, their pensions.

In other words, the Supreme Court declared an open shop on all unionized public employee workplaces. As a result, lawsuits are already being filed by union members seeking refunds for union dues they’ve paid in a past.

So why should the Democratic Party be worried? For many decades now, organized labor has been the most stalwart supporter—financial and otherwise—of the Democratic Party. After all, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the most pro-union president in the history of the United States, was a Democrat, and most Republicans, with the rare exception, despise unions as much as their corporate CEO friends do.

If the Democratic Party wants to take back Congress, state legislatures, and governors’ mansions across the land, it’s going to need money to do it, and this latest court decision will have the affect of partially drying up a very important reservoir of cash.

This comes at a time when young people and working folks of all stripes are crying out for a Democratic Party that responds to their needs. The Clinton-led Democratic Party loved to knock on labor’s doors with both hands out during election campaigns. After the campaign, however, it paid scant attention to its financial benefactor, turning instead to the big cash corporations that typically put Republicans in power but will support Democrats if they’re friendly to their bottom line interests.

Here in Mississippi, voters overwhelmingly chose U.S. Senate candidate David Baria in last week’s Democratic primary over challenger Howard Sherman, a venture capitalist and former Republican and campaign contributor to sitting U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican. Baria, who will now face Wicker in the November election, is an unapologetic supporter of public education, Obamacare, higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy. As a trial lawyer—what Republicans consider to be devils—he has gone to bat for workers who’ve been injured or discriminated against in the workplace.

And he won despite his opponent’s overwhelming financial advantage—Sherman had a $850,000 campaign chest compared to Baria’s $300,000--an issue Baria will face again in the November election. Even without real opposition in his own party, Wicker has spent $3.2 million and still has $3.4 million to spend.

With the retirement of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., Mississippi will have both of its U.S. Senate seats open in the November election. On the Democratic side, former congressman and Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy is trying a political comeback for that seat.

Espy’s out of the Clinton School, however, and folks may still remember his pregnant silence as a congressman during the historic catfish workers strike in his district back in 1990. The catfish workers won that strike, and some of their leaders still wonder whether Espy was with them or the company that fought the strike. Some folks argue he worked behind the scenes for the strikers. “Hmmmm,” say others. Folks will be listening closely to what he has to stay on the campaign trail this year.

Maybe we can take some encouragement by looking south of the border. Mexico has elected as its president López Obrador, a man of the Left, the first real leftist to lead that nation since Lázaro Cárdenas in the late 1930s. Maybe Obrador will revitalize the ideals of the Mexican Revolution and be a true champion of the people. Donald Trump’s not going to like it, though.

I think people on both sides of the border are looking for politicians who’ll champion their cause, not that of the special interests. It’s a steep uphill fight for those kinds of politicians, but I like some of the signs I’m seeing.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Welcome to the Free Market of Outrage! The Koch brothers are killing public transit, Trump's putting young children in cages, Monsanto's fighting farmers, 17 years of war and the VA still fails veterans

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - I live part time in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, and I can’t tell you how elated I was when the city’s trolleys recently began running again after a four-year absence. The clang-clang of those vintage electric cars is part of the charm of this old city, and I’d been missing that sound ever since a fire on two of them in 2014 took them all offline for extended repairs and some replacements.

They might never have come back if the federal government hadn’t kicked in $2.6 million to help one of the nation’s poorest cities get at least one of its three trolley lines back in action. Only the Main Street line runs today, but the two others are expected in the not-so-distant future.

How did the Koch Brothers allow that $2.6 million federal outlay get past them? Did you know that the right-wing billionaires and their minions in Congress, state Legislatures and governors’ mansions have been working hard to kill public transit projects across the land?

Their most recent success was in killing a $5.4 billion mass transit plan in Nashville, Tenn., that would have added needed public transportation to one of the South’s—and nation’s—most vibrant, growing cities. Koch drones spread across the city making thousands of phone calls, knocking on doors, spreading the Koch gospel about the evils of taxes and government of any kind that doesn’t support billionaires like themselves.

Oh, and by the way, the Koch industrial conglomerate “is a major producer of gasoline and asphalt, and also makes seatbelts, tires and other automotive parts,” reports New York Times writer Hiroko Tabuchi in an article published today (June 19).  However, “it supports spending tax money on highways and roads.”

The Koch brothers want you to get in that car and drive, burn their gasoline and the rubber off their tires, and please use your seatbelt!

It’s just one of many outrages in what seems to be a daily onslaught these days.

Of course, the latest is the Trump policy toward immigrant families crossing the border to the south, separating thousands of young children from their parents as the government cages them all, then only giving the parents an 800 telephone number when they’re released and trying to find their children again. Attorney General Jeff Sessions cites the Bible in his defense of this Nazi-like program, but who’s surprised by that?

Many of Trump’s legions will never be shamed into backing away from their führer, but sooner or later those who’ve not drunk too deeply of the Kool-Aid will feel the pain themselves that Trump’s government is inflicting on others. They’ll see his own untrustworthiness—remember how he actually seemed to be endorsing sweeping immigration reform just last January then did as much as anyone to scuttle any realistic reform?

We live in a corporate world, and what business wants, business gets. When Arkansas last year sought to ban the weed-killing-but-also-crop-damaging herbicide dicamba, Monsanto intervened like gangbusters, decrying this limitation on free enterprise.  Halliburton and other companies in the military industrial complex have successfully kept this nation at war since 2001, yet three Veterans Administration secretaries in the last four years have failed to make VA hospitals and clinics fulfill minimal promises to suffering veterans.

Here in the South, now the model for the rest of the nation--and that’s not a good thing, folks--politicians won’t fund basic services and fight Medicaid and other programs for the poor tooth and nail, yet they continue to shell out big bucks to corporations. Witness Alabama’s recent willingness to shell out $700 million in incentives to Toyota and Mazda to land a factory.

I could go on, but I don’t have all day. People are protesting, however. Just this week in front of the Governor’s Mansion in Jackson, Mississippi, members of the Poor People’s Campaign burned the Confederate and Mississippi state flags (which carries the Confederate emblem) to protest the racism that has become inherent in modern-day capitalism. It’s a brown as well as a black issue, but, you know, really at bottom it’s a green issue. 

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Special needs workers at Didlake in northern Virginia demand union rights; and riding the City of New Orleans to the Big Easy, where Dylan says "you can almost hear the heavy breathing" of ghosts

Didlake workers say their rights include the right to join a union even if they have disabiities

The Rev. William Barber II and his Poor People’s Campaign have joined striking workers at the nonprofit firm Didlake in Arlington, Va., in their public protest to bring attention to the company’s resistance in recognizing their vote to join a union. Hundreds of workers with special needs work at the Manassas, Va.-based company.

(The Rev. William Barber II)

“We ain’t going to let no corporation turn us around,” sang Barber as he led workers in song and chant recently. “Everybody has a right to live. Forward together, not one step back!

Barber said that “it says in James that when we exploit workers we exploit God.”

The company is “taking advantage of us,” one worker told veteran labor organizer and video filmmaker Richard Bensinger.

Custodial employees at the Army National Guard Readiness Center in Arlington voted 12-6 in favor of unionizing in April 2017. They went on strike May 25. Didlake says past National Labor Relations Board rulings show standard labor practices could be harmful to workers with disabilities like those at Didlake. Unionization might threaten the provision of needed services, the company says. Yet the NLRB regional director has also backed the rights of those workers to unionize.

Didlake works with the federal government on programs requiring counseling and training services to special needs workers. An appeals process with the board is underway on the union issue.

A ride down memory lane to the Big Easy on the City of New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS – I made my first pilgrimage here back in the late 1960s, with my buddies crammed in a jalopy all the way from North Carolina. We stayed at the decrepit Hotel Paris, drank cheap beer on Canal, then wandered down Bourbon, where old-school jazz masters like Papa French and Sweet Emma still performed.

(To the right, yours truly on the City of New Orleans)

My wife Suzanne and I rode in style this time, the City of New Orleans that Arlo Guthrie sang about, enjoying the club car as we passed through the Mississippi Delta with its endless fields, primeval swamps and bayous, tiny, sunburnt towns. In the city, we stayed with our daughter Jessica in the Irish Channel, a short Uber ride to Galatoire’s for a meal I couldn’t have afforded in the 1960s.

Papa French and Sweet Emma are gone, but Steamboat Willie is there on Bourbon, playing Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? at the Café Beignet. Steamboat knows what it means. Hurricane Katrina forced him to leave, but the former preacher and Bible salesman came back. “I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” he told once during an earlier visit. “I am in the right place.”

(With Steamboat Willie, daughter Jessica Byrd and wife Suzanne at the Cafe Beignet on Bourbon Street)

A different kind of musician, Bob Dylan, says New Orleans is a city where the ghosts of the dead and the laughter of the living are never far apart. “The ghosts race towards the light, you can almost hear the heavy breathing,” he writes in his autobiographical Chronicles. “Around any corner there’s a promise of something daring … something obscenely joyful behind every door—either that or somebody crying with their heads in their hands.”

The great New Orleans photographer Clarence John Laughlin captures this dichotomy in his haunting depictions of tombstones and Greek statues, Corinthian columns, strange figures peeking out of rooftop gables, young women staring off into the distance as if searching for something lost, forgotten or never found. From its founding, New Orleans has offered a “special kind of fantasy,” Laughlin once wrote, whether it’s “the unparalleled development of funereal art in the old burial grounds” or “the wild fantasy of the Mardi Gras.”

One evening we sat in a courtyard with some of Jessica’s neighbors, surrounded by banana plants, giant elephant ears, and cats everywhere. We met an author of children’s books in training to become a voodoo priestess, a writer for the National Enquirer, a former missionary who now operates a women’s clothing store on Magazine Street, a restorer of 100-year-old shotgun houses, a civil engineer with deep roots in New Orleans who has come back home after years of being away.

They talked of their city with joy and pride, of its resilience after the devastation of Katrina in 2005. Dylan wrote Chronicles just before Katrina, but he saw and felt the same. “There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better,” he wrote. “Everything in New Orleans is a good idea.”

As our train made its way back through the Delta toward Memphis, I studied the passing landscape--an abandoned store with a huge sign offering the promise of “CANDY” inside, junked cars, old graneries and cotton gins, a lone man standing next to his motorcycle on an empty street. I thought of other exotic train rides the world offers—the Orient Express, the Trans-Siberian Railway, the night train I once took from central Poland to Bratislava, Slovakia.

A woman in the group next to us in the club car began singing. She sang about loneliness, how there’s only her husband and her mother in her house, no children. Her friends listened with admiration and asked her how she came up with such music. “I just write ‘em down,” she told them.

Like the city we just left, I told myself, this is a train ride that holds its own with any in the world.

A shorter version of this column on New Orleans appears this week in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi.


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Rev. William Barber II leading MLK's flock on a renewed Poor People's Campaign to see through the corporate-political fog that prevents true economic justice

(The Rev. William Barber II in Selma in May 2015. Photo by Joe Atkins)

I met the Rev. William Barber II in Selma, Alabama, back in 2015. He’d come there from his home in North Carolina to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bloody march by civil rights advocates across Edmund Pettus Bridge.

“We’re here to honor the memory of the sacrifice,” Barber told me. “The very things they marched about have been gutted.”

Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, leader of the Moral Monday demonstrations that began there five years ago, is now leading the national Poor People’s Campaign to bring attention to the unfulfilled goals of Martin Luther King Jr.’s original Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, the year King was murdered.

Launched with a mule-cart procession in tiny Marks, Mississippi, King’s campaign was totally in sync with his efforts to help the striking sanitation workers in Memphis that year because the campaign’s goals were economic: a basic income that’s guaranteed, capital availability for minority and small businesses; and full employment.

“The duty of the living is not simply to recall the martyrs of the movement but to continue their work,” New Yorker magazine quoted Barber saying in a recent profile by writer Jelani Cobb.

Indeed, even many Trump supporters, Wall Street Republicans, and Tea Partyers pay homage to past civil rights gains, and the pages of their media organs offer praise for King on his government-designated day each year. As for the economic justice he sought in his last years, however, the silence is deafening.

In addition to his many other roles, Barber, 54, is also pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, one of the poorest cities in that state and not far from where this Labor South correspondent grew up.  Goldsboro is the fifth poorest city in the United States with 25 percent of its population mired in poverty, with estimates ranging from 40 to 65 percent of its children poor.

The powers that be on Wall Street, in Washington, D.C., and in state capitals across the land talk a lot about diversity, jobs, freedom. Talk. Big corporations like Nissan compromise organizations like the national office of Barber’s own NAACP with big handouts to keep them from the nitty gritty issues of fairness and equity at the workplace.

Barber, arguably the most dynamic civil rights leader in America today, sees through all that, however, and he’s committed to making others see through it, too.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Latino journalist Manuel Duran sits in a Louisiana immigrant prison for trying to report the truth in a Trumpian world

OXFORD, Miss. – Manuel Duran is a Memphis journalist who covers the Latino community for Memphis Noticias, a Spanish-language news outlet he owns. He’s also a native of El Salvador, and that fact is a reason he’s in prison in Jena, Louisiana, one of the nation’s worst immigrant detention facilities.

My late friend Marty Fishgold, a longtime labor writer in New York City, liked to say that good “journalism is a subversive activity” because it tells truth to power. Veteran Boston journalist Tom Oliphant had this to say about it: “Good reporters are anarchists” because they question all ideologies and authority.

Those are good things, and that’s why journalism gets special protection in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It may be the best-known promise in that document and why the constitutions of nations as far flung as Poland, Brazil, Egypt and Bangladesh include such language as well.

One could argue that many of those countries don’t practice what they preach. Well, guess what, we don’t either.

The 42-year-old Duran came to Memphis after working as a reporter in his native El Salvador, a war-and-drug-torn country whose cruelest goons trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. He’s now facing deportation back to that country, perhaps the equivalent of a death sentence.

Let’s consider why Duran sits in prison—Jena is one of the “worst detention centers” in the United States for its treatment of immigrants, according to Father Michael McAndrew, who works with immigrant communities in Greenwood and north Mississippi.

On April 3 in downtown Memphis, police arrested Duran and eight others who were protesting immigration policies. Police said they were blocking a roadway and Duran refused to move as ordered. The protest also took place without a permit, police said.  Two days later, prosecutors dropped charges against Duran. Charges against most of the protesters are still pending.

Duran was far from a free man, however. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers immediately arrested him and sent him to Jena. ICE officials said Duran missed a scheduled appearance in an immigration court in Atlanta back in 2007 and thus had since been living in the States without legal status. Attorneys for Duran said he received no notice to appear that day in 2007, and they have asked the Atlanta court to reopen the case.

If Barack Obama were still president, Duran might be free since he has no criminal history other than misdemeanor driving offenses. Under President Trump, however, none of the 11 million immigrants in this country without full legal status is even temporarily safe from deportation.
“The actions pursued by government officials in this case threaten core First Amendment freedoms that are essential to our democracy,” says a federal petition by the Southern Poverty Law Center seeking Duran’s release. Those freedoms are “the right to criticize and expose the actions of government officials, and the rights of members of the press to write and publish about them.”

Duran’s greatest “crime” may be that he has been critical of the Memphis Police Department in his reporting.  For example, back in July 2017, he reported in a Facebook post allegations that immigration enforcement officials and Memphis police had joined in a traffic stop operation despite claims they do not work together. Memphis police asked Duran to take down the post. His coverage also raised questions about police handling of the case of a Latino immigrant whose body was found in a police impound lot 49 days after he was shot during a robbery.

A long tradition exists of Latino journalists suffering because of their commitment to truth. Perhaps the most famous Latino journalist in U.S. media history was Ruben Salazar, a courageous reporter for the Los Angeles Times and later Spanish-language television station KMEX in Los Angeles. After launching with fellow journalist William Restrepo an investigation into police and sheriff’s department brutality and criminality in early 1970, Salazar was killed later that year by a deputy-fired tear gas projectile while covering a Chicano demonstration. Deputies said they were answering reports of looting and being pelted by bottles and rocks when Salazar was killed.

Some questioned whether Salazar was assassinated because of his reportage. He has been called “la voz de La Raza”, the voice of the people, a martyr to good journalism. A U.S. stamp bears his image.

The Duran case evokes more recent memories of what happened in Jackson, Mississippi, to Daniela Vargas, a 22-year-old native of Argentina who had been living in the United States since the age of 7. Despite earlier protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, her more recent lapsed status resulted in a March 1 arrest and federal deportation proceedings. An SPLC petition helped win her release nine days later, but her fate remains as uncertain as Manuel Duran’s.

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

Monday, April 16, 2018

Former SNCC leader Bob Zellner and labor organizers Richard Bensinger and Rose Turner talk about "The Future of Labor" at University of Mississippi campus: Grassroots organizing can overcome both fear and "right to work" laws

(From left to right, Richard Bensinger, Rose Turner and Bob Zellner)

Civil Rights Movement SNCC leader and social activist Bob Zellner joined veteran labor organizers Richard Bensinger and Rose Turner last Friday for a panel discussion of “The Future of Labor” at the University of Mississippi’s Overby Center. A central point in their discussion was that grassroots organizing can overcome "right to work" laws as well as anti-labor forces' greatest weapon: fear.

Sponsored by the campus Radical South organization, which seeks through panel discussions and other events in April to provide an alternative view of the South from that of conservative politicians like Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, the panel offered a lively discussion on the status of labor today in the South and across the nation.

Bensinger, a top national labor organizer who helped coordinate the United Auto Workers’ recent campaign at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, and other auto campaigns in the South, said “right to work” laws across the region aren’t a good thing but also shouldn’t “stand in the way” of a successful campaign. Bensinger co-founded the Institute for Employee Choice, establishing organizing principles for both employers and unions to follow during union campaigns. He advises unions on organizing and experimental organizing strategies in the service sector.

Turner, who led the successful and historic catfish workers strike in the Mississippi Delta in 1990 and has continued to work with catfish and nursing home workers in the region ever since, said organizers “have to organize” and get down to the grassroots level with workers. Turner currently serves as organizing director and executive assistant to the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1529, based in Memphis.

Zellner, who fought side by side with Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael and other civil rights leaders during what he calls “The Second Emancipation” of the 1960s, said fear was the great weapon anti-civil rights forces used back then and it is the same weapon anti-labor forces use today. Zellner helped organize the Freedom Rides of 1961 and was the first white Southerner to serve as field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  He continues to be active in the Poor People’s Campaign and the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina with the Rev William Barber.

Fear can be defeated at the workplace just like it was in the South back in the 1960s, the panelists agreed.

Labor South’s Joe Atkins moderated the panel discussion, which included topics ranging from the current teacher strikes and student protests against gun violence to how corporate money has compromised groups such as the NAACP in their support of labor campaigns such as the one at the Nissan plant in Canton.

(To the right, at Ajax restaurant in Oxford, from left to right, Joe Atkins, Bob Zellner, pro-UAW workers from the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, Richard Bensinger and his activist wife Virginia Diamond)
The panelists’ visit to Oxford, Mississippi, featured dinner and lunch the next day on the city’s famous Square as well as opportunities to sing labor songs such as “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” and “Union Maids” with fire-breathing, labor organizing, Truman Scholar-winning University of Mississippi student Jaz Brisack. Also joining the group for lunch were several Nissan workers who had campaigned for UAW membership at the Canton plant.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Teachers protesting GOP cutbacks, students protesting gun lawlessness--Long Live the Revolution!

(Dorothy Day in 1934)

OXFORD, Miss. – The great writer and champion of social justice Dorothy Day once said that “fighting for a cause is part of the zest of life.”

She didn’t stop there. “What we need is a revolution. Each one of us can help start it.” A lifelong pacifist, Day wanted a “revolution” that would “build a new society within the shell of the old,” borrowing a slogan from the “Wobblies” in the turn-of-the-century Industrial Workers of the World union.

I remember doing a lot of “fighting for a cause” in my salad days—and later. I shouted, chanted, carried signs, sat in, demanded, wrote letters, and argued and plotted endlessly into the night with my fellow “revolutionaries”—whether the cause was civil rights, Vietnam or worker rights.

That’s why it gladdened my heart when I saw young people across the land—including students of mine like Jaz Brisack--marching and demanding an end to politically sanctioned gun lawlessness in the recent “March for Our Lives” in Washington, D.C., here in Oxford and Jackson, Mississippi, and across the nation.

“We’re not children anymore. We’re warriors,” 16-year-old Oxford High School junior Anna Claire Franklin told the University of Mississippi’s Daily Mississippian. The students are “letting our lawmakers on a state and national level know that the upcoming generations … won’t stand by and allow the ease of buying firearms to be prioritized over the safety of our nation’s students.”

How ironic that the protests took place as Mississippi legislators gave strong support to a bill allowing guns on college campuses. The protests have led to greater gun restrictions in Florida, where the deaths of 17 young people at Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland February 14 prompted the national outrage against the political bullying of the National Rifle Association.

Also tickling this old revolutionary’s heart are the massive protests by school teachers in West Virginia and Kentucky that have challenged the Koch Brothers and American Legislative Exchange Council-led effort to destroy public education by starving it of funds so that privately run charter schools can take its place.

That nine-day wildcat West Virginia teachers strike forced the state’s billionaire governor and GOP-led legislature to cough up a 5 percent pay hike for all state employees although the politicians planted enough poison in the deal to make sure teachers get blamed for cutbacks in Medicaid and other services.

Kentucky teachers followed suit this month, marching out of their classrooms en masse after state GOP political leaders proposed cutting their benefits. Under pressure, the Republicans dropped their plan although some cuts still loom on the horizon.

Mississippi school teachers are the lowest paid in the nation. A teacher in New York typically makes $37,000 more in annual wages than a teacher in Mississippi. In Mississippi, 13 percent of school teachers have to have second jobs to make ends meet.

Mississippi’s Republican leadership, like their counterparts in Kentucky and West Virginia, get their cues from the Koch Brothers and ALEX on public education just as they do on a host of other issues. They’ll never admit it, but the end of public education is their goal.

So should Mississippi teachers go on strike?

Well, I covered the last major strike by Mississippi school teachers back in 1985. Thousands of teachers across the state marched on Jackson during the 11-week strike, and they finally got the Legislature to agree to a $4,400-over-three-years pay increase. However, it came with a provision that they would never strike again. If they do, they could lose their licenses and their teacher organizations could face fines of up to $20,000 a day.

But, you know, those teachers in West Virginia and Kentucky faced risks, too, just as students protesting against NRA gun lawlessness have already come under attack from right-wing political groups.

When people get fed up enough to go to the streets, they take risks. They know there may “be a price to pay,” Dorothy Day wrote, “sometimes a heartbreaking price. … Neither revolutions nor faith is won without keen suffering.

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