Friday, March 1, 2024

Organizing the South--Building success by learning from the victories of the 1930s and the failures of Operation Dixie in the late 1940s and early 1950s

(Sidney Hillman)

At the beginning of the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ “Operation Dixie” campaign to organize the U.S. South in 1946, Sidney Hillman, the leader of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, called the South “a venture into unplowed fields.”


Nearly 80 years later, organized labor has vowed finally to plow those fields and plant seeds that will ultimately help build a new labor movement across the nation.


“Take heart, learn the lessons and apply them to your situation, and thing big,” former UE (United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America) Director of Organizing Ed Bruno told participants from across the South in a Southern Workers Assembly online discussion Thursday, February 29.


Indeed, the United Auto Workers, fresh off its Stand Up Strike victories with General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis in 2023, has pledged $40 million to organize non-union auto plants, with a focus on the South. Results are already coming in. This month workers at both the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennesee, and the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama (that German company’s largest U.S. plant) announced majority support for unionizing.


They’re among some 10,000 non-union autoworkers signing union cards at 14 plants across the country.


After failed unionizing efforts at the Nissan plants in Mississippi and Tennessee and the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga in recent years, many wondered if the South would ever shake off its longheld distinction as the least-unionized region in the country, whether its “unplowed fields” will ever grow rich with a true harvest of its underpaid, overworked laborers.


After what has been dubbed “The Year of the Strike” in 2023 with UAW victories at the Big Three, nationwide organizing at Starbucks cafes (Starbucks has finally agreed to stop opposing unionization), in hospitals and on college campuses across the land, workers have a new confidence. The pandemic and record corporate profits also helped create a new worker consciousness, and polls show public support for unions at its highest level since the 1960s.


 “We’ve learned that we can’t trust Mercedes with our best interests,” Mercedes-Benz workers in Vance, Alabama, said in their announcement of majority union support this month. Citing the company’s “record profits”, widespread use and abuse of temporary workers, and imposition of a two-tier pay scale, the announcement continued, “There comes a time when enough is enough. Now is that time.”


At the Southern Workers Assembly Zoom session this week, Bruno and Jim Wrenn, a founding member of UE Local 150 at the Cummins Diesel Engine Plant in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, talked at length about the reasons behind the widely acknowledged failure of Operation Dixie between 1946 and 1953. The exploitation of divisions between black and white workers, the rank anti-communist demagoguery of the era, and inability of organizers to network campaigns at different plants in the region and work in solidarity rather than individually were all factors in the campaign never reaching its goals.


Bruno contrasted Operation Dixie with the massive pro-union surge in the mid-1930s that gave rise to the UAW and other unions, a high point in the history of organized labor in this country.


Five factors were key to the success of the 1930s labor movement, Bruno said:


1.     A committed cadre of organizers who were few in number but young and energized and who networked with other organizers. They were “not isolated.”

2.     A militant minority who “were fed up and ready to do something.”

3.     A high degree of class politics with pro-labor President Franklin D. Roosevelt leading the nation and powerful pro-labor forces in Congress and beyond.

4.     New rights as a result of the Wagner Act of 1935 and other legislation backing workers.

5.     The development of a “national voice” by strong labor leaders like John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers.


Workers today need to learn the lessons from successes and failures in the past, to work in solidarity with other workers who are struggling, to network, and build “corporate campaigns” that drive home their issues and demands to corporate headquarters, not just to local management, Bruno said.

(Philip Murray)


In 1946, CIO president Philip Murray called Operation Dixie “the most important drive of its kind ever undertaken by any labor organization in the history of the country.”


The new organizing campaign in the South in 2024 doesn’t have a name yet, but Murray’s words may very well still apply.


Monday, January 29, 2024

"War is a bad thing," young Hanh of Vietnam said in 1971, that is, unless today you're a neocon warmonger, struggling politician, or corporate member of the military-industrial complex

(U.S. soldiers and hooch maids near hooches in Plantation, Vietnam, around 1971)


The year was around 1971, and my Vietnamese girlfriend Hanh and I were talking in my hooch on the U.S. Army base at Plantation near Long Binh, Vietnam. A hooch maid, she was  beautiful, maybe 18, and I was 22. Our relationship was just getting started, but something real was there and we both felt it.


Then came this explosion somewhere in the distance. A bomb? We kept talking. No big deal. Then came another, this one closer, and finally a third explosion, this time closer still and loud and scary. Hanh looked at me, eyes full of experience way beyond 18 years.


“War is a bad thing,” she said in her broken English. I nodded as we got up and joined everyone else outside their hooches to see what was going on.


No more explosions came, thankfully, and no Army alerts were issued, so everyone went back to their lives, even if a little rattled.  In a few months, my tour was up and I’d leave Hanh with tears in her eyes and my heart heavy and no longer sure I was ready to go back to the “world” even though that’s what every soldier dreamed about day and night.


“We’ll see each other again,” I told her. “No,” she said, again much wiser than me, “we never see each other again.” She was right.


War has been on my mind a lot lately. It should be on everyone’s mind with wars in Ukraine and the Gaza Strip, and all the saber-rattling from our own political and military leaders toward Russia, China, Iran, Yemen, North Korea, or any other nation that might want to join the newly reconstructed “axis of evil”.


War was the topic of my recent discussion with host Nima Rostami Alkhorshid on his international podcast Dialogue Works. It was my fourth appearance on his show, and war has dominated every discussion.


Even as we spoke, Israel continued its brutal bombing of the Gaza Strip, an ethnic cleansing launched after Hamas’ bloody October 7 terrorist attack in Israel. Israel’s war on Gaza has killed tens of thousands, including thousands of children, injured more than 60,000, and displaced nearly two million, with more than 60 percent of Gaza homes destroyed or damaged, and it has sowed the seeds of hatred and revenge for generations to come.


President Joe Biden, the number one beneficiary in Washington, D.C., of the largesse of the Israeli lobby over his long career—some $4.3 million in the past three decades, early on pledged total support to Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloody campaign.


In a presidential election year with polls showing a dramatic loss of support among Arab-Moslem voters and the crucial youth vote, the president has since urged Israel to ease up on civilian bombing—pretty please!—but his administration continues to send Israel weapons and has blocked UN efforts to demand a cease-fire. Now the military conflagration has spread to the Red Sea with the Houthi rebel group attacking cargo and other ships doing business with Israel, and the U.S. responding with bombing attacks on suspected Houthi bases in Yemen. Fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon has spilled across that border as Israeli settlers continue violent attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank.


An attack this week on a U.S. base in Jordan killing three U.S. soldier and wounding dozens of others has ratcheted up the danger of a major regional war that brings in the U.S. and that perennial enemy of the neoconservative hawks in Biden’s administration, Iran. Recent Iranian attacks on suspected terrorist bases in Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan were a signal to the U.S., according to writer M.K. Bhadrakumar, that it will not tolerate the CIA’s efforts to help terrorist groups surround and attack Iran.


Of course, the war in Ukraine rages on despite the clear fact that Russia has won and Ukraine has lost. The recent discovery of a $40 billion corruption case dealing with military weapons in Ukraine is just another event souring public support for the Ukrainian cause.


Then there’s all this unrest in Europe with massive protests by farmers in Germany and France against the deteriorating economy that the bombing of the Nord Stream pipeline heralded. Energy costs are up an estimated 18 percent in Europe, putting the pinch not only on farmers but other major industries as well. Green Party ideologues in Germany and their fellow travelers in France want farmers—and, well, everyone—to get off coal, gas, oil, and nuclear dependency, and get those wind turbines turning! Suffer today in order to save the world tomorrow!


My key points to Nima on Dialogue Works this past week were several:


-       Politicians, not the military, are really running these wars in Ukraine and in Gaza. Netanyahu’s approval ratings in Israel are even lower than Biden’s in the United States. Both fear not only loss of power but also the future possibility of jail. U.S. House impeachment proceedings against Biden are proceeding, and Netanyahu has long faced a day of reckoning over corruption allegations. Biden can’t allow a defeat in Ukraine before election day in November. So Ukrainians have to keep dying until then.


-       Unhinged capitalism is destroying the United States with the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about now determining nearly all of U.S. foreign policy. Biden has signed off on $886 billion in defense spending for 2024. That’s “b” as in billion, or, in other words, nearly a trillion!


-       The eastward expansion of NATO began under the Clinton Administration in the 1990s, continuing the long history of broken U.S. promises that date back at least as far as all those broken treaties with American Indians in the 1800s. Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary essentially destroyed the modern-day Democratic Party, making it as war-like and Wall Street-ruled as the Republican Party. No longer is it the party that helped champion the rise of the American Labor Movement in the 1930s and support the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.


-       Why do we still listen to neocons and other warmongers after the utter failures they created in Vietnam, Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, wars that left ruin and devastation in their paths and served no purpose other than to further enrich corporate giants like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and BlackRock? How are wars with Russia, Iran, and/or China going to end any differently? I’ll answer that last one—those wars, if they happen, will end in the nuclear destruction of us all.


All these years later, I still think occasionally about Hanh and wonder how she fared after all the Americans left and the Communists took over. Did working on a U.S. Army base result in her going to one of those re-education camps, or worse? I want to think of her in Vietnam today living a good life with family and friends. Even so, I’ll bet she would still say as she did so many years ago, “War is a bad thing.”


Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Bringing to light injustice within the nation's justice system--Theatre Oxford's tales of former death row inmates whose innocence finally won them freedom

(Felipe Esteban Macias directing the cast of The Exonerated during a rehearsal)

OXFORD, Miss. - The stories told in the play The Exonerated are testaments to resilience and faith but also the post-traumatic stress that having lived in the shadow of death can bring, particularly when you are innocent of the crimes that put you on prison’s death row.


Sunny, 50, a mother of two, was in the wrong place at the wrong time and ended up on Death Row. Gary, a 45-year-old hippie, was so “brainwashed” by police interrogators that he falsely confessed to murdering his own parents. Sixty-year-old Delbert Tibbs got convicted of murder because he happened to be black and near the small Florida town where a man was killed and young woman raped.


“A bunch of cops surround us, and I’m trying to explain that we were kidnapped, but they just wouldn’t listen,” Sunny said about the aftermath of her fateful ride with a armed man who had forced her and her children into a car after killing two cops.


Gary’s troubles accelerated after he got to the police station. “They wouldn’t let me sleep, wouldn’t let me lie down,” he said. “I was emotionally distraught. I was physically exhausted. I was confused. … They started making me think I had a blackout and actually done it.”


Delbert Tibbs, an old soul from Chicago, seminary dropout, military veteran, and radical poet, had to learn how to cope with being an innocent man on death row. “This is not the place for thought that does not end in concreteness,” Tibbs tells us. “It is dangerous to dwell too much on things. To wonder who or why or when, to wonder how, is dangerous. How do we, the people, get outta this hole, what’s the way to fight?”


These true stories were among the half-dozen told in Theatre Oxford’s January 6 production of The Exonerated at the Powerhouse Arts Center in Oxford, Mississippi. A discussion on the legal and other issues raised by the play was led by Tucker Carrington, the founding director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, at the Powerhouse after the Saturday matinee. Serving as moderator was Melissa Gwin Pedron.


Authored by Jessica Blank and Erik Jenson, The Exonerated shares stories that range from racially motivated arrests and false confessions to tales of guilt by association. Directing the Theatre Oxford production was theatre veteran Felipe Esteban Macias.


“We have six wonderful stories wrapped up in one play,” Macias said about The Exonerated.


Taken from interviews, letters, transcripts, case files, and public records, the stories offer sobering insights into the nation’s criminal justice system and capital punishment. The Exonerated won the 2003 Drama Desk and Outer Critic’s Awards and also received the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Champion of Justice Award.


Theatre Oxford’s January 6 production of The Exonerator was timely considering the current case in Mississippi of death row inmate Willie Jerome Manning, whose attorneys are seeking a dismissal of state Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s efforts to establish an execution date for Manning. The attorneys argue that new evidence challenges the convictions of Manning, on death row since 1994, for the murders of two Mississippi State University students. Theatre Oxford does not have a position on this case.


(To the right, convict labor at Mississippi's notorious Parchman prison in 1911)


The production was also fitting considering the sordid history of prisons and jails in Mississippi, the U.S. South, and across the nation as a whole. Mississippi typically rivals Louisiana, Oklahoma, and other states for high incarceration rates.  Since 2006, 14 Mississippians have died in local jail houses while they awaited mental health treatment. Nine of them committed suicide. Twelve had not been charged with any crime. They were in jail because local and state governments have not funded sufficient mental health facilities.


The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled unanimously in April to end the so-called “dead zone” at jails across the state that allowed some inmates to stay up to years in jail without even being indicted for a crime or having a lawyer to defend them.


Convict leasing got its start in Mississippi in 1868 when cotton and railroad magnate Edmund Richardson needed cheap labor to offset the loss of slave labor on his 25,000 acres of cotton after the Civil War. Within 14 years, nearly one out of every five Mississippi’s leased convicts died from overwork or related causes. By 1906 even Mississippi’s notoriously racist governor James K. Vardaman was so incensed he said the system rivaled “in brutality and fiendishness the atrocities of … Torquemada.”


Private prisons today in Mississippi and elsewhere are the equivalent of convict leasing in that incarceration serves a profit motive. Both are abominable injustices within the so-called justice system. Conditions in private prisons, often owned by private-equity firms, can and do sink quickly as operators look for ways to cut costs and increase profits.


“Private or public, the places where people are warehoused for their crimes are back to being the kind of hellholes they were before the federal government intervened in the 1970s and told Mississippi it had to do better than this,” editorialized the Greenwood Commonwealth in Greenwood, Mississippi, back in August 2019.


The nation has a whole isn’t much better. Immigration by the undocumented has proven a goldmine for private prisons.  Guantanamo has become a symbol for a nation that has been called the world’s largest modern-day gulag with more people behind bars than any other nation in the world, including Russia and China.


The production of The Exonerated, re-scheduled to January 6 after a cast illness prevented production on its original September 8 and 9 dates, was made possible by the support of Frye | Reeves Attorneys at Law, the Mississippi Arts Commission, and Yoknapatawpha Arts Council.


The Exonerated provided a stark reminder of how theatre and all art can bring to light injustice in our world and give voice to the voiceless.


Wednesday, December 6, 2023

2023's "Kaisers, kings & czars", as Carl Sandburg called them, brought war and destruction, but the year also brought union solidarity on the labor battlefield

(Carl Sandburg)

A little more than a century ago the poet Carl Sandburg, young and radical at that time, had this to say about the world situation:


“And what scientist or clairvoyant can go farther and tell us

when the working class of the world

will kick all Kaisers, kings & czars

out of the palaces?”


The famed poet and Lincoln biographer could be speaking about modern times when the Kaisers, kings, and czars occupy corporate boardrooms as well as government palaces. As 2023 draws to a close, war rages on in Ukraine, Israel is ethnically cleansing the Gaza Strip of Palestinians, lunacy reigns in Argentina with the election of Javier Milei as president, and Americans face the prospect of choosing between a brain-fuddled warmonger and a loudmouth, potentially convicted felon for president in 2024.


“The stink of the world’s injustice and the world’s indifference is all around us,” Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day once wrote. “The world has lost a sense of sin. Not personal sin, but social sin.”

(To the right, Dorothy Day)


Yet there’s good news from 2023, too. Major strikes by the United Auto Workers (UAW), the Writers Guild of America (WGA), and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) resulted in major agreements that may be less than ideal but which proved the power of worker solidarity and which, in the case of the UAW, promised to reverse the trend of union concession after concession to Big Industry.


Workers at Starbucks cafes across the country staged a “Red Cup Rebellion” in November, a major walkout on the union-busting company’s annual Red Cup Day to protest working conditions and the lack of a contract two years after they joined a union.


Joe Biden’s claim to become the nation’s most pro-union president ever rang hollow in late 2022 when he sided with the railroad companies and forced workers to accept a contract that did little to end their servitude to profit-obsessed executives.  In 2023 he tried to repair the damage to his image by publicly declaring solidarity with the UAW in its strike against major automakers Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis. He actually appeared on the picket line with workers. Still wondering if this was mainly a photo-op.


Nothing can window dress Joe Biden as the world’s leading warmonger, however. He and the warlords in his administration knowingly pushed Russia into its invasion of Ukraine, breaking promise after promise, creating a border threat to Russia that the United States itself would never tolerate. Today Ukraine is in ruins with a large portion of an entire generation of men dead on the battlefield or suffering lifelong injuries. And for what? The same greed and desperation to hold on to world hegemony that left Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan in ruins.


Given the excuse of Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israeli citizens, Israel’s own chief warmonger, Benjamin Netanyahu, unleashed his long-wanted war of destruction on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, bombing hospitals, killing women, children, and old men indiscriminately. Meanwhile Israeli settlers attacked Palestinians in the West Bank while the Israeli military looked the other way. What Netanyahu has done is sow the seeds of hate and rebellion for generations to come.


And what did Joe Biden do? Stand by his friend Bibi and pledge undying support. Back in Washington, Under Secretary of State Victoria Nulend and other bloodthirsty neo-cons in Biden’s administration are drooling at the prospect that all this will finally lead to a war with Iran.


Facing potential war on three fronts, Biden tried to offer a fig leaf to China, inviting Chinese leader Xi Jinping to San Francisco. I can imagine Biden’s words: “Forget all the saber-rattling earlier, Xi, those promises to defend Taiwan if you attacked. Sure, you’re a dictator, but let’s be at least friendly until we resolve this Ukraine thing and this Gaza Strip thing.”


Biden’s behavior in this Middle East crisis has cost him much-needed re-election support in the Arab and Muslim community in the United States. All the indictments his Justice Department and local prosecutors have hurled at Donald Trump have done little to dampen support for the former president.


What is likely is that many Americans will stay home on election day next November, and that’s not good for Joe Biden.


Looking to the deep south of the continent below, many are scratching their heads at the election of the Trump-like Javier Milei as president of Argentina, a nation this Labor South blog has long watched with interest.


It’s not so hard to understand. Argentines are deeply frustrated at the failure of successive administrations to end out-of-control inflation and wrest their nation from the deadly grip of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the giant loans that become impossible to pay back, the austerity measures demanded by these neoliberal institutions that gut government programs serving the working class and poor. This frustration led to a shot in the dark, one that is sadly bound to make their lives even worse.


Milei promises to make the U.S. dollar Argentina’s currency, to privatize a wide swath of government services, to break relations with China and other important trading partners. In other words, he’s doing the will of the neoliberals and neoconservatives—I truly don’t know the difference any more—back in Washington, D.C., New York, and European capitals whose behind-the-scenes efforts likely helped propel his ascendancy.


(Carl Sandburg's office in his later years in Flat Rock, North Carolina)

Poor old Carl Sandburg. Few in the United States listened to his harangue against the “Kaisers, kings & czars.” He saw his nation plunge into war and economic Depression as Wall Street ruled while Kaisers, kings and czars fell elsewhere in the world. World War I ended and a decade later the working class gained power under a friendly president, but soon enough Kaisers and kings re-emerged and so did war. By that time, however, the poet was completing his highly praised biography of Abraham Lincoln, a leader who saw and hated the savagery of war and was determined to keep it from destroying his nation.


Thursday, November 9, 2023

A call for values, dialogue, and compromise from Norwegian peace advocate Henrik Syse when all so many political leaders seem to want it is war

(To the right, Henrik Syse)


Norwegian philosopher, peace advocate, and former vice chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee Henrik Syse smiled and quipped jokes with his audience at the University of Mississippi this week, but his subsequent lecture proved somber.


“We live in a time of very serious challenges to peace,” he said. “We are living in a time of crisis, of great polarization.”


Recalling the horrific wars of the 20th century and the brutal regimes of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, he asked the question: “What stands between us and that nightmare scenario?”


His answer was values, dialogue, compromise, diplomacy. “We have certain values that we need to protect.” Then, “the mystery of dialogue. Look at Plato’s dialogues. In conversation, you have to pay attention to others.”


Giving respect to the human dignity of the other is key. “The mystery of the other person. If you know them, you don’t want to destroy them.”


Words of wisdom at a time when the world seems teetering toward what the old 1960s ballad sung by Barry McGuire and written by P.F. Sloan called the “Eve of Destruction”.


“If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away

There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave.”


A murderous attack by the Hamas terrorist group on Israeli citizens followed by what appears to be the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip by Israeli armed forces, the bloody proxy war between USA-led NATO and Russia on the increasingly scorched earth of Ukraine, the dangerous saber-rattling by both Democrats and Republicans against China and Iran—not much dialogue, compromise, or diplomacy there.


“You cannot negotiate with evil,” GOP presidential candidate Tim Scott said during the most recent televised debate with fellow candidates. Essentially calling for war against Iran, Scott said, “You have to destroy it.”


Scott merely echoed what Republican U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina has been saying. When CNN asked him whether the U.S. and Israel should “bomb Iran even in the absence of direct evidence of their involvement” in the Hamas attack, Graham said, “Yeah.”


Syse’s answer? “Compromise is not a four-letter word. Most people are not evil. (Former Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev and (former U.S. President Ronald) Reagan saw you have to build bridges. They spoke with each other and publicly praised each other. … We must try to sit at the same table.”


Paraphrasing Pope Francis, Syse said, “One doesn’t come out of a crisis the same as one was before. We’re either better or worse.”


Yet look at the first point Syse made: the necessity of protecting values. According to the New York Times, abortion has become the major issue of the modern-day Democratic Party and was a key reason for victories in this week’s elections. What about the values of the Democratic Party of Franklin D. Roosevelt: workers’ rights, limits on unhinged capitalism, the positive role that government can play in people’s lives, help for the desperate and needy?


Today, Democratic President Joe Biden is a warmonger who ended the war in Afghanistan only to launch one in Ukraine, albeit with only Ukrainian and Russian lives at stake, no Americans. He and the other warmongers in his administration are already preparing for possible war against China primarily to prevent that nation from outdoing the USA as the world’s premier economic power. Biden gave Israel’s right-wing leader, Benhamin Netanyahu, carte blanche support when he launched his vengeful attack on not just Hamas but also the Palestinian people.


Republicans aren’t any better. A few have begun to be critical of the war in Ukraine, but they march in lockstep support for Israel’s reckless bombing of Gaza.  


(Fedor Chaliapin)

These times are reminiscent of what the great opera singer Fedor Chaliapin saw when he returned to his native Russia from war-torn Europe. He sensed that his homeland, caught between the senseless destruction of World War I and an impending revolution, stood at the brink of something overwhelming and that it would never be the same afterward.


“Chaliapin started to think that what was happening was nothing other than collective madness,” his biographer, Victor Borovsky, wrote. “In a world which has visibly run amok, stifling the voice of reason, calls for new sacrifices and for new victories grew increasingly vociferous.”


A major reason was political corruption and the performance of the media, as is the case today. “The widespread corruption and confusion, the blaring manifestos, the boastful claims of newspapers too revolting to soil your hands with, the reports of successes when in reality military debacle was complete.”


And in Chaliapin’s own words: “When war is declared, it is not the people who want it, but the leaders.”

Friday, October 6, 2023

In Navajo land's Monument Valley, where the people look to Father Sun for harmony, something often hard to find on a reservation

(Monument Valley)

MONUMENT VALLEY, Navajo Nation, Utah - Navajo guide, philosopher, mystic, musician Duffy Holiday points to the ground and then stretches his hands toward the sky as he explains Navajo thinking to the eight non-Indians standing around his makeshift guide truck.


“We are connected,” he tells them. “At the end of our toes, we have these swirls, and that is how we are connected to the earth.” Then he opens the palms of his hands--“See these swirls?”—and reaches toward the sky. “We are connected to the heavens like that. So when we are standing, we are standing to the east.”


Facing east is important to Navajos. They build their homes facing east so they can greet the sunrise. For the Navajo, Father Sun represents universal harmony, something often difficult to find on an American reservation where poverty is widespread and so is U.S. and state government neglect.


(To the right, Duffy Holiday)


My wife Suzanne and I met Duffy Holiday during a 17-day, 4,400-mile road trip across the Great American West in September. We traveled from Oxford, Mississippi, across the Mississippi River and Arkansas into the Great Plains of Oklahoma and Kansas, stopping in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, at the museum dedicated to the great Western character actor Ben Johnson, and on to a wedding in Golden, Colorado, where we also visited Buffalo Bill’s gravesite.


Then we traveled through the Arches, the Painted Desert, Monument Valley, the north rim of the  Grand Canyon, and Zion National Park in Utah and Arizona before stopping to visit friends in Mesquite, Nevada. Through the Mohave Desert we drove en route to Los Angeles and Palm Springs. On the road back through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma, we took every chance we got to drive Route 66, the Mother Road of the Joads, Tod and Buz, Jack Kerouac, Bobby Troup, Nat King Cole, and the Rolling Stones.


The beauty of the Great American West is breathtaking, and amid the vastness and seeming emptiness of all those mountains, mesas, buttes, bluffs, plateaus, and deserts you find not only millions of years of earthen history but a very important history of the these United States as well.


Some of that history is etched in Duffy Holiday’s sun-darkened face. The grandson of one of the Navajo tribe’s legendary code-talkers (who developed a secret code of communication during World War II that the Japanese could not break), he’s a proud man who makes a point to contrast the Navajo sense of family and community with Western man’s strident individualism.


Also speaking to that history are the small communities that dot the Navajo Nation—a reservation the size of West Virginia that stretches across Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.  In an overall population of 400,000, 160,000 of whom live on the reservation, the Navajo Nation has 13,500 reservation families who live without electricity—and thus no lights and no refrigeration--and 17,000 homes have no running water.


(A Navajo woman singing at a sandstone formation called "The Sun's Eye" in Monument Valley)

These and other grim statistics, reported by journalist Elyse Wild in a recent edition of the Navajo-Hopi Observer, are reminders of centuries-old greed and lack of concern toward the American Indian. The unemployment rate on the reservation is 50 percent. Half of all adult Navajos suffers from Type 2 diabetes. Their mortality rate—fueled by heart disease--is 31 percent higher than that of the rest of the nation.


With such statistics, of course, come drugs, suicide, domestic violence, crime, and the other ills that always attach themselves to poverty.


“Lack of electricity exacerbates disparities that have long had a foothold in Indian Country,” Wild writes, “driven by a federal legacy of forced removal and assimilation, the U.S. government’s neglect of treaty agreements, and systemic apathy for Native Americans living on reservations.”


The sordid trail of broken agreements with American Indians by the U.S. government is a shameful national legacy that continues today in our nation’s foreign relations—witness the empty boasts of protecting democracy as the CIA supported dictatorial coups in Latin America, the broken promises to Russia not to expand NATO eastward that led to the current war in Ukraine.


The Navajos are resilient, however, a point of pride for Duffy Holiday and his people. “In Navajo, we have this kinship,” Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) official Deenise Becenti told Wild. “We are related to one another through these clan systems. A lot of people I am related to and people that I know don’t have electricity. That is part of what keeps me here.”


A four-year-old “Light Up Navajo” program has brought electricity to 662 families thus far, including 159 just this past summer. Light Up Navajo is a joint operation between the NTUA and a coalition of nonprofit, community-owned utilities called the American Public Power Association. Electrical workers from across the country volunteer to travel to Navajo Nation to help build lines that can finally bring electricity and refrigeration to families on the reservation.


When Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed through the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 to help the poor in regions such as Appalachia, it excluded Indian tribes. Even today, political resistance to Navaho pleas for such basics as water rights can be fierce, particularly in Republican-dominated Arizona, which requires a maze of bureaucratic hurdles to be crossed.


At a time in the United States when newspapers everywhere have either died or shrunken to near worthlessness, this old journalist found two worthy newspapers in Navajo Nation—the Navajo-Hopi Observer and Navajo Times. In the editions I read were well-written, well-researched, longform stories that delved deep into the issues that affect Navajos today, stories also with a keen sense of history.

(My wife Suzanne and me with Duffy Holiday)

For example, Wild’s story on efforts to bring electricity to residents of Monument Valley included a poignant reminder of a past that included the forced migration in 1863 of 10,000 Navajos from their home in the Canyon de Chelly to Fort Sumner some 300 miles away in what is today New Mexico. In what writer Nicky Leach has called “the first concentration camp on American soil,” these Navajo were held in slave-like conditions without clean water, provisions, or proper shelter. Many died before a public outcry forced the U.S. government to allow them to return home in 1868.


As I scanned the vast and mystical beauty of this amazing landscape—made famous in all those John Ford Westerns starring John Wayne and Ben Johnson—I pondered the story of our American nation and of the Navajo Nation. It’s a sweeping story of courage, resilience, and sacrifice, but also one of the suffering, sadness, and tragedy that violence, selfishness, racism, and greed make inevitable.

Friday, August 11, 2023

Hollywood writers on strike, and the actors joining them in solidarity--the latest battle in a struggle with a long history

(William Faulkner, from a photograph by Carl Van Vechten)

OXFORD, Miss. - Here in the heart of Yoknapatawpha I think about our favorite literary son, William Faulkner, during his time as a screenwriter in Hollywood and how he would feel about the current strike by members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), now past the 100-day mark, and members of the SAG-AFTRA actors’ union.


Faulkner tended to keep his political cards close to his chest, but perhaps he might remember Warner Brothers’ exec Jack Warner’s boast that he had hired the world’s best writer for “peanuts”. While Faulkner saw his Hollywood wages rise and fall depending on the mood of his benefactors, his main goal always was to earn enough money to get back home to Oxford to do some real writing.


For the screenwriters and actors today striking for better wages and conditions in Hollywood, this is their livelihood as well as their home, and they want the security that pensions and health care plans bring. Launched by some 11,000 screenwriters on May 2 and joined a month ago by the 160,000-member SAG-AFTRA, the strike is one of the largest in Hollywood history.


The strikers are demanding fair wages from the residuals that streaming media bring plus guarantees that the expanding artificial intelligence technology will be used in positive ways such as helping research and story ideas, not in ways to take their jobs. The writers also want guarantees on minimum working hours as well as pension and health care plans.


Thus far, these demands have met a stone wall erected by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which has dismissed their complaints and accused them of striking at a particularly vulnerable time for the industry. SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher, famous for her role in the television series The Nanny, has become a rousing spokesperson not only for the strikers but for labor as a whole.

(To the right, Fran Drescher)


“What’s happening to us is happening across all fields of labor,” Drescher said during a recent press conference. “When employers make Wall Street and greed their priority and they forget about the essential contributors that make the machine run, we have a problem.”


A strike “is a very serious thing that impacts thousands, if not millions, of people around this country and all over the world,” she continued. “We are the victims here. We are being victimized by a very greedy entity. … How they plead poverty, that they are losing money left and right, when they are giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs.”


Indeed, nearly 90 percent of SAG-AFTRA actors make less than $26,470 a year, the required minimum to qualify for health care insurance. Screenwriters have seen their pay decline by as much as 23 percent over the last 10 years. By contrast, in the corporate offices of the $43 billion Warner/Discovery/CNN company, Warner Brothers CEO David Zaslav earned $500 million between 2018 and 2022. His company fired 1,000 workers in 2022. At the $120 billion Comcast/Universal/NBC outfit, top executive Brian Roberts raked in $170 million over the past five years.


The gap between what AMPTP is offering and what the WGA is demanding is wide. AMPTP has offered a plan totaling some $86 million. The WGA wants $429 million.


Writers have never been particularly valued in Hollywood even though their work is central to the film industry. The great director and screenwriter Billy Wilder talked about the particular challenge and importance of a writer in Hollywood. “Writing is just an empty page. You start with nothing, absolutely nothing, and, as a rule, writers are vastly underrated and underpaid. It is totally impossible to make a great picture out of a lousy script.”


(To the right, Darryl F. Zanuck)

Hollywood mogul Jack Warner called writers “schmucks with Underwoods.” Darryl F. Zanuck so despised the union activity that was growing in movieland in the late 1930s that he threatened, “if those guys set up a picket line and try to shut down my studio, I’ll mount a machine gun on the roof and mow them down.”


In the late 1920s, another powerful mogul, Louis B. Mayer, was key in the creation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in part as an effort to quell labor activity. He pushed for a “writers division” within the Academy that would deal with writer disputes and issues. In other words, a company union. The Academy’s nod to a 50 percent pay cut in 1933 helped inspire a resurrection of the Screen Writers Guild, an early version of the WGA.


It’s the Academy that awards the world-famous Oscars. Is Oscar in reality just a gold-plated union buster?


(Louis B. Mayer)

Hollywood disdain for writers showed its ugly face throughout the industry’s “Golden Years”. One Thanksgiving during the 1930s, the Republic studio fired every writer on the lot to avoid holiday pay and then re-hired them the following Monday.


During the post-World War II purge of left-leaning sympathies across the country, the notorious U.S. House for Un-American Activities focused its attention on Hollywood and suspicions that closet communists were sneaking their propaganda into the motion pictures Americans were watching. The Hollywood Ten, all but two screenwriters, stood up to the HUAC demagogues and paid the price of prison and blacklisting as a result.


Even after the HUAC rampages lost momentum, writers had to face the next challenge of so-called “auteur” theory, which insisted directors are the true creators of film, the true artists responsible for what is seen on the screen, further diminishing the role of the screenwriter. Screenwriters “had weathered the contract system, they had survived the blacklist, and then—in the early 1960s—they found themselves more or less eliminated from the critical-historical map,” writes Ian Hamilton in his book Writers in Hollywood: 1915-1951.

(To the right, the Hollywood Ten and supporters)


What is happening today is the latest battle in a long struggle for writers, and the actors who speak their words on screen stand in solidarity with them. Fran Drescher says that solidarity speaks to the importance of this moment. “At some point, the jig is up. This is a moment of history, a moment of truth. AMPTP, you have to wake up and smell the coffee. You can’t exist without us.”