Sunday, September 5, 2021

A Labor Day look at the intersection of labor and religion over the course of labor movement history

(To the left, Harper magazine's depiction of the violence that broke out on Haymarket Square in Chicago in May 1886 when police confronted workers demanding an 8-hour workday)
 

My friend and relative the Reverend Gail Tapscott, an old radical like me, invited me to speak to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oxford, Mississippi, today (Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021) about "Labor and Religion" to mark the nation's observation of "Labor Day" on Monday, September 6.   Below are my prepared remarks, which I'm leaving in all caps. That's the way I typed it to ease pressure on these old eyes! I thought I'd share my "sermon" with my readers at Labor South. By the way, I grew up in the Pentecostal Church but joined the Catholic Church in 1989.

THANK YOU, REVEREND GAIL. IT IS A PLEASURE TO BE HERE.

 

YOU KNOW WE SHOULD BE CELEBRATING LABOR DAY ON MAY 1, LIKE MOST OF THE REST OF THE WORLD, BUT WE DON’T.

 

KNOW WHY? PRESIDENT GROVER CLEVELAND AND THE POLITICAL/BUSINESS LEADERSHIP DIDN’T WANT AMERICAN WORKERS CELEBRATING IN SOLIDARITY WITH WORKERS AROUND THE WORLD. THAT’S S WHY HE SETTLED ON THE FIRST MONDAY IN SEPTEMBER. NOW BANKERS AND CEOS CAN ALSO CELEBRATE LABOR DAY. IT ALL GOT STARTED WITH THE PROTESTS FOR THE 8-HOUR WORKDAY, SOMETHING THAT LED TO THE HAYMARKET SQUARE PROTESTS IN MAY 1886, A DECISIVE DAY IN U.S. LABOR HISTORY.

 

BUT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT LABOR AND RELIGION. I HAVE TO GO BACK TO THE OLD TESTAMENT.

 

SIRACH 34:22 > “HE SHEDS BLOOD WHO DENIES THE LABORER HIS WAGES

 

MALACHI 3:5 > “I WILL BE SWIFT TO BEAR WITNESS AGAINST THOSE WHO DEFRAUD THE HIRED MAN OF HIS WAGES.”

 

AND THE NEW TESTAMENT:

 

JAMES 5:1 > “THE WAGES YOU WITHHELD FROM THE WORKERS WHO HARVESTED YOUR FIELDS, (WHO ARE) CRYING ALOUD, AND THEIR CRIES ARE BEING HEARD BY THE LORD.”

 

I’LL LOOK MOST CLOSELY AT OUR JUDEO-CHRISTIAN HERITAGE TODAY, BUT I COULD ALSO LOOK TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD AT ZEN BUDDHISM, THE BUDDHIST MONKS WHO PROTESTED INJUSTICE IN VIETNAM IN THE 1960S AND IN MYANMAR IN THE 1990S AND LATER. THE BUDDHIST SCHOLAR D.T. SUZUKI NOTED THE POVERTY OF THE BUDDHIST MONK WITH HIS “ONE DRESS AND ONE BOWL, UNDER A TREE AND ON A STONE,” AND THEN IN THE WORLD “THE DESIRE TO POSSESS, ONE OF THE WORST PASSIONS, WHAT CAUSES SO MUCH MISERY IN THE WORLD. … AS POWER IS DESIRED,” HE WROTE, “THE STRONG ALWAYS TYRANNIZE OVER THE WEAK; AS WEALTH IS COVETED, THE RICH AND THE POOR ARE ALWAYS CROSSING SWORDS OF BITTER EMNITY.”

 

(To the right, Pope Leo XIII)

 

WE SEE THE RISE OF THE MODERN LABOR MOVEMENT PARALLEL THE GROWTH OF THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION AROUND THE WORLD AND IN THIS COUNTRY IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE CIVIL WAR WITH THE ELIMINATION OF SLAVE LABOR IN THE SOUTH. THE RISE OF FACTORIES AND ACCOMPANYING EXPLOITATION OF WORKERS LED TO KARL MARX AND FRIEDRICH ENGELS AND REVOLUTIONS ACROSS EUROPE IN THE MID-1800S. THE CATHOLIC CHURCH FELT COMPELLED TO RESPOND TO THESE CHALLENGES. THUS POPE LEO XIII AND HIS ENCYCLICAL LETTER “RERUM NOVARUM” (“THE CONDITION OF LABOR”) IN 1891. HERE HE DEFENDS THE RIGHT TO PRIVATE PROPERTY. HE’S NO MARXIST THIS POPE. HOWEVER, HE ALSO DEFENDS THE RIGHTS OF THE WORKER TO A FAIR WAGE AND TO BE ABLE TO JOIN UNIONS WITHOUT FEAR.

 

(Karl Marx)
 

THE LETTER BECAME ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS IN CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING, ONE THAT ASPIRED TO REFLECT THE TRUE TEACHINGS ON SOCIAL JUSTICE OF JESUS CHRIST. IN THE WAKE OF THIS LETTER, YOU’LL SEE WORKER PRIESTS IN FRANCE, LABOR PRIESTS IN THE UNITED STATES, AND DECADES LATER, CATHOLIC PRIESTS WORKING WITH THE LEADERS OF THE SOLIDARITY MOVEMENT IN POLAND. THE NUNS WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES FOR THE POOR AND MARGINALIZED IN EL SALVADOR. EVEN THOUGH THE CHURCH LEADERSHIP TO ITS SHAME OFTEN SIDED WITH THE POWERFUL, THE CAPITALISTS, THE ESTABLISHMENT, SOMETHING THAT HAS GONE ON SINCE ROMAN EMPORER CONSTANTINE IN THE 4TH CENTURY LEGALIZED INSTEAD OF CONDEMNED CHRISTIANITY.

 


(A garment industry sweatshop in 1890)

 

IN THE LAST YEARS OF THE 19TH CENTURY AND FIRST DECADES OF THE 20TH, JEWISH IMMIGRANTS ESCAPING THE POGROMS IN RUSSIA AND EASTERN EUROPE POURED ONTO ELLIS ISLAND IN NYC AND POPULATED THE GHETTOS OF THE LOWER EAST SIDE, BRINGING SOCIALIST IDEAS WITH THEM AS THEY WENT TO WORK IN THE SWEAT SHOPS OF THE GARMENT INDUSTRY.

 

THE RABBIS OFTEN SIDED WITH THE FACTORY OWNERS, BUT NOT ALWAYS. THERE WERE RABBLE ROUSERS LIKE NATHAN DAVIDOWSKY IN YIDDISH WRITER SHOLEM ASCH’S NOVEL EAST RIVER WHO TOLD THE CROWDS THINGS LIKE THIS: “WHEREVER GOD’S WORD HAS COME TO US—THROUGH MOSES OR THE PROPHETS, OR THROUGH JESUS AND THE APOSTLES—GOD HAS CHAMPIONED THE OPPRESSED AGAINST THE OPPRESSORS. GOD IS ALWAYS ON THE SIDE OF THE WORKERS AND AGAINST THOSE WHO EXPLOIT THEM.”

 

IN MY OWN RESEARCH I’VE FOCUSED ON MY NATIVE SOUTH, AND YOU SEE AND LABOR AND RELIGION COME TOGETHER IN THE COTTON MILLS OF THE CAROLINAS AND IN THE COTTON FIELDS OF THE ARKANSAS DELTA IN THE FIRST HALF OF THE 20TH CENTURY. POOR FARMERS ESCAPING THEIR DEAD FARMS FOUND THEMSELVES DOING THE SO-CALLED STRETCH-OUT” IN THE NEW FACTORIES, WHERE THE BOSSES DEMANDED INHUMAN LEVELS OF PRODUCTION ON THEIR NEW MACHINES.

 

LABOR LEADERS SENT PEOPLE LIKE LUCY RANDOLPH MASON, DAUGHTER OF AN EPISCOPALIAN MINISTER, ARISTOCRATIC RELATIVE OF ROBERT E. LEE, ACROSS THE SOUTH TO ORGANIZE THOSE WORKERS. DEEPLY RELIGIOUS WITH A FAITH THAT SOCIAL JUSTICE LAY AT THE HEART OF CHRISTIANITY, MASON FOUND HER STRONGEST OPPOSITION OFTEN IN THE LOCAL CLERGY WITH THEIR CALVINIST BELIEF IN AN ORDER THAT MADE SOME PEOPLE MASTERS AND OTHERS SERVANTS.

 

HERE IS THE STORY OF MASON'S ENCOUNTER WITH "PREACHER JONES" FROM HER AUTOBIOGRAPHY TO WIN THESE RIGHTS


"THE PREACHER DROPPED HIS BULL-LIKE HEAD AND HUNCHING FORWARD SAID TO ME: `YOU DON'T BELIEVE IN NO KIND OF RELIGION--YOU BELIEVE IN A SOCIAL RELIGION AND THAT AIN'T CHRISTIANITY.'


"I, TOO, LEANED FORWARD AND ASKED EARNESTLY, BUT POLITELY: `THEN YOU DON'T BELIEVE IN THE TEACHINGS OF JESUS? ... YOU CAN'T BELIEVE IN WHAT JESUS TAUGHT IF YOU DO NOT HAVE A SOCIAL RELIGION. HIS WHOLE LIFE, HIS TEACHINGS, AND HIS DEATH WERE ALL PART OF A GREAT SOCIAL RELIGION. JESUS SAID THE COMMANDMENT TO LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF WAS SECOND ONLY TO THE COMMANDMENT TO LOVE GOD WITH ALL ONE'S HEART, MIND, AND SOUL.'"

 

WORKING WITH THE COAL MINERS IN WHAT SHE CALLED “MEDIEVAL WEST VIRGINIA” WAS ANOTHER POWERFUL AND FIERY WOMAN OF LABOR, MARY HARRIS JONES, BETTER KNOWN AS MOTHER JONES. MOTHER JONES WOULDN’T HAVE HAD MUCH PATIENCE WITH PREACHER JONES. FAMOUS FOR HER MOTTO “PRAY FOR THE DEAD AND FIGHT LIKE HELL FOR THE LIVING,” MOTHER JONES ALSO SAID THIS: “I WOULD FIGHT GOD ALMIGHTY HIMSELF IF HE DIDN’T PLAY SQUARE WITH ME.”

 

(Highlander historical marker)

 

IN THE 1930S YOU SAW THE RISE OF LABOR AND SOCIAL JUSTICE ORGANIZATIONS LIKE HIGHLANDER IN EAST TENNESSEE, A LABOR SCHOOL AND TRAINING CAMP ORGANIZED BY SEMINARIAN MYLES HORTON AND THEOLOGY STUDENT DON WEST. ROSA PARKS WOULD BE AMONG ITS FUTURE STUDENTS.

 

IN TYRONZA, ARKANSAS, YOU SAW THE RISE OF THE SOUTHERN TENANT FARMERS UNION, FOUNDED BY SHARECROPPER-TURNED SOCIALIST H.L. MITCHELL AND GAS STATION OPERATOR CLAY EAST. THE SCHOLAR ELIZABETH ANNE PAYNE, WHOM SOME OF YOU KNOW AND WHO MAY BE OUT THERE LISTENING, WROTE ELOQUENTLY ABOUT THE “QUASI-RELIGIOUS MOVEMENT” THAT THE STFU WAS EVEN AS THE COMMIES TRIED TO MOVE IN AND TAKE OVER, HOW THEIR MEETINGS WERE LIKE RELIGIOUS REVIVALS WITH FIERY SERMONS AND HEARTFELT HYMNS SUNG.

 

(A call to strike by the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in the 1930s)

 

LABOR WRITER STANLEY ARONOWITZ, A GREAT SOUL WHO RECENTLY PASSED AWAY, HAS COMPARED THE EARLY PENTECOSTALISM OF RURAL SOUTHERNERS WITH THE CATHOLICISM OF SICILIAN AND POLISH IMMIGRANTS, HOW PENTACOSTALISTS, THOSE USUALLY POOR AND POWERLESS HOLY ROLLERS, LOOKED TO AN OLD TESTAMENT GOD WHO HAD NO PATIENCE WITH RUTHLESS TYRANTS WHO SUBJUGATED GOD’S PEOPLE.

 

OF COURSE, SOME OF TODAY’S PENTACOSTALIST PREACHERS, ESPECIALLY THOSE ON TELEVISION, AREN’T SO POOR ANY MORE, AND THEY TEND TO SIDE WITH THE TYRANTS. MANY OF THE GRANDCHILDREN OF CATHOLIC IMMIGRANTS, TOO, HAVE FORGOTTEN THEIR ROOTS.

 

 

(Pentecostal preacher)

 

 

FATHER CHARLES OWN RICE OF PITTSBURGH, PA., ONE OF THE GREATEST OF THE LABOR PRIESTS, CALLED THE PHENOMENON OF CATHOLIC REPUBLICANS “ANOTHER CROSS TO BEAR IN MY OLD AGE.”

 

THE WRITER AND FOUNDER OF THE CATHOLIC WORKER DOROTHY DAY IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE WRITERS AND TO ME A KIND OF HERO. SHE DEDICATED HER LIFE TO HER FAITH AND HER WORK WITH THE POOR AND THE WORKING CLASS. SHE WORKED WITH UNIONS BUT SHE ALSO SAID THEY COULD BE BAD AS WELL. SHE COULD BE A SHARP CRITIC OF UNIONS THAT BECOME SELF-ABSORBED AND SELFISH AND DO MORE HARM THAN GOOD AS THEY BECOME MORE SELF-INTERESTED THAN DEVOTED TO THE WORKING MAN AND WOMAN. YET HER SOLIDARITY WITH THE WORKER NEVER WAVERED.

 

(Dorothy Day)

 

OF COURSE, THERE IS ATHEISTIC COMMUNISM, SHE SAID, BUT, AND THERE’S ALSO ATHEISTIC CAPITALISM THAT TURNS GREED, POSSESSION AND ACCUMULATION INTO GODS. AND HER WORDS: “WHAT IS WORST OF ALL IS USING GOD AND RELIGION TO BOLSTER UP ONE’S OWN GREED, OUR OWN ATTACHMENT TO PROPERTY, AND PUTTING GOD AND COUNTRY ON AN EQUALITY.”

 

THIS NATION’S LABOR MOVEMENT ONCE WAS THE PREMIER SOCIAL JUSTICE MOVEMENT IN THE COUNTRY. AS IT FADED AND BECAME MORE INWARD LOOKING, THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT TOOK HOLD.

 

IN MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. WE SEE THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT JOIN WITH THE IDEALS OF THE OLD LABOR MOVEMENT WHEN HE CAME TO MEMPHIS TO STAND WITH THE STRIKING SANITATION WORKERS. IT COST HIM HIS LIFE.


(To the right, Martin Luther King Jr.)

 

THERE ARE THOSE CARRYING ON THAT LEGACY TODAY. THE SOUTHERN FAITH, LABOR AND COMMUNITY ORGANIZATION IS AN EXAMPLE. THE FARM LABOR ORGANIZING COMMITTEE’S FIGHT FOR IMMIGRANT WORKERS IS FUELED BY THE RELIGIOUS FAITH OF ITS FOUNDER, BALDEMAR VELASQUEZ, AN ORDAINED MINISTER AND EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN. WHO ONCE LOOKED AT RELIGION AS A “ANGLO TRICK”. HERE IN MISSISSIPPI, FATHER JEREMY TOBIN WAS A CHAMPION OF THE UAW ORGANIZING EFFORT AT THE NISSAN PLANT IN CANTON.

 

SO RELIGION AND WORKERS’ RIGHTS GO HAND IN HAND, AND THEY HAVE FOR A LONG TIME AND STILL DO. KARL MARX MAY NOT LIKE IT, AND DONALD TRUMP AND MITCH MCCONNELL MAY NOT EITHER, BUT THEY’LL JUST HAVE TO DEAL WITH IT.

Friday, September 3, 2021

A Rolling Stones fan says goodbye to Charlie Watts, remembers six decades of fandom and encounters, including winning an argument circa 1965 that they would outlast the Dave Clark Five!

Presenting in the accompanying photo yours truly’s Rolling Stones creds.

 

I loved this group before I even heard them. As a young teenager I saw a magazine article headlined “Would You Let Your Daughter Date A Rolling Stone?”, and that got me Rolling, then I heard “Not Fade Away” on the radio and there was no turning back.

 

Charlie Watts’ recent death at 80 is like a personal loss. A great drummer who didn’t like drum solos or the spotlight, jazz man as well as rock ‘n’ roll legend. I had just bought two of his jazz CDs—“Long Ago & Far Away” and “Warm & Tender”—when I heard about his passing. Love you, Charlie.

 

I’ve seen them three times, including in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1965–see my $3 ticket stub near bottom right of the photo. Brian Jones was still with them then. “Get Off My Cloud” was their latest hit at the time.

 

Met Bill Wyman when he came to my town of Oxford, Mississippi, in 2001 to push his blues book, Bill Wyman’s Blues Odyssey, and tightened my lip a tiny bit when the notorious lecher looked at some length at my beautiful daughter Rachel and said, “I’ve always heard the Ole Miss girls are very pretty.”

 

I once made eye contact with Mick Jagger when he passed by me at the much-respected Lindberg Music Store in Munich, Germany, in circa 1974, where I was working and he was shopping. I didn’t know what to say so I just let him pass by. I had been working upstairs in the store’s warehouse/storage section when my German-born sister Evi, a saleswoman downstairs, came up and said, “Joe, have you ever heard of Mike Jagger?” I said, “Do you mean Mick Jagger?” She nodded. I rushed down, and there he was!

 

Lindberg was a store famous in Munich for its famous customers. During my four-year stint there—I doubled as a student at the University of Munich—I saw jazzmen Oscar Peterson and Count Basie, French chanson singer Georges Moustaki (almost ran him down as I was dumping trash and didn’t see him on the other side of the big trashbox!), King Hussein of Jordan, orchestra conductor Herbert von Karajan, and many others walk through Lindberg’s doors.

 

None made the impression that Mick Jagger did, however!

 

I loved the Beatles, but the Stones were all about grit and rebellion, working class guys who played the blues with a vengeance. Mick’s maracas, and Brian’s harmonica, Bill’s electric base held upright like a shield, Keith like a whirling dervish knees bent and pointing his guitar like the Rifleman’s sawed-off shotgun, and then Charlie, cool, calm, and collected behind it all, laying down the beat that held it all together.

 

They rocked & rolled hopping country blues like “I Just Want To Make Love To You”, “Little By Little”, and “It’s All Over Now”, Chuck Berry tunes like “Around And Around” and “You Can’t Catch Me”, preached rock ‘n’ roll gospel with Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Loves Somebody”, and rumbled ‘n’ rolled with Bo Diddley’s “Mona”. They made those minor chords cry in songs like “Empty Heart”.

 

Years later they sang revolution in “Street Fighting Man” and made “Paint It Black” the unofficial score to the Vietnam War. Then showed the Bee Gees and the rest of  that crowd how to really disco with “Miss You”.

 

The music in their more recent CDs like “Rainfalldown” and “Blue and Lonesome” are excellent , but no one buys CDs any more.

 

Just this past year, my filmmaker buddy Tom Thurman came for a visit from his home in Lexington, Kentucky. As I was taking him back to the airport in Memphis, he asked me to take him to see a good friend of his in Memphis for a short visit. Lo and behold, that friend was the great music writer Stanley Booth, who wrote what many consider to be the definitive book about the Rolling Stones, True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, back in 1984. The long-haired scribe lives in a modest home with the walls lined with music, books, posters, paintings, the artifacts of a life devoted to art. He signed my copy of his book. 

 

As a young teenager in Sanford, North Carolina, in the early-to-mid 1960s, I defended the Rolling Stones against all attacks. A good buddy of mine once insisted the Dave Clark Five would be around long after the Stones were gone and forgotten. I’d like to pick up on that conversation today!


Sunday, August 22, 2021

A U.S. Army veteran of both the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars is feeling a strong sense of deja vu these days

 

(Civilians and Taliban fighters at the Kabul airport)
 

 My old Army buddy Bob Mayton of Albemarle, North Carolina, is getting a strong sense of déjà vu these days. Every time he turns on the television and sees the thousands of desperate Afghans at the Kabul airport struggling to get out of their country, he remembers what happened in Saigon 46 years ago.

 

Just as Afghans risk their lives clinging to U.S. airplanes as they lift off, Vietnamese who’d worked with the U.S. military did the same as U.S. helicopters flew out of Saigon for the last time in April 1975. 

 

“We have learned from history that we don’t learn from history,” Bob told me during a recent phone call. “Americans particularly.”


(To the right, junking a South Vietnamese helicopter in the scramble to leave Vietnam in April 1975) 

 

Bob, a teacher and historian, has the unique perspective of someone who served as a soldier both in Vietnam and 

 

Afghanistan, two long and losing wars that bookended a career that began in March 1971 and ended in December 2010. His service included both active duty and also years in the National Guard and Army Reserves and as both noncommissioned officer and officer.

 

He was in Afghanistan from June 2009 to May 2010, training Afghan infantry soldiers in logistics nd infantry tactics for the National Military Academy Afghanistan. He served in Vietnam from August 1971 to March 1973. He and I were in the same Army outfit in Plantation, Vietnam, in 1971 and part of 1972.

 

(Bob Mayton, this writer, and our Army buddy Preston Parker in Saigon circa 1971)

 

“When I left (Afghanistan) in 2010 I thought we were going down the tubes. I am amazed it lasted as long as it did. I saw the Afghan military wasn’t very motivated. It really wasn’t the military’s fault. … They knew about the corruption. They knew what was going on. They were involved in it, too.”

 

Over the 20 years of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the U.S. government spent billions of taxpayer dollars on equipment, training, and the waging of a futile war, The equipment will now benefit the Taliban as it takes over the reins of government. War profiteers in the United States grew fat and happy as they do in all wars, and that’s why the “Deep State” they occupy is now so angry at President Joe Biden for finally bringing an end to those once-swollen rivers of cash flow.

 

“That is the ugly, ugly truth about the whole thing,” Bob said. “The military-industrial complex ran amuck. … The U.S. gave Afghans $50 million for spare parts, and we tried to teach them to requisition equipment. They get the $50 million to order spare parts and they wouldn’t do it. That money went somewhere. Into the pockets of officials. Some of that went on in Vietnam.”

 

As in Afghanistan, the years of U.S. investment in training South Vietnamese soldiers went to naught once the U.S. pulled out and the Communist North Vietnamese swept into Saigon.     

 

However, Afghanistan is a much different country. In fact, it’s hardly a country at all.

 

“There are nine major tribes or ethnic groups in Afghanistan. It is not really a nation. It is a collection of tribes. Each tribe wants to do it their way. I don’t think the people as a whole are interested in a united Afghanistan.

 

“I was teaching infantry tactics, advanced individual training. The people came and went as they pleased. Guys would come in and find out they were going to Kandahar and go home, sell their uniforms and equipment. They’d wait a month or so and come back and go through it again. They didn’t want to go to Kandahar. That was where the Taliban was, and troops were getting with the program.

 

“The Afghan people I met on the surface were nice people, and they appreciated what we were doing, but their heart wasn’t in it (the war).”

 

Bob feels the U.S. withdrawal could have been handled better, but “I think there is probably some truth in what Biden said about not tipping off the Taliban with an earlier withdrawal. I like Biden, but I think it could have been better planned.”

 

Bob worries about the Afghans left behind and particularly Afghan women, who now face the religious zealotry of the Taliban. “I worry that the schools for women are going to be gone.”


 (This writer and Bob Mayton in North Carolina in 2014)

 

 What’s also worrisome is the fact that this could all happen again.

 

“I’d like to say no but hell no, but I think it will happen again.”

 

And when it does, perhaps some young soldier who served alongside Bob in Afghanistan will serve in that future war as well, and he, too, will be experiencing the same sense of déjà vu that Bob is feeling today.

 

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Four-time Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, RIP, silver-tongued and flamboyant but a true populist in the progressive tradition of that word

 

(Edwin Edwards)
 

On the night of October 24, 1987, I wrapped up a 17-hour day covering the Louisiana governor’s race in New Orleans and finally left the Hyatt-Regency Hotel campaign headquarters where half-hearted Republican candidate Bob Livingston seemed so happy to have lost that he pulled out a harmonica and rock ‘n’ rolled on the stage with an Elvis impersonator. You’d have never known from the jubilation in the crowd that Livingston had lost.

 

As soon as I returned to my more modest hotel, I remembered something fellow team reporter John Hill had told me. Be sure to catch Edwin Edwards’ concession speech, he said. I turned on the television.

 

Indeed, the silver-tongued populist Democrat was on the screen and about to concede his first-ever political loss, this time to conservative Democrat-and-future Republican Buddy Roemer. Edwards walked solemnly to the stage that had been prepared at the Hotel Monteleone on the edge of New Orleans’ French Quarter.

 

Admitting that he had lost the race, Edwards vowed his continued commitment to the people of Louisiana. “Tears come to my eyes at night for the poor people and the elderly,” Edwards said, a finger—as I recall—touching his cheek. “No one will ever know.”

 

Ah, populism—the real kind! You’ve got to love it! Edwards, who’d go on to serve a fourth term as governor after defeating former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke in what was called the “Race from Hell” in 1991, died last month at the age of 93 after a long career in the public eye that included an eight-year stint in prison for influence peddling in connection with casino licenses. An irony is that Edwards never smoked or drank, but he loved to gamble.

 

“All this fun has to end at some point,” he reportedly said as his life ebbed away.

 

Edwards was a blast for this old political reporter to cover back in the 1980s and 1990s. I remember a Democratic Party political event on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1992 in which Edwards and former Mississippi governors Bill Allain and William Winter were the featured speakers. All three gave great speeches, but Edwards had the crowd laughing with a risqué joke about a rogue Catholic priest.

 

Turning to a priest who shared the stage with him, Edwards said, “Sorry, Father. That was another parish.” Edward grew up near Marksville, Louisiana, the son of a sharecropper-turned-merchant who was an anti-Catholic Protestant and a French Cajun mother who was Catholic. He and his brother Marion attended Nazarene services.

 

As Edwards spoke, I noticed two beautiful and buxom young women sitting at a table near the stage with a couple of muscle-bound guys who looked like Mafia hit men. I turned to a fellow correspondent from Louisiana at my table and asked about the blondes and the hit men. “They (the women) are for Edward after the speech tonight.”

 

Edwards was a bit of a rascal, three times married, the last time to 32-year-old Trina Grimes when he was a ripe old 83 and newly freed from prison. Of course, his most famous quote may be something he said in 1983, asserting that the only way he could lose an election would be to be caught in bed "with a dead girl or a live boy."

 

Investigated and indicted in the past but never successfully prosecuted until that last time, he cut a swashbuckling path through always colorful Louisiana politics, pushing the same kind of progressive agenda that predecessors Huey Long and his brother Earl had done before.

 

(To the right, Huey Long)

 

Back in the 1920s and 1930s Huey took on the oil and timber barons who ruled Louisiana and cut them down to size, claiming nearly dictatorial powers at times, it’s true, but along the way finally giving the state’s poor and working class a piece of the pie in oil-rich Louisiana. An assassin ended Huey’s life and rule in 1935, but Earl picked up the baton. He pushed for higher old age pensions and free school lunches, and like Huey resisted the racist ranting that other Southern pols like Theodore Bilbo and James K. Vardaman in neighboring Mississippi used to solidify their poor white support.

 


(To the left, Earl Long)

 

Edwards broke records in the number of African Americans he appointed to office and went after the oil industry that had grown rich in Louisiana. By linking oil taxes to the price of oil (and not volume), he boosted state coffers—at least during times when the industry was booming. In the mid-1980s, he helped retire his campaign debt by organizing a laissez les bons temps rouler trip to Paris, France, for his buddies and supporters. The price for a ride was $10,000 a person.

 

Edwards was no angel, but he brought some delicious spice to politics, and he represented a true populism, one that is progressive, not the right-wing kind that Donald Trump has come to symbolize. Trump-style “populists” are nothing more than old school Bourbons in disguise, serving the same wealthy interests that the old Southern gentry always served and that Republicans still do.

 

Friday, July 23, 2021

Pushing for Medicaid expansion and against old Southern political attitudes in the nation's perennially poorest and unhealthiest state, Mississippi

 

OXFORD, Miss. – Embedded in Mississippi’s political leadership since time immemorial regarding Medicaid and other social programs is the attitude that somebody somewhere is going to get a free ride.

 

Back in the 1960s, U.S. Sen. John Stennis and Congressmen Jamie Whitten and Thomas G. Abernethy, all Mississippi Democrats, fought hard against funding for food programs and other government assistance to the poor and needy, like the Head Start preschool program. The federal government adopted the Medicaid program in 1967. Mississippi waited until 1969.

 

Mississippi is one of a dozen states in the nation—most of them in the U.S. South—that thus far have refused a largely federally funded Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

 

Today, however, a strong and growing push toward expansion of the Medicaid program is underway in the nation’s perennially poorest and unhealthiest state, a push led by clergy and judiciary leaders as well as a growing number of business leaders.

 

“We are in a crisis,” says Perry C. Perkins Jr. of Working Together Mississippi (WTM) and the Industrial Areas Foundation. WTM is doing grassroots work across the state to expand health care options for Mississippians. “Why? Our politics are totally politicized. Too many Mississippians earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to qualify for tax credits that would reduce their health insurance costs.”

 

A letter supporting Medicaid and issues like post-partum care for needy mothers signed by 350 clergy and other local leaders recently went out to the state’s governor and legislature. Perkins’ Working Together Mississippi plans to expand that number to 600 clergy with a thousand or more local leaders participating in so-called “Civic Academy” discussion sessions. He and others are urging citizens to call or write state leaders and their representatives in the legislature.

 

In a June 6 column published in the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo, state Senator Chad McMahon, a Republican representing Lee and western Itawamba counties, called for a serious discussion of Medicaid expansion.

 

“I’m hearing from farmers, who are small business owners employing as many as 10 employees, that want health insurance for their families and their employees,” McMahon wrote. “Some of the largest corporations in the state are located in the district I represent, and they are expressing their desire to expand Medicaid for their employees and their families.”

 

McMahon, who hasn’t yet taken an official position on the issue, said that Medicaid is not a government welfare program—indeed two-thirds of those who’d benefit from an expansion are employed but get no insurance from their employer—but rather a “government insurance program” that offers minimum coverage. Already one out of three Mississippians receive Medicaid.

 

“Sustainable and affordable access to healthcare for Mississippians is important to me,” McMahon wrote. “Whether that healthcare or insurance is public or private is the field of discussion. I would prefer a private sector solution if one is available that is affordable, sustainable, and offers access to world class healthcare.”

 

Many Mississippians have anything but “world class healthcare.”

           

The state ranks 1st in kidney disease, death from pneumonia and flu, strokes and cancer. It ranks 50th in COVID-19 vaccinations, and number 1 in infant mortality and problem pregnancies. Perry Perkins comes to “Civic Academy” meetings armed with such statistics from the Kaiser Foundation and other sources.

 

In a rural state, at least a half-dozen of 19 publicly owned hospitals are in poor financial health, according to a 2017 state auditor’s report. Five rural hospitals have already closed.

 

Perkins says expanding Medicaid would reach 300,000 Mississippians plus pump $690 million of federal dollars into the state’s economy. Each state gets a 90 percent federal match for the expansion. Uncompensated care, a huge issue for rural and other hospitals, would decline by as much as 50 percent.

 

Politicians like McMahon are starting to listen, and legislative hearings are planned for this summer. Next door, Louisiana passed a Medicaid expansion five years ago.

 

However, state Attorney General Lynn Fitch was one of 18 state attorneys general—all Republicans--to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out the ACA. The court this month refused. Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn is busy these days pushing elimination of the state income tax just five years after the Legislature passed the largest tax cut in the state’s history. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves recently declared the state would no longer accept federal COVID-19-related unemployment benefits.

 

Still, Perkins remains optimistic. “There is movement. (Most) Mississippi voters support Medicaid expansion. The clergy are pushing it. Business people, too.”

 

This article appeared in the July 16, 2021, edition of the Mississippi Catholic in Jackson, Mississippi.

 

Saturday, June 5, 2021

A Hong Kong labor leader and democracy advocate sits in jail while a former U.S. secretary of labor and Democratic Party leader joins a union-busting law firm


(To the right, Lee Cheuk-yan in Hong Kong in 2013)

 

Let’s compare and contrast two major figures on the labor and political fronts of their homelands and see which one stands truer to his convictions. The two are veteran Hong Kong labor and democracy advocate Lee Cheuk-yan and former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez.

 


(Tom Perez)

 

Lee Cheuk-yan, general secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, today is sitting in prison after getting two concurrent 18-month sentences for his role in pro-democracy rallies in 2019. He has been a key organizer in the annual and now-banned pro-democracy candlelight vigils in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, events that commemorate the victims of the bloody government crackdown that took place in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

 

Tom Perez served as U.S. secretary of labor during the Obama Administration and then later took over the DNC after an inner party struggle between the pro-Perez Obama-Clinton establishment and party progressives who wanted Keith Ellison of Minnesota. Perez announced last week he is going to join the union-busting Venable LLP law firm.

 

I interviewed Lee in Hong Kong back in June 2013 and also joined in the pro-democracy vigil at Victoria Park. Pressure from Beijing at the time seemed to me comparatively muted—dock workers had just won a 40-day strike in a city without collective bargaining rights--but Lee knew it lurked in the shadows and posed an ever-present threat.


(To the right, pro-democracy vigil in Hong Kong's Victoria Park in June 2013)

 

“We have to support independent unions, and at the same time, democratic rights,” Lee told me. “Unless there is democracy in China, it will be far more difficult for Hong Kong to have a real democracy.”

 

In Hong Kong, “you have to deal with the Communist Party regime,” he said. “After the handover (when Britain relinquished its colonial rights to Hong Kong in 1997) , they had a coalition with big business. They want big business on their side. Their concern is overwhelmingly stability. They want to cooperate with the capitalists, and that the capitalists should cooperate with them. That’s the political deal. … Workers, of course, are always the ones that sacrifice.”

 

Bernie Sanders’ challenge to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential primaries became a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party in the United States. The party of Bill and Hillary Clinton had become so embedded with Wall Street and big business that American labor became more or less an afterthought.

 

Prior to Perez’ takeover, the DNC had conspired to undermine Sanders’ candidacy in favor of Clinton. Clinton won the party’s nomination but then went on to lose to Donald Trump. Instead of some serious soul-searching and a change in direction, however, the party establishment put at its head Perez, who had campaigned for Clinton. Current President Joe Biden worked hard for Perez as did other party insiders, making lots of phone calls for his friend from the Obama days.

 

The Democratic Party’s identity crisis goes back a long way, however. Barack Obama came into office in 2008 with great expectations—I’ll never forget his rousing pro-labor speech at the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago in 2005—but he quickly filled his administration with corporate neoliberals like Tim Geithner and Larry Summers. Today Obama is trying to walk back his pro-corporate record, telling the New York Times recently that “the bank bailouts just angered everyone, including me.”

 

As labor secretary, Perez fought the courts for the so-called “Persuader Rule” that would require companies to disclose spending on anti-union groups and consultants—Donald Trump later dumped that rule—but now he has joined Venable, one of the firms that lobbied against the Persuader Rule.

 

“Venable’s attorneys are at the forefront of helping clients navigate dynamic regulatory, policy, and labor and employment issues,” Perez said in a press release from his new employer. “I look forward to joining them in this important work.”

 

As reported recently by the Daily Poster, Venable proudly proclaims on its website that “we regularly counsel and train clients on union avoidance, employee terminations, arbitration, and contract administration and interpretation.”

 

So here we have a former U.S. secretary of labor and Democratic Party chief who’s now openly in bed with union-busting barracudas even though American labor remains one of the Democratic Party’s most loyal supporters.

 

Across the world in Hong Kong, we have a labor leader and party chief—Lee Cheuk-yan’s resume also includes service as chair of the Hong Kong Labor Party—who has been jailed by a Communist-ruled regime that claims to be wholly dedicated to not only the workers of Hong Kong and China but of the world.

 

“I am proud I can walk with the people of Hong Kong on the road to democracy,” Lee said before he was sentenced. “We will walk together even in darkness with hope in our heart.”

 


(Han Dongfang and Labor South's Joe Atkins in Washington, D.C., in June 2014)

 

Another Hong Kong-based dissident, Han Dongfang, founder of the China Labour Bulletin and a veteran of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square, told me and others during a June 2014 panel discussion in Washington, D.C.,  that “if you are afraid of the dark, and the dark knows this, it will be aggressive.”

 

Han, who spent 22 months in a Chinese prison for his labor organizing at the time of the 1989 crackdown, was in Victoria Park this month even though authorities had forbidden any demonstrations. As police patrolled the area to make sure everything was under control, he told a Reuters reporter, “I just feel like being here.”

 

How would Tom Perez advise Lee Cheuk-yan and Han Dongfang today? Would he say, “Surely there’s a party position for you, or, if not, a lucrative law firm that could use your experience”? We know what their answer would be.


Tuesday, May 18, 2021

The South's patrician political leadership still has contempt for the lower classes of "Lubberland"

 

 

(A 1670 "Mapp of Lubberland", the imaginary isle where the lazy lower classes idle away their days) 


Mississippi restaurants complained so loudly to Gov. Tate Reeves they can’t find people to work for $2.13 an hour plus tips that Reeves informed the federal government his state would no longer accept COVID-19 unemployment benefits for workers.

 

Philip Gunn, speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives and Republican like Reeves, wrote the governor that restaurants and other businesses can’t get workers “to return to work because they earn more from combined federal and state unemployment benefits than their normal wages.”

 

So Mississippi joined fellow Southern states South Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama, and other Republican-led states in the South and beyond in denying workers the $300 per week benefits that the federal government had authorized as a result of the pandemic. Unemployed workers in Mississippi will have to live on the $235 a week the state provides.

 

Inherent in all of this is the utter contempt for average working class people that the patrician leaders of the Republican-dominated South have long had. The Republican Party is the party of the rich—the property-owning business class, CEOs, the country club set, the landed gentry. Republicans in the South today aren’t really very different from the Bourbon Democrats of the Old South—arrogant, paternalistic, ever suspicious of someone from the lower classes trying to sneak a free ride.

 

Even when Republicans cloak themselves in a kind of inverse populism, like Donald Trump, the contempt is still there, just under the surface, and it shows itself in their policies and actions, such as Trump’s eviscerating of the National Labor Relations Board during his administration.

 

Restaurant workers and retail workers were hit hard by the pandemic as businesses across the land shut down. Mississippi’s unemployment rate jumped from 5.8 percent in February 2020 to 15.7 percent in April 2020. Today it hovers just a little above 6 percent.

 

Despite a federal $7.25-per-hour minimum wage, restaurant workers typically work for as little as $2.13 an hour with the hope that tips can make up the difference.

 

“To ask people to go back to work for low wages instead of receiving a `living wage’ is asinine,” Democratic Mississippi Rep. Jeramey Anderson of Moss Point said in a tweet reported by the Mississippi Free Press. “Unemployment benefits are not the problem. Our failure to address low wages in our state is the real issue.”

 

In her compelling book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, author Nancy Isenberg tears away at the lie that the United States is a essentially a class-less country where anyone with some gumption can succeed. “We need to stop thinking that some Americans are the real Americans, the deserving, the talented, the most patriotic and hardworking, while others can be dismissed as less deserving of the American dream,” she writes. “Class is as American as it ever was British.”

 

Isenberg writes of how 17th and early 18th century aristocrats like the British philosopher John Locke and the Virginia planter and diarist William Byrd II considered the lower classes such as those in the colony of North Carolina lazy, shiftless, contemptible, needing-to-be-ruled residents of what they called “Lubberland”.

 

Old attitudes die hard.

 

The media are as much to blame as greedy capitalists. Every issue that raises the spectre of class conflict in America is immediately sidetracked into an issue of race or of the narrow-minded prejudices and ignorance of the Great Unwashed. The utter frustration of their voicelessness in both the Republican and Democratic parties led many in those unwashed masses to vote for Donald Trump. Of course, he had no more intention of serving their interests than did Hillary Clinton.

 

Despite a blue-collar identity betrayed again and again in a political career of compromises, Joe Biden has thus far as president stepped up to the plate in support of working class people in his domestic policies. He’s shown sensitivity to their plight during the pandemic, expressed strong support for labor unions, and challenged rather than succumbed to Republican intransigence.

 

(To the right, the poet Dylan Thomas)
 

Workers in the South are showing some feistiness in face of the political hypocrisy that’s constantly dealt them. Sure, they lost big labor battles at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, recently and at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, in 2017, but they’re not simply going gently “into that good night” the poet Dylan Thomas warned us about. They’re indeed raging “against the dying of the light.”

 

Nurses won a big battle in organizing  at the Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, last September. Workers at the Valley Proteins rendering plant in Bertie Country, North Carolina, are trying to organize. Miners at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama are on strike. Organizations like the Southern Workers Assembly and the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE) are sowing the seeds of a labor-conscious New South.

 

Sooner or later, enough eyes will open to the plantation mentality of political leaders like Tate Reeves of Mississippi that a change will come. The sooner the better.