Monday, December 21, 2009

Cratchit and Scrooge are alive and well

The art you see here is Maxo Vanka's The Capitalist, a 1941 mural that can be found in the St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Pittsburgh, Pa. If you've been reading this blog, you know my fondness for Vanka's work. He was a Croatian artist whose murals fill the interior of this fascinating church. They depict the struggles of immigrants like himself in the USA, their backbreaking labor in the mines and mills. This mural features a wealthy "capitalist" going over his stock report while his black servant brings him dinner. In the background you find a crying angel and a hand reaching out from hell. Scrooge beware!

OXFORD, Miss. – A yuletide tradition for me is to watch A Christmas Carol, the classic 1951 film version with Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge. I just love entering Charles Dickens’ world where the joy of redemption and rebirth ultimately overcomes miserly greed, grinding poverty and ghost-haunted nights.

One particular scene resonates this year. It’s when Scrooge is finishing work at his cramped office on Christmas Eve and admonishes his clerk Bob Cratchit for wanting the next day off. “Tis only once a year, sir,” Cratchit says.

“That’s a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every 25th of December,” Scrooge grouses.

When Cratchit explains that his wife and children “put their hearts into Christmas,” Scrooge responds, “And their hands into my pockets.”

A lot of people these days feel like Bob Cratchit. They’re working harder than ever with little to show for it. Scrooge is alive and well, too, the old, unredeemed version.

Statistics show how hard people are working. Productivity is at its highest in six years, rising 9.5 percent between July and September after an earlier 6.9 percent increase.

Yet most folks, including most Mississippians, are earning less, particularly when those earnings are adjusted for inflation. Labor costs fell 5.2 percent during that July-September period. The Huffington Post’s Misery Index shows how jobless rates don’t fully portray what’s going on in the nation. Joining 15.4 million unemployed are 9.2 million underemployed plus millions more who’ve lost their homes, health care benefits, and credit rating. It adds up to nearly one-third of all Americans.

Things aren’t nearly so miserable for the fortunate folks at the top. The average CEO today earns about 275 times what the average worker earns. A CEO in 1965 earned just 24 times his average worker’s wage.

I hear a lot of angst out there--whether it’s from barbers, industry workers, government bureaucrats, journalists, or college professors. People are working harder for equal or less pay and benefits, made to feel lucky they have a job, and increasingly suspicious that the boss is taking advantage of the recession to push them around.

It’s the old speed-up or stretch-out that assembly line workers know only too well. It goes something like this: “Put your nose to the grindstone, buddy, because if you don’t there are plenty of others out there who’d like your job.”

People are getting angry. Fifty-seven percent of Americans say, “Tax the rich to pay for health care reform.” Conservatives don’t like that idea, of course. Let’s not have what they would call “class warfare.” Didn’t conservative Ronald Reagan declare that war a quarter century ago with his supply-side, “trickle down” economic policies?

Here in Mississippi, the recession and state budget crisis have offered conservative leaders a wonderful opportunity to take a much-coveted whack at certain government programs, seen in plans to close 10 mental health treatment facilities at a time when homelessness is growing and many of the homeless have mental health problems.

During President Obama’s recent jobs summit in Washington, a Goldman Sachs economist warned that high unemployment may be long lasting and it will be due in part to the fact that long-jobless people lose their skills and work ethic and thus become unemployable. As writers John Russo and Sherry Linkon point out, this view, shared by others at the summit, “is the most absurd, cruel version of blaming the victim.”

Near the end of that scene in A Christmas Carol, Bob Cratchit, his clothes threadbare but his spirits high, wishes Ebenezer Scrooge a “Merry Christmas!” The old miser turns in disgust to the poor man. “You, a clerk on fifteen shillings a week, with a wife and family, talking about a merry Christmas.”

Scrooge laughs with a sneer and walks out into the snowy streets of London. We all know what awaits him when he gets home—a very rough night but also a bright and shining morning full of hope, repentance and overdue love for fellow human beings who aren’t as fortunate as he.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

UNITE! Environmentalists in W. Va., immigrant workers in Fla. & N.C., musicians in Nashville, Wal-Mart-China protesters, & the jobless everywhere!

A round-up of labor news in the South as Christmas and New Year's approach shows environmentalists, immigrant workers, musicians, and Wal-Mart protesters taking a stand for justice, as other frontline activists battle for the jobless and the hungry everywhere. Let's take a look:

- Despite threats, harassment, bullying cops, and town hall-like meetings filled with pro-industry shouters and screamers, environmentalists in West Virginia may be making some headway in their fight against the mining practice of mountaintop removal (MTR). Both of West Virginia's U.S. senators, Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, have criticized the practice, which protesters say buries streams and thus violates the Clean Water Act, not to mention other sins against Mother Nature. They're calling on the U.S. Corps of Engineers to get rid of the so-called "Nationwide 21" fast-track permit allowing MTR. The EPA recently informed one major coal company that it is operating without a Clean Water Act permit.

The battle thus far has pitted environmentalists against many miners who are desperate to preserve jobs. In These Times magazine quoted retired miner Joe Stanley, however, as arguing, "We can do underground mining and do it safely." At public hearings, Stanley and others worried about the practice have had to face angry, red-faced, fist-waving crowds, which environmentalists suspect are backed by the West Virginia Coal Association.

Sounds like the health care reform debate, doesn't it? The irony is that there's not that much coal left to mine under those mountaintops. Still, it's an interesting dilemma to consider as world leaders gather in Copenhagen to discuss greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental issues.

- The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida continues its battle for immigrant workers across Florida. After winning agreements with Taco Bell, McDonald's, and other companies for better pay and conditions for tomato pickers and other field workers over the past several years, the CIW has taken the fight to Publix, Florida's premier grocer, and asked it to increase its payment for tomatoes by a penny per pound. Publix, with stores located across the South, argues the issue is between workers and growers, but CIW is having none of that. Take heart. The CIW is a tough outfit that has already overcome impossible odds in gaining recognition for the nation's most marginalized workers. CIW leader Lucas Benitez, a native of Mexico, won the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Human Rights Award in 2003.

Immigrant workers in North Carolina have also waged a long, hard struggle for their rights, and the struggle continues. National Public Radio recently aired an earlier feature about the workers at the Case Farms poultry plant in Morganton, N.C., and how a local minister risked alienating powerful members of his flock by siding with workers whose efforts to organize have been bitterly opposed by the company. This years-long struggle was vividly depicted in labor historian Leon Fink's The Maya of Morganton: Work and Community in the Nuevo New South, and it proves that North Carolina's long-held reputation as a comparatively "progressive" Southern state doesn't hold up when organized labor and workers' rights are the issue. The Case Farm workers described in Fink's book are mostly Q'anjob'al-speaking Mayans from the mountain villages of Guatemala, another patch in the multi-colored quilt that the modern-day South has become. The workers actually won an election campaign in 1995, but they were still without a contract years later. Their union, the Laborers International Union of North America, finally gave up in 2001. At a labor conference in Memphis in 2006, Juan Montes, a Mexican-born leader in the effort to win a contract with Case Farms, had this to say: "The only way we are going to improve the life of the worker is to stay in there for the long term."

- The fight for workers rights isn't always on the shop floor or in a field. It can also be in a musician's studio. Musicians in Nashville, Tenn., and elsewhere have joined with labor leaders across the country in asking Congress to pass the Performance Rights Act. The act would close a loophole in copyright law that allows radio stations to play songs without fair payment to "singers, session musicians, and other performers on the track," says Lindsay Dahl of the musicFirst Coalition. The stations do pay royalties to songwriters but not to the others who made this music possible. A recent ad in Roll Call on Capitol Hill made the case for closing the loophole.

- Arkansas-based Wal-Mart may be the most virulently anti-labor company in the Western hemisphere. It shut down a store in Quebec, Canada, in 2005 after workers voted in a union there, and that nation's Supreme Court recently ruled it was within its rights to do so. The store was in Jonquiere, Quebec, a remote, blue-collar, jobs-hungry outpost that also happens to be one of Canada's fiercest labor strongholds. When Wal-Mart shut the store down, bomb threats followed in three of its other stores in the region, forcing the company to shut them down for a time, too.

Now the battle has shifted to China, where the China Labor Watch (CLW) has charged the company with systematic labor violations at the same time it has tried to present the public image of a company that supports high standards for workers. Good ol' Southern hypocrisy (I'm a born-and-bred Southerner, so I can say that), if you ask me (and by reading this, you did). The New York-based human rights group says Wal-Mart uses its power as a mega-retailer to squeeze its Chinese suppliers for the lowest possible prices on goods and thus continues to encourage sweatshop conditions for Chinese workers, including at one factory stretches of 24-hour workdays at 44 cents an hour, half the legal requirement. Much of this is old news to veteran Wal-Mart watchers. Even pro-business Business Week exposed the hypocrisy of Wal-Mart, along with Nike and other firms, in a 2006 investigation that showed how the company touted high standards to critics back home while still encouraging the same-old same-old through its practices abroad.

Remember: This is a company that employs more than 1 million U.S. workers and which, by most reports, has weathered the current economic crisis comparatively well. In today's global economy, you can no longer just look at its domestic operations alone. You have to go to places like Canada and especially China to get the real picture.

- Finally, let's look at efforts to help the jobless. My good friend Chris Marston, a veteran AFL-CIO organizer and activist now in the trenches in Louisiana to get political leaders there to back national health care reform, tipped me off to efforts in Mississippi to "advocate against (Gov.) Haley Barbour's opposition to the extension of unemployment benefits for Mississippi's unemployed." With the state's jobless rate at more than 9 percent, Martha Bergmark of the Mississippi Center for Justice is at the forefront of that campaign.

Of course, joblessness is a national issue. President Obama, after first making sure Wall Street was safe and sound, is now talking jobs, jobs, jobs. It's about time. The Huffington Post "Real Misery Index" reports that 32.2 percent of the nation has experienced either job loss, home loss, health care loss, bankruptcy, credit card defaultment, or a combination thereof.

According to the New York Times and to the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, N.C., 36 million people are on food stamps, and a disproportionate number of them are in the South. Black poverty is a shameful given even in the post-civil rights South, but what about white poverty? The institute reports that Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia account for 52 percent of the nation's 100 counties with the highest percentage of whites on food stamps. West Virginia has the highest rate in the nation, with 17 percent of its whites on food stamps.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A new roundup is on the way

Expect a new roundup of labor-related activity in the South in coming days. A quick peek has turned up a couple of interesting situations:

- A standoff between coal miners and environmentalists in West Virginia over fast-track permits allowing coal companies to blow the tops off mountains in search of ore. The miners want the jobs, and the environmentalists are saying there are better, safer ways to mine. The standoff has become physical at times.

- A recent report by National Public Radio highlighted the long, ongoing fight for union representation at the Case Farms poultry operation in Morganton, N.C. It's a fight that pits Mayan workers from Latin America against die-hard, anti-union Southern managers.

There'll be more on these and other stories. Stay tuned.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Homelessness, a growing problem even in the Little Easy

Following is my latest column for Mississippi newspapers. It deals with homelessness in a town that is considered a mecca of prosperity in the nation's poorest state, a state where you find poverty as high as 49.3 percent of the population (in Issaquena County, in the Delta region just north of Vicksburg) and where the governor has threatened to close 10 mental health facilities. Experts say many of the homeless suffer from mental disabilities. Many others are laid-off workers, the jobless poor who populate the lowest rung of our economy. Some, as you'll see, are former convicts. In the accompanying photograph you see Lena Wiley, a local champion of the homeless who heads the Interfaith Compassion Ministry.

OXFORD, Miss. – He’s a convicted felon who served two long terms in Parchman State Penitentiary for selling cocaine, a total of 15 years behind bars, and he came out the last time bound and determined that the rest of his life was going to be different.

“At Parchman, you’ve got rapists, killers, robbers. My cellmate was a guy who had two life sentences, 200 years. He’d cut his girlfriend’s head off.”

The bespectacled, 55-year-old Oxford native speaks matter-of-factly as we talk quietly in a local shop whose good-hearted owner/manager offered him a job. He doesn’t want his name in the papers. He tells how when he turned in his prison stripes, he joined another group of marginalized citizens in these hard economic times: the homeless.

“The people I used to stay with had moved out of town,” he recalls, “and I didn’t want to be around my so-called friends from when I was selling drugs. They never sent me as much as a postcard when I was in prison. I was really feeling depressed.”

So he drifted, one of the growing number of homeless in pretty, pristine Oxford, the boomtown they call the Little Easy, a place so picture-book perfect that an out-of-town guest once asked me, “Where are the poor people?” Yet he himself knows people here living in old cars. A local newspaper has told of a family living in a tent near Sardis Lake.

Eventually, a few good hearts reached out to help the former inmate. He got assistance from the local, church-funded Interfaith Compassion Ministry (ICM), led by the indefatigable Lena Wiley and the only agency in Oxford that still regularly helps the homeless. A church in nearby Water Valley arranged for a temporary home, and people like the shop owner/manager offered him work.

“I feel good right now,” he says. “They gave me a place where I could gather my thoughts, and if it weren’t for them, I’d still be out there selling drugs.”

Homelessness may begin to rival football, Faulkner, and the best boutique buys as a topic of conversation in Oxford’s cafes and coffee shops. A local task force devoted to the issue reports that some 110 families had no roofs over their heads in the city and surrounding Lafayette County during the first seven months of 2009. It found 80 cases of homeless children in Oxford city schools and 172 cases in the county school system.

Between August and mid-November, the task force found 49 homeless families, including 11 children. Forty percent of homeless cases are due to foreclosures, evictions or situations where the families were in uninhabitable structures. Less than 20 percent were transients. The homeless include the mentally ill, victims of house fires, laid-off workers, substance abusers, and former prison inmates. A recent national report showed an estimated one in four homeless are military veterans.

“We do have a problem with homelessness in our community,” task force chair Jean Shaw told the town board of aldermen at a recent meeting, “and the problem is growing.”

Oxford and Lafayette County simply have no room at the inn—or any shelter—for the homeless other than what is temporarily provided by one of the city’s oldest mainstays, the red-roofed, downtown-located Ole Miss Motel.

The motel, fabled in movies and local legend, provides the homeless a shelter for a few nights at a 10-to-15 percent discount off its $40-to-$55-per-night rooms. The ICM pays for the lodging out of donations from local churches. St. John’s Catholic Church recently helped pay off half of a $10,000 bill that the ICM owed.

The motel’s owner and manager, Jack Contractor, a native of India, says he has long had a sympathy for the poor and needy. “I saw a lot of homeless kids in India growing up on the streets. I feel sorry for them. My wife is from Zambia. She saw them, too. If it weren’t for (ICM’s) Lena Wiley, I don’t know what they (the homeless) would do.”

The task force officially disbanded this month but called on the city and county to work with ICM and help fund efforts to relieve a problem that’s bound to grow as winter sets in. Local officials say they’re studying the issue.

Lena Wiley doesn’t have to study the issue. She sees it everyday. “We recently found seven people living in a two-room trailer. It’s a sad situation. It’s not livable. I try not to do a quick fix for the homeless. I try to find a long-term solution. I get a lot of calls.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pro-union rulings and lawsuits, anti-union companies in Tennessee and South Carolina, a labor hero wins a much-deserved award, and bus drivers strike

A round-up of recent labor activity in the South shows that a national board ruling may aid workers in organizing at airlines and railroads, FedEx is still fighting efforts to reclassify its drivers as employees and thus make them eligible to join unions, the Boeing Co. plans to open a plant for the 787 jetliner in North Charleston and avoid union labor costs, longtime labor activist Bill Chandler of Mississippi wins a national award for his long fight for social justice, and Mississippi school bus drivers win an agreement after a two-day strike.

The National Mediation Board recently agreed to change a 75-year-old rule that counted a non-vote in a union election as a "no" vote. Under the new rule, only the votes cast are counted, and a majority of "yes" votes mean the union won the election. Hey, what took 75 years to figure that one out? The anti-union camp fears the new ruling--which covers all companies under the Railway Labor Act--could affect outfits like Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines and Memphis-based FedEx.

FedEx is digging in its heels to fight efforts to label its drivers employees rather than independent contractors and thus expose them to possible unionization. The attorney generals in Montana, New York and New Jersey are pursuing legal suits against the company. Meanwhile, the Teamsters are waiting in the wings, and unionized UPS is hoping to be able to say, "Welcome to our world. Be a part of it."

In a valiant, historic victory nine years ago, Charleston, South Carolina, longshoremen (members of International Longshoremen's Association Local 1422 and other unions) defeated a state-backed, battle-clad army of cops and patrolmen as well as an ol' mossback, retrograde, would-be-Strom attorney general named Charlie Condon in preventing a Danish shipping line from hiring non-union dockworkers. Yet anti-unionism is still strong in the cradle of the Confederacy. It's apparently why Boeing wants to open a new assembly line for its 787 jetliner there. North Charleston defeated Everett, Wash., to get the plant despite the company's longstanding ties to the state of Washington.

Bill Chandler, whose long labor career reaches back to even beyond his days working with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in California, has been named a 2009 Purpose Prize Fellow for his years-long fight on behalf of immigrant workers in the Deep South. The 68-year-old Chandler is executive director of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA), an organization he also helped found. MIRA is a tireless champion of immigrants--whether they have their proper documentation or not. The prize honors social entrepreneurs over 60. Each recipient receives up to $100,000.

By the way, Chandler's organization, MIRA, will join with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for their 4th annual "Unity Conference" in Jackson, Miss., December 3-5. The conference is titled "Building Bridges Through Diversity: One Goal, One Vision, United Power". MIRA has fought the good fight for years, helping immigrants get their just wages from employers who'd just as soon let them work for nothing, helping the helpless recover from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina and the crooks and shysters who came in its aftermath.

Dozens of school bus drivers in Hinds County (Jackson area), Mississippi, went on a two-day strike for better wages and benefits in late October that resulted in an agreement between Teamsters Local 891 and the Ohio-based First Student company. After media coverage that typically focused on the `disruption' caused by the strike and the `demands' of the bus drivers rather than the issues that led to the strike, the parties resolved their dispute in a compromise from both sides, local union leader Willie Smith said.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Blue Dogs Collecting Cash on the "Long, Strange Trip" of Health Care Reform

If the late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead were alive today to witness the nation’s health care reform debate, he’d probably say something like this: “What a long, strange trip it’s been, man.”

Wild-eyed, foaming-at-the-mouth citizens shouting down trembling congressmen at town hall meetings, erstwhile vice-presidential hopeful Sarah Palin calling reform proposals “evil” and raising the specter of federal “death panels”, posters depicting President Obama with a Hitler mustache, doctors decrying “socialized medicine”, a South Carolina congressman interrupting Obama’s speech to Congress with “You lie!”

You’d think more unity would exist to fix a $2.2 trillion system that in 2000 ranked a miserable 37th among other nations in the quality of its health care. Before things polarized, polls showed 80 percent of Americans unhappy with a system that was consuming a quarter of the federal budget—not to mention individual budgets—yet leaving 47 million citizens without any health insurance. A 2006 poll showed 56 percent of Americans supporting birth-to-death universal government-backed health care.

Whenever things are bad in this country, they’re worse here in Mississippi, where this writer lives. In the state with the highest poverty rate, 21.2 percent, and the lowest wages for its workers, some 37 percent of the under-65 population was without health insurance during some part of the past year.

The state’s leading politicians, used to such dismal statistics, are dealing with the issue in predictable manner. Gov. Barbour worries that federal efforts to expand Medicaid assistance for the poor might unduly burden the state with extra costs—perhaps even push Mississippi into some real tax reform.

Like most Republicans everywhere, Mississippi Republicans can be relied upon to oppose just about anything Obama supports. They remind me of the old Communists in Poland after they’d lost their power. They had a magazine called Nie! Translation: No!—No to everything the new regime wants.

More interesting is the position staked out by Mississippi’s two leading “Blue Dog” Democrats: Congressmen Travis Childers and Gene Taylor. Both oppose the so-called “public option” that 57 percent of Americans support but which the health care industry has spent $263 million to oppose in Congress. The industry has hired 3,300 lobbyists to sway Congress—or six lobbyists for each member of Congress.

Among those lobbyists are the hired guns of the Breaux-Lott firm in Washington, led by former U.S. Sen. John Breaux, a Democrat from Louisiana, and Mississippi’s own Trent Lott, the most stalwart of Republicans. The firm thus far this year has made over $300,000 lobbying for the big pharmaceuticals concerned about their profit margins.

By the way, health insurance companies saw their profits rise from $2.4 billion in 2000 to $12.9 billion in 2007. Their CEOs earned a neat $118.6 million, or 468 times the average worker’s wages.

Veteran Congressman Taylor of the Gulf Coast has received $535,765 in contributions from the health care industry over the past 20 years. North Mississippi’s Childers, only in Congress since the summer of 2008, has already piled up $165,500 in such contributions.

The Blue Dogs in Congress,“Boll Weevil” descendants and most of them Southerners who often act like Republicans in Democrat clothing, are key to the success or failure of health care reform and thus are recipients of much health care industry largesse these days. According to the Capital Eye Blog, contributions to Blue Dog Democrats from the health care industry are 40 percent higher than what non-Blue Dog Democrats get, and even 16 percent higher than what Republicans are getting. Top Blue Dog Mike Ross of Arkansas is in a bit of a controversy these days because of the pharmacy business that he and his pharmacist wife sold in 2007 at a huge profit to, at least in part, a pharmacy industry executive. The controversy extends to the subsequent political contributions Ross received from that same executive and the health care industry in general.

As all these money transactions take place, the little guy out there continues to get socked with rising health care costs. In fact, health care costs to the average family are twice today what they were 10 years ago, and are expected to double again by 2019.

When you look back across the history of politics in this country—and in the South—maybe this “long, strange” trip isn’t so strange after all.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hardboiled Champions of the Little Guy

I've been a lover of the hardboiled school of American writing since the 1980s, when I first picked up a copy of Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely. Chandler led me to Dashiell Hammett, who led me to W.R. Burnett's The Asphalt Jungle and James M. Cain. From there I gravitated to Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, and Ross MacDonald. I fell in love with their street-wise, lean-to-the-bone writing style, their edgy, existential view of life, and their empathy with the little guy, the people who get pushed around.

At last, I told myself, here are writers working in an original American style that has the grit and gristle of real life. Like Chandler said in his homage to Hammett, The Simple Art of Murder, these writers tell of a world where "gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities ... where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of money-making."

These were writers with a strong sympathy for the working stiff. In fact, November 2009 will mark the 70th anniversary of the publication of Jim Thompson's Labor History of Oklahoma. Thompson, the most hardboiled of all the hardboiled novelists, had been a hobo, oil rig roughneck, member of the IWW Wobblies, drifter, and avid reader of Karl Marx and Jack London before he made his mark in fiction. He also read the Bible, and agreed with the pro-labor, Depression-era Rev. Lawrence Lay that it was "the poor man's book; its message is the voice of God against tyrants, idlers, and parasites." Read Robert Polito's great biography of Thompson, Savage Art, for the rest of that damned good story.

Dashiell Hammett, author, of course, of The Maltese Falcon, was a Marxist yet a sharp critic of both the Soviet Union and American Communist Party at the same time. He'd been a union buster as a young detective with Pinkerton--once even offered $5,000 to kill the legendary labor organizer and martyr Frank Little. That past haunted him, but he more than made up for it as a supporter of the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War and an enemy and victim of Joe McCarthy's witch-hunt later in life.

James Cain was a labor writer before he became famous as author of The Postman Always Rings Twice. He made a name for himself covering the struggles of coal miners in West Virginia, earning his writing stripes as a hard-nosed reporter covering working people and their lives. Ross MacDonald expressed his sympathies through his fictional detective Lew Archer. In The Ivory Grin, a woman asks Archer, "You are on our side, Mr. Archer?"

"The side of justice when I can find it," Archer responds. "When I can't find it, I'm for the underdog."

Read Cornell Woolrich's premier scholar, Francis Nevins, on that modern-day Poe's view of the Depression: "For Woolrich, (the Depression) means a frightened little guy in a rundown apartment with a hungry wife and children, no money, no job, and desperation eating him like a cancer. The dominant political reality is a police force made up of a few decent cops and a horde of sociopaths licensed to torture and kill, whose outrages are casually accepted by all concerned, not least by the victims."

The list goes on. Two other writers deserve mention. They didn't come out of the genre but are definitely fellow travelers. Nelson Algren, author of The Neon Wilderness and other classics about Chicago's mean streets, once had this to say:

"Behind Business's billboards and Business's headlines and Business's pulpits and Business's press, and Business's arsenals, behind the car ads and the subtitles and the commercials, the people of Dickens and Dostoevsky yet endure."

Maybe the best line goes to an Englishman, Eric Ambler, the author of A Coffin for Dimitrios and a half-dozen other haunting, Angst-laden pre-World War II classics. Writing about war, he said, "It is not important who pulled the trigger, but who paid for the bullet."

I've long been a collector of old hardboiled novels from the '40s, '50s, and later, and you'll see a few of them in the accompanying photograph. These writers left their mark. You see it in the work of modern-day writers like Pete Dexter, William Kennedy, and my friend Ace Atkins (no relation). In fact, read Ace's latest novel, Devil's Garden, which deals with Hammett, Little, and silent film star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.

It's an American way of writing about an American way of life.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Father Tobin rails against injustice

RAYMOND, Miss. – Father Jeremy Tobin has come a long way from his old stomping grounds.

The 68-year-old priest, grandson of Irish immigrants, and “Canon Regular” of the nearly 900-year-old Norbertine order grew up in the streets of Chicago, studied the priesthood during the heady Vatican II revolution, and earned his stripes as a social justice crusader during and after the days of rage and protest that were the late ‘60s.

Today he’s one of a half-dozen priests at the Norbertine Priory of St. Moses the Black, a 106-acre refuge devoted both to contemplation and social action, and set so far off the beaten track in the rural woodlands south of Jackson that it takes a act of faith to find it.

“I have a monastic spirituality,” Tobin told me during a recent interview at the priory.

Forgive me, Father, if I raised my eyebrows. The Jeremy Tobin I know is one of the fieriest, most passionate champions of the poor and working class I’ve ever met, proof that the fine old tradition of “labor priests” like Monsignors George Higgins and Charles Owen Rice is alive and well in the Deep South—a tradition given a recent boost in Pope Benedict’s strikingly pro-labor encyclical Veritas in Caritate (“Truth in Charity”).

I had yet to understand that Norbert’s 12th century call to his followers to be “a minister of Christ and servant of the people” means: be prayerful but also active and involved. “O priest, your office is not meant for your personal use,” Norbert told his flock.

Let’s hear a few samples of Tobin’s oratory and Norbertine spirit in speeches to the United Auto Workers and civil rights-era veterans as well as in his monthly column with the Catholic diocesan newspaper, the Mississippi Catholic:

On labor unions: “When workers unite for just and fair wages, for just and humane working conditions, they engage in God’s work.”

On companies that pit workers against workers: “They use foreign labor and cheat the workers, but make citizens feel robbed. It is an old con. … We are not fooled.”

On immigrant workers: “The very symbols and hallowed buildings of America were built by slave labor. … The railroads were built by Chinese laborers. … Were they legal? What is legal? … Slavery was legal, but it was an abomination that split the country, and we still live with its curse. … People are not illegal. Things are illegal.”

On politicians and media personalities who demagogue the immigration issue: “To take the chicken pluckers and semi-literate people from Central America and make them a security risk is the biggest racist scam I know of.”

On civil rights: “The movement is not dead by any means. It is alive and well, and updated to the times. Young people today are committed to the liberation of people of color worldwide.”

On the screaming town hall critics of national health care reform: “It is amazing the level of stupidity out there. We need to start teaching civics in school again.”

Janna Avalon, editor of the Mississippi Catholic, said Tobin provides a needed voice. “He has gone out on a limb on immigrants, wrote about Ted Kennedy (the late senator and noted liberal). I appreciate how he is not afraid to venture into national politics and talk about Catholic leadership.”

For all his fiery oratory and deep-felt commitment to social justice, Tobin is a hail-fellow-well-met kind of guy, quick and easy to laugh and chuckle, his eyes twinkling over his mustache and goatee. He loves Mississippi, his home for the past 11 years, and in his column for the Mississippi Catholic, he often takes time away from serious issues to smell the roses.

“Sometimes I … miss the sirens and the train whistles” of the big city, he once wrote. But “here I am looking out into the woods learning about something I never heard of, muscadine, and getting excited about it, and five kinds of oak, and what you can do with it. … It is never about me, or you. It is about experiencing each day as a special gift from God.”

I’ve got a feeling that old medieval activist Norbert would approve such sentiments.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The peasants and workers in Maxo Vanka's murals still haunt us

With the G-20 world economic summit and national conventions of the AFL-CIO and International Labor Communciations Association taking place in Pittsburgh in September, I thought I'd post a column I wrote from Pittsburgh during the Working Class Studies Association Conference this past June. It deals with the striking Depression-era murals of Croatian artist Maxo Vanka in the St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Pittsburgh.

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Entering the St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church is not for the faint of heart. The church interior is dark, and its walls covered with murals featuring the large-eyed Slavic faces of the Balkan peasants who came to this area a century or more ago to do the back-breaking work that steel mills and coal mines demanded.

As parishioner and preservationist Diane Novosel says, “It’s not your typical pretty church.” St. Nicholas is beautiful, haunting, provocative, but hardly pretty. There’s too much suffering—Mary at the feet of the crucified Jesus, the Croatian mother weeping for her dead son as her other three sons march off to their deaths in the coal mines, the soldier’s mother mourning over her son’s coffin.

The walls of St. Nicholas, a hilltop church in the community of Millvale, bear stark witness to the evils of the world outside—the fire-breathing mills that consumed the hopes and dreams of the immigrants who worked in them, the wars that sent their sons off to die in foreign lands, the greed-filled capitalist dining alone with his stock reports, his servant, and the beggar at his feet.

The 26 murals of St. Nicholas are the work of Croatian artist Maxo Vanka, who painted most of them in a brief frenzy of inspiration during the height of the Great Depression, and, for me, seeing them was a signature moment in my recent visit to this city, which for so long was the embodiment of America’s industrial might.

Once a city of smokestacks, polluted air, and foul rivers, Pittsburgh has reinvented itself into a “green” center whose major industries today are medicine, education, and banking. Downtown sparkles with shiny skyscrapers and bustling streets. Yet, with a population of 300,000, it remains only half its former size, and local folks lament that many of its young are still forced to leave to find jobs the new industries don’t provide.

The monuments to its most-famous industrialists, Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, seem to be on every corner—universities, libraries, parks, the large, imposing structures that testify to the might of capital. Harder to find are the monuments to the laborers martyred by the brutal excesses of capital and its demands for a workforce willing to work long, hard, mind-numbing hours for near-starvation wages.

I went to the site of U.S. Steel’s old Homestead Works, a 300-acre operation that produced over 200 million tons of steel in its 105-year history and employed at one time 20,000 workers. Silenced since 1986, Homestead was also the site of one of the great labor battles in U.S. history, the 1892 conflict that pitted union steelworkers against an anti-union Carnegie and his armies of Pinkerton agents and state militia. Ten died, many more were wounded, and the workers, despite beating back the Pinkertons, lost.

Today the Pump House where the killing took place is an historical landmark, a modest brick building overshadowed by U.S. Steel’s nearby research and development center.

Near downtown Pittsburgh is an historical marker on a lonely traffic island at the 28th Street crossing, where a militia from Philadelphia fired into a gathering of citizens during a railroad strike in 1877 and killed 20 people. The crowd was protesting wage cuts.

Preservationists fought long and hard for that marker and to keep the Pump House from the wrecking ball.

The artist who created the murals of St. Nicholas was an angry man filled with the kind of righteous indignation that one finds in the great prophets of the Old Testament, the bearded ancients railing against the mighty who, as Jeremiah said, “builds his house on wrong, his terraces on injustice, works his neighbor without pay, and gives him no wages.”

Today, more than a century after the Homestead battle, the history is largely forgotten—or suppressed, yet the mighty still swagger about the land, and the workers are suffering wage cuts and job losses in a faltering economy whose failures they did nothing to cause. Where is the anger of Maxo Vanka? Who’s gathering in the streets to protest the injustice brought about by the rank greed of a few? The streets sometimes seem as empty and forlorn as the little traffic island at the 28th Street crossing.

Maybe they’ll fill on Sept. 24 and 25, when Pittsburgh hosts the G-20 world economic summit. Leaders of the world’s industrial nations will gather to discuss the fate of the global economy. Maybe the spirit of the martyrs of the Pump House or the 28th Street crossing and the anger of Maxo Vanka will be awakened. If so, it won’t be an occasion for the faint of heart.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Labor Update: Savannah co. blamed for explosion, Alabama co. linked to abuses, Memphis worker slowdown, new AFL-CIO chief

Let's take a quick look at some of the recent labor activities and debates around the South and beyond.

Big news came out of Savannah, Georgia, this week when the U.S. Chemical Safety Board issued a report putting the blame squarely on the Imperial Sugar Co. and a foot-dragging U.S. Occupational and Health Administration for the Feb. 7, 2008, explosions and resulting fires that killed 14 and injured dozens of others.

The report said the tragedy was caused by the combustible sugar dust allowed to accumulate at the plant. OSHA waited until this year to finally pass new rules to prevent such hazards. The Savannah Morning News, which has been covering the incident closely, quoted Evan Yeats of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union as saying OSHA's long-delayed action was merely a "public relations maneuver" and that regulations will have no teeth for years to come unless the agency approves an emergency rule in the case.

. . .

The killings of union leaders and other crimes and human rights abuses in the South American nation of Colombia have raised questions about the role of the Birmingham, Ala., coal company, Drummond Co. In fact, this past week the United Steelworkers Union called on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to investigate illegal activities at Drummond's Colombian coal mine.

Labor organizers risk their lives everyday in violence-torn Colombia. Some 400 union members were killed there between 2002 and 2008. Officials and friends of the U.S.-backed Uribe government in Colombia are under investigation for possible connections to some of the killings. Drummond's own role in this murky story has yet to be determined, but a Colombian labor union sued the company in 2002 after three union leaders at its plant were tortured and murdered.

Alabama Power and other companies serving customers in Georgia, Florida, and Mississippi get coal from Drummond.

My good friend Stephen Jackson, associate editor of the Latin American Post in Bogota and a professor of journalism at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, has been following this case and was even subjected to a gag order issued by a federal judge in a related international tort trial in Birmingham in 2004.

. . .

In Memphis, Tenn., this month, a trash buildup led city public works director Dwan Gilliom to accuse AFSCME Local 1733 members of conducting a work slowdown in protest of recent new additions to their workload. Local 1733 President Ruth Davis deferred comment until she talked with all the members. The city's sanitation workers became part of labor lore in 1968 when they led a strike that brought the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis in a show of support. King was assassinated during that visit.

. . .

The national AFL-CIO elected labor veteran Richard Trumka to take the reins from retiring president John Sweeney this month. After the organization's action during its Pittsburgh conference, Trumka issued a statement calling for a "younger labor movement, a greener labor movement, a labor movement that can project its power to defend workers anywhere in the world, a labor movement that's organizing the unorganized.

My old radical friend in New York City, labor writer and activist Martin Fishgold, editor of The Unionist, AFSCME Local 371,
maintains a healthy skepticism, however. He says any real change in direction by the nation's largest labor organization won't come until it recognizes the need for a renewed sense of militancy in the labor movement and more grassroots involvement by labor leaders themselves in the real lives and challenges of working people.

The crisis in the movement "has been facing organized labor for years, at least since the CIO kicked out the most militant unions in the early 1950s to prove what good Americans we union members all are," Fishgold wrote in a recent exchange on the "" listserv in New York. "Corporate unionists are still trying to prove it, to our detriment."

Monday, August 31, 2009

Legal Services to the Poor Threatened

WEST POINT, Miss. – Nancy Jones, 54, mother of three, grandmother of six, worked 32 years at the Sara Lee Foods plant before it shut down in 2007 and took 1,220 jobs with it. She got another job at a local Weenie World, and then it shut down. “We were out in the street, looking for a job, unemployed for eight months,” she said.
She found work again through a temporary job service, and that lasted until the next round of layoffs. From October to this past January, she survived on unemployment checks. Then she got a letter from the Mississippi Department of Employment Security. You are not eligible for checks, the letter said. You owe the state $4,100.
“I was already poor,” she said. “A lot of us out there don’t have no job, no money.”
Jones, who lives in a county with a 20.1 percent unemployment rate, had no idea she was supposed to register again with the temp service. So she didn’t, and that put her in hock to the state. Enter the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services to the rescue. “I know I didn’t have money to pay for an attorney. … I don’t know what I would’ve done.”
She was one of 31 laid-off workers caught in the same vise, owing nearly $85,000 to the state because they were deemed to be voluntarily unemployed. The NMRLS’s team of lawyers and paralegals not only restored their checks but got the claim removed, too.
That kind of service to the poor—more desperately needed today than ever—is now being threatened as a result of the NMRLS Board of Directors’ recent decision to lay off agency workers, slash wages 17 to 19 percent, eliminate needed programs such as the housing unit that aided those facing eviction, and take half its small staff of lawyers off courtroom duty and put them on fulltime “hotline” telephone duty.
Funded through a variety of federal and state grants, including the so-called Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) grant from the Mississippi Bar Foundation, the agency covers 39 counties across northern Mississippi with just two attorneys and a small staff of paralegals and secretaries at each of its five branch offices. It helps clients with food stamps, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, evictions, and other needs.
Changes in the funding formula of the IOLTA grants brought a windfall of $700,000 to the agency in 2008 but then quickly dropped to $80,000 this year, resurrecting a long-simmering fiscal crisis and calls for cutbacks.
NMRLS Executive Director Ben Thomas Cole II said the downturn in the economy has affected lawyers’ fees and thus funds coming into the agency. “We don’t have the money to pay for the people. We have to find ways to cut back.”
Nebra Porter, an attorney in the agency’s West Point office and also president of the union local representing NMRLS workers, has strongly protested the cuts and urged the board to consider alternatives, such as trimming back the work week to four days. She also called for an independent forensic audit of the agency’s finances. The board rejected these options. Negotiations are underway between the agency and the union that will determine just how deep the cuts will go.
With these cuts, “there’s no way we can effectively serve you,” Porter told a crowd of 50 or so who gathered recently at a union hall in West Point to discuss the issue.
Many of them traveled by bus the following Saturday to attend a four-hour hearing by the board at its Oxford headquarters.
“It’s like we’re living in a Third World in some of these small towns in Mississippi,” West Point activist Terry Buffington told the board. “People without lights for two to three months, senior citizens with their lights out. If you make this move, you’re taking us back to the ‘60s.”
The board rejected such pleas, but veteran paralegal Henry Boyd didn’t let its members leave without a warning. “You’ve got the wolves out there waiting for the NMRLS to go down. Who’s going to serve these people? Let’s don’t cut our help to poor folks.”

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Contact info, a tribute to Ted Kennedy, and a review of my book cited

Just a quick note to readers. Please sign in as a Follower. Just click the Follow button and register via Google. It's free and gets you on board for Labor South. Also send along any items you might have via comments or also my e-mail:

Organized labor and all working people lost a champion when U.S. Sen. Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy of Massachusetts died this past Tuesday. I covered and interviewed Kennedy as a congressional reporter in the 1980s, and I covered him most recently when he spoke at the 2005 convention of the AFL-CIO in Chicago. At that convention, his words, like always, were stirring and right on target. "Unions have given workers the voice they need. You've led the effort on every piece of progressive legislation in our country. This is a fairer country because of six letters: A-F-L-C-I-O. We are going to fight, fight, fight! We stand together in our founding purpose--to achieve social and economic justice."

Speaking about the then-ruling, anti-union Bush Administration, Kennedy said, "We are facing the most anti-worker, anti-labor, anti-union administration in memory. We will out-organize, out-strategize them every step of the way!" Kennedy said he came from a family representing "seventy-nine years of voting for labor. The Kennedys are with you. We know the difference you make in the lives of working people." All laboring folks are going to miss him and his influence in American politics.

On another note:
You might want to check out the September edition of In These Times magazine. It includes a review of my book Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press. Reviewer Roger Bybee called the book "compelling" and said it "vividly shows" how a "crucial component of genuine democracy has been grievously lacking in the South: independent mass media willing to challenge and investigate corporate power and to serve as a voice of those shut up by bosses, shut out of power and shut down by multinational corporations seeking ever cheaper labor."

That "voice' is what this little blog tries to do its share in providing.

In an e-mailed note to me this week, Bybee had this to say: "Corporate America has truly succeeded in imposing the Southern model of low wages, no union, and autocratic rule on much of the world."

Bybee is a widely-published Milwaukee-based writer who edited The Racine Labor weekly in Racine, Wisconsin, for many years, and whose "grandfathers and father were socialist and labor activists." Check out his Web site:

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Cutbacks in Legal Services to the Poor Angers Union

A note to readers: Sorry for the recent gap in news, but this one-man operation has been bogged down in beginning semester activities at Ole Miss, where he teaches. Such occasional gaps probably mean a once-a-week check by readers at "Labor South" probably suffices for now, but that'll change. By the way, I'm working with a high-tech expert who'll be helping me to enhance this blog and its offerings very soon.

Despite all, I've been exploring the Southern highways and byways for labor news.

One story close to home I've been following for the past week or two and plan to write about in an upcoming column deals with major cutbacks facing the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, which provides needed aide to the poor in a 39-county area across North Mississippi. After four hours of testimony from unemployed workers and other money-strapped Mississippians who had ridden buses into the agency's Oxford headquarters to testify Saturday, August 22, NMRLS's 25-member board voted for a 17-to-19-percent pay cut for all employees with a layoff of five or more staff members.

"Legal Services needs more people, not less," pleaded James Mitchell, an unemployed worker from West Point, Mississippi. "We're in bad shape in West Point."

"It's like we're living in a Third World in some of these small towns in Mississippi," said Terry Buffington, also of West Point. "People without lights for two and three months. If you make this move, you're taking us back to the Sixties."

The "move" taken by NMRLS also includes elimination of its housing unit--which helped people facing eviction from their homes--and a dramatic shift in duties at the agency's five satellite offices, now staffed by 10 lawyers. Under the changes called for by executive director Ben Thomas Cole II, five of these lawyers will now do only "Hot Line" telephone work instead of litigation and courtroom work. Layoffs could rise to as many as a dozen staff members depending on how negotiations with Local 2320 of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers, United Auto Workers, turn out.

These staff members could include vital paralegals who help clients with applications for Social Security, and other "bread and butter" needs.

"I was extremely disappointed in the board," said local president Nebra Porter. "They didn't seem to care about the clients."

Cole and board members argued that the cuts and changes are necessary to get NMRLS out of the red in its budget. The agency is facing a $620,000 shortfall due to recent shifts in its funding through state Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) funds. Porter argues that an outside, forensic audit is needed to find where a past, one-time $700,000 boost in IOLTA funds went, and where cuts can be made without hurting clients. The board rejected this option at its Saturday, August 22, meeting.

Elaine Lantz, Dallas, Texas-based regional organizer with the union, said the Mississippi Legislature needs to do a better job funding the agency.

As I said with my earlier posting on the labor priest Father Jeremy Tobin, I'll be filing a full column on this issue in the next week or so. In fact, this breaking story will have to be filed before the Tobin piece.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

An editorial: Learning from the mistakes of the past

I mentioned in an earlier posting the book, "Them and Us: Struggles of a Rank-and-File Union" by longtime UE (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America) leader James J. Matles and labor writer James Higgins. Published in 1974, this book is as fiery and committed-to-the-core as the union whose history it tells. It also offers some perspective about our struggles today, and it points to where the labor movement can learn from mistakes of the past.

One of the things I've gleaned from this book is how the "New Left" of the 1960s--the student protesters, civil rights and anti-Vietnam activists, and so on--missed a tremendous opportunity by not finding a way to align with workers at that time. It was the key missing element in their efforts to revolutionize America. How many of those protesters--and I was one of them--truly knew of the "general feeling of rebellion, cynicism, and disgust among young workers" in the 1960s because of their worsening working conditions. "Management pressures for more and more production per worker, combined with the mounting economic pressures of life, were creating a mood of resentment and rebellion steadily on the rise," Matles and Higgins write.

The "New Left" failed miserably to tap into that frustration. Maybe the broader cultural wars of the times (long hair, sex, drugs, etc) made it practically impossible. As for the labor movement, it still suffered from the fractures created by the Cold War and the McCarthyite excesses of the 1950s, so widespread mobilization and politicization of workers never really took place.

Stanley Aronowitz and the Fifteenth Street Manifesto Group wrote about this in their "Manifesto for a Left Turn" pamphlet in October 2008. "The considerable political weight of the civil rights, feminist and anti-Vietnam war movements did not result in the formation of a unified political opposition and alternative."

So now let's look at today's workers. Talk about frustration. Whether blue or white collar, they're under the heel, usually that of a company headquartered far away and one making increasing demands of them in return for decreasing pay and benefits.

They're frustrated and angry, but they're afraid, too. They're made to feel lucky if they have a job, luckier if they can keep it without a major pay cut. And they better be willing to work extra hours and stifle the complaints if they want that job tomorrow. I'm in the journalism business, and I know lots of folks working for corporate-owned newspapers who've never been lower morale-wise. They're overworked, underpaid (nothing new there), and often given no real respect for what they do or how they do it. How many reporters and editors can take pride in what they do anymore? They know the dark truth about the "business" today: Corporate-run newspapers have become corporate-ruined newspapers, and let the public be damned.

It's not only the newspaper business, however. It's everywhere. Talk about "rebellion, cynicism, and disgust"! The labor movement and what's left of a progressive Left in this country cannot afford to repeat the failures of the past. They can replace that cynicism with hope, that disgust with action, give that rebellion some direction. Anybody listening?

Monday, August 10, 2009

A roundup of labor activity in the South--Aug. 10, 2009

A check on labor activity going on around the South today turned up the following: Pilots are picketing AirTran in Atlanta; cabin crews at Atlanta-based Delta Airlines are gearing up for another effort to unionize; national labor leaders are take aim at the right-wing-sponsored disruptions of town hall meetings on health care reform in Tennessee, North Carolina, and elsewhere around the country, disruptions that have included a death threat against a Democratic congressman from the Tar Heel State; Memphis-based Federal Express is intensifying its campaign against congressional legislation that would make it easier to unionize its truck drivers; and a new book by Baltimore writer Bill Barry calls for hard-nosed strategies at the bargaining table despite the hard economic times.

In Atlanta, the South's unofficial capital, pilots with AirTran Airlines have gone on the picket line to make their protest against a company that hasn't given them a pay raise in four years. Just this past April, the pilots voted to merge their union, the National Pilots Association, with the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). Also in Atlanta, as reported in "Labor Notes" (see, some 21,000 flight attendants may soon be carrying a union card if efforts are successful to organize at Delta, the world's largest airline and only major one in the U.S. that is non-union. This will be third such attempt over the past eight years. A petition has been filed with the National Mediation Board for the attendants, who are wanting to join the Communications Workers-affiliated Association of Flight Attendants.

"Mob rule is not democracy," warned AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Richard Trumka recently regarding town hall meetings where congressmen and health care reform advocates have been screamed at and shouted down by anti-reform activists. These activists, as reported in the Institute for Southern Studies' "Facing South" Web magazine and elsewhere, are largely being sponsored by conservative groups wanting, among other things, to trash one of the top items on President Obama's legislative agenda. "People have a democratic right to express themselves and our elected leaders have a right to hear from their constituents--not organized thugs whose sole purpose is to shut down the conversation and attempt to scare our leaders into inaction," Trumka said. The decibel level at these meetings and on the issue in general even reached the point where one congressman, pro-reform Democrat Brad Miller of North Carolina, received a death threat.

Federal Express, the Memphis-based transportation giant, is waging a no-holds-barred fight against congressional legislation that would shift its workers from Railway Labor Act jurisdiction to that of the National Labor Relations Act. Fed Ex fears this shift would make it easier for the Teamsters and other unions to organize its truck drivers. As a result, it has threatened to cancel billions of dollars in a Boeing contract and even to take aim at the congressmen who support it. Meanwhile, its top competitor, UPS, whose workers are organized, is waiting an anxiously as Fed Ex top executive Fred Smith for the outcome.

A new book, "Union Strategies for Hard Times: Helping Your Members and Building Your Union in the Great Recession", by labor movement veteran Bill Barry of Baltimore challenges union activists to be pro-active at the bargaining table and not fall into a defeatest, defensive posture regardless of the hard economic times. I haven't had a chance yet to read this book, but what I've read about it reminds me of the United Auto Workers, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (EU), and other unions who stood tough during the even harder economic times of the Great Depression and refused to allow management to use the economy as an excuse to slash wages, benefits, and workers' rights.

If you'd like to read more about these various activities, check out some of the labor and related sites on the Internet. For more on Barry's book, go to "". "" has a detailed account of Fed Ex's anti-union fight. Go to "" for more on the town hall meetings.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A labor priest in the Deep South

When 86-year-old Monsignor George G. Higgins died on "May Day"--also the day of St. Joseph the Worker--in 2002, many lamented that the day of the "labor priest" had finally passed. No one more embodied that title than Higgins, who fought for the rights of working people for six decades and who never wavered in his belief that "only strong and independent organizations can give employees a genuine say in their economic lives."

Higgins was perhaps the most famous in the long tradition of labor priests in this country. One of the early labor priests was Msgr. John A. Ryan, the Minnesota-bred priest who drafted the U.S. Bishops' 1919 "Program of Social Reconstruction" calling on capitalists to recognize that "the laborer is a human being, not merely an instrument of production." Another was the fiery labor priest of Pittsburgh, Msgr. Charles Owen Rice, who once had this to say in a column: "Mine was a rip-roaring, no-holds-barred denunciation of the steel magnates and the infamy of great wealth."

Hold the obituaries for the labor priesthood, however. I've found one in the most unlikely of places, the Deep South state of Mississippi where I live. Father Jeremy Tobin of the Norbertine priory in the rural woodlands south of Jackson fits the bill as well as any priest I've seen in the past 20 years. I had a lengthy interview with him recently, and I'll be writing a column about him in the coming weeks for Mississippi newspapers. But here is a little preview about the man and his mission:

I knew I had found another link in the Ryan-Rice-Higgins lineage when I attended an United Auto Workers meeting with civil rights and other activists in Jackson several years ago. The UAW was laying the groundwork for an organizing effort at the giant Nissan plant near Jackson. "What we need is action," Father Tobin told the crowd in a rousing speech. "We can make the South a beacon, a light of justice. An auto plant can be an oasis of justice."

The Chicago-born grandson of Irish immigrants who has been fighting for social justice in Mississippi for more than a decade, Tobin divides his time between the contemplative life at the remote priory where he lives and on the frontlines of the many social battles still raging in the poorest state in the nation. He's an activist for the rights of state's growing population of Latino immigrants--many of them undocumented--as well as for African-Americans, whose historical struggle for civil rights continues to this day.

His words were music to this Catholic's ears after watching the rise of Catholic conservatism since the mid-1990s, when Fr. Richard Neuhaus and Watergate figure Chuck Colson joined forces to create a coalition of conservative Catholics and evangelicals. Msgr. Rice saw this kind of coalition coming even earlier. He once declared that the emergence of Catholic Republicanism out of a people of immigrants who had known first-hand suffering and class-based discrimination was "another cross in my old age."

Few states are more conservative than Mississippi--Barack Obama got just 43 percent of the vote in a state whose population is roughly 37 percent African-American-- yet Tobin has never regretted the move. "I liked coming here," he said during my recent interview with him. "Since being here, I've gotten involved with all the causes I was interested in in Chicago. ... I've been very exhilarated to see all the young people so passionate about doing something for the poor." As for workers and unions, he said, "we have to get back to the betterment of working conditions of our low and middle-class workers." Unions themselves have often lost sight of their mission. "Unions have gotten so cozy with management."

Pope Benedict himself recently provided some inspiration for those in the religious life like Fr. Tobin. The pope's recent encyclical, "Veritas in Caritate" ("Truth in Charity") includes a rousing endorsement of labor unions. Here is an excerpt: "Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in representing the interests of workers, partly because governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit their freedom or the negotiating capacity. The repeated calls issued within the church's social doctrine for the promotion of workers' associations must therefore be honored today even more than in the past."

As I said earlier, stay tuned. More to come.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Another victory for Smithfield workers: A Contract

The big labor news out of the South is the victory by 5,000 workers at the Smithfield hog plant in Tar Heel, N.C., in gaining their first contract with the fiercely anti-union company. The victory comes eight months after the workers successfully voted in a union, ending a 16-year battle that included illegal firings, threats of violence against pro-union workers, spying on and blacklisting of union supporters, an on-site detention center, and lawsuits to prevent workers from organizing.

Local 1208 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) at Tar Heel can now "join more than 10,000 other Smithfield workers, and the 240,000 others in the meat packing and food processing industry who have a UFCW union contract," the union said.

In the long struggle at Tar Heel for a union, one of the company's weapons was an ongoing effort to divide African-American and Latino workers. "The African-American and the Hispanic cultures are at war with each other because of plant propaganda," slaughterhouse worker Edward Morrison said in July 2006. Although both black and Latino workers were "getting injured left and right" at a plant where calls for safer conditions were usually ignored, he said, management was successful in "dividing the cultures."

Over the years, the plant workforce shifted from majority black to majority Latino, many of them undocumented and thus hired because they would work for even cheaper wages. Following federal immigration raids in early 2007, the workforce eventually shifted back from two-thirds Latino to majority black again, opening the door to a successful union drive. Studies show many undocumented workers resist unionization out of fear of being exposed, a fear exploited by the company prior to the raids.

According to the UFCW, the new contract includes wage increases over the next four years, continued company-provided health care coverage, and better sick leave and vacation benefits.

The contract and earlier union victory are especially significant considering they occurred in the state with the lowest rate of unionization in the country, an estimated 3.5 percent. Yet, as the North Carolina-based Institute for Southern Studies has reported, union membership actually rose in seven of the 13 Southern states between 2007 and 2008, and North Carolina was one of the seven.

Monday, June 29, 2009

A "Labor South" Manifesto

With this "Labor South" blog I plan to put a spotlight on some of the labor activity in the U.S. South you don't read about elsewhere, always keeping it in context with what is going on nationally and internationally as well. This blog will also provide an historical and cultural (including music, literature, and art) perspective that takes into account the long, hard, and often bloody struggle workers have always had to wage whenever they tried to organize in this region.

What are my credentials for doing this? I am a veteran journalist who has written about working class people since I began my career in the mid-1970s. I worked for newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi and I covered Congress and the South as a reporter before coming to the University of Mississippi to teach (and still practice) journalism. I am a textile worker's son who grew up in North Carolina and worked in tobacco fields and textile plants as a young man. My German mother made sure I always saw things in a broader context than my immediate surroundings, and in both of the two books I've published I try to show how the story of the South is part of a larger story vitally connected to, not separate from, the world.

My most recent book, "Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press" (University Press of Mississippi, July 2008), looks at the labor movement in the South both today and yesterday and assesses the powerful alliance of business, political, and media interests that have kept the South the nation's least unionized region. I traveled from the Carolinas to Louisiana to gather information for chapters that probe the Charleston, S.C., longshoremen's strike in 2000, the collapse of the textile industry, Wal-Mart, Latino immigration, "Detroit South", the Sunbelt South, and labor's role in the civil rights movement. The book, which includes a foreword by noted author and activist Stanley Aronowitz, also looks back to the sharecroppers' and textile workers' strikes in the 1930s and to the region's unsung labor heroes. I continue this work in the columns and articles I write (often with the byline Joe Atkins) for Mississippi's largest newspapers and other publications.

Legendary labor leader Sidney Hillman once called the Southern labor movement a "venture into unplowed fields." Yet the nation's labor movement will never reach its true potential without a harvest of those fertile fields.

A lot is happening down here that never has and never will get covered in the nation's mainstream media. It's a void too big for this little blog, but maybe this is a start.

Friday, June 26, 2009

UE uses international solidarity to fight anti-union law in North Carolina

Labor unions in this country are developing the global strategies they're going to need to fight for worker rights in a global economy. That became clear to me during one of the best panels I attended at the recent "Class Matters" conference of the Working Class Studies Association in Pittsburgh.

Let's look at the fight against North Carolina General Statute 95-98, a relic of the old segregationist, anti-union 1950s that saw late rabid right-winger and later U.S. Senator Jesse Helms first step onto the public stage, A right-to-work state with traditionally the lowest rate of unionization in the country--and my native state, by the way--North Carolina with this law effectively denied state and local government workers the right to collective bargaining that Franklin Roosevelt guaranteed other workers during the Great Depression. Virginia is the only other state with such a law.

Workers in North Carolina, particularly black and other minority workers,have protested this statute for years. Among the groups waging war against it is the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, better known as UE, a legendary "rank-and-file" union that has been fighting for working people since the 1930s.

During the panel titled "Labor Strategies in a Globalized Economy" at the Pittsburgh conference, Robin Alexander of the UE told how her union and other activist groups are using international law to discredit NC General Statute 95-98. "The state is acting illegally," she said. The UE joined with unions in Mexico, Quebec, and Japan to show some international solidarity with sanitation workers and groups in North Carolina like the Black Workers For Justice in the fight against the statute. The fact that these international unions come from countries that trade with North Carolina has been an important factor in getting state pols' attention. Formal complaints have been filed with the governor, and legislation has been proposed for repeal of the statute. "We have built an amazing coalition," Alexander said.

Here's wishing them success. As you may recall, UE Local 1110 won a big victory last December after a six-day, 1930s-style sit-in and occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago. An agreement by Republic, its lenders, and the union promised eight weeks' pay, vacation pay, and extended health care benefits to workers who had protested a sudden shutdown of the plant with only three days' notice.

By the way, if you'd like to know more about UE's interesting history, check out "Them and Us: Struggles of a Rank-and-File Union" by early UE leader James J. Matles and writer James Higgins. Loving the title, I picked up the book at the Townsend Booksellers book store in Pittsburgh. It's a great account of UE's role in the nascent CIO and its battle with the staid old leaders of the AFL as well as with corporate bosses.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Labor South is on the rise!

This is my first entry on my new blog "Labor South", and I'm looking forward to making it a part of the labor media scene down here, and to reading your input.