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.