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.

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