Monday, December 20, 2010

Tale of an immigrant family from long ago

(The picture to the left is of The Flight Into Egypt by Giotto di Bondone, depicting the Holy Family's escape from Herod's tyranny. It was painted between 1304 and 1306, and it is located in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy)

They were descendants of immigrants who themselves became immigrants.

Soon after the baby arrived, a dream came to the father that the little family would have to leave their homeland if they were to survive. Even the life of an innocent child was in danger in their homeland.

So the three of them—father, mother and child—left their tiny village and embarked on a treacherous journey through the desert wilderness. They were very poor and had little more than the clothes on their backs.

They traveled by day and by night, ever fearful they might be captured or attacked, until they finally crossed the border. They brought no documentation with them, only their humility and the father’s willingness to work hard to support his family.

He was a trained craftsman, good with his hands, and his work was valued even if he was paid so little he could never hope to rise out of his poverty. With his teenage wife tending to their baby, he went out among the people to earn bread and shelter for them.

He heard the whisperings among those in this new land. They called him and his family foreigners, outsiders, and even illegal aliens, as if they had come from the moon and their very existence was something less than human, a violation of not only the law of the land but also God’s law.

“They’re just here to take our jobs, to feed, house, and clothe themselves at our expense,” he heard one of them say.

“They don’t even take the time to learn our language,” said another.

“Why are they even here? Is their own country not good enough for them? Perhaps they’re spies,” said yet another.

“The way people like these spawn they’ll soon be everywhere, expecting their new offspring to be treated equally just because they were born here, like so many little anchors for their illegal parents. Anchor babies, that’s what they’ll be.”

Some of these whisperings came from the very people who benefited from his labors. They would say these things as soon as they walked away from the worksite and rejoined their neighbors and friends. Local leaders heard the comments, too, and saw an advantage in such fears, prejudice, and suspicions. So they began to talk among the crowds and, being leaders, talked loudest of all, loud enough for everyone to hear.

Even the priests joined the chorus, invoking God’s judgment from their pulpits, condemning the strangers for breaking the law and taking advantage of people’s hospitality.

The father and mother, already homesick, longed for their faraway families and friends. They knew many did not welcome them in this strange land, but they also feared for their child’s life if they returned home. Did their little child have any idea of all the troubles that surrounded them?

The father remembered how his ancestors had been immigrants to this very land many generations before and had prospered here, but then a new leader had turned them into slaves and they had left. Now he and his wife and child had returned because their own land had become hostile. When would it all end? Where was there a refuge?

Eventually the father, whose namesake had been a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams, had yet another dream, and this one told him the time had come to return home. So he and his wife packed their belongings, wrapped up their child to keep it warm, and journeyed back to their homeland. They had to be careful. Dangers still lurked, but at least they were home.

And back in the strange land where they had sought refuge, some indeed missed them. “He did good work,” one said. “You know, they never really bothered anyone,” another said.

But these voices were quickly drowned out by the leaders and their priests who cried “Good riddance!” and then looked for others to condemn.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Strike by Georgia inmates Invokes the Old and the New About the South

(To the right you see a late-career campaign poster from James K. Vardaman from the early 1920s, one of my prized possessions of Southern political memorabilia)

A nonviolent strike by inmates at seven Georgia prisons has evoked one of the South's long-held and darkest traditions while incorporating the latest technology at the same time.

The inmates at Smith State Prison in Downing and elsewhere across the state told the New York Times that they were able to coordinate their protest through use of "contraband cellphones" that allowed text-messaging as a means of communication. Inmates were able to purchase the cellphones from guards and other sources, often at exorbitant prices.

The key issues behind the strike are inmate demands that they be paid for work they do in the prison system and that deteriorating living conditions be improved. They also want more focus on rehabilitation, such as educational programs. The Georgia Department of Corrections' response thus far is a lockdown at four of the prisons.

The familiar story of miserable conditions within Southern prisons has become the stuff of Hollywood, with movies such as I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang and Cool Hand Luke depicting a South with plenty of uniformed sadists always ready to use their power and fulfill their darkest needs to chain, beat, and whip those helpless to oppose them.

Beyond their use of cellphones and complaints about prison conditions, the inmates and their insistence that they be paid for their work reminded this writer of an age-old issue in the South: private profiteering from prison labor.

It evokes a South that's perhaps not as "new" as we'd like to think. Using prison labor for private profit was a key issue in turn-of-the-(20th) century Mississippi, where--irony of ironies--one of the South's most notoriously racist politicians, Gov. James K. Vardaman, pushed through major reform legislation that ended convict leasing and improved conditions at the state's notorious Parchman prison.

"I am more interested in the salvation of men than I am in hoarding gold," Vardaman said, protesting "money coined out of the blood and tears of the unfortunate convicts."

Conditions were indeed bad. Investigators found inmates doing farm labor for the privately owned land of prison officials, sick inmates confined to a ward where broken windows exposed them to freezing temperatures in the winter, and, in one case, an inmate forced by a guard to kill another inmate.

As retold in Albert D. Kirwan's book, Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics, 1876-1925, Vardaman told Mississippians that even a "low-bred, vulgar creature, congenitally corrupt, inured to physical and moral filth" deserved "kindly treatment, a decent bed to sleep on, and sanitary surrounding."

He decried prison conditions "rivaling in brutality and fiendishness, the atrocities of ... Torquemada."

Vardaman, a striking figure on the campaign trail with his long black hair, white suit, and black hat, provides a classic example of Southern contradiction in politics. Known as the "Great White Chief", he was a horrible racist when campaigning, even supporting the lynching of blacks. As an office-holder, however, he was remarkably progressive for his time and even acted to prevent the lynching he supported as a candidate. He supported restrictions on child labor, fought the all-powerful railroad companies and other big corporations, created a state textbook commission and thereby ended the American Book Company's monopoly. Vardaman even increased educational funding for blacks.

However, Vardaman's racist diatribes on the campaign trail--imitated and perhaps even exceeded by his understudy, Theodore G. Bilbo--will forever mark and darken whatever positive achievements he attained.

Nevertheless, some of his reform spirit as regards prisons might be worth re-visiting these days as governments continue to look to private prison-operating companies to do the work that they themselves should do, and, as I've written before, another "dark piece of the Old South that's still there" threatens to resurrect itself--even if it never really went away.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Immigrants in Maxo Vanka's Murals Speak to a New Generation of Immigrants Today

(The accompanying picture is one of Maxo Vanka's compelling murals, and it depicts the cost of war for immigrants who suffer discrimination and prejudice in their new homeland yet are willing to fight and even lose their lives for that homeland. It is a fitting picture for this post, filed on December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, and the day after the celebration of St. Nicholas, the namesake for the church where Vanka's murals are preserved.)

Veteran readers of this blog know of my admiration for Croatian artist Maxo Vanka, whose breathtaking Depression-era murals are preserved at the St. Nicholas Croation Catholic Church on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pa.

The Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka (SPMMMV) recently announced that it has secured a $50,000 matching grant to fund the first phase of a project to preserve and restore the murals, which vividly depict the lives of peasant immigrants to the region who did backbreaking labor in the steel mills, factories, and coal mines to realize the American dream.

SPMMV is also preparing for the May 2011 presentation of A Gift to America, a play by David Demarest that deals with Vanka's work and the haunting murals that cover practically every inch of wall space in the church.

Thus far, more than $235,000 has been raised toward the project, which seeks to preserve an important piece of immigrant history in this country. A second phase of restoration has a fund-raising goal of $350,000.

Although this blog focuses on the U.S. South--and by extension the Global South--the stories told in Vanka's murals reflect the lives of millions of newly arrived Southerners from south of the border--the loneliness, the hard work, the exploitation, the prejudice, the struggle to preserve traditions and yet adapt to a new home.

To get an idea of how close to home Vanka's murals hit let's consider the recent plight of 350 Filipino teachers who came to Louisiana to teach in the public schools but found themselves virtual slaves of the labor contractors who brought them there. The contractors buried the teachers in such bogus debt for fees, travel, and other "expenses" that they had to live in substandard housing with little hope of ever emerging out of their indentured servitude.

With the prompting of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, American Federation of Teachers, Migrant Heritage Commission and Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, the Louisiana Attorney General's Office intervened and succeeded in rescuing the teachers and is in the process of getting them proper visas for their stay here.

The Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers also secured a victory recently for migrant workers when it got a major tomato industry leader, Pacific Tomato Growers, to agree to observe the organization's code of conduct. That code insists that workers have access to a health and safety program and grievance resolution procedures.

The CIW is building a long track record of success in its ongoing fight for immigrant worker rights.

Maxo Vanka would be proud.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wal-Mart vs female employees, and Wal-Mart vs. retail workers in South Africa

Wal-Mart greeter Betty Dukes' nine-year-old discrimination case against her employer has finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and a decision is expected any day now as to whether she and thousands of other female employees actually have a basis for a class-action claim against the company.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer and strongly backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, claims lower court rulings accepting the class-action suit are wrong and that allegations of a systemic practice of discrimination against women is ridiculous. Dukes and others say many female workers at Wal-Mart not only get the short end of the stick in pay raises and promotions but are subjected to discriminatory and insulting treatment by management at the workplace because of their gender.

Remember: this is the same Supreme Court that in January opened the floodgates to the corporate financing of American politics, so Betty Dukes and her colleagues are up against a Goliath indeed.

Meanwhile in South Africa, leaders of the 150,000-member South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU) have threatened to go on strike if Wal-Mart is successful in its efforts to take over Massmart, which has discount retail stores spread across the continent with plans to open dozens more.

Wal-Mart is positioned to take majority control of Massmart shares if shareholders agree to it, setting the stage for a major invasion by the virulently anti-union, Arkansas-based retailer to spread the gospel of Sam (Walton, the company's founder) to Africans: cheap goods provided by a cheap multi-billion-dollar company whose low-paid U.S. employees often have to depend on Medicaid and Food Stamps to survive.

It'll be interesting to see how a stand-off between corporate Wal-Mart and a union with strong connections to government in Africa might turn out.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities: Memphis and Nashville

I'm driving along Nashville's West End Avenue in my 10-year-old Buick LeSabre (a veteran of 155,000 miles and still counting). I'm on a story assignment with a young journalist from Chicago. Memphis comes up in the conversation, and she asks about something she's heard: "Nashville and the rest of Tennessee hate Memphis, right?"

It wasn't the first time I'd heard about the Bluff City's uneasy relationship with the rest of the state. I remember back in the 1970s when an Ivy League-educated, Knoxville-reared journalist colleague of mine in North Carolina described Memphis this way: "It's the largest city in northern Mississippi."

He didn't mean it as a compliment.

I'd asked him about Memphis because the city had held a fascination for me since the early 1960s when I was a teenager. That was when I discovered the blues and first really appreciated rockabilly. I've since spent a lot of time in Memphis (including maintaining an apartment there with my wife for the past four years), and I've developed some ideas about what makes the city different.

Let's start with politics. Today, with all the Tea Party shouting and Republican resurgence, Memphis is a blue speck in a sea of red. One reason, of course, is that the majority of the approximately 700,000 people who live there are black. The farther east you travel from Downtown and Midtown, the whiter and more Republican it gets.

The racial divide that killed Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 remains an old sore that's not completely healed. It's not uncommon to hear white people call Memphis Memphrica. Willie Herenton, the city's first black mayor, a brooding, thin-skinned man obsessed by race, didn't help much despite nearly two decades of rule. His successor, A.C. Wharton, also black, offers promise that some long-missing salve may now be applied.

"Boss" (E.H.) Crump, the city's political dictator for much of the first half of the 20th century, has been dead a long time, but his legacy still casts a shadow. Crump was every bit as powerful in his city as Richard Daley Sr. was in his. Maybe moreso. When Herenton ran unsuccessfully for Congress this past year, he was inevitably compared to Crump, who also served for a time in Congress.

In my mind's eye, Memphis is dark, Nashville is light.

I was in Nashville much of the past week, and the city seemed to be thriving despite the devastating flood of last May. The skyline that Bob Dylan once sang about gets more sleek and impressive every year. Broadway, the main thoroughfare, was jam-packed this past Saturday night as college football fans (Vanderbilt played the University of Tennessee) crowded Tootsie's and the dozens of other venues, elbowing for room with the thousands of other folk who still flock to Nashville to see or become country music stars.

Memphis from Beale to Union can hop at night, too, but a northerly stroll up Main or Front Street is a journey into noir land. In many ways, Memphis remains the haunting metropolis Jim Jarmusch depicted in his 1990 film Mystery Train even if it's thankfully less desolate. That desolation once got nailed by legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson, who said downtown looked like "Dresden after the war."

"Memphis Noir" is a major reason I love the city the way I do.

For all of Nashville's Hank-Roy-Lefty-Webb-Kitty-Patsy-driven mystique, it still pales in comparison to the city where Elvis would only come out in the wee hours, dragging his mafia with him, to ride the Zippin Pippin in Libertyland when no one else was there, or the city where Jerry Lee Lewis showed up at the gates of Graceland late at night drunk and wielding a .38 while the oblivious boy from Tupelo was asleep at the top of the hill. Jerry Lee always figured he was the true king of rock 'n' roll.

Crime-wise Memphis routinely ranks just behind Detroit, enough to inspire the cop television show The First 48 before Police Director Larry Godwin complained about the bad publicity and made the show look for another city to embarrass. The crime, by the way, includes more than its share of political corruption, with John Ford of the Ford political dynasty leading a long line of pols-on-the-take who've marched off to prison or into other halls of shame. I interviewed Ford in the early 1980s while doing a story about Memphis politics. When His Majesty deigned to look at me, it was usually with disdain or at best utter impatience.

Interstate 40, the "Music Highway", connects Nashville and Memphis, but the disconnect begins with Nashville's corporate music infrastructure. Corporate Nashville has always fought a kind of war with roots music. Sticking with roots is hard when all you really care about is the bottom line. That's why it put an orchestra behind George Jones at the height of his career, hoping he'd cross over like Jim Reeves did.

Whether at Sun Records, Stax, Alex Chilton's garage, or in the 1920s-era blues saloons along Beale, Memphis music has always had an edge, a rawness, a real-ness that scared the bejeebers out of the corporate suits on Music Row. No wonder Willie and Waylon had to go back to Luckenbach. No wonder Steve Earle had to leave "Guitar Town". For new, rootsy talents on the scene today like Jamey Johnson, it may be just a matter of time.

Memphis, you scary, dark city by the Big Muddy, city of neon and shadows, you may be as poor and sometimes as rejected as an orphan in a Dickens novel, but unloved you are not. Believe me. I'm a witness, and I just gave you my testimony.

Apologies: New posts coming!

Apologies for not posting during the past week or so. I've been in Nashville, Tenn., going through a "multi-media boot camp" hosted by the John Seigenthaler Center, Freedom Forum Diversity Institute, to better equip myself in understanding and utilizing the technology so essential to the journalism profession today. These were 10-hour days with little time for anything else. Hopefully readers of this blog will soon see some of the results of this training.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The "Bottom" to "Top" Low-Down on Recent Worker Activity in Dixie and Beyond

Ever hear the song by country music singer Jamey Johnson in which a country music star laments his loneliness on the road to an unknown, down-on-his-luck bar mate? The bar mate has this to say in response: “It might be lonely at the top, but it’s a bitch at the bottom.”

It’s a great song, one that hearkens back to some of Ol’ Hank’s best, and it speaks to an economic divide in this country and beyond that continues to grow every day.

Here are some news items from the U.S. South and beyond that speak to that divide—folks at the bottom fighting for their rights, and those at the top fighting just as hard against them. It's getting tougher and tougher for workers to take a stand, but they're doing it, and sometimes they even win.

Management at Atlanta-based Delta gets a narrow victory—and a wake-up call
Less than 350 out of nearly 19,000 votes was the margin of victory for Delta management recently as flight attendants said “No” to joining a union.

The vote was not a surprise but still a disappointment to the thousands of flight attendants, including 300 in Memphis, who've worked for Northwest—now merged with Delta—and have long supported union representation.

Votes from ramp workers and others at the merged airlines are still to come. Industry observers say management shouldn’t be popping the champagne just yet. The vote by the flight attendants was so close that unionization remains a “threat” to the company, which, by the way, waged an expensive, high profile anti-union campaign prior to the vote.

Fed-Ex’s Fred Smith enjoyed the Nov. 2 elections
With the Republican takeover of the U.S. House and defeat of pro-labor House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., Federal Express CEO Smith can breathe easier about Oberstar’s push to apply the same rules to the Memphis-based company that now apply to its major U.S. competitor, UPS.

Contract drivers at Fed-Ex have been saying they’re essentially full-time employees but can’t unionize because of their job designation. The Teamsters union and others say Fed-Ex should operate under the same rules as its competitors instead of the rules of the Railway Labor Act that now apply.

Piedmont agents vote union
Salisbury, Md.-based Piedmont Airlines fought unionization tooth and nail, but its 3,000 fleet and passenger service agents recently cast their ballots overwhelmingly in favor of joining the Communications Workers of America.

It was a two-to-one landslide for the union, which means workers can indeed stand up to union-busting tactics, intimidation, and “captive-audience meetings” decrying unions, according to the AFL-CIO Now Blog.

European hypocrisy in Arkansas
Despite European firms’ claims of allegiance to International Labor Organization codes of conduct, many are quick to take advantage of lax labor laws in the United States. Take the Dutch-based Gamma Holding firm, for example.

When workers at its National Wire Fabric company in Star City, Arkansas, went on strike, management wasted no time hiring permanent replacements, a direct violation of those same codes.

A new study by the Human Rights Watch organization, A Strange Case: Violations of Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States by European Multinational Corporations, details how officials with companies such as Gamma Holding talk out of both sides of their mouths, something U.S. Southerners are used to hearing from their politicians and own business leaders.

This latter entry reminds me of corporate consultant Richard A. Beaumont’s essay, Working in the South, of some years back. In that essay, Beaumont talks of European industrialists coming to the South and reacting in shock to the virulent anti-unionism of their Southern counterparts. “Five minutes later, (the European industrialist) is saying, `Now, when I go to the South, how do I operate on a nonunion basis?’”

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Elephants make Dinosaurs of the Blue Dogs in the Cottonfields

What's the future of the "Blue Dog" Democrat? It's a legitimate question to ask in the wake of Tuesday's election.

Here in Mississippi, two "Blue Dog" Democrats--1st District Congressman Travis Childers and 4th District Congressman Gene Taylor--lost their re-election bids to Republicans Tuesday. They lost despite major efforts to distance themselves from the president and from outgoing U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and by voting against such Democrat-led initiatives as health care reform.

Stalwart fiscal conservatives both of them, they lost because they're Democrats and they represent majority white districts in the South. Roughly half of the U.S. House's 54-member Blue Dog Coalition lost their seats in the Nov. 2 election.

A bit of history helps put Tuesday's results in perspective.

The white South has been trending Republican ever since former Democrat Strom Thurmond of South Carolina campaigned for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964. Thurmond had first broken from the Democratic Party way back in 1948 when he led the so-called Dixiecrat revolt out of the party and served as the States' Rights presidential candidate that year. Thurmond and other conservatives in the once Solid (Democratic) South just couldn't tolerate their party's tolerance of civil rights and labor any longer.

Thurmond was a pioneer to Southern Democrats-turned-Republicans--from North Carolina's Jesse Helms to Alabama's Richard Shelby.

Southern Democrats had been a key--if often unlikely--part of the coalition that put and kept Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt in the White House. They included raging liberals like Claude Pepper of Florida and ol' mossback (social) conservatives like Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi. Of course, some unreconstructed Confederates like Harry Byrd of Virginia and "Cotton" Ed Smith of South Carolina eventually became FDR enemies.

After Roosevelt died, the coalition fell apart, and many Southern Democrats joined with a new Republican majority in Congress in supporting the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, a repudiation of everything FDR stood for as regards labor and working people.

The Dixiecrat revolt did not lead to a viable third party for conservative Southern Democrats after 1948, but their disgruntlement grew as the civil rights movement gained steam in the 1950s and early 1960s. By 1964, Strom Thurmond was campaigning throughout the South for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

However, even as more and more elephants appeared in the cotton fields (to paraphrase writer Wayne Greenhaw's description), many Southern conservatives chose to stay within the party that their daddies, mamas, granddaddies and grandmamas had belonged to since Abe Lincoln held office. Especially at the local level, Democrats remained strong in the South. For one reason, they knew government and how to make it work for the voters they needed, something still alien to anti-government Republicans.

The immediate predecessor to the "Blue Dog" Democrat in Congress was the "Boll Weevil" Democrat of the 1970s and 1980s, best personified by U.S. Rep. G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery of Mississippi, a military veteran who once during the Vietnam War angrily charged an anti-war protester on the steps of the Capitol.

Montgomery had a long, successful career in politics before retiring, and before the Congress became so intensely partisan that Southern conservatives either had to become an elephant or a dinosaur.

That appears to be the choice that Childers, Taylor and a lot of other Blue Dogs faced. Partisanship, guilt by association, Tea Party madness, voter anger and frustration at an economy that still rewards the rich while punishing everybody else--it's enough to make a blue dog howl the blues.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

"High Popalorum and Low Popahirum" on the 2010 Campaign Trail

OXFORD, Miss. – The evening is cool, the sky is clear, and the air is thick with talk of politics and the smell of the best barbecue chicken I’ve eaten since my daddy passed away.

There’s also a generous hint of bourbon in the air, but the hundreds of people here at Johnny Morgan’s “Good Ole’ Boys and Gals” semi-annual cookout are high on politics, not booze. Here are sheriffs, chancery and city clerks, county supervisors, aldermen, state legislators, judges of every make, shape, stripe, and judiciary level.

In the crowd are dozens of past, present, and future candidates for every conceivable public office in North Mississippi and beyond, and a few old-time politicos and legends like Flick Ash of nearby Potts Camp. When I ask Ash how active he is in politics these days, he eyes me curiously and gives the cryptic answer you’d expect from a master. “I’ve got a few friends. I’d like to think I have a little influence.”

Located at Lafayette County Supervisor and former legislator Morgan’s metal barn off Highway 7, this is the best political party Mississippi offers north of Neshoba County. The people here are the movers and shakers at the local level, the men and women who work the precincts, know the numbers, and help get out the vote, so the two major candidates in Mississippi's hotly contested 1st congressional district race weren’t about to miss this.

I listen as both U.S. Rep. Travis Childers, D-Miss., and the Republican who wants to oust him, Alan Nunnelee, take their turns on the podium. Nunnelee wastes no time slapping the dreaded U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tag on Childers. The California Democrat is a bête noire in GOP circles. Childers responds by putting the horrid “tax hiker” tag on Nunnelee for supporting Gov. Haley Barbour’s 2009 hospital tax.

An old leftie like me can’t help but shake his head. I want to quote Shakespeare (and my hero, Franklin D. Roosevelt) and say, “A plague on both your houses.”

“Blue Dog” Democrats like Childers and 4th Cong. District Rep. Gene Taylor are in unusually tough fights this year because of the “D” behind their names. Both come from predominantly white districts, and, let’s face it, “white” in Mississippi increasingly means conservative—no, make that arch-conservative—and Republican.

This is the year of Republicans-Marching-in-Lockstep in Congress, and in the hustings the Tea Party Ascendance, the so-called “grassroots” movement that is actually fueled and financed in part by the likes of right-wing billionaires David and Charles Koch.

Alongside the mysterious Koch brothers and their Americans for Prosperity organization is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, taking full advantage of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling by pumping millions into what Nation magazine calls “the most expensive midterm election in history.” Just how much of that money comes from foreign countries like India and Bahrain we don’t know.

I listen to Childers and remember how he voted against health care reform. So did Taylor, who even signed a petition to repeal the legislation. Nunnelee would be no different. Maybe they think Americans are just hunky-dory with their doctor bills and insurance premiums and the fact that a pre-existing condition can mean no insurance.

I’m also remembering Louisiana’s long-ago political boss Huey Long and his famous “High Popalorum and Low Popahirum” speech. “The only difference that I’ve found between the Democratic leadership and the Republican leadership is that one of them was skinning from the ankle up, and the other from the ear down.”

Still, I know what’s at stake in Tuesday’s election. If the Republicans do as predicted and take over the House, any real government action to deal with this recession will likely come grinding to a halt. What we’ll get instead will be House investigation after investigation aimed at embarrassing and ultimately toppling a Democratic administration with the hope of a restoration of the good ol’ days.

Remember those days?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Privatizing pols, union-busting companies, and protesting workers

As election day looms, here are a few of the stories percolating in the South that affect the region's working folks:

In West Virginia, Republican Senate candidate John Raese has called for the elimination of the federal minimum wage, which he calls an "archaic system" even though some 60,000 West Virginians got a pay raise when the federal minimum wage was last increased. As reported recently by Nation magazine, Raese is not the only right-wing Republican Senatorial candidate taking aim what remains of the nation's social safety net.

Rand Paul in Kentucky has caused a stir by criticizing the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Ken Buck in Colorado wants to privatize Veterans Administration hospitals, and Joe Miller in Alaska wants to eliminate unemployment compensation, Nation reports.

What these politicians really want is a return to the late-19th century era when robber barons like John D. Rockefeller organized trusts to control entire industries and wielded more power than the president himself. It took "muckraking" journalists like Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens to expose the depths of economic and political corruption in the country. Where are the muckrakers today? Hard to find in a world in which the media are corporate-owned and bound to a corporate view of the world that looks at government as an inconvenience when it's not serving corporate interests.

Close to home here in Oxford, Mississippi, a recent newspaper story headlined "Union vote could send jobs to Oxford" detailed how the Olin Corporation's Winchester operations in East Alton, Ill., may relocate to Oxford now that union workers rejected by a 2-1 margin concessions in a new proposed contract. Olin is now threatening to move the plant to Oxford.

If so, it would just be another example in the long parade of companies that have headed South to avoid unions. If only a workforce with a strong working-class consciousness were here waiting for them.

Approximately 900 workers are at the East Alton ammunition plant. Members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 9 union felt the ammunition plant shouldn't be seeking concessions at a time when its net income totaled $21.1 million at last report, the second-best in the division's history.

Oxford is already the location of a Winchester ammunition and military packing plant.

And finally in the border city of Baltimore, Md., workers are protesting their recent firing by the ESPN Zone restaurant in the city's Inner Harbor area. They said they were only given a week's notice in violation of legal requirements that 60-days notice be given in cases of mass layoffs.

As reported by In These Times magazine, about 150 workers lost their job at the restaurant, which is owned by the Disney corporation. Some 50 workers and their supporters marched recently in protest. Supporters include the United Workers labor group.

Five workers have filed a class-action lawsuit against Disney.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The arrests of striking workers in India affect workers everywhere

The neo-liberal business model that has global firms raking in profits without allegiance to workers or home countries is coming under increasing pressure from the very ones whose backbreaking labor make that model possible: workers.

Approximately 500 striking workers at electronics manufacturer Foxconn's operations in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu have been placed under arrest by the government, thus pitting Taiwan-based Foxconn and an Indian government against Indian workers.

Foxconn, which produces iPhones and Nintendo among other products, is where at least 10 workers committed suicide in plants in Shenzhen, China, north of Hong Kong, over the past year or so. Chinese media reported that Foxconn workers were being forced to work as much as 80 hours overtime, more than double the legal limit.

Following the story is the international, pro-labor Web publication, LabourStart, whose editor, Eric Lee, urged this week that "we need to flood the offices of state officials with the demand that the jailed workers be released."

The growing unrest among workers in China, India, and other countries is watched closely by neo-liberal leaders. Nearly 2,000 workers for Honda in China’s Guangdong province, went on strike in mid-May, shutting down production at the company’s four plants there. They were protesting low wages and poor working conditions. Workers at the Hyundai plant in Chennai, India, shut down operations there, too, in June.

The rash of suicides by workers at Foxconn’s plants in China prompted the company to raise wages twice within a single week—first by 30 percent, and then by 70 percent.

The Chinese government has given indications that it is hearing the workers' protests, and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has called for reforms to help the workers.

Although Labor South focuses on labor issues in the U.S. South, it also addresses "Global South" issues because this South is intimately connected to a greater South that stretches from Singapore to Cape Town to Buenos Aires to New Orleans.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel said recently that her nation's efforts to build a multicultural society have failed and that future immigrants essentially need to become German-speaking Germans, she placed the onus nearly completely on the immigrants themselves, ignoring the economic factors (in a global economy dominated by the free-trade, cheap-labor neo-liberal model) that are forcing many millions of workers around the globe to leave their homes and families and seek a livelihood in an often-hostile society--as if they do that gleefully with dollar (Euro) signs in their eyes.

Let's bring it back to Dixie. One company that has benefited wonderfully from global trade is Arkansas-based, virulently anti-union Wal-Mart, which exports billions of dollars worth of goods from China and which has benefited from that nation's undervalued currency as a result.

Working people are all in this together. That's why Eric Lee is right. Support those workers in Tamil Nadu. They're our neighbors--in more ways than one.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Rose Turner: A labor organizer committed to her "family" of low-pay workers in the Deep South

MEMPHIS - On the wall next to Rose Turner’s desk at United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1529 headquarters here is a framed copy of a 20-year-old newspaper cartoon depicting former Mississippi Delta Congressman Mike Espy as a huge catfish. The caption reads: “The one that almost got away.”

“I laugh every time I look at that cartoon, and it brings back all the memories of that 1990 strike (by catfish workers),” said the 52-year-old West Memphis, Ark., native and veteran labor warrior. “He didn’t really show much support for us, and when he did show up to apologize, we said, `We’re not voting for your ass again.’”

Turner, Local 1529’s organizing director, has spent the last three decades fighting for some of the lowest paid workers in the Deep South—workers at catfish plants in the Delta, nursing home workers in Arkansas and Tennessee—and she has seen first-hand what even they can do if they stand together and speak with one voice.

“The South has always been about people working for nothing, not having pensions, health care,” she said. “The only way the South is going to grow is through the labor movement.”

Even die-hard conservative Republicans now pay homage to the civil rights movement, tipping their hats to events safely tucked away in history, while at the same time many in the business community so closely aligned with them still do everything they can to keep workers—whether black, white, Latino or Asian—at the bottom. “This is the 21st century, and it’s still going on,” she said. “It is well alive.”

Turner and Local 1529 President Lonnie Sheppard led hundreds of workers at Delta Pride Catfish Inc. and partner firm Country Select in a threatened strike this summer that finally forced the companies back to the bargaining table with a new contract offer that restored the pay and benefits their previous offer had tried to gut.

It was almost a replay of the 1990 strike at Delta Pride, which garnered national attention, led to a boycott of company products, and resulted in one of the South’s great union victories in the last half of the 20th century.

“If I was going to be an employer, I would a business I was proud of,” Turner said. “I wouldn’t want a company that hinders the community.”

Yet, she recalled, company officials sat across from her at the bargaining table in 1990, saying things like, “`If they want to go the bathroom, they got to clock out,’” and “`We’re going to do what we want to do even if you have a union.’”

She was also part of the team that first organized workers at Delta Pride and all but two of the catfish plants now operating in the Delta, perennially one of the nation’s poorest regions. “When people have been oppressed and beat down, they like to see somebody on their side.”

Turner, a salty-tongued, quick-to-laugh woman with a thick drawl, sharp wit and compassionate eyes, got her start in the labor movement while working as a certified nursing assistant in a West Memphis nursing home. “People were being mistreated,” she said.

After she began enjoying success organizing at that nursing home and others, a company official tried to get her to stop by offering her a major pay raise. “I told her the union is bigger than you or me. This is just a job. I don’t want them to give me anything. Anything people give you, they can take away. You got to earn what you get.”

Turner said organizing is a constant, daily activity, and you can never sit back and think it’s going to happen without a lot of sweat. “This is an everyday thing. You’ve got to constantly move, (make sure) the things you get are tangible. You got to organize. If you don’t, you die on the vine.”

Organizers have to adjust to changing times but never take their eyes off the prize, she said. For example, the catfish industry was thriving in 1990. Today producers have to compete with China and Vietnam while surviving a recession at home. However, Turner said, organizers have to be on the alert that these factors don’t become excuses for mistreating workers.

She recalls one company official’s comment during the recent negotiations: “`We never said we were broke. We just want to be competitive like everybody else.’”

Management tends to see workers like those in the catfish-producing plants in the same way they look at field hands. “It’s like we’re all on the farm. Just because we work at a catfish plant, we’re not still on the farm. A lot of people at those plants have been to high school, been to college. They know there are no other jobs in the Delta, so they stay. `I don’t want to leave my mama, my family,’ they say, and the company knows that.”

Turner said she has occasionally thought about retirement, but she can’t stop fighting right now. “I can’t leave until I make sure that catfish contract is made whole. I don’t just want to see Rose Turner make progress. These people are just like my family.

“A lot of people think a contract is about money,” she said. It’s actually “about fairness and dignity on the job.”

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Upcoming post on veteran Memphis-based labor organizer Rose Turner

In the next couple of days I'll be posting a story on Rose Turner, veteran labor organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

A native of West Memphis, Ark., who has been organizing nursing home and catfish plant workers in the Deep South for the past three decades, Turner is in one sense a fiery throwback to the ol' days of organizing, when it was all about door-to-door campaigning, phone-to-phone proselytizing, round-table Q&A sessions into the wee hours, hard-as-nails negotiating at the bargaining table with management. Salty-tongued, always honest and straight-to-the-point, Rose Marie Turner is the kind of labor organizer who may be a throwback in one sense, but she also points the way to the future in prompting a true resurrection of a labor movement in the South and beyond.

I interviewed Rose Turner today at UFCW Local 1529 headquarters in Memphis, and I'm looking forward to putting her story down on paper--or rather the computer screen.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Delta Pride workers talk about their new contract

(The photograph is of Delta Pride Catfish worker Clyde Stansberry at the recent union vote on a new contract)

INDIANOLA, Miss. - On September 29, I traveled to this little Mississippi Delta town to witness the vote of workers at Delta Pride Catfish Inc. on a new contract offer from the company. A hundred or so workers were on hand as United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1529 President Lonnie Sheppard told them that the contract is not "everything we want" but "is it everything they want? Oh, no. They wanted $1.7 million from you."

The workers I interviewed after the vote generally supported the contract, a far cry from the May 2010 contract offer that would have gutted all the gains from the workers' historic 1990 strike. In May, workers voted nearly unanimously to go on strike rather than accept that contract.

The new contract offers modest pay increases, daily overtime, and a modified health insurance plan but also new limits on vacation and other measures less than popular among veteran workers like Corinneiler Howard.

The 55-year-old, 26-year veteran at the company said her pay will go from $9.15 an hour to $9.50 an hour but she is losing a week's vacation as a result of the new contract.

"I been here 26 years. I worked hard to get where I am. We've got families to feed. I think it's so unfair to lose a week (of vacation) after 26 years."

She had accrued five weeks' vacation, but new rules limits the maximum amount of vacation to four weeks.

As for the pay, she said, "I'd a felt a lot better if they'd said $10."

Clyde Stansberry, 57, a 28-year veteran mechanic's helper at the plant, said the contract was "better than nothing. Jobs are hard to find. I figured they'd come back (with a new offer). Too much to lose for both sides."

Stansberry makes $12.75 an hour.

Maggie Leflore, 58, a 22-year veteran who operates a machine that skins the fish, said she's happy enough with the contract. "I'm glad it's over. We been having a tough time."

After 22 years at Delta Pride, Leflore earns $8.05 an hour.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

New round-up: Union vote at Delta, Teamsters try to shake up Fed-Ex, and a rally cry for immigrants in Mississippi

Here is the latest round-up of some of the key labor activity in the South

A Unionized Delta Airlines in Atlanta?

Delta Airlines CEO Richard Anderson believes the "culture" developed over 80 years at his Atlanta-based company precludes unions, and that's why he's urging some 20,000 attendants--including 7,000 who were union members at now-merged Northwest Airlines--to vote "No" in elections beginning this week, the first in a series between now and early November that will also include 14,000 baggage handlers and more than 16,000 other workers.

Two previous union votes at Delta were unsuccessful. However, the addition of the Northwest attendants changes the landscape and could pave the way for a major labor victory in the Deep South.

Union officials are encouraged by new rules put in place by the National Mediation Board, which oversees transportation, that state that a majority of votes constitutes victory. Under the old rules, a majority of all employees--whether voting or not--was required before victory could be declared.

Teamsters trying to stir up Fed-Ex in Memphis

Over in Memphis, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters tried unsuccessfully again to get Federal Express stockholders to approve changes allowing for an independent board chairman at the company as it prepares for the eventual retirement of CEO/founder Fred Smith. Stockholders voted down the proposal by a 2-1 margin at their annual meeting at the company's headquarters.

Fed-Ex and the Teamsters have been squaring off for some time now with the union supporting efforts to have the company operate under the same labor rules that apply to its major competitor, UPS. Legislation is pending before Congress to effect such a change, which would give the Teamsters a golden opportunity to organize Fed-Ex drivers. Fred Smith has fought this legislation with tooth and nail and threatened to nullify huge Boeing contracts with the company if it is passed.

Mississippi organizer calls immigrant rights human rights

Here, closer to home, Lily Axelrod, North Mississippi organizer with the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, this week encouraged students and faculty at the University of Mississippi to become engaged in the effort to secure human rights for immigrant workers.

"We need drastic reform of our immigration system that will emphasize human rights," said Axelrod, herself a descendant of Polish immigrants. "Unfortunately none of the bills being tossed about Congress right now do that. If the government would just enforce existing (labor and human rights) laws, things would be better.

"We're working from the ground up here in Mississippi, using the same kind of tactics that civil rights groups used."

MIRA is now combating proposed legislation before the Mississippi Legislature that would mimic the draconian, anti-immigrant law recently adopted in Arizona, a law that allows law enforcement to stop and question anyone suspected of lacking immigrant documentation. Critics say the law is a blank check to law enforcement for the harassment of any immigrant, whether legal or not.

Hearings on the proposed legislation in Mississippi were held this week.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Pending strike by catfish workers in Mississippi defused by new contract negotiations

Months-long negotiations between Delta Pride Catfish Inc. and members of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 1529, have defused a potential strike by hundreds of workers at the company's plant in Indianola, Miss., and with plants operated by a partner firm in Isola and Belzona, Miss., all in the perennially poor Mississippi Delta.

"The strike vote woke them up," said Lonnie Sheppard, president of UFCW Local 1529, referring to nearly unanimous votes by plant workers in May to strike rather than accept a company-offered contract that would have created a seven-day work week, deleted daily overtime, doubled the probationary period for new hires to six months, reduced seniority benefits, given the company free reign in contracting out work, tripled worker contributions to company health insurance over a three-year period, and other measures considered intolerable by workers and their union representatives.

Union officials felt the provisions would have nullified the hard-fought gains made by workers as a result of their highly publicized strike at Delta Pride in 1990, the largest by black workers in Mississippi's history and one that prompted a national boycott of Delta Pride products.

"I was wanting to get this behind me," Sheppard said Thursday. "There's got to be common ground."

The newly negotiated contract, which workers will vote on next week, includes wage increases, daily overtime, and a "modified co-pay on insurance but not bad," Sheppard said. "All the 84 proposals they (previously) gave are off the table."

Had the dispute gone to a strike, he said, "it would have been a revitalization of 1990. It would have been exciting, but also disastrous for all sides."

Strikes, which Sheppard calls "a last resort", have been on the decline for years. However, the recession and frustration over employer intransigence and apparent desire to destroy unions have created a recent uptick of strike activity.

More than 300 workers at the Mott plant in upstate New York declared victory this month after a three-month strike at the applesauce plant. Members of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union/United Food and Commercial Workers Local 220 won a new contract that restored wage-and-benefit levels that an earlier contract had sought to cut or even eliminate.

As with Delta Pride, Mott, owned by the Texas-based Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, had tried to gut worker pay and benefits in its earlier contract offer, including calls for $3-an-hour wage cuts and the complete elimination of pensions for new workers. The Dr. Pepper Snapple Group's profits last year totaled $550 million, and its CEO, Larry Young, earned a nifty $6.5 million.

The union local said "No!" to the contract, and workers walked out, a first for workers at the Mott plant. Local stores offered the striking workers food and other assistance, and other unions, such as the Service Employees International Union, provided cash for the strike fund. As reported recently in Nation magazine, even Canadian politicians weighed in, pressuring CEO Young with concerns that scab workers weren't up to the job in insuring food-safety standards.

"Not a day went by without people stopping by to drop off a financial or food donation to the strike fund," RWDSU President Stuart Applebaum told the AFL-CIO Now blog. "The RWDSU members at Mott's have a message for working people everywhere: Stand up for what you believe in, and stay united."

Sheppard said a strike by workers at the catfish plants would have produced similar offers of help, just as it did in 1990.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

FLOC launches JPMorgan Chase divestment campaign, the latest volley in a growing Southern movement

(The photograph is of FLOC organizer Diego Reyes (Jr.), taken in his migrant worker father's trailer near Sanford, N.C., this summer)

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee, the Ohio-based migrant workers' rights organization that has been increasingly focused on the U.S. South in recent years, this month launched its JPMorgan Chase divestment campaign to force the Wall Street powerhouse to pressure the Reynolds American tobacco company to help farmworkers.

"We are asking people who care about farmworker justice to close their Chase accounts, cancel their Chase credit cards, and pledge not to bank with Chase until Reynolds agrees to work with FLOC to find a solution to these abuses," said FLOC community/union organizer Diego Reyes in a recent statement.

As Reyes told me during an interview in North Carolina this summer, "We need R.J. Reynolds to understand they have a lot of responsibility in the supply chain. Neither the workers nor the farmers are paid enough."

This is the latest volley in a three-year campaign to get Reynolds American to the bargaining table to establish a three-way working agreement with workers and growers. The divestment effort is similar to tactics that FLOC has used in the past in successful efforts to organize migrant workers and insist on social justice for them. FLOC won agreements with the Campbell, Vlasic, Heinz and Dean Foods companies in the 1980s and 1990s and a landmark victory with the North Carolina-based Mt. Olive Pickle Company in 2004, the largest labor agreement in the South.

JPMorgan Chase, a leader in the consortium of lenders that funnels close to $500 million in credit to the Reynolds American tobacco company.

With more than $8.5 billion in international sales as recently as 2006 and nearly $1 billion in profits during the recession, Reynolds American Inc. has not only survived but prospered since the multi-billion-dollar, multi-state tobacco settlements of the late 1990s, and it reigns today as the nation’s second largest tobacco company. By setting the terms with its contract growers, Reynolds American plays an important role in the lives of 30,000 tobacco pickers--most of whom are Latino migrants--and conditions in the fields, Reyes says.

Yet, Reynolds American officials have refused to meet with FLOC representatives. “The reason we have not agreed to meet with FLOC is simple: we can’t help them,” said a statement from the company’s Board of Directors and Leadership Team. “The workers FLOC wants to represent do not work for us. We cannot enter a bargaining agreement on the workers’ behalf—they are not our employees.”

Statistics from FLOC and the National Farm Worker Ministry estimate 24 percent of tobacco pickers suffer from nicotine poisoning each season. This along with exposure to harmful pesticides and long hours under the summer son have led to strokes and even deaths. Workers often live in crowded, unsanitary labor camps or in remote, substandard trailers.

FLOC was founded by its charismatic leader Baldemar Velasquez in 1967. Velasquez, an evangelical minister and winner of the 1990 MacArthur Fellows Award, told Southern Exposure magazine once that calls his and others’ efforts to improve the lot of migrant workers is part of a larger social movement that emphasizes community. “There is a new Latino labor force all over the South that will be the foundation of the next civil rights movement in the U.S.—a movement that is going to have a brown face.”

FLOC is one of several organizing groups that have experienced success in the U.S. South in recent years. Workers at the Smithfield hog plant in Tar Heel, N.C., scored a major victory against a formidable anti-union management in 2009 when they gained a contract with the United Food and Commercial Workers.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)in Florida is currently waging a campaign similar to FLOC's Reynolds American campaign in its effort to get the state's largest grocery company, Publix, to pay growers a penny more for each pound of tomatoes Publix buys. The goal is to improve the lot of the industry's largely migrant workforce. The CIW has won similar agreements with Whole Foods, Burger King, McDonald's, Subway, and Yum Brands (which owns Taco Bell).

These groups are building on the foundation of earlier efforts, such as those by the leaders of the Southern Faith, Labor and Community Alliance in their successful effort to win a fairer contract for workers with K-Mart in North Carolina in the mid-1990s.

The tactics are often similar to those of the corporate campaigns that won agreements with the Georgia Power Company and Duke Power Company (owner of the union-busting Eastover mining company in Harlan County, Ky.) decades ago. The Institute for Southern Studies, now based in Durham, N.C., played a prominent role in those campaigns.

"It's really an exciting time," says Alexandria Jones, a Winston-Salem, N.C.-based community organizer with the National Farm Workers Ministry, which has worked closely with FLOC in the Reynolds American campaign. "You have to go to the top to effect real economic change.

"There are a lot of amazing things going on," she told me in an interview in Winston-Salem this summer. "In a lot of ways, the labor movement is strong. You have these small groups out there, groups of strong people. In areas of the greatest need, these poeple are working hard to make changes."

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Workers' troubles are often disdained by the politicians who represent them

(Here is my Labor Day Weekend column, a final installment on the workers' compensation system in Mississippi, the last state in the nation to adopt workers' compensation laws.)

What is it about working people that prompts such disdain, even contempt, from politicians whose job it is to represent them? It’s a good question to ask on a labor day weekend.

GOP guru and philosopher Newt Gingrich had this to say about workers’ compensation back when he was speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives: “If you’re not at work, why are we paying you? It’s not called a vacation fund.”

Let’s fast-forward to this year’s debate over a similar issue--extending unemployment benefits to the millions of U.S. workers facing the wolf at the door as a result of losing their jobs in the Wall Street-and-Bush-caused recession. Tennessee Congressman Zach Wamp, one of a solid flank of Republicans who successfully fought off the extension at least four times, had the following to say:

“We have continued to extend … unemployment compensation so long that there’s disincentives for people to actually re-enter the workforce or go out and look for a job. And this is creating a culture of dependence which we do not need. We want people out there scraping and clawing and looking for work and not just sitting back waiting.”

If you’ve been injured as a result of your job, do you feel now what you need most is a “vacation fund”? If you are one of the many who’ve lost their jobs and are having a hard time finding another, do you feel like you’re part of the “culture of dependence”?

When I recently wrote about a study showing a profound pro-employer tilt in Mississippi’s Workers’ Compensation Commission’s decisions on workplace injuries, I received letters from across the state decrying what one writer called a “pitiful” system that penalizes workers who get injured. My column was “only the tip of the iceberg,” another writer said.

The column described a study ordered by Jackson, Miss., attorney Roger Doolittle that showed the commission’s three members rejected administrative law judge decisions favoring workers between 75 and 91 percent of the time. Commission Chairman Liles Williams admitted to me his own numbers show he votes for the employer 59 percent of the time.

Letter writers, requesting anonymity in order not to put at risk ongoing cases, told of injuries that reduced annual wages of $30,000-plus to “zero in one day,” of employers who simply refused to carry workers’ compensation insurance and were allowed to get away with it, of major corporations that hire outside agencies to administer their policies and thus be able to dismiss claims routinely and with impunity.

“I do not believe the public has a clue what’s going on,” one writer told me.

Attorneys who represent injured workers joined together this month to demand that the state Legislature stop dragging its feet on a proposed investigation of the commission and its rulings. State House Insurance Committee Chairman Walter Robinson of Bolton, Miss., who held a hearing on the issue a year ago, told me last month that any investigation remains “in limbo” because the opposing sides are so far apart.

Statistics show six million U.S. workers suffer on-the-job injuries every year, and more than 6,000 of them die. Tens of thousands suffer life-debilitating diseases and even death as a result of being exposed to toxic workplace chemicals or other materials.

The state of Mississippi has never felt compelled to track such statistics particularly well, but I keep a folder of clippings that tell the story, and it’s an old one. There was Phillip Cason Hosch, 29, who died in an explosion at the Mueller Copper Tube plant in Fulton, Miss., in 2009. Then there was construction worker Eleazar Casiano, 20, who was killed when a 10-foot sewer trench collapsed on top of him in Harrison County, Miss., in 2006. And let’s not forget sawmill worker Andrew Lee Byrd, 46, who got trapped in a wood chipper at V&B’s International Inc. in Port Gibson, Miss., way back in 2004. “He was a good fella,’ Byrd’s sister said. “He loved fishing.”

These are a few of the people behind the statistics. I’ll bet they weren’t looking for a “vacation fund” or a handout. They were just doing their jobs, and they paid a mighty high price for it.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Singapore: a city-state fueled and founded by migrant workers

(Here after a brief appearance earlier is my full-length article about Singapore and its migrant workers, relevant to us in the U.S. South, where the issue of migrant workers has raised speculation that yet another "New South" may be in the making. The photograph is of the Marina Bay Sands luxury hotel and casino, cited in the article and a symbol of Singapore's economic prowess. A shortened version of this article appeared in the September 2010 edition of the magazine In These Times. The longer version will soon appear in The Progressive Populist.)

SINGAPORE – W. Somerset Maugham, this city’s most famous expatriate writer, once said this about Southeast Asia’s workers: “These patient, industrious folk carry on the same yokes the same burdens as their ancestors carried so many generations back. The centuries have passed leaving no trace upon them.”

Yet, “in these countries of the East the most impressive, the most awe-inspiring monument of antiquity is neither temple, nor citadel, not great wall, but man. The peasant with his immemorial usages belongs to an age far more ancient than Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China, or the Pyramids of Egypt.”

Whether Maugham wrote those words in his favorite room at Singapore’s famous Raffles Hotel is uncertain, but what is certain is that they’re just as true today as they were in 1930.

Here in this crossroads of Asian and Western cultures, an economic powerhouse that is a model to the rest of southeast Asia, migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and China do the backbreaking work that helped Singapore earn ranking recently as the world’s most competitive economy, topping the United States and perennial Asian competitor, Hong Kong.

More than one-third of the workforce in this city of five million is foreign-born. However, many live in crowded, rat-infested dormitories with little relief from the sweltering tropical heat, reliving the conditions that faced the 19th century immigrants from China who largely built Singapore.

“Singapore may be seen by some as a model in ways that are not so good for workers,” says John Gee, president of the Singapore-based Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) organization. “It has made some reforms, shown a real commitment to countering the worst abuses of workers, but this still leaves a long way to go. We’d like to see a new relationship worked out, with a minimum wage, a weekly day off for domestic workers by law, overtime pay, limits on working hours.”

There’s no minimum wage in the 24th most expensive city in the world, and wages actually declined from a median monthly level of 1,389 Singapore dollars (approximately 1,000 U.S. dollars) in 1998 to 1,270 in 2008. Singaporeans have less purchasing power than the citizens of nearby Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, yet with an unemployment rate of 2.2 percent immigration has doubled over the past 10 years.
Singapore has emerged from its worst recession in history with 15.5 percent growth in the first quarter of this year. Manufacturing, 25 percent of the economy and led by the electronics and biomedical industries, was up 32.9 percent.

The city’s skyline rivals those of Chicago and Hong Kong, and it now includes the $7.8 billion, 55-story three towers of the Marina Bay Sands luxury hotel and casino with their connecting 2,500-acre sky terrace. Long one of the Pacific Rim’s economic “tigers,” the city pulses with energy from its financial district down to its busy ethnic enclaves with their Buddhist and Hindu temples, Moslem mosques, and vendor and shophouse-lined streets.

Yet this citadel of neo-liberalism reserves most of its rewards for those at the top end of the economy. The wealthy pay just half in taxes what their counterparts in the United States pay. Already-low corporate taxes were cut even lower during last year’s recession. Sales taxes, on the other hand, have risen from 4 percent in 2003 to the current 7 percent.

“The government keeps raising (sales) taxes, putting pressure on people, particularly small businessmen,” a convenience store owner in western Singapore complained to me. “You have to work very hard to make it. You have to get up early and go to bed late. People are scared to speak up. Even the rich are scared to say anything or they will lose what they have.”

Ang Peng Hwa, who heads the journalism program at Nanyang Technological University here, says the influx of immigrant workers has kept wages low while “the differential between the wealthy and the poor is growing.”

Workers have no real means to protest their conditions. Under the semi-authoritarian, half-century rule of the People’s Action Party and modern Singapore’s founder and current minister mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, any kind of protest is strictly limited. When the International Monetary Fund convened here in 2006, no outdoor protests were allowed.

Remember this is the city where American Michael Fay was famously caned for theft and vandalism in 1994. The Singapore Police are notoriously tough. No jaywalking, and no eating and drinking in the subways. Graffiti artists face up to three years in prison--plus the cane--if they get caught.

“Outdoor protests of the kind we see in the rest of the world are largely banned,” says Radha Basu, a senior correspondent with The Straights Times, Singapore’s major newspaper, and a frequent writer about migrant worker issues. “Impoverished migrant workers who are desperate to remain in Singapore to earn decent salaries don’t generally protest (although) there have been cases where groups have thronged (Ministry of Manpower) headquarters to complain about non-payment of salaries.”

Gee says workers should be able “to speak up for their own rights without fear of being sent home by their employers in order to shut them up and frighten others. That would make Singapore into a much better model to follow.”

Of course, many Singaporeans credit Lee Kuan Yew for raising the city from Third World to First World status. Lee, at 86, is officially retired, but he remains a formidable presence not only as minister mentor but also as the father of current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

“Lots of foreigners come here to work,” 55-year-old taxi driver Abo Rhaman B Abo Samad says. “Everybody has a job if you’re not too choosy. I was a security guard making eight hundred to nine hundred (Singapore) dollars salary. I had to upgrade myself. Now I make four thousand a month.”

As for Lee Kuan Yew, Abo says, “He’s a smart man, a swell leader, a great leader. We have nothing, no natural resources. This man took us out of nothing.” Lee’s critics “are stupid. They haven’t been to Myanmar (Burma), or to Thailand where they are fighting.”

Indeed, over the two weeks I recently spent here, the streets of Bangkok turned red with blood as Red Shirt protesters raged against the government. North and South Korea rattled sabers over the sinking of a South Korean warship. Worker suicides and bizarre attacks on children and women revealed the dark underside to China’s economic boom. During my visit, Indonesian police raided a terrorist hideout in Jakarta and found plans indicating that one of the subway stops I used everyday was a bombing target.

The growing unrest among workers in China, India, and other countries is watched closely. Nearly 2,000 workers for Honda in China’s Guangdong province, went on strike in mid-May, shutting down production at the company’s four plants there. They were protesting low wages and poor working conditions. Workers at the Hyundai plant in Chennai, India, shut down operations there, too, in June. A rash of suicides by workers at Foxconn Technology’s plants in Shenzhen, China, prompted the company to raise wages twice within a single week—first by 30 percent, and then by 70 percent. Foxconn makes electronic components for Dell, Apple and other companies, including Apple’s iPhone and iPad.

Singapore’s National Wages Council has proposed that workers’ wages in the city-nation also be increased, and analysts predict they will rise as much as 5 percent this year. The city has also taken some action to improve workers’ living conditions, moving close to 20,000 last year to better facilities and increasing inspections. Fines against slumlords officially can be as high as $5,000 plus six months in jail, but in reality fines were as little as 200 Singapore dollars in 2009.

“Employers are responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of their foreign workers, including the provision of acceptable accommodation,” says Joann Tan, a spokeswoman with Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM). “To speed up punitive action against errant employers, MOM is considering raising the amount of composition fines imposed on employers for housing their workers in unacceptable conditions.”

Despite the city’s long history of immigration, a backlash against migrant workers is growing. Native Singaporeans resent blue-collar immigrants for keeping wages low, and they resent white-collar immigrants for taking away jobs. “Some quite venomous anti-migrant worker statements may be heard in casual conversation,” Gee says. “It is easy politics all over the world: blame the foreigner. None of the opposition parties speak up for them, as they see that as a vote loser.”

Journalist Radha Basu agrees. “Foreign workers in Singapore are increasingly being blamed for all kinds of ills—from low wages to crowded transport system to soaring property taxes and even petty crime.”

Yet, Gee says, “the construction sector would grind to a halt without migrant workers; likewise, the shipyard sector. Probably cleaning services would be badly hit, too. Migrant workers provide a substantial minority of the workforce who drive buses, work in shops and restaurants. One in six households have domestic workers. … Despite lots of complaints by sectors of the public about the presence of foreign workers, most people know that if they were excluded tomorrow, it would be catastrophic for the national economy.”

In other words, the peasant worker still has “his immemorial usages,” and he still builds the temples and citadels, but he rarely gets to enjoy them.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Let's hope BP victims don't suffer the fate of those in Bhopal or those of the big U.S. fruit companies in Latin America

Big corporations in general don't have a particularly admirable record when it comes to social justice and human rights, and the U.S. government has been usually unwilling or reluctant at best to play any kind of role in improving that record.en

Many citizens who've suffered as a result of BP's giant oil spill in the Gulf Coast are still waiting on their claims. Complaints are already coming in, and BP's legion of lawyers are certain to look for any loopholes that their client can slip through. That's despite the federal government's demand that BP establish a $20 billion fund to repair the damages it has wrought.

A reminder of the long, sordid history of corporate malfeasance is ever present in faraway Bhopal, India, where a toxic leak from a Union Carbide pesticides plant killed nearly 4,000 on Dec. 3, 1984. Ultimately, more than 20,000 died from the disaster, and many more suffered life-debilitating injuries, including a second generation of birth defects and other health problems.

In fact, people across the entire nation of India are up in arms these days over the 26-year legal case that was only recently resolved with minimal sentences for seven defendants and minimal fines, too. Although victims are getting as little as $330 each for their suffering, both the U.S. and Indian governments appear ready to wash their hands of the matter and move on. Indian activist and writer N. Gunasekaran has written eloquently about the issue.

That quarter-century legal maze bring to mind the spirit-numbing Court of Chancery in Charles Dickens' Bleak House. Let's hope Gulf Coast victims don't suffer a similar fate.

Perhaps you recall the investigative project undertaken by the Gannett-owned Cincinnati Enquirer on Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International, Inc., (formerly the notorious United Fruit Company) in the 1990s. The newspaper and Gannett dropped the story after Chiquita threatened a lawsuit as a result of stolen voice-mail used in the investigation. Yes, dropped the story despite mountains of testimony regarding the practices of Chiquita in Central America. Bribes, behind-the-scenes deals to circumvent labor regulations, and environmental damage were all part of that dropped story.

Chiquita still faces legal disputes with victims as well as governments in the region, and with its own government due to its relationship with militia groups there. Guess who was one of Chiquita's top lawyers during these disputes. None other than U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

The Dole Food Company, formerly the Standard Fruit Company, isn't much better. It was the only major multinational company in the region to refuse to join an agreement in 1997 giving $41.5 million to some 26,000 workers. Five years later, a Nicaraguan tribunal ordered Dole and other companies to pay $489 million to workers suffering from exposure to Nemagon, a dangerous pesticide long banned in the United States. Nemagon is believed to have caused cancer, sterility, kidney and skin diseases, and birth deformities in workers and their families.

Ironically, the owner of the Dole Food Company, David Murdock, is the same corporate honcho who once owned the Cannon Mills textile company in Kannapolis, N.C., sold it, and left town with the hard-earned pension money of its employees. Eventually forced to pay back a paltry $1 million of the $39 million he took from the pension fund's excess assets, Murdock later returned and won over the town's skeptical, rightly bitter residents by promising a new research "biopolis" in Kannapolis that would "teach people about proper health, nutrition, and wellness" (Murdock's own words).

I was the first to publish the irony of Murdock's unhealthy Central American activities and his "proper health" activities in North Carolina. It appeared in my 2008 book, Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press.

Do you think research plans at Murdock's "biopolis" included studies of nemagon?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Following up on the workers' compensation issue

(Sorry it has taken me so long to get back to the blog--my day job as journalism professor at Ole Miss--super-intense now as a new semester gets underway--keeps getting in the way! In any case, here's a folo-up to my workers' compensation column)

My recent column on the pro-employer voting record of the Mississippi Workers' Compensation Commission has prompted a stir in the state. Mississippi claimants' attorneys are demanding a legislative investigation into the commission, one that was called for a year ago but which has been "in limbo" all that time, according to state House Insurance Committee Chairman Walter Robinson Jr., D-Bolton.

Robinson conceded to this writer that he is treading carefully on the issue, given the sharp divisions between those on the side of injured workers and those on the side of employers and insurance companies who'd just as soon do away with state-mandated workers' compensation! Isn't this the kind of thing we elect politicians to do? Take on those issues where the lines are sharply divided, and see on which side justice lies?

Over the past couple of weeks, I have received numerous letters from working people across the state of Mississippi who've been burned by the state's neanderthal attitude toward what is owed people who get injured on the job.

"An 80 percent overturn rate (the three-member commission's rate of overturning pro-employee court rulings) is a disgrace!" one writer wrote. "It is time to vote in a governor who appoints no more `pocket judges' owned by the greedy insurance companies."

"I was involved in an auto accident in 1979 and have an ongoing medical claim with the company," wrote another reader. "I know all too well the pitfalls of workers' comp in Mississippi. I do not believe the public has a clue what's going on."

"It is great to know that someone in Mississippi is paying attention to our pitiful workers' comp problems," said yet another. "In 2004, after suffering a work-related injury, I was told by my doctor I would never be able to return to work. I was devastated but thought `I have workers' comp. It will take care of me.' I was surprised to find that as soon as the doctor turned this notice into the workers' comp carrier, all payments stopped."

"Your article ... hit close to home," wrote a loving father. "My daughter's boyfriend works for a towing company and recently had an accident where he lodged a piece of steel in his eye. The boat captain carried him to the emergency room to have it removed. Last week, he received his paycheck (and) noticed it was very short. He called ... and was told that the towing company is not required to carry workman's comp insurance."

I'm going to follow this issue. Not only because it needs to be followed, but also because no one else is doing it. Where are the investigative media in this state? You know what? You could find the same compelling story in every single state in the South. I know my region, and I'll guarantee you it's a story not being covered anywhere in Dixie by mainstream media.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Injured workers in Mississippi have to fight for compensation

(Here is my latest entry, a column on workers' compensation and the pro-employer Workers' Compensation Commission in Mississippi. By the way, I'm back from my summer travels across the South--from Louisiana to Virginia and North Carolina to Florida and back to Mississippi--and will now be posting more frequently on this blog. You may have noticed the recent post on migrant workers in Singapore disappeared after a couple of days. The magazine In These Times plans to publish it in its September edition and prefers previously unpublished material. I'll have it back in LaborSouth soon after the edition comes out.)

OXFORD, Miss. – It has been 25 years since I wrote my first column about workers’ compensation in Mississippi, and as I sit down to write about it again I keep coming up with French expressions like “déjà vu” and “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (“the more things change, the more they stay the same”).

Just like in 1985, efforts to improve the lot of workers who are injured on the job are being thwarted by conservative politicians more familiar with corporate boardrooms than assembly lines. Just like in 1985, Mississippi ranks at or near the bottom of most indices in the way it treats injured workers and their families.

However, something has indeed changed: The lot of those workers is even worse than it was in 1985. In fact, according to Jackson plaintiffs’ attorney Roger K. Doolittle, it’s so bad that “this is unprecedented in Mississippi jurisprudence.”

How bad is it?

A year ago this month, the state House Insurance Committee held a hearing on findings in a study ordered by Doolittle that showed the three members of the state Workers’ Compensation Commission—Chairman Liles Williams, John Junkin, and Augustus Collins II (who recently stepped down)—siding decisively with the employer in most cases before them, particularly in reversals of administrative court decisions.

For example, 77 percent of the reversals of administrative judge rulings sought by Williams were in favor of the employer. For Junkin, 91 percent of the reversals were for the employer’s benefit. For Collins, 75 percent were for the employer.

Although the committee discussed the possibility of a state investigation into the commission and its actions, House Insurance Committee Chairman Walter Robinson of Bolton told me recently that such an investigation is “still in limbo.”

“You’ve got judges that collectively have the highest experience rate in the history of the (workers compensation) act, and they are being reversed at the rate of about 80 percent,” Doolittle said, referring to reversals of decisions favoring the employee. “What they want is for people like me to stop representing poor people.”

Jackson attorney John Jones agrees with Doolittle’s findings. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I’ve never seen a commission this conservative. … The irony is that by statute and by history, (workers compensation) is supposed to be tilted toward the worker. The worker is supposed to get the benefit of all doubt.”

Not in Mississippi, the last state in the nation to adopt a workers’ compensation law and perennially among the bottom feeders among states in what it pays injured workers or their families in cases of death. Statistics can be hard to find, but some 80 workers in Mississippi died in work-related injuries in 2008. Jones estimates approximately 13,000 workers were injured on the job every year, and many more may go unreported.

State Workers’ Compensation Commission Chairman Williams, whose first six-year term ends in December, said Doolittle’s numbers are misleading because they don’t include affirmations of court rulings that would present a more balanced picture. Even so, his own numbers show a pro-employer tilt: 59 percent of cases for the employer, 41 percent for the employee.

“I don’t think it is accurate to say we are biased,” said Williams, a veteran political figure in Mississippi and former vice president of the Stuart C. Irby Co. in Jackson. “We objectively make what we believe is the right decision based on the law.”

For Jackson attorneys Lance Stevens and Rogen Chhabra, the problems is the makeup of the commission itself, all gubernatorial appointees, none of whom had prior workers’ compensation experience. Due to the complexity of workers’ compensation law, “I would prefer that all three commissioners were lawyers,” Stevens said.

Jaribu Hill, executive director of the Greenville-based Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, said that “more of a fair and even playing field” is needed for workers in Mississippi, something the state Legislature and other political leaders need to recognize. “We go back every year to the same well to draw water. It’s frustrating and demoralizing. People are not willing to move an inch. We’re not even talking about a mile.”

Déjà vu.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Imperial Sugar pays fines, workers protest McConnell, and a labor professor fights for his job

A quick look at some of the labor and worker-related activity around the South gives us another indication that more and more people are standing up for their rights, and that a movement is underway despite the blanket of silence many in the media maintain.

The 2008 explosion at the Imperial Sugar Co. plant in Savannah that killed 14 people has finally resulted in a settlement. The company will pay $6 million in fines. The sum could have been much higher, and the company has not admitted to any liability. The federal fines were levied for multiple safety violations.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration found more than 100 violations at company plants in Georgia and Louisiana.

The company still faces

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's stand against extending jobless aid prompted a protest outside his office in Louisville, Ky., earlier this month. McConnell led a Republican assault on the proposed extension despite the fact that more than 1.7 million have lost their unemployment benefits since June 1.

The Kentucky AFL-CIO led the protest against the veteran Kentucky Republican and demanded that he stand up for working people who are simply trying to survive the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Senate Democrats this week were able to overcome the McConnell-led Republican filibuster and set the stage for renewed benefits for hard-pressed workers who've lost their jobs.

Labor historian Glenn Feldman at the University of Alabama in Birmingham says that pro-business forces at his university are trying to get rid of them, and he has filed two lawsuits to make sure they don't get away with it.

Feldman, who established a chapter of the American Association of University Professors at the university and ran a training center there as well, has filed a faculty grievance and a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The university no longer supports his training center.

Helping him in his cause are members of the United Steelworkers.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Migrant workers need respect as well as basic civil rights

(Here is a first report from my travels thus far this summer across the South. The travels started in Mamou, La., where the tensions from the BP oil spill are clearly evident among the oil rig workers who live in south Louisiana. They've even put an edge on the Saturday morning partyers at the famous Cajun haunt, Fred's Lounge. One local denizen barked this at my daughter: "Tell people where you came from that we don't need their help down here. We can handle this ourselves."

More recently, I traveled across the South's northern rim, to the mountainous point where Tennessee, Virgina, and North Carolina meet, and finally to the tobacco fields of central North Carolina, from which I filed the column below. Next I'll be heading to Florida, where I hope to speak with activists from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.)

In the photo above and to the left, you see Diego Reyes Jr. (on the left) and Diego Reyes Sr. (on the right) in the latter's trailer, described in the column below.

SANFORD, N.C. – Getting to the rusted-out trailer that Diego Reyes Sr. and five other Latino workers call home between June and November of each year was no simple task.

I grew up in North Carolina’s tobacco country, but I’d never been here. Taking a right turn off Barbecue Church Road, Reyes and his son Diego Reyes Jr. led me down a rutted, one-way dirt road, past corn fields and bean fields, and along the narrow levee of a lonely pond until we reached it, between a field and a thicket of woods.

They invited me inside, where several fans hummed noisily against the summer heat. Reyes Sr., 45, speaks no English, but he made sure his 21-year-old son learned it, and now Junior is a seminarian who works with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), devoting his life to improving the lot of migrant workers who toil long hours for minimal wages with little or no protection from exploitation, live in substandard housing, and face daily discrimination.

“It’s not only Sanford, but everywhere, all this propaganda against immigrants,” Reyes Jr. said. “People feel they’re stealing their jobs, that immigrants are bad people, drug mules, and criminals. It dehumanizes people.”

He pointed to the Arizona law that allows the police to stop immigrants on the street without provocation and demand their papers. Now politicians in Mississippi, despite its long and tawdry history of ill treatment of minorities, want the state to adopt such a law.

“It’s not the stealing of jobs” that brought migrants here, Reyes Jr. insists. “The people came here because of the policies the U.S. implemented in the world.”

Reyes Sr., whose dark, sunburned skin and muscular arms attest to his years in the fields. is living proof of the impact of those policies.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994 allowed the United States to flood Mexico with subsidized corn that at times sold for 30 percent below the cost of production. More than two million Mexican farmers lost their jobs as a result. Reyes Sr. was one of them, and he, like so many others, had to go north to find work to support his wife and 11 children.

Every year, as part of the H2A guest worker program, he comes to harvest tobacco, beans and corn.

Farm workers need “respect,” Reyes Sr. said. Veterans like himself work for years and help train younger workers but earn the same as someone who has just arrived, $7.25 an hour. That’s just one of many reasons why he and others in North Carolina and elsewhere have joined FLOC, which has a long record of success in winning contracts with major corporations and which is now battling the Winston-Salem-based R.J. Reynolds Tobacco company to get it to recognize the need to improve the lives of both farmers and workers.

“When the grower sees you are a union member, they respect you more,” Reyes Sr. said. “They give you breaks—some workers get no breaks during the day. You get better treatment, more respect.”

Respect for workers, particularly immigrants, can be a hard commodity to find. Witness the hundreds at Howard Industries in Laurel who were arrested in August 2008 and held in a Louisiana camp for weeks without formal charges or the ability to see an attorney.

The Rev. Carlton Eversley of Winston-Salem, an African-American activist who sees immigrant rights as a civil rights issue, said he’ll never forget the migrant labor camp in Wilson, N.C., that he and other religious leaders visited in late 2009. “It was mind-boggling, 125 guys in wooden barracks, seven guys in a room with no windows, no ventilation, no linen, no bed sheets, no closets, very hot, very unsanitary, swarms of gnats. … You felt like you were leaving the United States and going to some kind of Third World situation.”

I had similar thoughts in the Reyes’ trailer, but what struck me even more was the Southern hospitality I found. As I left, Reyes Sr. motioned me over to a table by the woods. Under it were a half-dozen or more watermelons and cantaloupes. “Take one,” he said, and I picked a watermelon out. “Take another,” he insisted, “and some cantaloupes, too.” I declined. “This is enough,” I said, thanking him as I waved goodbye.