Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Farm workers and newspaper workers stand up to the boss

Tobacco farm workers in North Carolina are protesting their poverty-level living conditions as well as health hazards in their work for the farms that have contracts with the R.J. Reynolds company in Winston-Salem, N.C. A major march through the western North Carolina city was planned for today.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and a coalition of groups called the Pilgrimage for Peace and Justice are helping the farm workers in their protest. FLOC’s legendary leader, Baldemar Velásquez, worked as a tobacco farm field laborer recently to see close up what kinds of conditions exist and had this to say in a related column:

“North Carolina leads the nation in heat stroke deaths. Many of the past cases happened in July and August when men are not only battling the heat, but also nicotine poisoning.”

Velásquez, a Texas-born son of migrant workers and an ordained minister, founded FLOC in Ohio in 1967. He and his organization have campaigned for migrant workers across the Midwest and South, winning historic labor agreements with Campbell Soup, Dean Foods, Vlasic, and Heinz along the way. A MacArthur Fellowship Award winner, he helped secure a major victory for Southern workers in 2004 by launching a national boycott against the Mt Olive Pickle Company in North Carolina for its treatment of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers.

FLOC, Mt. Olive, and the North Carolina Growers Association signed an agreement on Sept. 16, 2004, that led to formal recognition of the union as negotiator for wages and working conditions. The workers in that battle carried red flags bearing the words Hasta La Victoria (Until the Victory).

Here’s wishing the tobacco workers of North Carolina La Victoria as well.

Another action taking place along the Southern rim is the Newspaper Guild's decision to spend $500,000 in start-up funds for what might become a corporate campaign against the owner of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper, Lee Enterprises. The company, known as an outfit unfriendly to unions, demanded that employees at the newspaper swallow a "23% percent pay cut, the elimination of retiree health care benefits, concessions on seniority, a freezing of the pension plan and elimination of 401(k) contributions," according to The Guild Reporter.

Corporate campaigns have proven successful against anti-union firms such as the J.P. Stevens textile giant in North Carolina and coal mine-owning Duke Power in North Carolina in the 1970s. That last struggle was vividly depicted in the 1976 documentary by Barbara Kopple, Harlan County USA.

What is a corporate campaign? It's a multi-faceted effort that can include: exposing the network of corporate and community connections an anti-union company has; confronting major investors and shareholders--sometimes with delegations at shareholders' meetings or on Wall Street for face-to-face meetings--with the company's practices and tactics; and employing other means such as national boycotts to get media attention.

Lee Enterprises tried to eliminate a low-deductible health plan option for retired workers at the Post-Dispatch, but an arbitration award last month rejected that effort in favor of the retired workers.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Yours truly talking Toyota, Live on Montreal radio, and startling stats from a professor in Japan

The cover story on the Toyota recall and its connection to the so-called "Toyota Way" that I wrote for The Progressive Populist in its March 15 edition prompted Anne Lagace Dowson of the "Saturday Afternoon in Montreal" show on CJAD 800 AM News Talk Show in Montreal, Canada, this week to contact me regarding an interview. I was on the show today to describe my views on the recall, which you've read in this blog, and why Toyota has come to the U.S. South in the first place.

Toyota is a very popular car in Montreal, she said. "People drive them till they drop." While the company has long enjoyed a reputation for efficiency, I said, it's the way it treats its workers in its pursuit for profits that concerns me.

Meanwhile, I also heard this week from Scott North, a professor of sociology at Osaka University in Osaka, Japan, who has written about Toyota and other companies and the pressure they put on their workers. "Toyota is not the only Japanese firm to squeeze the maximum amount of work out of each worker each day," North wrote.

North sent me a copy of an article he and Charles Weathers wrote for the journal Pacific Affairs in its Winter 2009/10 edition. Weathers and North note how "small union and social movement support for plaintiffs in recent court cases has helped shape public discourse regarding excess work hours in Japan," particularly at Toyota and McDonald's in Japan. Labor and other activist groups made sure the public was aware of what was going on in these companies, generating public sympathy and leading to court decisions in favor of the plaintiffs.

However, instead of responding to this sympathy and these decisions with a more humane work life for their workers, Japanese employers simply turned to ways to "re-legitimize the very overtimes practices" that led to the court cases.

How do employers do this? Weathers and North report various means are available, including these: they can simply deny overtime work exists; change the employee's work category so that he can no longer claim overtime; and "purposefully hire too few regular workers and hire a larger proportion of non-regular workers."

Weathers and North offer some startling statistics: Between 1991 and 2005, 67 workers at Toyota were reported to have died from overwork. Another 247 reported work-related injuries or depression. During this same period of time, the workload on Toyota workers jumped significantly as domestic production increased from 3.15 million automobiles and trucks (41.9 per worker) to 3.86 million (58.7 per worker). The number of workers declined from 75,266 to 65,798.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Will the real Fascists please stand up?

(The photograph to the right is of Huey Long at a parish courthouse in Louisiana. It is from T. Harry Williams' collection and was included in his 1969 biography of Long.)

Huey P. "The Kingfish" Long, the boss of Louisiana politics until an assassin’s bullet ended his reign in 1935, once was alleged to have said this about politics and fascism in the United States: “When the United States gets fascism it will call it anti-fascism.”

Often referred to as a fascist would-be dictator himself by his detractors, Long may have been a prophet as well as political strongman. For all the fear of socialism and communism generated by the corporate state and its army of sycophants, the real danger to democracy in this country has always been fascism.

The right-wing noise-makers who turned last year’s health care town hall meetings into screaming matches loved to wave posters depicting President Obama with a Hitler mustache. Their successors, this year’s Tea-Party protesters, have gone so far as to evoke the Nazis’ Dachau concentration camp in describing the end result of health care reform.

Egging them on, of course, are the pundits and talking heads on Fox News and its imitators. Ann Coulter, the syndicated columnist who thinks history has falsely vilified 1950s anti-communist demagogue Joe McCarthy, has equated Obama’s book Dreams From My Father with Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Right-wing radio kingpin Rush Limbaugh has likened Obama supporters to “brown shirts” and the president’s healthcare logo to the Nazi swastika.

Huey Long would enjoy the irony. After all, Coulter, Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and the newest darling of the ultra-conservative camp, television and radio commentator Glenn Beck, are in some ways the modern-day equivalents of Father Charles Coughlin, the Depression-era “radio priest” who railed against Jews, international bankers, and Franklin D. Roosevelt to a national audience.

Unlike his successors, however, Coughlin included big corporations in his litany of evildoers, something Coulter, Limbaugh and company would never do. The loosely organized movement they espouse is financed in part by corporations. For example, Freedom Works, a powerful Tea Party ally led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, owes corporations for as much as one-fifth of its budget. Right-wing Christian groups get significant support from companies like Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods.

So what exactly is fascism? The Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini brand—enthusiastically endorsed by many U.S. industrialists before the war, by the way--was essentially a corporate state in which government worked hand-in-glove with industry to control the lives of citizens. Unions were abolished, workers became serfs, citizens’ rights were history, and the elite prospered. Fascism “is not a philosophy, it’s a spoils system,” said journalist George Seldes, who chronicled the movement.

To find out who today’s real fascists are, let’s turn to right-winger Glenn Beck, who recently called on listeners of his radio show to leave their churches if they hear words such as “social justice” and “economic justice”. Beck claims these are code words for communism and socialism. Yet, if anything was anathema to the fascists of 1930s Germany and Italy it was those same words.

Mississippi, where I live, and the U.S. South have always been fertile soil for those with fascistic impulses. Mississippi even had its Gestapo-like agencies—first, the anti-labor union “Missisisippi Bureau of Investigation” that my colleague, the longtime columnist Bill Minor, exposed to the world way back in 1947, and then its successor, the segregationist Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. Both were state-run spy agencies that cracked down on dissidents.

Klan membership is on the rise again in Mississippi, which now ranks just behind Iowa and even with Louisiana in Klan activity. Nationwide, the number of extremist anti-government groups has jumped 244 percent in the past year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. People are hurting in today’s economy, and many are eager to lash out against the nearest scapegoat, whether it’s the government, immigrants, or liberals. Corporations get a free ride from Tea Partyers, town hall screamers, and Glenn Beck.

In a 1944 interview with the New York Times, Vice President Henry Wallace offered this definition of U.S. fascism--and it’s still a pretty good one. “They claim to be superpatriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. They demand free enterprise but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest. Their final objective … using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously (is to) keep the common man in eternal subjugation.”

Monday, March 15, 2010

March labor round-up - Bus drivers strike at UofA, Labor dumps Lincoln of Arkansas

Here's a brief round-up of key labor activity in the South in March:

- A one-day strike by more than 30 bus drivers at the University of Alabama left the drivers locked out and watching university-hired scabs take over bus routes with university vans. Although the members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1208 agreed to go back to work while contract negotiations were underway, first-day talks stalled, and university officials decided to let scab drivers take over approximately one-third of the normal bus service and to abandon the rest.

The labor action and university response have led students to protest and distribute flyers in support of the bus drivers, and several scabs subsequently changed their minds about taking over the routes.

Union officials say the drivers, who work under contract with the First Transit company, make an average $9.50 an hour, much less than even the $11.75 per hour starting pay for First Transit drivers at the University of Texas. Those drivers can earn up to $17 an hour. The strike came after nine months at the bargaining table with an intransigent employer insisting that wages be frozen.

- The national AFL-CIO, increasingly frustrated with Democrats who vote and talk more like Republicans, has announced it will support Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in his bid to unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the May 18 Democratic primary. The endorsement puts as much as $4 million in union support in Halter's camp. Lincoln, as unreliable a vote on health care reform as she is on the Employee Free Choice Act, still has her friends at Wal-Mart, however, to give her consolation and cash.

The union rank-and-file's growing frustration with President Obama crystallized after he gave his strong endorsement to an excise tax--sometimes called the "Cadillac" tax--on comparatively high-cost, employer-sponsored health plans to help fund health care reform. These plans are the hard-won fruit of struggles by labor unions on behalf of their members, and to single them out for taxation was a slap in the face of organized labor, which strongly supported Obama's election.

A White House meeting with labor leaders resulted in a deal that exempted union-won plans, but it left a bitter taste in everyone's mouth and it exposed unions once again to the charge they only care about their own, not the working class as a whole.

Rank-and-file anger played a key role in Republican Scott Brown's capture of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts in January. Polls show less than half the union members in the state supported Brown's Democratic opponent. Obama got 60 percent of the union vote in 2008.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A life or death fight for workers' rights in a deeper South: Mexico

Three years after the revolution he helped launch in Mexico, Emiliano Zapata (seen to the left on horseback in a 1912 photo by Hugo Brehme) issued this warning in a letter to the military leader General Victoriano Huerta: "The Revolution has not triumphed. ... In your hands still is the will and the power to save it; but if, unfortunately, you do not, the shades of Cuauhtemoc, Hidalgo and Juarez and the heroes of all times will stir in their tombs to ask: What have you done with the blood of your brothers?"

Today, the ghosts of Zapata, Pancho Villa, and the revolutionaries and visionaries Zapata invoked in his letter are indeed stirring as the government of Felipe Calderon wages war against the workers whose struggles were the very cause of the revolution in the first place --ironically in the centennial of that revolution's beginning.

In a struggle far to the south of the U.S. South but very much worthy of attention on this side of the Rio Grande, the Mexican Mine and Metal Workers Union and the Mexican Electrical Workers Union are in a life or death fight as they dig in against efforts by the Calderon regime to destroy both. It's a battle being duly reported by the United Electrical Workers (UE) in the United States--a union that has long worked closely with its Mexican counterparts--but which is largely being ignored by a U.S. media much more focused on the drug wars along the border between the two countries.

The 13,000 mine workers at the Cananea copper mine have been on strike since 2007 in protest against the poor safety standards in the mines and the lack of concern of the mine owners, Grupo Mexico, standards that experts believe have been a factor in lung disease among the miners. In 2006, an explosion at Grupo Mexico's Pasta de Conchos mine killed 65 miners. The explosion came after the union complained of safety problems at the mine. Grupo Mexico has yet to compensate the families, the UE reports.

State agents shot down three unarmed strikers in 2008, and Grupo Mexico has asked that the army step in again to bring the strike to an end. Union leaders are convinced that the Calderon government is indeed preparing a major intervention, and that a bloody battle is bound to be the result. Ironically, the same mine at Cananea was the site of a 1905 strike, and the subsequent killing of 27 miners there became a rallying cry in the 1910 revolution.

That revolution, by the way, was fought to free the people of Mexico from a feudal society controlled by the hacendado who lived lavishly in the cities but owned giant estates in the countryside where the majority of Mexicans worked as sharecropping peasants. These haciendas were much like the plantations of the ante-bellum (and post-bellum) U.S. South.

The Mexican government's other anti-union war has been against the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME), and it reached a low point several months ago when Calderon "sent the police to occupy the electrical facilities in central Mexico, liquidated the state-owned Light and Power Company, and terminated 44,000 workers," the UE and the Mexico-based Authentic Labor Front said in their February report, Mexican Labor News and Analysis. Calderon moved to destroy the militant SME so he could replace it with the more government-friendly union, the Sole Union of Electrical Workers, and thus continue with his push toward his ultimate goal: the utility's privatization.

These actions have led to calls for a general strike--possibly as early as March 16--and to demonstrations by thousands of teachers, farmers from the state of Chiapas, and other workers. You may not have read about these events before now because this is not the kind of news you typically find in the mainstream U.S. media. The alternative press is doing its best to fill the gap, and that includes Labor South.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A rendition of "We're Gonna Roll the Union On" fires up the troops

Brenda R. Scott, veteran activist and president of the Mississippi state employees union, got the state AFL-CIO's four-day annual legislative conference off to a rousing start Monday with a fiery rendition of the old labor song, We're Gonna Roll the Union On!

"I'm tired of the haves taking advantage of the have-nots!" Scott told the crowd at the Edison-Walthall hotel in downtown Jackson after the song. "We need to stand up and fight back!"

Scott, nearly as good a singer as she is a grassroots organizer, said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is trying to do away with job protection for veteran state workers by eliminating a clause requiring that "just cause" be proven before a firing. The governor is also trying to raise the cost of state employees' health premiums by 15 percent over each of the next four years.

"When you don't say anything, you are telling Haley Barbour to go ahead," she said. "My state workers are afraid."

A new militancy is needed, she said. Union leaders across the state need to stand up for their members and for all working people.

Scott said she hopes Barbour, frequently touted as a possible future Republican presidential candidate, does run for president so the rest of the nation sees what he's doing in Mississippi. Barbour, in Oxford today for a meeting with the press, declined to dismiss the possibility of a future run.

Scott, herself an unsuccessful candidate for Jackson mayor last year, organized 3,000 members for her union, CWA (Communications Workers of America) Local 3570. "Brenda has done this is a state where there are no collective bargaining laws for public workers and no legal right to have dues check-off for public workers," CWA District 3 Vice President Beverly Hicks said. "She has been successful over the years against all odds."

Another speaker urging unity and activism at Monday's opening day ceremonies for the conference was John W. Graves, president of IBEW Local 2164 and also of the Mississippi chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

"We all need to pull together," Graves said. "We all have the same common goal--the ACLU, the AFL, the APR. Think of it as a chain. The chain is no stronger than its weakest link. We've been fighting for a long time, but we don't have victory yet."

Yours truly also spoke at the conference, and I'll do something very unusual for me: quote myself! "You are at the forefront of a major movement for social justice," I told the crowd. "The enemy is formidable, just like it was in the 1920s, just before labor grew to its greatest strength.

"President Obama needs to realize--and I think he does--there's not going to be bipartisanship in Congress. Republicans only want his defeat and failure. So he needs to push ahead, use the rules of Congress to ram health care reform through on a simple majority, and punish those Democrats who aren't on board. He's the president. He has the power to do it. We need what the Germans call Realpolitik. We need militancy. And after he does it on health care, he needs to do the same on EFCA (the Employee Free Choice Act)."

The real work is done after all the speeches, however. Let's hope Brenda Scott's fighting spirit proves contagious.