Thursday, April 29, 2010

Memphis Newspaper Guild faces possible lose-lose situation

Members of the Memphis Newspaper Guild are facing a hard choice with their proposed contract with the the city's leading newspaper, the Commercial Appeal. The contract offers them their first pay raises in seven years but also gives the paper the green light to outsource jobs and lay off workers. The pay raises would amount to 4&, 3&, and 2& percent over the next three years.

Their other choice is to reject the contract altogether, which would essentially be a declaration of war against the paper and its owner, Scripps Howard, a David-and-Goliath struggle if there ever was one. Refusal to sign could embolden the paper to simply proceed with widespread outsourcing and layoffs.

Like most mainstream newspapers, the Commercial Appeal is only a shell of its former self. Sure, it mounts the occasional investigation of former Mayor Willie Herenton's controversial financial dealings--chain-owned newspapers still like to win prizes--but this city of 700,000 with its musical legacy, Byzantine politics, and high crime and poverty rates doesn't get the day-to-day coverage it deserves. What city does anymore?

In the long struggle over a contract, management hired one of the South's leading union-busting attorneys, Nashville-based Michael Zinser, to fight their fight. Zinser is a member of that special club of attorneys who make their living doing the will of management at the expense of workers.

The Guild has talked about a high-pressure ad campaign aimed at the newspaper's management, but is such a campaign too late? A vote on the contract is expected next weekend.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Coalition of Immokalee Workers--On the march for the rights of immigrant workers

Like the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marchers back in 1965, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is on the march for the civil rights of immigrant workers in Florida and elsewhere.

A three-day, 23-mile march from Tampa to Lakeland took place April 16-18 to put pressure on the Publix supermarket chain to stand up for the workers who pick the tomatoes sold in the aisles of its stores.

Theirs was an encouraging labor action when you consider the anti-immigrant law that recently passed in Arizona, the latest act of politicized xenophobia that we've been seeing in this nation.

The CIW wants Publix to pay more for its tomatoes as a demonstration of its commitment to fair treatment of field workers. Thus far, Lakeland-based Publix has refused to negotiate with tomato growers, saying that’s not its role.

CIW is also asking Publix to stop doing business with growers who mistreat workers. One of the central missions of the 4,000-member immigrant organization is to bring an end to the slave-like conditions that many workers have been forced to endure across the South and nation. Two Florida tomato farms that did business with Publix were convicted on charges of slavery two years ago, according to the CIW.

The CIW and its charismatic leader Lucas Benitez, winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Human Rights Award in 2003, have been pushing the U.S. Department of Justice for years to prosecute agriculture slave rings in the South.

The CIW has already won agreements from Whole Foods, Subway, and McDonald’s to pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes. It has also made agreements with Burger King and the food service company Aramark.

More than 500 people participated in a December protest against Publix.

In 1965, the three Selma-to-Montgomery marches became galvanizing events in the civil rights movement due in part to the intense media coverage that once again showed the nation the need for true civil rights in the South that applies to all people, whether white or black.

The Tampa-to-Lakeland march did get media attention from Florida newspapers and other news organizations. In the past, most of the coverage of the CIW and its efforts has come from publications such as the New York Times, Mother Jones, and National Geographic.

Of course, the CIW marchers didn't encounter the violence that the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers did. However, they shared the same goal: human justice.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Fair Pay for Air Play: The Performance Rights Act

(Here's a piece by Chris Marston, whose contributions to this blog you're going to see more often. A native of Mobile, Ala., who now lives in Bay Minette, Ala., Marston is a veteran labor organizer and writer who has been in the movement since joining Local 18 of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America in 1972. After serving as a shop steward and editor of the labor weekly Gulf Coast News Digest, Marston became an organizer with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in Alabama and Louisiana. Active in the South as an organizer and writer over the next decade, he joined the national staff of the AFL-CIO in 1989, worked with Solidarnosc in Poland, wrote the widely used AFL-CIO unemployment survival manual, When the Paycheck Stops, and helped bring the Community Services liaison network into the movement, training hundreds of staff.

In the piece below, Marston reports from Las Vegas about a subject important to working musicians in studios from Memphis to Nashville to Muscle Shoals to New Orleans.


LAS VEGAS, Nev. - “Many of the most popular and famous recorded songs of the last four decades were performed by hired studio musicians, often for as little as $50 for the entire recording session. Now many of these musicians who made the music of our lives are old and ill, most with no pension or health insurance. Big Radio made billions off of the music they created without sharing a dime in royalties. That’s the injustice the Performance Rights Act (PRA) seeks to end.”

Mary Wilson of the Supremes, looking very much like she did when she wailed behind Diana Ross during the golden years of the all-time Motown girl group, had this and a lot more to say to the media in Las Vegas on Tuesday, April 13. Mary joined the star and musical director of the biggest musical in Vegas, “Jersey Boys”, and representatives of the American Federation of Musicians and musicFirst, the coalition of musicians, performers and labor organizations, at a midday press conference to promote the PRA.

Statements of support from entertainer Jerry Lewis and from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka were presented to the media in addition to a review of the issue and the resolution proposed by the Act, drafted by Michigan Congressman John Conyers. The Obama administration actively supports the Performance Rights Act, which is in committee in both houses of Congress.

Not surprisingly, the powerful National Association of Broadcasters and Clear Channel, owner of most the nation’s larger radio stations, lead the opposition. The NAB hosted their annual convention at the vast Las Vegas Convention Center last week. The thousands of American and foreign delegates were treated to lengthy diatribes against the PRA in all the public policy plenary and workshop presentations. musicFirst and the Musicians mounted a colorful and musical informational picket at the convention center’s main entrance on the Monday before the Tuesday press conference. A five-piece union band played Dixieland tunes for the 50 dancing pickets, to the delight of passing motorists, while a large billboard truck depicting “Piggie Radio” as a large hog circled the adjacent streets. Picket signs and handbills distributed by union members from the Laborers, the Screen Actors Guild, CWA, Operating Engineers and Musicians called for “Fair Pay for Air Play” to “Stop Big Radio’s Rip Off”.

Clear Channel stations are pounding the PRA on their stations across the country, distorting its provisions and claiming to defend small stations.

Put simply the PRA would require big terrestrial radio broadcasters to negotiate with musicFirst for payment of an annual amount of fair royalties to musicians. Under current law, only the songwriter or copywriter receives royalties. Christian radio would be exempt and college and small local stations would pay only a nominal annual fee. Satellite, digital and TV stations already compensate musicians for broadcast of their work. European radio has been paying similar royalties over the 40 years Big Radio has been exempted in America. “Being fairly compensated for one’s work is a fundamental human right,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, in Las Vegas for a major immigrant rally on Saturday, April 10

Very few Americans are aware that musicians aren’t fairly compensated for broadcast of their recorded work, which so enriches the lives of us all. Learn more and sign a petition to Congress to pass the Performance Rights Act at

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Big victory for teachers' union in Florida, and a labor party in N.C.

Who says unions are finished? Don't let the mainstream media fool you into thinking every Southerner is a Tea Partyer and that unions are the thing of the past. Let's look at the evidence:

The Florida teachers' union won a huge victory today when Gov. Charlie Crist revealed that he plans to veto a Republican-backed bill that was nothing more than a union-busting effort by the Chambers of Commerce types as well as former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Pressured by 120,000 e-mailed letters and other protest letters and messages, Crist, a Republican, said the bill had too many flaws to allow to become law. No joke!

Under the bill, Florida public school teachers would lose tenure, go on an initial five-year probation status, and then be limited to one-year contracts. The pay for half of them would depend on student test scores. I guess Republicans' constant fretting about inflation doesn't extend to grade inflation.

The naked truth about the bill is that Florida Republicans want to destroy one of the last bastions of worker solidarity in the state--the teachers' union.

Make no mistake, however. Crist is in big trouble with his party's right-wing and the Tea Party set. He was already in trouble, but now he's in the bull's eye. He actually supported the bill, but teachers and other believers in good education as well as teachers' rights showed that worker solidarity still means something in this country.

Now let's shift to North Carolina.

The South's most "progressive" (according to pundits who keep thinking Terry Sanford rather than Jesse Helms) yet most anti-union state (usually claiming the lowest union membership rate--somewhere around 3 percent) is now the staging ground for a new third party, North Carolina First. The major backer for the party is the Service Employees International Union, SEIU, the largest and most rapidly growing union in the country.

Sick and tired of conservative Southern Democrats who vote Republican yet enjoy the benefits of their party's control of the White House and both houses of Congress, the SEIU targeted North Carolina as a good testing ground for something that could spread to other states. Labor dissatisfaction with Blue Dogs, Boll Weevils, and Wolves in Sheep's Clothing Democrats was seen recently in the decision of major unions to support the primary opponent of U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.

It's long overdue, and shows a new willingness by organized labor to challenge the Democratic Party, which, let's face it, too often feeds at the same corporate trough as Republicans. There's a genuine fear that President Obama is being increasingly compromised by feeding at that same trough.

The SEIU is much in the news these days with SEIU President Andy Stern's announcement that he is stepping down from leadership of the 1.9 million-member union. Stern, a lightning rod for controversy and criticism that he is too friendly with the very corporate types who want to destroy unions, is a favorite of the White House, having been the most visible labor guy in the Obama circle since the president's election.

Speculation about his successor--Who will it be?--is the talk of the labor world this week.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Country music, a working stiff's art

Here's a feature column on country music--you could also call (the best of) it working class music--from a recent trip to Nashville. Hope you enjoy it.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Street musician Mike Slusser knows his name may never appear on the marquee at the Grand Ole Opry. He even wrote a song about it—“For me, that aisle (to the Ryman Auditorium) stage is already ten years wide.”

Still, this 46-year-old, mandolin-playing, self-described “Nashville cat” is doing his part preserving the legacy of the “giants who walked” Broadway, Music City’s famous Honky Tonk thoroughfare where dreams have been made and destroyed ever since Uncle Dave Macon first sang at the WSM Barn Dance in 1925.

“There are two kinds of people who come to Nashville,” says the Stetson-wearing Pennsylvania native, a wonderful stylist who has been playing on Broadway since 1998. “Those who want to be rich, and those who have a passion for the music. I play here six hours a day, six days a week … more than 13,000 hours and a million sweet notes … . It’s a living if you’re willing to scrap.”

I listen as he plays one of his own tunes, The Ballad of “Mandolin” Mike, a dark, self-reflective tale about a dreamer and his weather-worn instrument struggling in a town where “it’s more important what you look like than what you are,” where “if you ain’t young and pretty … it’s going to get rough.”

Country music, one of the South’s great gifts to the world, is like the blues. It’s a music that came to the city out of rural backwaters and lonely crossroads, humble as the pricetag on Minnie Pearl’s straw hat, maudlin as Roy Acuff’s tears on stage, dark like that “high, lonesome sound” that Bill Monroe carried down from the Kentucky hills.

When I came home from my recent weekend trip to Nashville, I crossed the Mississippi state line and saw the sign that says: “Welcome to Mississippi: Birthplace of America’s Music”. It’s referring to the blues, of course, but also country music. In fact, the state Development Authority and others are planning a 30-marker “Mississippi Country Music Trail” that, like its blues counterpart, will celebrate the state’s many contributions.

They’re impressive. On Nashville’s Broadway, I counted at least three manikins and statues of Elvis Presley. Remember: when Elvis started his rock ‘n’ roll revolution in 1954 with That’s All Right, Mama, the flip side of that hit was his rendition of Bill Monroe’s Blue Moon of Kentucky.

Let me talk a bit about Mississippi, where this blog is based. The state gave country music its first star, Jimmie Rodgers, the “Singing Brakeman” from Meridian. Both Presley and Rodgers will get their markers. So will other stars like Charley Pride, Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty, Jerry Clower, and Marty Stuart.

Mississippi, like the rest of the South, has always been fertile soil for good music. Its poverty and isolation provided a natural breeding ground, not only for dreams of a better life but also for an art to express the feelings and emotions of that experience. Just as uneducated sharecroppers like Son House and Robert Johnson wrestled with their demons and created art as a result, so did poor whites like Rodgers, who at four lost his mother to tuberculosis and who would himself die of the disease at 35 in 1933.

Among the rewards of a long career in journalism are the opportunities to meet and interview some of the people who’ve enriched the nation’s cultural heritage. I’ll never forget interviewing Rodgers’ sister-in-law, fellow Meridian native Elsie McWilliams, in 1986. She wrote many of Rodgers’ best-known hits, such as Daddy and Home, The Sailor’s Plea, and My Old Pal. “Jimmie asked me to write some songs for him, and I ended up writing 40,” she told me. “I never asked a penny for them and told him not to put my name down on any of them.”

But, she said, “I made a few pennies from them. I’ve been living on the coattails of Jimmie for a long time.”

I also had the chance to interview Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, in 1980. A dignified, larger-than-life man, Monroe was very proud of bluegrass. “It is the purest music in the world. There’s no sex, no filth in it, and it’s got a good dancin’ time, a driving time.”

The silver-haired, blue-suited gentleman met me between sets at a bluegrass festival in North Carolina. We sat in the bus he called the “Bluegrass Special”. I sensed that part of his pride was a reaction to all the names and sneers that have been directed at bluegrass and country music over the years. He was an artist committed to his art, much like Mike Slusser in Nashville. It’s a connection that has nothing to do with money or the limelight, something only an artist would understand.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

What would Mother Jones say about the Upper Big Branch explosion?

Mary "Mother" Jones, the legendary labor organizer and "Miners' Angel" who lived to be a hundred and was once tagged "the most dangerous woman in America," spent many years fighting on the front lines for coal miners in West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, and in the West. It was in what she called "medieval West Virginia" where she found herself facing some of the toughest obstacles to workers' rights.

Her work on behalf of West Virginia miners during a violent strike in 1912 and 1913 led to a conviction for conspiring to commit murder and a twenty-year prison sentence. She was 83 years old at the time. Later released at the order of the governor, she went right back to helping miners. "I would fight God Almighty himself if he didn't play square with me," she said.

What would Mother Jones say today as the nation reels from the deaths of 25 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. The miners were killed after an explosion at the mine, which is owned by Massey Energy. Big, blustery Don Blankenship, Massey Energy's CEO known for his financial largess to favored politicians and judges, has the audacity to defend his company and his mine despite a disgusting record of safety violations too long tolerated by benign federal regulators.

The explosion, the latest of many tragedies in the nation's under-regulated coal mines, reminds us of the de-unionization of coal-mining companies over the years. Despite a storied history that includes the bloody battles at Matewan, West Virgnia, in 1921 and in Evarts, Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1931, the United Mine Workers union is struggling in what was once an Appalachian stronghold.

Not a single coal mining company in Harlan County, that "dark and bloody ground" that inspired Florence Reese's great labor anthem "Which Side Are You On?", is organized today. That's despite the great victory at the Brookside mine in the mid-1970s that was the subject of Barbara Kopple's award-winning documentary Harlan County USA.

We all remember the death of 12 miners in West Virginia's Sago mine in 2006, just one incident in a long tolling of the bell for unprotected miners.

Coal miners' best hope for good, save jobs and a decent life still lies with organized labor. They've been down before--in the 1920s, for example--and they rose up from the valley and became strong. The nation's president says he supports unions and believes the U.S. desperately needs them. Democrats in Congress have long looked to unions for support in their re-election bids. It's time they start putting action behind their words. Lives depend on it.