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 bĂȘte 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.