Thursday, December 22, 2011

Occupiers in 2012: Continuing the fight for progress "from the bottom up"

Among the stacks of books, newspapers, and magazines that crowd my office is a collection of century-old editions of Populist Party leader Tom Watson’s The Jeffersonian. What caught my eye as I recently browsed through them were artist Robert Carter’s drawings on pages 4 and 5 of the Jan. 9, 1908, edition.

On page 4 was a gathering of well-dressed, big city New Year’s Eve revelers—top hats, glowing gowns, expensive furs, happy smiles—under the caption “The Wine Line” and with this description: “While Caruso sang the `Chime Song’ at the Plaza, and the great ones of society clinked glasses … something very different was going on at the back door.”

The “back door” scene was on page 5 under the caption “The Bread Line”. Here a bedraggled gathering of women, children, and old men, faces down-turned, their clothes ragged, waited patiently. “At nearly all the restaurants the unfortunate straggled and shivered waiting for 1 o’clock, when the passing out of the free bread and coffee would begin,” read the description.

Watson’s Atlanta-based weekly was one long critique of the excesses of “the captains of finance on Wall Street” and the equivalent of what we’d call today the “1 percent”. At its heart, before it disintegrated into racism and bogus monetary issues, the Populist movement was a stirring precursor to the Occupy Wall Street movement and the strongest challenge in the nation’s history to our Wall Street-beholden two-party system.

As the year 2012 looms, the protest that began in September against the “captains of finance” who nearly destroyed the nation’s economy in 2008 promises to continue to shape the political dialogue in a crucial election year and steal some of the thunder from the corporate-sponsored Tea Party movement.

“I’m here because the political process is completely broken,” Occupy Memphis protester William Newton told me one chilly morning recently. “The banks own both parties. We have a small presence here, but we are the nucleus of the next step.”

(William Newton)

An attorney with a background in mortgage banking and specialty in corporate mergers, Newton, 59, is a former “hawk” and “Goldwater supporter” who has seen the modern-day corporate world from the inside and didn’t like what he saw. “Our country has been high-jacked. I’m here because I couldn’t live with myself otherwise.”

The validity of Occupier complaints has been confirmed in several recent studies.

According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the top 1 percent of the population (in wealth) has seen its income grow 275 percent since Ronald Reagan first took office. As for the rest of us, our income grew less than 40 percent. But the wealthy do give. For example, they contribute $7 to every $1 small donors give to political campaigns, a 2010 study by Common Cause showed.

No wonder two-thirds of the nation believe wealth should be re-distributed to make it more fair, support higher income taxes on the wealthy, and oppose tax cuts for corporations, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll in October. Seven in 10 say Republicans in Congress primarily support the rich.

Yet you won’t get much of a feel for the growing class resentment in this nation from Fox News. It took what writer David Love called the “Bull Connor” tactics of the police in New York, Oakland, and other cities against Occupy protesters even to get mainstream media’s attention to the movement.

With his fiery, populist-sounding speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, in early December, President Obama indicated that he is now ready to take on the true powers-that-be in this nation and fight tooth-and-nail for the little guy. However, the continuing presence of Wall Street insiders like Treasury Secretary Timothy Geitner in the president’s inner circle, the legacy of his many concessions to congressional Republicans, and his projected $1 billion campaign kitty can’t help but breed a certain amount of skepticism.

Even progressive politicians spend “most of (their) time on the phone asking rich guys for money,” musician, Rage Against the Machine member, and activist Tom Morello told The Progressive magazine recently. “I’ve never been a fan of waiting around for some President or Supreme Court panel to wave a magic wand and set things right.”

Progress comes from the bottom up, Morello said, not the top down. William Newton knows this. That’s why he’s “occupying” Memphis and preparing for “the next step.”

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Workers around the world are getting "behind the mule" and plowing for social justice

(To the left is Tom Waits during an interview in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2007. Photo from Theplatypus)

I’m going through a real Tom Waits phase right now. A belated discovery for me, Waits is one of our geniuses. The great storyteller, musician, performer, actor, and man of the times, who has waged holy war against major corporations that tried to appropriate his music for their advertisements, has some good advice for the social movement taking shape in this country and around the world: “You gotta get behind the mule in the morning and plow.”

(Check out Tom Waits' amazing 2008 performance of "Get Behind the Mule" in Atlanta on YouTube. Tried to link it but no luck)

And that’s exactly what a lot of folks are doing, plowing for their rights, whether it’s “Occupy” sites around the country or in Southern towns like Greenville, N.C., home of my alma mater, East Carolina University. An old tobacco town in North Carolina’s poorest region, Greenville is where the lowest of the low-paid, sanitation workers, have taken a stand in their fight for better pay and conditions.

“Just because we pick up garbage doesn’t mean we have to be treated like it,” says nine-year-veteran sanitation worker Harold Barnes in a recent online letter from the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). “We are all grown men, not children, and this is the day we decided we are going to stand up for what we actually believe in.”

Barnes and other sanitation workers began an occupation of their workplace on November 9 that forced the city to sit down and bargain with them. The work action was inspired by training conducted by UE’s Research & Education Fund (UEREF) and its Southern Workers International Justice Campaign (SWIJC).

A key issue for SWIJC and UE is the collective bargaining rights denied public employees in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

“The ban on collective bargaining in the public sector has led to the unmistakable prevalence of widespread race and sex discrimination in the workplace … as well as racial and sexual harassment,” proclaimed the International Labor Organization of the United Nations in 2007.

In Greenville, according to the UE letter, SWIJC “helped the workers connect with community allies and city council members, organize themselves democratically and talk with the media. Their actions forced city management to meet and negotiate over their issues and ensured that no one suffered retaliation despite the fact that strikes by public employees are illegal in North Carolina.”

Despite what writer David A. Love recently called “Bull Connor” tactics by police in various cities to quell the “Occupy” protests, the movement is growing and taking on a deeper resonance. Labor writer David Bacon says the movement is embracing the “planton tradition” of protest in places like Mexico, El Salvador and the Philippines, where workers and strikers are “living at the gates of the factory or enterprise where they work.”

Bacon says “each planton is a visible piece of a movement or organization—a much larger base” that includes “unions, students, farmers, indigenous organizations and other social movements.”

UE is a legendary militant union with a proud tradition, having survived ostracism during the McCarthy era and gone on to be at the forefront today in the building of a truly international labor movement. This year marks the 75th anniversary of UE’s soldiering for social justice.

Truly an international movement is underway. Witness the recent walkout by 7,000 workers at the Yucheng factory near Dongguan in southeastern China. They are protesting the Taiwanese owners’ recent dismissal of 18 section managers, new rules that eliminated worker bonuses, and plans for a possible relocation.

On Nov. 23, 1,000 workers at a Guangdong factory that makes keyboards for Apple and IBM went on strike to protest overtime policies that required workers to work as late as 2 a.m. in addition to their regular shifts. According to China Labor Watch, workers sometimes put in as many as 120 hours overtime a month at the factory. Even so, the factory has managed to avoid paying legally required double (overtime) wages by forbidding the workers to work on Saturdays.

The Economist reported in its Oct. 29 edition that rural migrant workers within China are growing increasingly angry at companies that withhold pay when the companies get short of cash. Even though the government has passed a law forbidding financially viable companies from doing so, “this has done little to protect the more than 150 million rural migrants who perform most of the country’s manual labor,” the magazine reported.

Workers and activists around the world are indeed getting “behind the mule” and plowing hard for their rights these days. Organizations like the UE should be praised for helping these workers see that theirs is a global fight that needs global solidarity.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Occupy Memphis: From lawyers to the homeless, a protest against the plutocracy

(To the right is the logo for the Occupy Wall Street movement that was created by Kalle Lasn and others. Lasn is a native of Estonia and resident of Canada who edits the magazine Adbusters.)

MEMPHIS - William Newton is a 59-year-old Memphis lawyer whose specialty is mortgage banking, corporate mergers and loan recovery. In the 1960s, he was a right-wing Barry Goldwater supporter and hawk on the Vietnam War who flunked his physical for the military.

Now he's a self-proclaimed "anarchist"--a hot-button term but one that he defines as calling for "no rulers," not "no rules." Newton believes "the political process is completely broken" and "the banks own both parties."

(William Newton)

That's why he is camping out across from City Hall in downtown Memphis as part of the Occupy Memphis protest. Approximately 40 protesters spend every night here. The group swells to as many as 80 on the weekends. When a march is called, their numbers top 120.

"I'm here because I couldn't (otherwise) live with myself," he said on the morning after Thanksgiving day, standing in front of a small village of blue, green and white Occupy Memphis tents near the trolley line on north Main Street.

He pointed to City Hall across the street. "This is a police state we live in. They would treat us like Oakland if they could get away with it."

He referred to the hardline crackdown by police on "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrators in Oakland, Calif., and other cities.

Newton is one of the comparatively small-but-impressive army of "Occupy" protesters who are proving that the spirit of protest is alive and well in the South as well as in New York, Oakland and other cities and regions. "We are seniors, teachers, small business owners, clergy, and union members," proclaims The First Declaration of Occupy Memphis. "We are clerks, firefighters, nurses, police, and immigrants. We are service workers, veterans, entrepreneurs, students, and unemployed, and recipients of Social Security benefits."

They are also the homeless. "This is worldwide," said Donna Crawford, 59, an Arkansas native who has been homeless "off and on" every since her "first divorce" 10 years ago. "All these cutbacks. The ministries are not helping. I worked for them."

Crawford sees the protest in a very personal way. The richest nation in the world offers little to the marginalized, the poor, the ones who fall through the cracks. Homeless "women everywhere have nowhere to go," she said.

(Donna Crawford)

Occupy Memphis, like its counterparts around the country, denounces "the control of our government by the 1%. We the People have a right to govern ourselves; that right has been usurped by corporations, big banks, Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, and the wealthiest 1% of our population," the First Declaration says. "These elites put profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality."

They're not people who simply need a bath, as Republican presidential contender and former Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich says.

Everything that comes out of Gingrich's mouth requires more than a few grains of salt. This is what he said back in 1995 about workers' compensation: "If you are not at work, why are we paying you? It's not called a vacation fund."

This is the man who has become a top Republican candidate for president. He talks like a man who has never worried about an injury on the job, never worried about doctors' bills. He talks like the 1 percent.

Who is more real in our world today? William Newton and Donna Crawford, or Newt Gingrich?

The time has come, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, to "begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Dimming the lights: The Republican Takeover in Mississippi

(To the left is an 1892 campaign poster of the People's Party, also known as the Populists, promoting James Weaver for president)

OXFORD, Miss. - It was late at night, and my relatives were tired after their seven-hour journey from Pensacola, Fla. Within minutes came the inevitable comment.

“It sure is dark in Mississippi,” one of them said, repeating an observation I’ve heard many times. “Between Jackson and Oxford is the wilderness.”

Just wait until your next visit up here, I told them. “It’s about to get a lot darker in Mississippi.”

Anyone disagree? With the Nov. 8 Republican takeover of the state House and now its Republican-controlled Legislature, Republican governor, Republicans in every statewide office except attorney general, Mississippi is all prepped to dim the lights even more, not make them brighter.

Better roads and highways? Not on this watch. Better public transportation? Education? Health care? Mental health services? Social services? Are you kidding?

It’s going to be Tea Party heaven down here? People finally get to see what it will be like in a Tea Party world. The lion-tamers are in the cage now, and the big, bad, ugly beast known as GOVERNMENT is cowering in his corner.

“They have been tasting this blood for many years,” says state Rep. Steven Holland, the Plantersville Democrat, outspoken populist, and perennial thorn-in-the-side to right-wingers before their Nov. 8 ascendancy. “You are going to see `personhood’ through statute. You’ll see an immigration bill, Alabama style, come through. English will be the official language. Drug testing for welfare recipients. It is going to be fairly bizarre.”

Holland’s own party, of course, is in shambles--divided by race and the fact that many white state Democrats hardly remember what their party even stands for. Like Ole Miss football, the party is about as far down as the saddest blues song to ever come out of the Delta. Much the same can be said for the Democratic Party elsewhere in the Deep South.

“Over 29 years, I have watched the slow destruction of the (Mississippi) Democratic Party. We have been so outfoxed with technology and money and organization. Eight years of (outgoing Republican Governor Haley) Barbour has left me completely bruised.”

Old-style populism like Holland’s, one that calls for a progressive, people-serving government and casts a distrustful eye at fat-cat Wall Street types who serve their wallets and nothing else, seems ready for that funeral home Holland runs when he’s not legislating. “If it gets bad enough, education so assaulted, public transportation so assaulted, this `big, ole, fat government,’ I can imagine the people who have now voted against their own interests in the last two elections will rise up and revolt,” Holland says.

Hmmm. Maybe. The “revolt of the rednecks” that barnstormers Bilbo and Vardaman led a century ago indeed expanded education, state health services, and state regulations against child labor and other corporate abuses, but the revolt came on the backs of black people. Modern-day racial demagoguery tends to go after brown rather than black, and state Republicans have largely cornered that market.

It’s not that Republicans simply won’t spend taxpayer money. The reason has to be right.

As Holland predicts, the new Republican Legislature is poised to take up the “personhood” initiative that voters rejected Nov. 8 as well as an Alabama-style immigration law, both of which will likely involve costly legal battles in court and ultimately result in rejection and failure.

Haley Barbour was quick to call for cuts in Medicaid and other social programs, yet he always seemed to find the cash for big incentives packages to pay out to private corporations looking at Mississippi.

In fact, while we’re at it, what does Barbour, a man held in Reagan-like awe by many conservatives in Mississippi, have to show for his eight years as governor? Mississippi remains the nation’s poorest state. It ranks 51st in teenage births, 51st in percentage of homes struggling with hunger, 49th in child poverty, 47th in high school graduation rates.

What did he do to change any of this?

I’ll be asking Mississippi’s new Republican leadership the same question four years from now, even though I already know the answer.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The battle goes on for Ikea workers in Danville, and the world is watching

(To the right is Ikea founder and former Nazi sympathizer Ingvar Kamprad)

Workers at the Ikea-owned Swedwood plant in Danville, Va., are still struggling for their rights against union-hostile supervisors despite workers’ 221-69 vote last July to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM).

“Supervisors are targeting union supporters for discipline, violating workers’ rights to be represented by stewards, threatening and intimidating pro union workers, and making numerous unilateral changes which by the law must be bargained,” writes IAM official William V. Street Jr. in the latest issue of the London-based International Union Rights magazine.

The July vote was heralded as a major and rare victory for labor organizers in the U.S. South, a region whose business and political leaders have fought against labor rights since before the Civil War. The vote came after workers complained of stretch-out-like conditions on the assembly line that evoked images of 1930s textile companies, mandatory and unpaid overtime, eliminated raises, and racial prejudice. “In many ways, work conditions more akin to Dickens than Keynes,” writes Street, director of IAM’s Woodworkers’ Department.

In addition, workers in Danville were paid considerably less than Ikea workers in Sweden, whose minimum wage is $19 an hour with five weeks of paid vacation. Ikea workers in Danville start at $8 an hour and get 12 vacation days. In the fall of 2010, packing department workers saw their wages drop from $9.75 an hour to $8 an hour. This came despite a 6 percent-plus hike in company profits in 2010 and a $12 million incentives package from local and state governments to get Ikea to locate in Danville. The median wage in Danville is more than $15 an hour.

Ikea calls itself a Swedish company but “is actually chartered in The Netherlands while controlled by a family trust in Luxemburg,” Street writes. It was founded in 1947 by former Nazi sympathizer Ingvar Kamprad, one of the world’s richest men whose personal wealth is estimated to be anywhere from $6 billion to many times that much.

When an organizing effort started in Danville, the company hired the union-busting Jackson Lewis law firm to help keep the union out.

All of this proved an embarrassment to a company that had touted its code of conduct recognizing workers’ rights to join a union.

It also inspired an international effort to support the Danville workers. IAM ran a sophisticated campaign that put the spotlight on Ikea back in Sweden, prompting extensive coverage in the Swedish media and producing countless phone calls and emails and picket lines as far away as Australia.

“The capacity of the IAM and the need to educate both EU (European Union) affiliates and US citizens as to the backward nature of US labour law all were part of the decision making process,” Street writes. “In the US, this discussion was characterized as the US becoming Sweden’s Mexico, meaning a place for global business to exploit lax laws in order to exploit both workers and the environment.”

Meanwhile, however, the battle goes on at the Danville plant. “The media has left, the story is over,” Street laments.

However, IAM is fighting back, and so is the international labor community, which sees the Danville situation as part of a bigger picture of neo-liberal economic policies being pushed globally by the United States and organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. These policies are hostile to unions as they push to increase corporate profits and work to inhibit government oversight. “Swedish union leaders are planning to visit Danville to see the fight for social justice first hand,” Street says, adding that university-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the U.S. are also planning boycotts if workers’ rights continue to be abused in Danville.

Ikea is a classic example of a modern-day “hollow” corporation that attempts to evade labor and environmental standards through the use of wholly owned subsidiaries like Swedwood and supplier companies, Street says.

A “hollow” company works something like this: It publicly pressures its subsidiaries and suppliers to be good corporate citizens and meet acceptable standards, but when they do, it proceeds to squeeze those same operations to lower their costs to the very minimum, ultimately forcing wages down and hurting working conditions.

It’s the same kind of hypocrisy Walmart has engaged in for years. Once again, the South is in the middle of a battle that stretches around the globe.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Writers who've stood up to the "Grindles" of the world

(To the left is Nelson Algren)

When the inspiration’s getting low, I usually don’t have far to look before I find it. It’s right there on the bookshelves in my office at home. I just round up the usual suspects, and there they are, words on paper, in the books that have been milestones in my life, written by the writers I’d admired most, the ones who cut through the fog the best and got to the hard, cold stone of reality that each of us faces in his or her own way.

At or near the top of the list is Nelson Algren, the great Detroit-born Chicago writer who has never gotten his due from the American literati, but, hey, who’s surprised by that? As with many writers I admire, it’s not his best-known novel that really struck me to the core. It’s one of the others. In this case, Never Come Morning, Algren’s 1942 novel about the Polish ghetto in Chicago, the neighborhood around Milwaukee Avenue and West Division Street, where the evil Bonifacy Konstantine ran his Tonsorial Palace of Art & Barber Shop.

The book is full of lines where Algren just nails it. I’ll pick one: “The lower the wage the greater the morality demanded of you off the job.” We got echoes of that 60 years later when Barbara Ehrenreich went to work waiting tables, cleaning rooms, and sorting clothes at Walmart in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. If blue-collar workers aren’t getting tested for drugs, they’re taking tests to make sure they’re not trouble-makers. “You weed out all the rebels with drug tests and personality `surveys’” and get “a uniformly servile and denatured workforce, content to dream of the distant day when they’ll be vested in the company’s profit-sharing plan.”

Jack London was one of the writers who inspired me to take up the profession. This was way back when I was fourteen years old. The former oyster pirate, gold prospector, and tramp whose philosophy was a curious mix of socialism and Nietzschean individualism wrote like a fiend during his brief 40 years, and the writing holds up well even a century later. My favorite was not his dog stories but The Sea-Wolf, a great adventure tale that pits the brutal Captain Wolf Larsen against the effete intellectual Humphrey Van Weyden.

(Below is a 1905 photograph of Jack London)

Here’s Larsen’s contemptuous assessment of Van Weyden’s soft life before he came aboard the captain’s ship, Ghost: “You have slept in soft beds, and worn fine clothes, and eaten good meals. Who made those beds? And those clothes? And those meals? Not you. You never made anything in your own sweat. You live on an income which your father earned. You are like a frigate bird swooping down upon the boobies and robbing them of the fish they have caught.”

Would make a nice poster for “Occupy Wall Street”, wouldn’t it? London wrote it more than a century ago, and it still resonates today.

Want to read some real anger at the “frigate birds” on Wall Street and in the corporate executive offices? Read William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley, a 1946 classic of the hard-boiled genre that was made into a film noir classic movie. The novel is a phatasmagoric, hallucinatory trip via literature through the world of carnivals, séances, and mentalism that nevertheless never loses sight of the naked-eyed greed at the dark heart of unhinged capitalism. Embodying that dark heart is Grindle, a name worthy of Charles Dickens and with the same rank arrogance and heartlessness of Mr. Bounderby in Dickens' Hard Times.

(To the right is Charles Dickens)

While we’re at it, let’s take a look at Dickens. Here’s Mr. Bounderby talking about the workers—the “Hands” in his words--in Coketown, an industrial city not unlike Algren’s Chicago: “There’s not a Hand in this town, Sir, man, woman, or child, but has one ultimate object in life. That object is to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon. Now, they’re not a--going—none of them—ever to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon.”

How many Wall Street executives in the privacy of their sanctuaries high in the sky have said much the same? Wouldn’t we like to know?

I could go on and on. I’ve done this before as you early readers of this blog recall. I’ve written about Hammett, Cain, Thompson, Woolrich, and the other hardboiled writers who stood side-by-side with the working class, and produced great literature in the process. Lots of males here, but I've also paid homage to female writers who stand shoulder to shoulder with every one of them, none moreso than Dorothy Day.

They're all inspiring, and their words are still with us even if they aren't, and we don't need to forget them.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Writers and protest

Just a quick notice about an upcoming posting that will be another of my occasional reports on "writers and protest" and how our best wordsmiths still can give us inspiration to fight the good fight in society today.

I've been re-reading some old favorites this fall season--Nelson Algren, Jack London, Dorothy Day--and I'm struck by how much their writing still resonates and still says important things about mankind and, more specifically, the struggle of those who get the raw end of the deal to make themselves heard in the U.S. and beyond.

These are heady times. The Greek prime minister is castigated for attempting to insert democracy into the nation's financial crisis and to put to a popular vote the latest "austerity" deal European and U.S. bankers want to impose on the people. It's a neo-liberal mantra that draconian cuts are better than tax hikes in offsetting debt. In some ways, it's a Tea Party-Gone-Global philosophy, and the Greek people have rightly protested in the streets to have some say-so in the matter.

Here in the states, voters in Boulder, Colo., joined citizens in Madison and Dane County, Wisconsin, by supporting a bid to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens' United ruling through a constitutional amendment. If our politicians are too scared to take it on, then let the people have their say!

"Occupy Wall Street" protesters are continuing to refocus the national dialogue despite arrests and police harassment from Nashville, Tenn., to Oakland, Calif., and more power to them!

"Behind Business's billboards and Business's headlines and Business's pulpits and Business's press, and Business's arsenals, behind the car ads and the subtitles and the commercials, the people of Dickens yet endure," novelist Nelson Algren once wrote.

Jack London wrote a weekly column on the labor movement, Jim Thompson was a former Wobbly, and James Cain worked as a reporter covering the plight of mine workers in West Virginia. They all saw then what we're seeing today.

Stay tuned as I take a fresh look at these writers and see what they have to tell us.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Money rules, and that's why we should "Occupy Wall Street"

(To the left is Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour)

Haley Barbour, the stalwart Republican and former Washington lobbyist who is now ending his second term as Mississippi’s governor, has no problems with the big money now pouring into political campaigns.

“Money is speech in American politics,” Barbour told a crowded auditorium at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at Ole Miss recently. “What we need are unlimited contributions that are transparent and made public in real time.”

Furthermore, big money is the best weapon conservative Republicans have against the manpower labor unions can put into an election on behalf of Democrats. Labor unions were able to put 10,000 volunteers on the streets during an election in Cook County, Illinois, last year, the governor said. “Their political strength was manpower.”

In other words, deep pockets versus people.

The governor is a smart politician. He knows the ways of politics today. It’s a system he helped put in place during his days as a Republican operative and then a well-heeled lobbyist in the nation’s capital.

In that system, money is everything. Politicians spend the lion’s share of their time begging for it, and then when they get it, they spend the rest of their time serving those who gave it to them. It not only buys air time for political ads, it buys entire television networks like Fox News and radio programs like Mississippi Super Talk Radio, where the corporate agenda is pushed onto people whether they want it or not.

“Wealth is virtue,” says the gangster Vautrin in Honoré de Balzac’s novel about greed, Père Goriot. That’s the philosophy today for the 1 percent that essentially rules this nation, and that’s why protesters have gathered in Zuccotti Park—renamed Liberty Square--in New York to “Occupy Wall Street” and why protesters from Jackson to Memphis to Madrid have joined them. What about the other 99 percent?

“Those who worship money believe their buckets of cash, like the $4.6 million J.P. Morgan Chase gave last week to the New York Police Foundation, can buy them perpetual power and security,” author Chris Hedges wrote in The Occupied Wall Street Journal, the newspaper of the protesters in New York. “Masters all, kneeling before the idols of the marketplace, blinded by their self-importance, impervious to human suffering, bloated from unchecked greed and privilege.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, allowing an unlimited corporate cash flow into campaign coffers, has emboldened the hard-line right-wing billionaires Charles and David Koch to invest millions in the America they want to create, financing shadowy political organizations, think tanks, and politicians like Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain, who wants to give more tax breaks to corporations while raising the sales tax on average Americans.

The Koch brothers are major supporters of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that writer Mark Pocan calls “a dating service” that matches “legislators and special interests, culminates with the birth of special interest legislation, and ends happily ever after.” ALEC’s corporate friends include Walmart, British Petroleum, Chevron, State Farm, and, of course, Koch Industries, Inc.

ALEC tries to do on the state level when the Koch brothers are doing on the national level. Aiding them are political bosses like Art Pope of North Carolina, the multi-millionaire C.E.O. of Variety Wholesales whose deep-pocketed political machine helped Republicans win 18 of 22 legislative races and take over the General Assembly in North Carolina in 2010. One of Pope’s key targets is higher education in North Carolina, which he feels is too dependent on state funds and too populated by liberals. His goals also include embedding pro-corporate courses championing conservative writers like Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek in university curriculums.

To check out the good investigative work that the North Carolina-based Institute for Southern Studies is doing on Pope, who also has played a role in Herman Cain’s rise to prominence, go to

In view of Pope’s activism in North Carolina, the actions of the so-called “Forward Rebels” group in Mississippi bear watching. The group is talking football now, using newspaper ads to blame the University of Mississippi football team’s losses on the Ole Miss administration, but its chief media officer, Lee Habeeb, is a conservative radio talk show boss who recently spoke at a Tea Party rally in Oxford. What is its ultimate agenda? Some believe it's to make Ole Miss a conservative think tank where right-wingers like the Koch brothers and Art Pope can come and be treated like royalty.

Only time—and maybe money—will tell.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A '60s protester rejoices at "Occupy Wall Street"

I was a student protester in the late ’60s. My small cell of anti-war activists lived and breathed protest. It began in the last days of the civil rights movement—sit-ins, getting taunted, spit on, and threatened by football players and frat guys—but quickly shifted to the Vietnam War. The war was never-ending and the death toll was on the evening news every day.

“Why Are We In Vietnam?” Norman Mailer asked, and he provided the answer. It was our pride, our short-sightedness, our blindness to the greedy among us, our macho, parochial view of the world that saw or cared only for America—and America was these United States, not that Spanish-speaking part or Canada.

I was a student at East Carolina University, a school in North Carolina's poorest and blackest region, not the much-lauded (and certainly very fine) University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, North Carolina State, or Duke, but the “other” school, the one that had to clamor and claw its way through a state General Assembly full of Chapel Hill-trained lawyers to attain its university status in 1967. So protest was in the air at ECU in the late 1960s. Not that everyone liked shaggy-haired anti-war protesters, some of whom stunk suspiciously of cannabis, and other sign-carriers who were either art or philosophy majors, and, well, just weird anyway.

It was intense, too intense, with lots of burn-out potential. We devoured Soul on Ice, The Wretched of the Earth, and I.F. Stone, talked "movement" endlessly over pitchers of beer at the Rathskeller, planned and plotted the “revolution” that would change this country from a take-from-the-poor-and-give-to-the-rich war monger to something closer to what Jefferson envisioned. Despite protests, marches and sit-ins, however, the war wore on until its final, inglorious end. Before it was over, I was even drafted and sent to Vietnam myself—Canada was not an option—and when I got there, I found a whole new set of buddies who survived, like me, by simply accepting as best they could the theater of the absurd we had all entered.

So how wonderful and gratifying is it to this old ‘60s protester that the “Occupy Wall Street” protest has now spread from New York to across the nation and world? What do you think? Even the old, conservative South so scrutinized in this blog has joined in! From Raleigh, Memphis, and Shreveport to Jackson, Miss., and McAllen, Texas, Southerners are adding their voices to the chorus of protest against the plutocracy that has entrenched itself in this nation, corrupting and compromising Democrats as well as Republicans to the point that it is Wall Street that is served in today’s economy, not the 99 percent of the rest of us.

The glory of this protest is that labor unions are now marching side by side with students, professors, activists, and just plain folks who’ve had enough of give-to-the-rich politics. That’s what was sorely missing in the late ‘60s. Let’s hope Barack Obama is listening. I hope and think he is, but my friends will tell you I’m the last optimist in the room.

I haven’t marched yet in this protest, but I’ve contributed monetarily and spiritually, and I plan to march just as soon as I can. Can’t find those old protest signs anymore, but that’s all right. It’s a new day, even if it’s, in its heart of hearts, the same protest.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

More cutbacks in legal services for the poor in the nation's poorest state

(To the right is Nancy Jones, one of many poor north Mississippians who've depended on North Mississippi Rural Legal Services for legal aid.)

Two years after the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services laid off workers, slashed wages up to 19 percent, and eliminated needed programs for the poor, the agency is now shutting down its office in the region's largest city and eliminating a unit that handles public benefits issues.

"The struggle for legal services in North Mississippi goes on," said Elaine Lantz, regional organizer with the National Organization of Legal Services/UAW Local 2320. The union represents workers at the agency.

The agency covers 39 counties across northern Mississippi and helps clients with food stamps, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, evictions, and other needs. Dependent on federal and state grants and other funding, it has faced budgetary cutbacks now for years, resulting in decisions two years ago to eliminate a unit that helped those facing eviction from their homes and to transfer half its small staff of lawyers off courtroom duty and onto full-time "hotline" telephone duty.

With the budget crunch still continuing to deepen, the NMRLS board this week decided to shut down its Tupelo, Miss., office--which served 10 counties--and relocate its services to the agency's office in Oxford, Miss. "Cuts necessitated that one office must be closed," NMRLS executive director Ben Cole told the Oxford Eagle in Oxford. "The overall effect this will have on legal aid services is not yet known, but it is going to directly impact clients in the Tupelo area."

With the closure of the office in Tupelo--north Mississippi's largest city--the NMRLS will have four remaining offices across the region, including the Oxford office.

Lantz said "one thing that is very bothersome" is that the board of directors is currently raising "outside" non-program money to build a new building for its offices in Oxford. "In a time when funds for legal services are shrinking, it does not make sense to spend time raising money for a new building. Any fund raising efforts should go toward maintaining client services."

In a public hearing on NMRLS cutbacks in August 2009, Nancy Jones, then 54, a mother of three and grandmother of six, said legal services helped get her unemployment checks restored and eliminate a $4,100 fine imposed on her by the state because she had unknowingly failed to meet a requirement that she re-register with a temp service after a series of layoffs from several jobs.

"We were out in the street, looking for a job, unemployed for eight months," Jones said. "I was already poor. A lot of us out there don't have no job, no money. I know I didn't have money to pay for an attorney. ... I don't know what I would've done."

At that same hearing, veteran paralegal Henry Boyd warned, "You've got the wolves out there waiting for the NMRLS to go down. Who's going to serve these people? Let's don't cut our help to poor folks."

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Occupy Wall Street protest spreads to the South, ex-Schnucks workers get the shaft, Avondale closing worries New Orleans residents, Alabama bans "incendiary" book in prison

It's time for another Labor South roundup:

Occupy the South

The ongoing Occupy Wall Street protest in New York is spreading across the country, including the South. Activists in Memphis, Raleigh, and other Southern cities are organizing similar protests to represent the "99 percent" of the population not raking in the dough over the past several years.

In Memphis, according to a draft statement by the protesters, "workers, students, the unemployed and those on Social Security benefits"--in other words, those who are not part of the 1 percent of the nation's population that has accumulated billions as a result of America's top-down economy--will stage a protest in the city's Overton Park and join what has the potential to become a massive national movement similar to what has taken place in the Middle East over the past year.

These are people who "have not benefited from the various financial bailouts, tax breaks and other subsidies that the dominant 1 percent of the population has gained over the past years," the statement says.

In New York, police arrested some 700 protesters on Brooklyn Bridge last weekend. Mainstream media has resisted giving the protest any coverage, but it has now grown large enough and spread far enough that they can no longer ignore it.

Major labor unions have now joined the protest, providing an element that was missing in the protests of the late 1960s. Perhaps now, after four decades, students, activists and blue-collar workers can finally join together to take their stand against the plutocracy that has taken over this country.

Shafted by Schnucks

The St. Louis-based Schnucks grocery chain gave only an eight-day notice to its more than 1,000 employees in Memphis that it was selling nine stores to Kroger and closing three stores in the area.

Featured in a recent posting in this blog, Schnucks strongly resisted unionization in Memphis, and now its former workers can see how a union might have protected them from the treatment they got.

Federal regulations require a 60-day notice but waive it for companies that provide 60 days of pay and benefits instead. Schnucks employees told the Memphis Commercial Appeal, however, that company officials said they won't get the pay and benefits. The federal rules include loopholes--such as exceptions for work sites with less than 50 employees--that Schnucks may try to crawl through.

Employees said they worked hard for the company, chipping in to help it make its pledge to United Way. Now they feel discarded and disrespected.

One bright side, however, is that Kroger is unionized, and Schnucks workers who manage to land a job at one of that company's stores will find themselves better protected in the future.

Avondale blues

Plans by Huntington Ingalls Industries, formerly known as Northrop Grumman, to shut down the onetime 5,000-worker Avondale Shipyards in New Orleans are going to have a profound effect on housing values and the economy in the neighborhoods around the shipyard, residents say.

According to the AFLCIO Now blog, a recent survey showed 90 percent of area residents believe the closing could drop housing values more than 20 percent. The workforce at the shipyard has dropped from 5,000 to 3,000 as the company moves toward shutting it down. It's the kind of blow that still-fragile, post-Katrina New Orleans doesn't need.

A dangerous book in Alabama

Convicted murderer Mark Melvin, serving his 19th year in an Alabama prison for two murders he helped commit at age 14, has been denied his request for a copy of the book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon.

According to the New York Times, Melvin claims officials at Kilby Correctional Facility near Montgomery, Ala., told him the book was "too incendiary" and "too provocative" for him to possess it.

The book, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009, deals with the notorious convict leasing system--also discussed earlier in this blog--that spread across the South after the Civil War and which allowed plantation owners once again to take advantage of free black labor.

Melvin has filed a lawsuit on the matter. He was released on parole in 2008 but then returned to prison due to what the Times called, quoting his lawyer, "a technical violation."

Monday, September 26, 2011

The story of a labor town in the Deep South and the sheriff who stood up for workers

(To the left is a photograph of a mural just off Main Street in downtown Water Valley depicting the town's colorful railroad history)

WATER VALLEY, Miss. – The odds against the striking workers at Rice-Stix Dry Goods Co. seemed overwhelming.

Aligned against them were the company, the town’s business leaders, its banks, the local newspaper, the courts, even the governor of Mississippi who had called out the National Guard. Only one store in Water Valley would even do business with the strikers.

It was October 1952, and Mississippi “was not a great place to be on strike,” Rice-Stix worker Nellie McCulley told ACTWU Voices, the publication of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union.

But she and the 650 other workers at Rice-Stix’s plants in Water Valley and Farmington, Mo., had had enough of sub-minimal wages and disrespect. “The pay was low,” McCulley said. “But it was the unfairness the company carried out that really made people mad. They had a good time playing favorites with their kin or friends.”

Then came an unlikely ally: Yalobusha County Sheriff Floyd Farmer. When Gov. Hugh White’s National Guardsmen unsheathed their bayonets and began arresting workers willy-nilly, Farmer told his deputy to release them. The strikers were hard-working neighbors, not criminals.

“As soon as they locked them up, my daddy was letting them out the back door,” recalls Water Valley native and veteran labor organizer Danny Forsyth, whose father was Sheriff Farmer’s deputy. “The sheriff almost got impeached. They had an impeachment hearing … at the old gymnasium. (People) filled that gymnasium full. There like to have been a riot. They were not able to impeach him. It wouldn’t have been legal anyway.”

After six weeks, the workers, singing the old union song and later civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome on the picket line, won their strike.

The story of Sheriff Farmer and the Rice-Stix workers is one of many labor union tales in this former railroad town of roughly 4,000 in north Mississippi.

Another chapter in that history was written this August with the 80-to-28 vote by workers at Water Valley Poultry to join the United Food & Commercial Workers Union. The former Mott’s Conagra-Blue Coach Foods plant had been union-represented before it shut down in 2003. “Hopefully we can go ahead and try to get a contract with the company,” UFCW organizer Rose Turner said. “That’s what we’re looking forward to.”

Efforts to get comment from company officials were unsuccessful, but Turner said she expects a struggle ahead over a contract. “I know they are going to fight us.”

Water Valley’s history with labor unions goes back to legendary 19th-century railroad engineer Casey Jones, who once lived in Water Valley and who held dual membership in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. Jones, subject of song and legend after his death in a train accident in Vaughn, Miss., in 1900, was even master of his brotherhood’s Water Valley Lodge.

“They had a good reason back then to have a union,” said 84-year-old Jack Gurner Sr., who oversees the Casey Jones Museum in Water Valley. “The railroad company was quick to fire a man if he made a mistake, and the union would make them hire him back.”

The other side of Water Valley’s labor tradition, however, is entrenched opposition to unions, even from folks like Jack Gurner Sr. “As far as I’m concerned, all the union wants is dues. If an individual has a problem, it is his problem.”

The labor tradition is woven into Water Valley’s culture and history in complex ways. Blue-collar workers at Rice-Stix, Big Yank clothing, Mott’s and now Water Valley Poultry have voted again and again to join a union. “They see the difference … in working in a union plant and in a non-union plant,” Rose Turner said.

When Water Valley was struck by a devastating tornado in April 1984, ACTWU donated $10,000 to a disaster relief fund and collected contributions from union locals around the country. The Red Cross’ 12-county relief effort was headquartered in ACTWU’s union hall in Water Valley.

Yet something Nellie McCulley said decades ago still rings true today. “Unions in Mississippi are still having a hard time. I’ve learned that everyone has to work just as hard now to get the union organized as the way they did before.”

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Unionized Kroger buys nonunion Schnucks stores in Memphis; Louisiana business leaders fight against higher wages for migrant workers

Goodbye to nonunion Schnucks grocery stores in Memphis

The ubiquitous Rose Turner, organizing director for Local 1529 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, was on the streets of Memphis talking to grocery store workers when I called her a few days ago.

Kroger's Delta Division was in the process of taking over nine Memphis-area Schnucks supermarkets. Kroger had announced its purchase of the stores from one of its major competitors earlier in the month.

Kroger workers are unionized, and the St. Louis-based Schnucks had resisted unionization ever since it came to Memphis 10 years ago. According to the Memphis Daily News, Schnucks' 13 percent of the area market will add to Kroger's 30 percent market share.

Schnucks' 1,200 workers in Memphis will have to reapply to Kroger's to keep their jobs. Several Schnucks stores in the area will close as a result of the deal.

"Schnucks was union in St. Louis, then they tried to be nonunion" in Memphis, Turner said. "We tried to organize them when they first came here. They said, `We are going to close if we go union.'"

(To the left is UFCW organizer Rose Turner)

Well, they closed anyway after 10 years, and a union-represented company bought them out, Turner said.

Turner is fresh from a successful organizing campaign at Water Valley Poultry in Water Valley, Miss., and she also is a key organizer of catfish plant workers in the Mississippi Delta.

Louisiana business coalition files suit to keep from paying migrant workers better wages

Federal rules requiring wage increases of up to 83 percent for migrant workers with H-2B visas have prompted a protest from Louisiana business interests, including sugar cane and seafood processors, amusement park operators and hotel owners.

Earlier this month, the business coalition filed a federal lawsuit in Alexandria to keep the rules from being implemented, according to the Associated Press. The business coalition argues that the rules put its members at a competitive disadvantage, and they will not be able to pay the higher wages.

The rules are scheduled to take effect Sept. 30. A hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for Sept. 23.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Dorothy Day, radical conscience of America, lives on in All Is Grace

(To the left is a photograph of Dorothy Day in 1934.)

I didn’t waste much time when I learned that a new biography of Dorothy Day had been published. I had to order it, of course, since books by or about Day seem never to find themselves to the shelves of your local corner bookstore.

At last it arrived, All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day, by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books, and even though I’ve read and studied her life many times, I’ve now learned that there was so much I didn’t know about this enigma in American literature and social consciousness.

Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, social activist, newspaper editor and writer, author of the classic autobiography The Long Loneliness, and resurrectionist of the grand-but-almost-forgotten tradition of Catholic social teaching, is a haunting, even troubling figure in modern-day America.

Few have stood farther to the Left on many social issues—from labor rights to civil rights—or bore as many bona fide credentials—from her jailing as a card-carrying IWW Wobbly during the original Red Scare at the end of World War I to marches with United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez and with civil rights leaders in the segregated South in the 1960s.

Yet her Christian faith was unwavering, a faith that embodied both a clear-eyed look at the cold realities of this earthly life and a mystical union with the crucified Son of Man and the church he entrusted to his disciple Peter.

Forest, an old hand at the Catholic Worker and friend of Day, captures this dichotomy well. I’ll make a confession here: I’ve not yet completed the book. I plan to read it slowly, too slowly to wait before offering this review. However, I’ve read enough to know that it provides a new, in-depth look at Dorothy Day, filling in many gaps with wonderful details about her life and her views. Yet perhaps what I love best about it are the photographs.

The photographs are wonderful—from the book’s cover photo by Bob Fitch showing her busy at her typewriter in a cluttered room with her beloved books lining the shelves behind her to the closing photographs of her funeral procession through the streets of New York in 1980.

The story of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker is familiar to many, but it’s still a fascinating one. The daughter of an itinerant sportswriter, Day saw poverty and the marginalized up close and personal at an early age. A radical and a rebel from her last days in high school and first days at the University of Illinois, she dropped out of school and launched her writing career with socialist publications like The Call. She had a lover, became pregnant, had an abortion, lived the bohemian life in New Orleans and later Provincetown, befriending playwright Eugene O’Neill, and taking in a common-law husband who was an atheist. Pregnant again, she vowed she would have this child, and the religious impulses that she had long resisted became too strong to ignore.

An Episcopalian by birth, she found herself drawn to the Catholic Church and had her daughter Tamar baptized in it. She and her common-law husband parted. Later in New York she met the vagabond French poet and philosopher Peter Maurin, who with her co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement at the beginning of the Great Depression and the Catholic Worker newspaper that was at the movement’s heart. They and a long line of volunteers who would eventually include such folks as The Other America author Michael Harrington fed and sheltered the poor and jobless in the movement’s “houses of hospitality” while growing their own food at communal farms outside New York and elsewhere. Meanwhile, they put out a newspaper that hit hard at the issues of the day while searching the issues of the soul as well.

Day, whose father came from Tennessee, kept an eye on the South even as she wrote about urban life in New York. The first issue of The Catholic Worker (cost: 1 cent per edition, 25 cents per year’s subscription—still true today) in May 1933 dealt with the treatment of black labor on the river levees in the South. The newspaper’s third issue focused on child labor and the Carolina textile mill strikes.

In 1936 Day traveled to Memphis to get a first-hand look at the Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union and its struggles to improve workers’ lives in the area. “During that trip I saw men, women, and children herded into little churches and wayside stations, camped out in tents, their household goods heaped about them, not one settlement but many—farmers with no land to farm, housewives with no homes. I saw children ill, one old man dead in bed and not yet buried, mothers weeping with hunger and cold. I saw bullet holes in the frame churches, and their benches and pulpits smashed up and windows broken. Men had been kidnapped and beaten; men had been shot and wounded. The month after I left, one of the organizers was killed by a member of a masked band of vigilantes who were fighting the Tenant Farmers’ Union.”

Such was Day’s evocative writing, a pared-down, even simple style yet one brimming with compassion and righteous indignation against social injustice.

Day was an activist as well as a journalist. As a result of that Memphis trip, she telegrammed a plea for help to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who in turn contacted Tennessee’s governor. The governor was unmoved, and so was the Memphis Commercial Appeal, which editorialized against outsiders like Day “who came to criticize.”

My hope is this new biography will help excite further new interest in Day. A movement is already underway to have her declared a saint, something she likely she would have opposed. Her life is a testament to the validity and strength of Catholic social teaching, a tradition ignored and nearly forgotten until recently.

The phenomenon of once-staunchly Democrat Catholics, all of them immigrants or descendants of immigrants, many of them once poor, siding with the Republican Party in recent decades is, as the late and fiery Catholic labor priest Monsignor Charles Owen Rice of Pittsburgh once lamented, “another cross in my old age.”

This writer recalls attending the annual meeting of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists here in Oxford, Miss., in October 2009, and hearing one speaker attempt to brand even fascism and Nazism as sins of the Left, not the Right.

In a Labor Day speech this month, however, the head of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockdon, Calif., praised labor unions and pointed to Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 and subsequent papal encyclicals and statements as unassailable proof of the Church’s deep commitment to the right of workers everywhere to unite and to be treated justly as workers and human beings regardless of claims against them by capital.

Dorothy would approve.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor South's Labor Day Round-Up: Poultry workers in Miss. say "Yes!", Walmart fires striking workers in Chile, Puerto Rican students strike against tuition hike, Roosevelt-era firebrand Kennedy dies, Ala. bests Arizona in immigrant hunt, and Ikea founder's Nazi skeleton rattles in closet

(To the right is UFCW organizer Rose Turner)

Poultry workers in Mississippi vote union

Workers at Water Valley Poultry in Water Valley, Miss., recently voted overwhelmingly to join United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1529.

The vote was 80 for the union and 28 against at the 150-worker plant, said Rose Turner, organizing director for UFCW Local 1529. "Hopefully we can go ahead and try to get a contract with the company," Turner said. "That's what we are looking forward to."

The plant was unionized before it shut down in 2003. Campaigning for union representation began after it reopened. "In two weeks we had over 75 cards signed," Turner said.

Contract negotiations may still be a battle, she said. The company is owned by Global Foods in Fresno, Calif. "I know they are going to fight us," she said. "I just want to go ahead and get a contract they can live with."

The plant is located in rural northeast Mississippi. The little town of Water Valley, population approximately 4,000, has a long history of unionization that goes back to the days of railroad legend Casey Jones, a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers who died trying to save his passengers in a train accident in Vaughn, Miss., in April 1900.

(To the left is a photograph of legendary train engineer Casey Jones, 1864-1900)

IWW balladeer Joe Hill put a twist on the legend with his song "Casey Jones--the Union Scab" in 1912. By all accounts that this author has found, however, the real Casey Jones was a loyal union man.

Walmart fires workers in Chile for joining general strike

Twenty-two Walmart workers in Chile have lost their jobs because they participated in a general strike by workers across the country protesting changes in labor legislation, social security, tax reform, and education and health policies.

Arkansas-based Walmart was the only company in Chile to fire workers because of their participation in the protest. The company, virulently anti-union at its U.S. stores, has union agreements at stores in other countries.

Students and professors in Puerto Rico protest tuition hikes and ongoing privatization efforts in public education

Off the radar for most mainstream media in this country is the ongoing crisis in higher education in Puerto Rico, where students have been beaten and arrested, professors threatened with firings, and the largest of the University of Puerto Rico's campuses, Rio Piedras, shut down after massive student protests.

Thousands of students agreed to strike rather than accept an $800 increase in tuition in April 2010, ultimately leading to the shutdown at different times of nearly the entire 11-campus system of the university. The university administration agreed to postpone the tuition hike, but as the year drew to a close it went ahead and imposed the hike. Protests led to a police occupation of the university, banning of political demonstrations, and hundreds of incidents in which "students have been arrested, beaten, and at times sexually assaulted or tortured," according to Academe, the publication of the American Association of University Professors.

Supporting students and opposing the police crackdown were the Puerto Rican Assocation of Professors and the Brotherhood of Nonfaculty Employees.

The tuition hikes fit well with Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuño's ongoing efforts to privatize public institutions. The University of Puerto Rico has lost $336 million in government funding since 1997, and the $800 tuition hike amounts to a 50 percent increase in the cost of tuition to students.

Although polls show he's very unpopular with Puerto Rican voters, Fortuño is a darling of the Republican right-wing, which views him as a potential ambassador to the Latino population. Academe reports that Fortuño participated events in California sponsored by the Koch Brothers and conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation.

Stetson Kennedy dies

One of the last of the firebrand activists from the 1930s, Stetson Kennedy, 94, died in August at the Baptist Medical Center in St. Augustine, Fla.

Kennedy was a veteran of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Federal Writers' Project, a Ku Klux Klan infiltrator, and fellow traveler with the likes of folksinger Woody Guthrie and author Zora Neal Hurston. Guthrie even wrote a song about him.

The Jacksonville, Fla., native was the author of Southern Exposure, The Jim Crow Guide, and I Rode With The Ku Klux Klan. He went undercover to expose the Klan in the 1940s, joining the organization, learning its secret rituals and code words, risking his life, and subsequently casting a light on that secret world.

"My ideology was the same as Woody Guthrie and Carl Sandburg," Kennedy said at the Oral History Association's 40th annual meeting in Little Rock, Ark., in 2006. "The people, yes! Democracy, of and for the people."

Alabama's anti-immigration law, called "the nation's cruelest", took effect September 1

Not content with letting Arizona get away with being the most regressive state in the nation on immigration issues, Alabama, as of Sept. 1, has what the New York Times calls "the nation's cruelest immigration law."

The law requires law enforcement agents to check anyone suspected of lacking immigration documents, threatens the license of anyone who hires undocumented workers, requires that public schools determine students' immigration status, and criminalizes anyone "concealing, harboring, or shielding" an undocumented worker.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against the law, and top church leaders in Alabama have condemned it as inhumane.

Anti-immigration measures in Georgia and elsewhere in the South have been discussed at length in this blog. In April of this year, Ashley Furniture Industries in Ecru and Ripley, Miss., fired more than 500 undocumented workers, a shock to many considering what writer Yasser Fernandez in the publication Mira en Accion says is the long trail of "supervisors, managers, and human resource employees" at the company who've "engaged in identity theft scandals, dubious hiring practices, and worker rights abuses against undocumented immigrants."

Tea Partyers love what government can do, too!

Despite all their ballyoo about the federal deficit, government spending, and just bad government in general, Tea Partyers among U.S. House freshman have proven they can manipulate government with the best of them.

According to a report by USA Today last week, U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., one of more than a dozen freshmen members of the House Tea Party Caucus, raked in nearly $90,000 in contributions from agribusiness, a special interest he has pushed and promoted in his short tenure in Congress. House freshmen took in more than $37 million in contributions by mid-2011.

Fincher sponsored a bill to require quick federal approval of "genetically modified crops for commercial sale," USA Today reports. "Fincher has received more campaign money from agribusiness than any other industry."

The report indicates that Tea Partyers have in abundance something else that has long been a mainstay in Washington: hypocrisy.

Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad and his Nazi ties

Ikea, the Swedish firm that accommodated unions in Europe but fought them in Virginia, has a skeleton in its closet that's rattling to get out.

A new book by author Elisabeth Asbrink says Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad's Nazi ties during World War II were a lot stronger than he has admitted.

Kamprad, who has acknowledged his "stupidity" in being attracted to Swedish fascism as a youth in the early 1940s, was actually very much involved in recruiting followers to the New Swedish Movement, Asbrink says. The group, led by fascist Per Engdahl, was a pro-Nazi organization.

A spokesman for Kamprad says he has long disavowed any beliefs he might have had as a young man regarding fascism.

Ikea, the world's biggest furniture retailer, fought a unionization drive at its Danville, Va., plant, but workers there in July voted overwhelmingly to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Labor Day Post Coming Up

Just touching base quickly to say that a Labor Day (although I still consider May 1 the real Labor Day) round-up is on the way with reports on a successful organizing campaign in rural Mississippi, labor rumblings in Puerto Rico (yes, that's part of the South), Tea Party pork-barrelers, and more.

Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Crime pays" for the private prison industry and modern-day convict leasers

(The photograph to the left is of convict laborers at Mississippi's Parchman Farm prison in 1911)

It all started in Mississippi. Of course.

Deprived of his slaves by the Confederacy’s loss in the War Between the States, wealthy, politically connected cotton grower and railroad magnate Edmund Richardson needed cheap labor for the 25,000 acres of cotton spread across his 50 plantations in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta.

With the help of his political friends, he engineered a scheme in 1868 to lease former slaves who had become prison inmates after the war. He put them to work in his cotton fields and on his railroads and levees. He worked them hard and grew even richer. Federal and state authorities were so pleased with the agreement they even gave him money to cover transportations costs and other expenses.

The system quickly spread across the South, a region whose leaders have always loved cheap labor whether it be slave, indentured servant, sharecropper, tenant farmer, non-unionized cotton mill hand, or undocumented worker. And they love to work them hard, too. Conditions were so brutal by 1882 that nearly one-fifth of Mississippi’s leased convicts died from overwork or related causes.

In 1906, Mississippi Gov. James K. Vardaman became so disgusted that he led a successful campaign to reform a system “rivaling in brutality and fiendishness, the atrocities of … Torquemada” solely to benefit “some political dictator’s Delta plantation.”

Convict leasing across the land finally ended in 1928 when Alabama joined the rest of the nation and ceased the practice.

Enter Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a 21st century Republican who would’ve enjoyed sipping mint juleps with Edmund Richardson on the back veranda. After the legislature waged an Arizona-like assault on undocumented workers, the governor was bombarded by angry Peach State farmers who complained they stood to lose $300 million from the loss of labor in their fields.

That’s when Deal came up with a “partial solution to our current status as we continue to move toward sustainable results with the legal options available.”

Translation: Let’s put a chunk of Georgia’s 100,000 convicted criminals who are on probation to work on the farm. He instructed his commissioners of labor and agriculture to proceed.

Of course, making money on convicted criminals and prison inmates has become big business in modern-day America. The Corrections Corporation of America, which operates three of Mississippi’s five private prisons, reported $1.6 billion in revenues in 2008. It’s no accident that the growth of private prisons since the early-to-mid 1980s has paralleled a phenomenal growth in incarceration—and correctional outlays.

The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Russia and China, both with long histories as police states, pale in comparison. Nowhere is incarceration more popular than in the Deep South. Mississippi ranks only behind Louisiana in the nation, and 67 percent of Mississippi’s inmates are black.

“The majority of people incarcerated in private prisons are in the eleven states of the old Confederacy,” write social activist Si Kahn and Elizabeth Minnich in The Fox in the Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy. “This keeps the South imprisoned in its own tragic history of building an economy on the backs of unfree people.”

In neighboring Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal has proposed privatizing three state prisons as a money-saving measure. However, statistics show correctional spending—here in Mississippi and across the nation--has skyrocketed since the first private prisons appeared. Although some officials blame “truth-in-sentencing” and other tough-on-crime measures, the private prison industry lobbied hard for those same measures. In other words, “crime pays” for this particular industry.

Ron Welch, Jackson attorney and longtime defender of prisoner rights in Mississippi, says the state today actually compares well with other states in oversight of its private prisons. However, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union and civil rights attorney Robert McDuff have filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of 13 inmates against the Walnut Grove facility to protest what they say are barbaric conditions. Walnut Grove is owned by the GEO Group of Florida.

Finding out what actually goes on inside private prisons is not always easy. In fact, Congress took up legislation in 2007 to place the industry under the purview of the Freedom of Information Act. Lobbying by industry leaders killed the bill.

“Roughly 25,000 federal criminal prisoners are jailed in private facilities at any given time,” U.S. Rep. Tim Holden, D-Pa., said at the time. “Yet private prisons are not required to publicly disclose information about their facilities’ daily operations.”

New legislation was introduced this year and remains pending. The industry, I’m sure, is prepared.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Union members carrying the banner in Virginia, Florida, and the Gulf Coast

Time for another Labor South round-up:

Verizon workers in Virginia join walkout

Virginia workers are among the 45,000 employees of Verizon Communication who have staged a walkout stretching from the mid-Atlantic states to Maine to protest a company that pays its chief executive officer 300 times what they earn, a company that reported $6.9 billion in net income during the first six months of 2011, yet it wants to cut wages and benefits amounting to $20,000 per employee.

Members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) decided their livelihood was on the line and that corporate crocodile tears about a decline in revenue were essentially a Verizon song-and-dance that's at odds with the facts.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Verizon "isn't under any financial stress."

FedEx wins a round with the Teamsters

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters this months withdrew a petition for an election at a FedEx facility in Brockton, Mass.

The union has been eyeing Memphis-based FedEx for some time and saw the Brockton ground facility as a place with potential for success. Earlier this month, however, union leaders decided they would wait and fight another day.

Professors unite in Florida

Faced with a governor every bit as anti-union as Wisconsin's Scott Walker, teachers in Florida's higher education system have wasted no time organizing.

According to Labor Notes, unionized faculty members at the University of Florida have seen their numbers rise from just 20 percent density last year to more than 40 percent today. At the state's unionized community colleges, union density has reached 70 percent and even higher. Florida State University professors are also organizing rapidly.

And among those fighting the good fight for laid-off faculty is the United Faculty of Florida organization.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott and other Republicans have pushed legislation to ease the decertification of public employee unions as well as make voting for the general population more difficult.

Unions remain strong on the Gulf Coast

On Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, Jim Couch, business manager of the 1,800-member International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 733, says organized labor remains strong despite layoffs, Northrop Grumman’s spinoff into a much leaner Huntington Ingalls Industries, and the U.S. Navy’s planned trimming of its fleet from 600 to just over 300 ships.

“We’re holding our own,” Couch says. “Even though we have a new company, we all know each other. We have a very cordial relationship. We do sit down and talk to each other, and we agree to disagree at times.”

The IBEW is just one of several unions that together represent more than 75 percent of the company’s 9,000-member workforce on the Gulf Coast. These include electricians, carpenters, boilermakers, and other skilled craft trades. In 2007, thousands of Northrop Grumman workers went on strike for better wages and benefits, and a contract was eventually approved.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

CNN's August 14 Blair Mountain documentary: Where's the passion? Where's the justice?

(To the right is a photograph from the Battle for Blair between miners and coal operators' private militia in 1921)

H.L. Mencken, the “sage of Baltimore” and old-school curmudgeon of journalism, once had this to say about journalistic objectivity: “I’ve been a reporter for many years, and I can tell you that no reporter worth a hoot ever wrote a purely objective story.”

As a professor of journalism ethics, I talk a lot about objectivity, how it means different things to different people, and how some notions of it typically give the ultimate word to the powerful or at best short-change the side of justice because “objectivity” means both sides get equal billing in the story--whether they’re equal or not.

That’s what happened in the early days of the civil rights movement. Racist sheriffs in the Deep South complaining about “outside agitators” got equal say with local blacks who were “sick and tired of being sick and tired” of a system that kept them at the bottom.

Where’s this leading? To this past Sunday evening, August 14, and CNN anchor and special correspondent Soledad O’Brien’s Battle for Blair Mountain: Working in America, a documentary that attempts to tell the story of the battle between neighbor and neighbor in Sharples, W. Va., over whether the Arch Coal and (unnamed in the documentary) Massey Energy coal companies should destroy nearby Blair Mountain in search of coal and profits.

“It’s us against the world,” coal company supporter Linda Dials tells O’Brien. Her husband, James, a modern-day “coal miner” who essentially tries to rebuild the mountains his employer destroys, puts it this way: “I’ve got to work. That’s the bottom line.”

O’Brien, paying homage to CNN’s notion of journalistic objectivity, threads a treacherous path through “both sides” of a complex, emotion-laden story. The Dials represent one side, and they get the first word and the last word.

They want the government to allow the coal companies to remove the mountaintop to get to the coal that lies underneath. Mountaintop removal is, as O’Brien says, a very efficient way of coal mining. Blast away, and there’s the coal! It only takes 25 workers to do what 80 workers would do in underground mining, an option the companies now feel is too expensive.

Arch Coal declined an interview with O’Brien. Officials at notorious safety-standard violator Massey Energy (which began calling itself Alpha Natural Resources after 29 miners at its Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia were killed in an explosion in April 2010), it would seem, were never asked for an interview. Both companies applied for as many as six permits to blow the mountain up.

James Dial earns $65,000 a year (nearly twice what local school teachers earn) doing “reclamations” on destroyed mountains—that is, taking his bulldozer and crew and trying to rebuild a mountain with the refuse of rock and sand mountaintop removal leaves. He’s a trained carpenter, but that line of work doesn’t pay $65,000 a year in rural West Virginia. He and his wife lead the effort to let the companies have their way.

On the other side of the equation are folks like: Jimmy Weekley, whose house is close to Blair Mountain; Billy Smutko, who worries about “what do you get” 30 years from now after all the mountains are destroyed, and along with them streams and other water sources; and Chuck Keeney, whose great-grandfather was one of the 10,000 coal miners who went on strike on Blair Mountain in 1921 to fight coal company tyranny and be able to join the United Mine Workers. That bloody battle was one of the key events in labor history in this country, and Keeney and others would like to preserve Blair Mountain for that reason as well.

O’Brien does an admirable job bringing together scientists, government officials, and activists who tell how destructive mountaintop removal is in Appalachia. It creates an environmental disaster, they say. This is where she frames the story: environment versus jobs, tree huggers versus blue-collar workers.

Yet the truth is that mountaintop removal destroys more than the environment. It destroys communities as well as jobs. In fact, the best quote in O’Brien’s documentary comes from Billy Smutko: “When mountaintop removal started, that’s when the community started disappearing.”

The New York Times and other media outlets have written about the destruction that mountaintop removal leaves. This is how the Times put it in its headline to an article on the issue this April: “As mountaintops fall to mining, towns disappear and people scatter.”

The Dials don’t see it that way. James Dial wants to keep his $65,000-a-year job. Nothing wrong with that, until a journalist puts that perspective on an equal level with a mountain of evidence and the perspective of nearly everyone else who has any real insight into what mountaintop removal ultimately means.

As is often the case with so-called “objective” stories, the real issue lies beyond the two sides presented. Where is there real scrutiny of the coal companies and their practices? Their involvement in the communities? Their past records? They hand O’Brien a press release and take a powder. Where is there a real look into the history of this area, the epic, century-old struggle of miners for social justice?

What comes to mind is TV journalist/celebrity Diane Sawyer’s prize-winning A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains broadcast on ABC in February 2009, the culmination of a two-year project by Kentucky native Sawyer about Appalachian poverty that said practically nothing about the role of industry in that poverty but tons about corporate media’s lack of zeal for real muckraking journalism.

Where is the passion that drove George Stoney, Judith Helfand, and Susanne Rostock in their riveting documentary about the Depression-era cotton mill strikes, The Uprising of ’34? Where is the passion that makes Alexandra Lescaze’s 2003 documentary about textile workers in North Carolina, Where Do You Stand?, fill the viewing room with righteous indignation against greed and injustice?

The facts in O’Brien’s story do indicate where justice truly lies, and, to her credit, she did a lot of legwork to gather and present those facts. However, the context is deeper and broader than what is presented in Battle for Blair Mountain: Working in America.

Ol' H.L. Mencken was a conservative (in many ways) Germanophile who probably would argue with me into the wee hours on most issues in politics. However, I have a feeling he would say this to Soledad O’Brien: “You were there. What did you see? What did it tell you? Did it make you angry? You got the facts. Did they tell a story, a story the people need to hear, a story of passion and tragedy? A story that might make a difference? Tell that story, and tell it with passion, dammit!”

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Delta's role in the FAA shutdown, IKEA's Virginia workers vote union, and the Southern heart of the Tea Party Movement

Here's the latest Labor South round-up, and once again much of it shows the South's profound influence on national politics today--whether it's Atlanta-based Delta Airlines conspiring with House Republicans in the shutdown of the FAA, or the Southern domination of the Tea Party movement.

FAA gets temporary retrieve but labor union issue remains

President Obama signed a bill Friday ending the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, but the central issue that made House Republicans willing to render 4,000 agency employees and thousands of airport construction project workers jobless--labor union rules--remains unresolved.

"The House Republicans freely admit that this is simply an effort to leverage one issue to hijack the legislative process and gain the upper hand on negotiating an anti-labor provision," U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., of the Senate Commerce Committee said on the Senate floor last week.

Indeed, the ongoing assault on both public and private labor unions waged by Republicans across the country continues, and it was at the heart of the two-week FAA shutdown, which cost the deficit-strapped federal government $350 million in revenues as a result of uncollected taxes on airline tickets. Congress went on vacation without authorizing the FAA.

Although some Republicans claimed the main issue was their opposition to the funding of rural air service that was included in the FAA budget, their desire to destroy unions was the primary mission.

At issue was a National Mediation Board ruling that non-votes will no longer count as "no" votes in union elections in the airline industry. As in practically every other kind of election, only those votes cast in a union election will now count as either "yes" or "no". The NMB oversees the airline industry.

Backing the Republicans in their anti-union mission is Delta Airlines, which actually benefited from the shutdown by pocketing the portion of ticket prices that would have gone to the federal government as taxes. Delta CEO Richard Anderson, whose salary is $9 million, has strongly criticized the NMB ruling.

Rockefeller specifically pointed to Delta as a culprit in the shutdown. "I wish I understood why the policy objections of one company--Delta Airlines--mattered more than the livelihood of thousands of people," the senator said.

The authorization signed by Obama Friday leaves the issue unresolved but one that Congress will have to face when its five-week vacation comes to an end.

Ikea workers vote union

In a 221-69 vote in late July, workers at Ikea's Danville, Va. plant chose the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers to represent them in future contract negotiations with the Swedish furniture maker.

The vote came after a tough campaign that included the company's hiring of the union-busting Jackson Lewis law firm. The workers' issues included "stretch-out"-like conditions at the work site, required overtime, eliminated raises, and low pay.

The campaign was marked by irony. Ikea had long enjoyed a stellar reputation as a good corporate friend to its workers in Europe, and it had cooperated with unions there. Its European workers also enjoyed wages that started at $19 an hour, compared to the $8 an hour its beginning Virginia workers earned.

The Southern heart of the Tea Party movement writer Michael Lind's August 2 and linked here story on the Tea Party movement exposes the Southern extremists who are its base.

"It should be called the Fort Sumter movement," Lind writes. "Today's Tea Party movement is merely the latest of a series of attacks on American democracy by the white Southern minority, which for more than two centuries has not hesitated to paralyze, sabotage or, in the case of the Civil War, destroy American democracy in order to get their way."

Despite the movement's Boston-evoking name and the media's association of it with the Midwest, the Tea Party is at its core the white Southern conservative elite, Lind writes, and he notes that the four states with the most Tea Party representatives in the U.S. House are: Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and Georgia.

"The fact that Tea Party conservatism speaks with a pronounced Southern drawl may have escaped the attention of the mainstream media, but it is obvious to members of Congress who have to try to work with these disproportionately-Southern fanatics," Lind writes.

So much for the much-ballyhooed New South. As the author of this blog has written before, today's South in some key ways isn't really so new after all, certainly when it comes to who rules and who serves.