Friday, January 28, 2011

Chinese firms hoping that workers of the world don't unite? Another labor round-up from the South and Global South

(The accompanying photo was taken by the author in Singapore last May. It shows an interesting mix of capitalism and communist ideology with posters of Mao decorating a storefront in Singapore's Chinatown.)

This latest round-up of labor activity in or related to the South clearly shows the growing connections between Dixie and the Global South as fast-growing China deepens its investment in the U.S. with new plants planned in labor-hostile South Carolina and Texas, and as Arkansas-based Wal-Mart extends its reach into the African continent.

Even the recent killing of coal mine safety legislation in the U.S. Congress has global implications when you consider the sufferings of coal miners not only in West Virginia but around the world in the past year.

China and the South

The world's largest communist country, China, may have been founded on the pro-proletariat theories and preachings of Marx, Lenin, and Mao, but it today increasingly stands shoulder to shoulder with the world's premier capitalist economy, the United States, in its attitude toward workers and unions.

As reported recently by Phil Mattera of Dirt Diggers Digest and Facing South, Chinese investment in the U.S. has soared in the past two years. Those investments include plans by the appliance-maker Haier Group to build a factory in South Carolina as well as Tianjin Pipe's plans for a $1 billion plant in Texas. Chinese companies have had an eye on the U.S. appliance industry for some time and tried unsuccessfully several years ago to purchase the Maytag company.

China has also been eyeing the U.S. auto market for some time, of course. GM sold Nexteer Automotive to a Chinese firm, and a Chinese automaker has looked at a site in Mississippi for a possible future plant. If that ever materializes, the United Auto Workers should be ready for them. UAW President Bob King said earlier this month that his organization is going to be increasingly focused on the South in its future organizing efforts. That is, after all, where the industry is going.

What would Mao say to all this? What's particularly interesting is that these companies are looking to the South, where they hope to capitalize on low-union rates and low wages as well as from relaxed regulatory and environmental regulations.

What is the message here? "Workers of the World Don't Unite"?

Wal-Mart in South Africa

The South's own global mega-corporation, Wal-Mart, recently got the nod from the shareholders of the South African retail chain Massmart to allow the Arkansas-based firm to purchase 51 percent of the company's shares. This sets the stage for Wal-Mart's entry into the continent of Africa, and from a base in its most prosperous country. Wal-Mart stores are already in South America and Asia.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions opposed the purchase. Sidumo Diamini, president of the congress, told the Associated Press the purchase offers "nothing for the workers. ... Wal-Mart ... has never done anything for the workers."

Massmart stores stretch across 14 countries on the African continent.

Holding a magnifying glass to Wal-Mart operations, however, are U.S. unions through the Web sites Wake Up Walmart and Walmart Watch, which just announced that they are joining forces and creating "one unified voice to hold Walmart accountable for its impact on communities, the American workforce, the retail sector, the environment and the nation's economy."

In fact, the combined operations have launched a petition-signing campaign to get Wal-Mart to engage community groups in "ensuring quality job creation."

Although Wal-Mart remains non-union in the U.S., Wake Up Walmart and Walmart Watch have put public pressure on the firm that led to change in some of its practices, such as the forcing of employees to work off the clock.

Coal Mine Safety At Risk Here and Abroad

Finally, in the U.S. Congress, the lameduck session that many heralded as a huge success for President Obama failed to produce legislation that might prevent future disasters such as the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 miners last April. House Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., pushed hard for a bill that would have made it easier to shut down unsafe mines, set up new protections for whistleblowers, and increase penalties against derelict mine owners.

However, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers sent their army of lobbyists into the fray and got 99.9 percent of House Republicans and a couple dozen Democrats to oppose and thus kill the bill.

The year 2010 was the deadliest for U.S. coal miners in 18 years. Forty-eight miners died. However, mine safety is not just an issue here. It's truly a global issue, as we saw with last year's dramatic rescue of 33 trapped Chilean miners.

To get an idea of how bad things are for miners, we have to turn our attention back to China, which ranks first in the world in miner deaths. In the year 2009, 2,631 miners in China lost their lives. Just last October, 37 miners died in Yuzhou City in the Hunan province after a gas explosion.

The Chinese government has adopted new regulations aimed at making coal mining safer. Critics, however, say such efforts thus far have been insufficient and too disjointed to meet the problem.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Pro-Employer, Anti-Employee Rulings of the Mississippi Workers' Compensation Commission Under Review

(Following is another scoop by this blog on the anti-employee rulings of the Mississippi Workers' Compensation Commission. It describes a pending review of that arch-conservative commission. This is in Mississippi, typically the South extreme, but the assault on workers and workers' rights that it points to is taking place across the region and beyond. Previous blog postings and columns published at this site this past summer and early fall helped re-ignite the debate on this issue.)

The Mississippi Workers’ Compensation Commission and its rulings will be the subject of a months-long review by the Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, PEER Director Max Arinder said last week.

“We have had some complaints filed with the committee about actions of the commission, about some of the decisions,” Arinder said.

PEER, whose 14 members include seven state senators and seven state House members, initially approved plans to conduct a review of the commission last October pending the availability of resources. It reaffirmed this decision in December.

As detailed in this column last August, a study ordered by Jackson plaintiffs’ attorney Roger K. Doolittle showed that the three-member commission is decidedly on the side of employers in most disputes between employers and employees regarding workplace injuries. According to the study, the commission’s three members voted to reject administrative law judge decisions favoring workers between 75 and 91 percent of the time.

“I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I’ve never seen a commission this conservative,” said Jackson attorney John Jones, who handles workers’ compensation cases.

Commission Chairman Liles Williams disputed claims of bias but conceded that his own numbers show him voting for the employer 59 percent of the time. Williams’ six-year term in office was scheduled to end in December, but sources say he has gotten the nod from the governor for a second term.

Arinder said he wasn’t at liberty to discuss details of the complaints received about the commission or the upcoming PEER review. However, he said he expected the review to begin in a matter of weeks and that he hoped it wouldn’t take longer than three months to complete. PEER reviews assess and evaluate the accountability of state programs and agencies. Like many state programs, PEER has suffered significant budgetary cutbacks in recent years, reducing its staff from 27 to 21 positions.

The state Court of Appeals handed the Workers’ Compensation Commission a setback in October when it reversed the commission decision in the case of Shirley Cole versus Ellisville State School. The commission had earlier overturned an administrative judge ruling in favor of Cole, a school employee who injured her knee at work. “The Commission erred by reducing Cole’s award of permanent-partial disability benefits,” ruled the Court of Appeals with all of its nine judges in concurrence. “We reverse the Commission’s decision … and reinstate the (administrative judge’s) decision.”

The pending review won’t mark the first time the commission has come under PEER’s scrutiny. At the beginning of Gov. Barbour’s first term, PEER issued a report that said the commission needed more management oversight, and it pointed to poor record-keeping of employee time sheets and accrued leave files.

The state House Insurance Committee held a hearing on Doolittle’s findings more than a year ago and discussed the possibility of an investigation of the commission. However, the investigation remained “in limbo” a year later because of the sharp differences between those on opposing sides of the issue, said committee chairman Walter Robinson of Bolton.

Although statistics on work-related injuries and deaths in Mississippi can be difficult to pin down, attorney Jones estimates at least as many as 13,000 workers are injured on the job every year. Some 80 Mississippi workers died from work-related injuries in 2008.

Mississippi has long ranked at or near the bottom in the nation in workers’ compensation benefits. It was the last state in the nation to adopt a workers’ compensation law. Even today it remains one of the few states that award less than 100 percent of weekly wages to workers injured on the job. Even if the commission rules in their favor, injured Mississippi workers only receive two-thirds of their weekly wages.

A 2005 study by the Workers Compensation Research Institute showed that cases in Mississippi also take much longer to resolve than cases in other states. “The average interval from petition filing to a judge’s order was almost 20 months,” the study said.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Edwin Edwards, last of the true populists and bane of Southern Republicans, gets a taste of freedom after eight years

Edward Washington Edwards was one of the most colorful politicians in the post-war U.S. South, a dyed-in-the-wool populist of the Left (the only true populist) and never-ending source of frustration to moralizing Republicans and other conservatives who kept indicting him until they finally succeeded in putting him behind bars.

After eight years in prison on a 2002 bribery and extortion conviction, the four-time Louisiana governor and former congressman entered a halfway house in Baton Rouge last week en route to his long-sought freedom.

The 83-year-old Cajun has always insisted on his innocence and said he was a victim of his political enemies. He was convicted for his role in the rigging of the casino licensing process in his state.

A final link in the long chain of colorful Louisiana governors that included fellow populist Democrats Huey "Kingfish" Long and "Uncle" Earl Long, Edwards enjoyed a lifelong reputation as a devoted gambler and ladies' man, another Louisiana lineage that goes back to swashbuckling early 19th century pirate Jean Lafitte.

I covered Edwards in the 1980s as a political correspondent whose beat included Mississippi, Louisiana and the South in general. I particularly recall a speech he gave in Biloxi, Miss., October 1984. He'd come to rally support for Mississippi Democrat William Winter's U.S. Senate bid and to lambast his favorite targets: Republicans.

"You can afford to vote Republican when there is no need," Edwards said in his Cajun accent, "but, man, when things are tough, you need a man who is concerned about problems."

"Find one person without a job and that's one too many, one uneducated child and that's one too many, one elderly person who goes to bed unsure about his future and that's one too many."

Edwards told the applauding crowd that he knew personally what need is. He said he grew up in poverty with no electricity, plumbing or running water in his home. He said his mother was a midwife who delivered 1,800 babies, and he was delivered by his grandmother with a kerosene lamp providing the only light.

And, he added, "By golly, I was the first Cajun Catholic elected governor of the state of Louisiana."

Ah, populism! The real kind. Don't you miss it?

Monday, January 10, 2011

On the Tuscon Shootings: Corporate Media Putting on Blinders

The decline in journalism in this nation can be seen in the mainstream media coverage of the tragedy that took place in Tuscon, Arizona, this past Saturday.

The shooting of Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others, including the killing of a federal judge, a nine-year-old girl, and four more of the victims, has prompted a national discussion about the vitriol of modern-day politics and the increasing vocabulary of violence that characterizes it.

Pima County, Ariz., Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a Texas native, stepped into the middle of that discussion when he pointed an accusing finger at the "Mecca for prejudice and bigotry" that Arizona has become, a situation created in large part by politicians and their proselytizing pundits on television and in the blogosphere.

The words were hardly out of Dupnik's mouth, however, before media personalities like NBC Today Show's Matt Lauer and veteran political commentator Tom Brokaw jumped to defuse them. In their assessments on Monday morning (Jan. 10, 2010), Lauer bemoaned extremes on both the Left and the Right while Brokaw recalled the violence of the leftist radicals of the 1960s.

Neither seemed to want to see what's obvious to much of the rest of the nation. It's the violent rhetoric of the Right today that's at the heart of this problem. Where is there a liberal blogger spewing the vitriol of hate and violence to a large audience, as Lauer implies? Does Brokaw have to go back 40 or 50 years to find a liberal seed to what happened in Tuscon? That's like the right-wing so-called "scholars" out there nowadays who've been trying to put a leftist, socialist tag on Hitler and Mussolini, and in the process take the sting out of right-wing extremism.

Media ombudsman Howard Kurtz is another corporate media type who wants to let right-wingers off the hook, choosing instead in recent commentary to blame journalists and their war-like political terminology (example: use of terms like "bombshell" and "air war").

Let's cut to the chase. Dupnik knows. Lauer, Brokaw and Kurtz are too comfortably removed in their New York or Washington corporate offices to see what the sheriff sees on the ground level of America.

Giffords' opponent in her hard-fought 2010 bid for a third term in Congress was Tea Party Republican Jesse Kelly, who once campaigned from a shooting range and brandished slogans like "Get on Target for Victory in November". As is well known now, Sarah Palin included Giffords on her "target map" of Democrats needing to be removed from office in the 2010 elections. These Democrats were placed in gun-like crosshairs on Palin's map. Giffords' offense was her support of health care reform and, of course, the "D" after her name.

Remember the gun-wielding, screaming, and bullying that characterized the health care debate, as well as the screaming, bullying blusterings of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck?

When journalists are unable to see what's before their eyes, they stop being journalists.

Friday, January 7, 2011

2011: A watershed year for pols and the two-party system?

The year 2011 may prove a watershed year for politicians--from President Obama on down to your local legislator--and for the nation's two-party system. This may be the year we really see who truly serves Wall Street or Main Street.

Alabama's George Wallace used to say there wasn't a "dime's worth of difference" between the two parties, and he was absolutely right in many ways. In the U.S. Congress, both Democrats and Republicans are so beholden to K Street lobbyists, Wall Street, and their own self-preservation that it's no wonder Americans are looking to Tea Partyers and similar groups for solutions.

President Obama's most recent picks for his top advisers are further signs that he's becoming just another Bill Clinton Democrat, one of those Democratic Leadership Council types that are about as removed from FDR's Democratic Party as you can get.

It actually may be more politically interesting to see what's going to happen on the other side of the political aisle as quintessential corporate boardroom Republicans like new House Speaker John Boehner deal with the anti-government Tea Partyers in the party's ranks. Remember: Boehner's party isn't really anti-government. It just wants government to suit the purposes of its powerful financial backers. There's no real ideology there other than a bipartisan view of government as essentially a spoils system for those in power.

Here in the South, we have an old-line, blue-blooded Republican like Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour considering a bid for the presidency. On the surface, Barbour might seem to have the perfect combination of the insider connections only a former Republican National Committee chair and top Washington lobbyist could have with a record as governor that seems to have some actual Tea Party-like credentials, given his philosophy of minimal government and opposition to tax increases.

If there are any mainstream reporters still out there digging for truth, however, it shouldn't be hard to show that Barbour is no Tea Party protester. Like Boehner, he is a symbol of the very system Tea Partyers claim to protest. Barbour never saw a corporation he didn't like, and that's why he just pushed through a $500 million incentives package for a new solar panel-making plant in Hattiesburg at a time when the state is planning to close mental health facilities due to lack of funding.

At the state level, Barbour still has to contend with Democrats like House Speaker Billy McCoy who still believe government should be at the service of people, not corporations and fat-cats.

Too bad there aren't more Democrats like McCoy in the U.S. Congress--or in the White House, for that matter.