Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Southern Roots of the Battle in Wisconsin

The battle between public workers and union-busting Republicans in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and other states has its roots in a region where union-busters, with few exceptions, have held sway since the Civil War.

The Southern threads to the confrontation now taking place in the Wisconsin capital of Madison are many and complex, but you can start with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker himself. When he says he needs to gut workers' rights to preserve fiscal integrity, he's echoing every rant and rave that came out of Gene Talmadge's mouth in 1930s Georgia. Talmadge was pretty typical of most Southern political demagogues. They hated unions every bit as much as they despised an uppity black.

Helping to finance the current assault on workers' rights in Wisconsin--as well as similar assaults in other states--are behind-the-scenes bigwigs like David and Charles Koch, the anti-union billionaire oil men who've taken the U.S. Supreme Court's pro-corporate Citizens United ruling and run with it. They and their Virginia-based Americans for Prosperity organization have pumped millions of dollars into GOP coffers, and they're at the heart of a so-called "network" that includes enough corporate, media, and judicial powerhouses to entrench the corporate state in this nation for decades to come.

Social gatherings of the network--as reported by national columnist Joe Conason--have included celebrities such as U.S. Supreme Court justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia as well as media corporate mouthpieces Glenn Beck and Charles Krauthammer.

As Nation columnist Eric Alterman pointed out recently, this latest wave of right-wingers is simply realizing the corporate takeover of the country that former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell (a Virginian) envisioned in his notorious 1971 memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce director. Powell essentially called for the establishment of a bona fide plutocracy.

Workers, however, are taking a strong stand. The world has heard the protests in Madison, Wisconsin. Similar protests in Indiana this week forced Republican legislators to back away from a proposed "right-to-work" law that would have barred unions from requiring all employees to pay dues in exchange for representation.

These so-called "right to work" laws--the result of the GOP-and-Southern Democrat-backed Taft-Hartley Act of 1947--exist in most Southern states today and are a major impediment to union organizing.

Conservative Southern pols aren't just idly tuning into Fox News and watching the goings-on in Wisconsin with detached amusement, however. They know an opportunity when they see one.

Virginia lawmakers are hoping to embed that state's right-to-work law in the state constitution--much like Mississippi did during the administration of arch-segregationist Gov. Ross Barnett.

Earlier this year Alabama banned public employee union dues that might be used in political campaigns. In North Carolina, of course, public employees don't even have the right to bargain collectively, the reason for a rally by labor and civil rights organizations in Raleigh just this week.

Whether people are union members are not, they'd better be aware of the ultimate goals of these right-wing organizations and their leaders. Those goals stretch far beyond unions.

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are wanting states to declare bankruptcy so they can nullify existing pension agreements, according to Jane McAlevey of Nation magazine.

As for the Koch brothers, listen to these goals expressed by David Koch when he ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket back in 1980:

- Eliminate corporate and personal income taxes
- Eliminate minimum-wage laws
- Eliminate Social Security

In other words, the Koch brothers and their ilk would like to turn the nation into the Old (sometimes called New) South, a place where workers have few rights and earn bottom-level wages with minimal benefits, political decisions come out of the corporate boardrooms, and environmental and other protections are scant or just plain non-existent.

Is this what the nation wants? Is this what was meant by the saying, "The South shall rise again"?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

US Uncut plans major protest Feb. 26 to hold corporations accountable

Protest is in the air, and it's about time!

The US Uncut organization is planning a nationwide and international protest on Saturday, February 26, to "hold major, multinational corporations accountable for dodging their income tax obligations and then leaving average American workers to bear the burden of their negligence," says US Uncut activist Betsy Chapman.

An offshoot of UK Uncut, the organization actually was started by Carl Gibson of Jackson, Miss., and it is now operating in 29 U.S. cities, including Jackson. It is hoping to set up many more local offices across the country, including in my own hometown, Oxford, Miss.

The February 26 protest will be part of an international protest against tax-avoiding corporations and the politicians who curry favor with them while slashing much-needed programs that serve the public as well as slashing or trimming back public jobs, as we're now seeing in Wisconsin and other states.

President Obama has called for trimming or eliminating as many as 200 federal programs in his latest budget, and Republicans would like to push those and more cuts to draconian levels.

Meanwhile nearly two-thirds of U.S. corporations don't even pay income taxes, taking advantage of tax myriad loopholes and offshore tax havens, according to US Uncut.

According to the U.S. Government Accounting Office, those havens are enjoyed by 83 of the top 100 publicly traded corporations operating in the United States.

Check out the US Uncut Web site for more information.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Wisconsin Protest: Workers Take A Stand

These are exciting times, not only in the Middle East but also Wisconsin. People are rising up and telling truth to power. The truth is they've had enough. Like Mississippi civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said back in the day: They're "sick and tired of being sick and tired."

The U.S. labor movement is on the line in Wisconsin, where a union-busting governor would like to strip workers of their legal right to organize and speak as one. In the same state where the bottomless coffers of the GOP money machine recently brought down one of the U.S. Senate's most progressive members, Russ Feingold, the true aim of that political/corporate machine and its ward heelers and precinct captains has become clear: DESTROY UNIONS.

Wisconsin is a long way from the U.S. South, but the union-busters got their inspiration from down here. They're working hard to gut public sector unions across the country and enact so-called right-to-work laws beyond the South and Midwest. They're even looking to woebegotten Mississippi--the nation's poorest state in most categories regarding workers--as a shining citadel. Why do I say that? Well, this is the state that not only enacted a right-to-work law, it put it into its state constitution. That is what other states are now hoping to do.

I'll soon be reporting more on this and the Southern connections in an upcoming posting.

Take a look at this video by Matt Wisniewski to get some inspiration as you read the headlines and watch the evening news about the goings-on in Wisconsin. Enjoy the great music from the band Arcade Fire, too. The song is Rebellion. This is a people's movement. Power to the people!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour: A master of the smoke-filled backrooms considers a presidential bid

(The accompanying photograph of Haley Barbour is by Gage Skidmore.)

Twice in my life I have heard political experts say these words: “Haley Barbour has no chance.”

The first time was back in 1982 when the then-35-year-old Mississippian and former Nixon campaigner ran for the U.S. Senate against incumbent John C. Stennis, who first took office the year Barbour was born.

Barbour spent a million dollars in the state’s most expensive race up to then, gave the 81-year-old legend a one-two punch on his age—Mississippi needs “a senator for the ‘80s,” not a senator in his 80s, the message went. Stennis was tough, however. After convincing then-President Reagan not to campaign on Barbour’s behalf, the legend KO’d his ambitious opponent in a 64-36 percent vote and in 80 of Mississippi’s 82 counties.

Twenty-one years later, after a hugely successful career as a Republican operative, lobbyist and one of the Beltway’s premier insiders, Barbour ran for governor. Again political experts thumbed their noses. Let me paraphrase: ‘No way are the people of Mississippi going to elect the quintessential fat-cat lobbyist.”

When the bell rang this time, however, Barbour’s opponent was on the mat, victim of a $10.6 million campaign and a very smart politician who sported a pin on his lapel with the Mississippi flag and its Confederate insignia.

After nearly two terms as governor, Barbour is now considering a bid for the presidency, an eyebrow-raiser unless you remember this guy had the chutzpah at 35 to take on a Mississippi giant. “People will identify him with some of the Old South,” Tougaloo College political scientist Stephen Rozman naysayed to the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger. “How can he transcend that and have a national appeal where he can connect?”

Unquestioned is Barbour’s mastery of the smoke-filled backrooms. As Republican National Committee chair, he helped engineer the GOP takeover in Congress in 1994. As founder of the Barbour, Griffith & Rogers lobbying firm, he became one of the most connected men in Washington. His firm’s clients included the Swiss government (defending its old World War II-era Nazi accounts), Big Tobacco, Big Pharmaceuticals, former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi, even the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Add Big Oil and Big Chemicals to the list, too, if you include Barbour’s other lobbying outfit, the National Environmental Strategies Company.

As head of the Republican Governors’ Association, Barbour helped raise tens of millions of dollars for GOP gubernatorial candidates.

Let’s just say Barbour has collected enough IOUs to fill several large suitcases.

But behind-the-scenes mastery was never enough for this politician. Thus that Senate race in 1982, that governor’s race in 2003, and now, maybe, possibly, the BIG ONE.

He’s probably the most powerful governor Mississippi has ever had. He turned the state Senate into his private duchy. Only Speaker Billy McCoy and the Democratically controlled House stood in the way of a complete takeover of Mississippi politics.

Still, as a presidential candidate, Barbour would be in a new ballgame altogether.

Every backroom deal would be subject to a new level of scrutiny, even in today’s Fox-dominated media, the kind that he got in 1997 when he had to testify before the U.S. Senate Governmental Affairs Committee about his Hong Kong moneyman pal Ambrous Young and Young’s financial support of the GOP in the 1994 election.

He has a conservative political record that should appeal to Tea Partyers—think of all those calls to cut Medicaid, education, mental health centers in the nation’s poorest state. However, that super-connected résumé, oozing as it does with the money-soaked, favor-currying culture that Tea Partyers as well as progressives despise, could pose a problem.

Then there’s that nagging Barbour penchant for gaffes, going all the way back to 1982 when the New York Times quoted him as telling an aide who used the word “coons” in referring to blacks that he was going to be “reincarnated as a watermelon and placed at the mercy of blacks.” Barbour insisted he was misquoted, but the foot-in-the-mouth syndrome was still there as recently as December when The Weekly Standard quoted him singing the praises of the segregationist Citizens Council in Yazoo City.

There’s the rub. Nobody quotes you in those smoke-filled backrooms.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Atkins Plan for UAW Success in the South

Back in May 2009, I wrote Cindy Estrada (now vice president) of the United Auto Workers a letter in response to her request for input about what might help the union to attain a stronger foothold in the South. The UAW's recent unveiling of a plan to devote $60 million toward organizing the South and Midwest prompted me to pull my letter back out of the files and see how much of it might still apply. A lot, I believe.

UAW President Bob King, speaking to Labor Notes, recently compared the new campaign to poker, saying it is the same as an "all-in-hand. If we lose, we'll die quicker. If we win, we rebuild the UAW."

Like the labor movement as a whole, the UAW is in a fight for survival. Just 350,000 workers carry a UAW card today, compared to 1.5 million in 1979. Across the movement, union membership is just 11.9 percent of the nation's workforce, a drop from 12.3 percent in 2009.

The big, potentially fatal thorn in the UAW's side is the foreign-owned, non-unionized transplant in the South--Nissan, Toyota, Hyundai, Mercedes. The UAW's agreement with the Big Three a couple years ago to allow new hires to start as low as $14 an hour helped cut the differential between unionized and non-unionized plants. Even if those foreign-owned companies may not pay union scale, they pay a lot more than most other Southern-based companies. So why should a Southerner join a union?

King and the UAW want at least to try to convince companies to allow intimidation-free elections to give workers a true choice, but if that doesn't work they're ready to wage global-sized corporate campaigns to shame the companies into allowing democracy to work in their workforce.

Still, it's an uphill fight with the withering attacks of proto-fascist Glenn Beck and the Fox News channel providing a constant anti-union drumbeat. There are lots of conservative blue-collar viewers in the South who've never had any contact with unions, much less benefited from a union tradition.

So let's look at the Atkins plan for UAW success in the South. I've done some editing of my letter to Estrada, eliminating segments that are now dated or irrelevant, but the bulk of it is unchanged. Let me know what you think.

Letter to the UAW

Hope you’re doing well. I’ve done a lot of thinking about our earlier discussions, and I have some ideas together I’d like to share with you.

I believe a strong labor movement—and a strong UAW—are not only important and needed for the South but for the nation as a whole. I think you’re right on target when you talk about a new message that focuses on “we together” rather than “what I can do for you (or you for me)”, more inclusiveness and greater density (or solidarity).

I actually think these goals can be achieved. I’m often the last optimist in the room, but in this case I feel history shows us it can be done. I remember the pre-civil rights-era South, a time when a truly “new” South was considered impossible. I also lived for a time in West Germany when the idea of a re-united Germany was considered a pipe dream. This is a challenging time we face, but it is also an exciting time, one of great opportunity for a rebirth.

Here in the South it may seem nearly impossible that a worker with Nissan or Toyota would “risk” his or her job security by joining a union, particularly when they’re making twice what their neighbors are making. Yet I’m going to outline some ideas below that offer ways to realize the “impossible dream” without making us all a bunch of foolish Don Quixotes! Some of them aren’t really so original, and some may indeed be foolish, but nothing’s lost by putting them out there.

A Social Movement

I agree with labor scholar Nelson Lichtenstein that the future of the labor movement—and thus its vanguard, the UAW—is to recapture its old identity as a social movement. The civil rights movement took its inspiration from the UAW’s 1937 sit-down strike in Flint, Mich., and other similar events, even converting old union songs into civil rights songs. That spirit needs to be revived. I think it would appeal to young people, their idealism and energy, give them a movement with which they can make their mark in history, align them with working people. That was a failure of the late ‘60s radicalism (and of unions): there was practically no solidarity between student radicals and workers (I know because I was there and in the middle of it!).

In my book Covering for the Bosses, I wrote about existing alliances in the South that show promise of a welding together of civil rights and worker rights, such as the Southern Faith, Labor, and Community Alliance. This group not only brings blacks and whites together but also Latinos. The UAW has been a strong supporter and needs to continue to nurture and be identified with such community action groups.

Worker Solidarity

My friend Marty Fishgold, a labor writer and activist in NYC (who died in 2010), (once) told me about how the IBM example might help the UAW here and elsewhere. IBM workers earned nice, enviable wages while workers at IBM suppliers had to scratch out a living on minimum wages. There was no worker solidarity. The same situation exists in the auto industry, certainly here down South. Worker solidarity is key to long-term success for the UAW, and to achieve it will likely require the Five-Year Plan you discussed. My suggestion is to mount a “Worker Pride” campaign that really identifies all of us as workers---“If you have a boss, you’re a worker”—and not to shy away from “working class identity” (here I think I differ from Nelson Lichtenstein). This identity today can be shared by assembly line workers and high-tech workers and educators (and journalists). Even Silicon Valley workers could be made to identify with it these days! Believe me, you’re never going to get “middle-class solidarity”, and I’m not sure if the middle class even exists any more.

This worker pride can be specifically applied to workers in the auto industry. They are part of the last bastion of people in the USA who actually MAKE things. Their industry accounts for 25 percent of U.S. manufacturing. Take pride in that role, and don’t just hand it over to the corporate boardrooms and let them rework it to their own interests. I’ll return later to some auto industry specifics as far as appealing to workers at Toyota, Nissan, etc.

By the way, as a note here: Never underestimate the desire of most of the management and ownership class in the South (and that includes their politicians) to destroy unions. They are relentless and will stop at nothing. So eventually a working class militancy will be needed to confront them.

A Proposed Five-Year Plan

The UAW has to reach beyond just card-holding members. It would include tapping into old-fashioned Southern populism (the left-leaning kind of an Earl Long or Big Jim Folsom, not the right-wing populism of a Pat Robertson or Newt Gingrich). Ideas: Sponsor BBQ picnics, fish fries, open to the public (with ample security, however!), tap into media online and radio, spend some cash for TV and newspaper ads, begin a recruiting plan to get some country music, rap, or rock singers on board (study who might be sympathetic—country music singers all sing about working class life, while many rap enthusiasts want the music to rediscover social consciousness) and maybe even some big name stars like a Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson or a Bruce Springsteen (appeal to their social consciousness so they won’t charge so much for helping!). What about an ad or sponsorship at a NASCAR race (My note: The UAW already does this, of course)? At the local level, a lot of these things don’t have to be expensive. The UAW needs to become part of the culture, the community, and it can’t wait until Toyota is organized.

Reaching out to Jobless Workers and to Intellectuals & Artists

The UAW does indeed have to reach beyond members and the plant workers it wants to become members. There has to be a solidarity between all workers as well as intellectuals and artists. Locate laid-off people who may be angry or downright militant enough to volunteer to help—whether by speaking to worker groups and participating in labor or worker schools (another suggestion) that could be set up. For that matter, I would open up membership or affiliation to non-plant workers, people sympathetic to the cause who might like to have that card in their pocket and be willing to contribute dues and other help.

Reaching Young People

Young people have idealism and energy, and not a lot of outlets out there for them to express those things. They need a movement. They have the tech savvy and the connections (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to spread the word. They can be recruited through UAW or labor-friendly speakers, lectures, workshops, film or documentary showings, etc. At present, they have little or no exposure to the labor movement.

Tapping into Local Issues

Here in Mississippi, education has been a perennial issue since the early 1980s (actually before). The UAW needs to join that dialogue, become active in promoting good education—whether it helps immediate organizing needs or not. This is a good way to tap into education leaders and activists who might not necessarily think of the labor movement as one of their causes. Believe it or not, Mississippi does have its progressives—in education, civil rights, environment, etc.—it’s just they need to be educated about how workers’ rights fit into that picture. This applies to other Southern states, too.

Dealing with the Transplants: It's more than wages. It's respect & dignity

I think the UAW needs to move way beyond wage questions in appealing to workers. Respect and dignity are bigger issues with transplant workers. Of course, we can never forget fear as a part of their daily working lives. Life in a Toyota plant is all about intense competition with fellow workers (despite management’s talk about “team” effort), fear of injury (and thus down-shifting of duties or loss of job), surveillance, modern-day speedups (the “kaizen” concept), temps, and a creeping cynicism. That’s what the UAW needs to tap into, but it needs first to create the culture and climate that will make those workers turn to the UAW. This is what I’ve meant by the things I’ve suggested above.

As Tolstoy said, “Show, Don’t Tell.” Maybe there’s been too much telling in organizing and not enough showing. Getting workers into a discussion that allows them to reach their own conclusions about things will be much more effective, I think. Ultimately, make them also feel part of something larger than themselves, part of a movement. This is some of the most compelling testimony in The Uprising of ‘34, the great documentary about the textile strikes in the South in the 1930s. For the first time, those mill workers felt like they were part of something important, and that made them important. It gave them back their humanity. That film brought tears to my eyes.

So there you go. Take care and best wishes.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Young journalists in North Carolina provide a close-up view of trouble on Tobacco Road

Here's a little something different for this blog but certainly right on target in its concern for working folks in the South.

Check out the compelling and award-winning series titled Hardship & Hope on the impact of the Great Recession along Tobacco Road in central North Carolina. Photojournalism students at the University of North Carolina compiled the reports in 2009 although I just this week found out about them. That's thanks to Alex McDaniel, a graduate student in my Narrative Journalism class this semester at the University of Mississippi.

One of the series, Holding On by John Adkisson, tells of 45-year-old Allen Hutson of Oxford, N.C., who has lost his job but still has to make ends meet to support his family. It's the kind of story that could just as easily be told in 2011.

Another in the series, Stop the Presses by Stacey Axelrod, deals with journalists who’ve been laid off in the recession, some of whom I used to work with many years ago back at the old, now-defunct afternoon newspaper, The Raleigh Times.

The package provided yet more proof (I see this, too, in my classrooms) that young journalists are still out there, compelled and inspired by a sense of social justice, and getting real stories about real people in real situations. That's what good journalists have always done.