Thursday, March 31, 2011

Look to Fritz Lang's Metropolis to understand Scott Walker and the worker movement rising against him & his ilk

(To the right you see the original 1927 theatrical release poster for Metropolis, subject to U.S. fair use copyright law and used here to illustrate points cited in this posting.)

A scene in Fritz Lang's landmark 1927 silent film Metropolis perfectly characterizes the mindset of Republicans like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker who are bound and determined to destroy unions. In the scene, Joh Frederson, the industrialist ruler of the hellish futuristic city of Metropolis, has learned that some among the armies of workers who built his city are secretly meeting in its lower depths.

"I should like to know what my workers are doing in the catacombs," Frederson says in a sneering, sinister tone.

Well, "his" workers are meeting with their leader Maria in the hope of their eventual delivery from the misery of their dehumanized lives.

Lang's great testament to workers' humanity and against the autocratic rulers who would deny them their rights provides a good analogy to what is taking place across the land today as Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and elsewhere, backed by well-heeled financiers like the Koch brothers, proceed with their slash-and-burn policies aimed at destroying every gain workers have made since the 1930s.

In a way, they've done organized labor in this country a good deed, because they've awakened a sleeping giant. Thousands of protesters in Wisconsin suddenly made the nation and world aware that workers in this country are not the sheep-like herds depicted at the beginning of Lang's Metropolis.

A movement is unfolding in this country that faces enormous odds--an entrenched anti-union phalanx of political, industrial, media, and religious corporatists--but which may yet again prove the power of the people in what's left of our democracy.

Here in the U.S. South, which the above-mentioned phalanx has always considered its own very special turf, labor soldiers are marching forward. Long-striking steelworkers with Omnova Solutions in Columbus, Mississippi, recently marched all the way to Cleveland, Ohio, to protest a company that could give its CEO a 90 percent pay increase (to $3.5 million a year) at the same time it moved to strip seniority and other worker rights. See Mischa Gaus' story in Labor Notes about the issue.

Teachers unions in Alabama have helped block anti-union legislation in that state, just as the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance (MIRA) and its allies in recent days were able to kill Arizona-like anti-immigrant legislation in the Mississippi Legislature.

The sex discrimination lawsuit on behalf of Wal-Mart worker Betty Dukes and hundreds of thousands of other women against the Arkansas-based retail giant has finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where their battle now promises to get the national attention it deserves. Other corporate giants like Fed-Ex, Del Monte, Bank of America, Microsoft, and Costco have rallied to Wal-Mart's side, of course. And let's not forget the U.S. Chamber of Commerce--as if all this support were necessary before this pro-corporate Supreme Court. Let's just see if the scales of justice tilt toward workers or the Joh Fredersons of the world.

At least in South Africa Wal-Mart is getting its comeuppance. The nation's Competition Tribunal has delayed a hearing on Wal-Mart's bid to merge with the huge South African retailer Massmart for up to two months.

Meanwhile, the United Auto Workers is moving ahead with a proposed boycott of at least one of the foreign transplant companies that have located in the U.S. South to avoid unions. This will be a global boycott, utilizing ties that the UAW has made with labor and political leaders around the world, to force the company or companies to recognize worker rights and allow for fair elections.

Some have compared the UAW's pending boycott to that of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers back in the 1960s.

Even in the stark world Lang depicted in his movie, the spark of human justice would not die. Frederson's own son sees the evils laid upon the workers who fuel the engines of the monster city and joins Maria on their behalf. Frederson himself, after inflicting so much suffering, even has a change of heart at the end, although Lang later said he hated the ending of his movie. It was too false, he said.

Politicians like Scott Walker are fond of saying, "Oh, unions once had their role, but they're obsolete today."

Tell that to the public employees, teachers, steelworkers and Wal-Mart workers, to the demonstrators, marchers, and strikers, not only in Wisconsin but also in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and other places we'll be reading about tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Workers and students protest in Tennessee as workers' rights are threatened--not only in the U.S. but in Asia, too

(To the right is Father Peter Nguyen Hung Cuong of the Vietnamese Migrant Workers & Brides Office in Taipei)

I'm thousands of miles away in Taipei, but I'm heartened to see brave young students join union members in taking a stand against anti-union bills before Tennessee's state legislature in Nashville.

Seven protesters were arrested Tuesday and accused of resisting arrest and disorderly conduct after they tried to make their voices heard before a state Senate committee considering the bills.

Most of those arrested were from Memphis, and several were University of Memphis students and members of the Progressive Students Alliance there.

Joining the student protesters were hundreds of union members rallying outside the state Capitol.

It's one thing for demonstrators to make a show of force in a historically pro-union state like Wisconsin. Quite another to do it in the South, where a solid phalanx of the political, industrial, religious, and media elite has remained virulently anti-union for decades. It is that same union-busting phalanx--not Southern workers--that has given the South it's anti-union reputation.

Southern politicians don't want to be outdone by Wisconsin Republicans, so Southern workers need to be prepared for an assault on their rights that goes even beyond the assaults they've already weathered in this region of poor pay, poor benefits, and a rich-poor divide unequaled anywhere else in the nation.

I'm here in Taiwan, where I've been talking to migrant workers from Vietnam and the Philippines, who've come here to earn a decent living for their families back home. They have their proper documents, but that doesn't protect them. They are subjected to the vicious greed that pervades the globe's neo-liberal economies and which depends on keeping workers down and their corporate bosses on top.

It's an old story in the U.S. South and in the Global South, and only an awakening of worker consciousness is going to change things. We're seeing that happen in Wisconsin, Tennessee, and elsewhere. It's even happening here in Asia, where the elite wax nostalgic about the coolie past but even the lowest of workers are beginning to demand their rights.

"The employers treat us like slaves," Filipino worker Nelva Baldon told me Sunday."We understand we are workers, and we have to work, but they treat us like slaves."

An activist with several migrant worker organizations, Baldon has worked as a caregiver for Taiwanese families for the past six years, a job that she describes as "24-7" with few legal protections against exploitation. She spoke to me during her one partial day off during the week, right after mass on Sunday morning. She said she would have to return to work at 5 p.m. that day.

Female migrant workers have it the hardest over here, being vulnerable to sexual as well as workplace exploitation. Father Peter Nguyen Hung Cuong of the Catholic Church Hsinchu Diocese and Vietnamese Migrant Workers & Brides Office told me some hair-raising stories about such exploitation in an interview Tuesday. I'll be relaying those later.

The Catholic Church in Taiwan is at the center of the migrant worker issue, providing a place of refuge as well as legal assistance to workers.

In the long-term neo-liberal game plan, how many more years will it be before U.S. workers are in the same boat as these migrant workers? Will they someday be forced to leave their homes and country to find work in a foreign land, amid the hostility that Mexican and Guatemalan workers face today in the United States?

It's not as far-fetched as you might think.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A report from Taipei: Watching Japan closely

Just a quick report from Taipei, Taiwan, where I've been researching the migrant worker issue here. Of course, here as elsewhere the topic of concern and conversation is the horrible earthquake and subsequent tsunami and nuclear threat from damaged reactors in Japan.

My good friend, Takehiko Kambayashi, a journalist living north of Tokyo and correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and other publications, sent an e-mail out to me and others that he felt the shock and the aftershocks from Friday's earthquake at his home in Saitama. "Thought the roof would collapse. Many aftershocks while I kept filing stories. I will keep filing."

Thank goodness, Takehiko and his family are safe. Our hearts go out to the Japanese people.

Here in Taipei, a tsunami alert was issued but thus far no problems have been reported. The mountains along the Taiwanese coastline offer some consolation in such situations, but this is a typhoon-and-earthquake-prone land and no one is taking what has happened in Japan for granted. An earthquake in 1999 took over 3,000 lives in Taiwan. The typhoon Gloria flooded the city of Taipei for three days back in 1963, a flood that began on September 11 of that year.

I will be back reporting back with more details later.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Labor South Travels to Taipei, Taiwan

I will be traveling to Taipei, Taiwan, over the next week and a half, conducting research into an issue that seems to be everywhere: migrant workers.

It's certainly an issue here in the U.S. South, where migrants from Latin America are now tending the fields and working the assembly lines while politicians utilize them as a convenient scapegoat in these hard economic times.

Migrant workers find themselves in similar situations everywhere in the Global South, and beyond. Recall my reportage for this blog from my trip to Singapore last May.

Lawmakers in Taipei in recent months proposed a law eerily similar to the pre-U.S. Civil War "Fugitive Slave Act", penalizing migrant workers who try to escape 14-to-16-hour work days and the often slave-like working and living conditions of their lives.

Hundreds of thousands of workers from Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines have come to Taiwan in recent years to work in construction or as domestic workers, often arriving deep in debt from the exorbitant brokers' fees charged them to be able to come. Organizations such as the Vietnamese Migrant Workers and Brides Office and the Migrant Worker Empowerment Network have worked on their behalf, and the Taiwanese government has tried to put some restrictions on the brokers' fees.

However, many brokers have been able to circumvent these through deals with agents in the migrants' home countries.

I'll be reporting on these and related issues very soon. Keep posted!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Big Brother Is Watching You, Migrant Workers!

Immigrants in Mississippi must feel like a giant eye is watching their every move these days.

Officials with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency recently conducted four days of raids in Jackson and surrounding towns, arresting 58 immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and other Central American countries and prompting calls of protest for their heavy-handed methods.

The Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance (MIRA) reported that the ICE agents conducted raids pretending to be Domino Pizza delivery men and Avon representatives and thus convincing immigrants to open the doors of their homes.

ICE agents said some of those arrested had criminal records, including some who had been deported before and who returned illegally to this country. These face long prison terms if convicted.

MIRA organizers said they received reports of ICE agents holding guns to people's heads, threatening witnesses, and pushing and shoving suspects. "We believe ICE is targeting the leadership and economic base of the immigrant community," MIRA spokeswoman Cynthia Newhall said in a statement.

The raids come at a time when the Mississippi Legislature is considering Arizona-like proposals to force a major crackdown on workers without proper documentation and, some say, expose any non-native to prejudicial treatment from law enforcement agents.

The nation's largest workplace raid on undocumented workers in history took place at Howard Industries' electrical transformer plant in Laurel, Mississippi, in 2008. More than 600 workers were detained, and most of them were eventually deported.

After denying knowledge that the company's workers lacked documentation for more than two years, Howard recently pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate federal laws on immigration. The plea was entered in U.S. District Court in Hattiesburg February 24. The company agreed to a fine totaling $2.5 million.

Four African-American women subsequently filed a lawsuit against Howard for discrimination by repeatedly refusing to hire them at a time when the company was hiring workers without proper documentation. The four were eventually hired after the 2008 raid.