Saturday, April 30, 2011

"Uncle Earl" would tell Walker, Ryan & Co. a thing or two

(To the left you see a photograph of Earl K. Long on the stump, provided with permission from the Leon Trice Political Photographs Collection, Louisiana Research Collection, Tulane University. You can check out the collection online.)

“Uncle” Earl K. Long, three-time governor of Louisiana and premier Southern prophet and philosopher, once gave a speech in Alexandria, La., that blasted the “fiscal conservatives” of his day who ranted and raved about too much government and high taxes at the same time they were stuffing the people’s money into the pockets of the rich.

“Some sapsuckers talk about cutting down taxes,” Earl bellowed to an approving crowd of thousands one hot day in 1959. “Where are they going to start cutting expenses? … On the little children, enjoying the school lunches? Or on those fine old people, white-haired against the sunset of life?”

Meanwhile, Earl said, the wealthy “sit there swallowing hundred-dollar bills like a bullfrog swallows minners—if you chunked them as many as they want they’d bust.”

Re-reading A.J. Liebling’s classic book, The Earl of Louisiana, recently gave me a new appreciation of Earl Long, and it made me realize how much the South and the nation are slipping back to the days that gave rise to Longism in Louisiana and populist revolts across the land, days when a handful of financiers and other Wall Street types controlled the legislatures and Congress while people struggled to survive on low wages, no benefits, and no protection from government.

Earl Long never met the billionaire Koch brothers, but he knew their kind, the behind-the-scenes backers of anti-union, corporate boardroom politicians like Wisconsin’s current Republican governor, Scott Walker, the man who pushed through $140 million in tax breaks for corporations and then went after public employee unions on the pretext of fixing his state’s failing budget.

Later, Walker’s colleague from Wisconsin, U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., got his fellow Republicans in the House to back a budget deal that finances a $4 trillion handout to corporations and the rich by cutting $6 trillion from programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Don’t doubt for a minute that Social Security is next on the GOP chopping block.

In other words, “those fine old people, white-haired against the sunset of life” get the shaft while Charles and David Koch get richer.

And what an inspiration Walker has been for his fellow Republicans in the South.

Georgia, the state that recently aped Arizona’s anti-immigrant, circle-the-wagons hysteria by cracking down on brown-skinned construction workers and field hands, has a state House-passed budget under consideration that slashes education funding at the same time it lowers income taxes for the rich. Florida and South Carolina are considering similar proposals.

Mississippi, the nation’s most conservative state according to some polls, continues to be an inspiration, too. Politicians in Virginia are hoping to embed the state’s anti-union “right-to-work” law in its constitution, much like Ol’ Ross Barnett was able to do here back in the early ‘60s.

Thank goodness, people are finally standing up to these assaults. Everyone knows about the 100,000 protesters who filled the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., during Walker’s attack on workers there. Other protests have followed in other states, including Southern states like Tennessee. Here in Mississippi, striking steelworkers with Omnova Solutions in Columbus recently marched to a shareholders’ meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, to protest a company that could give its CEO a 90 percent pay raise (to $3.5 million a year) at the same time it moved to strip seniority and other worker rights.

Teachers unions in Alabama have helped block anti-union legislation in that state, much like the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance helped kill proposed Arizona-like anti-immigrant legislation here.

In the South, these clashes have given rise to some of the age-old issues that have always plagued the region. Some have questioned whether the GOP’s anti-public employee campaign might have a racial angle. Some 14.5 percent of public employees are black, and 23 percent of working black females are in public administration. The myth of the pampered, overpaid, underworked public employee isn’t that far removed from Ronald Reagan’s depiction of the “welfare queen.”

Race is another issue Uncle Earl would recognize. Too bad we don’t have him on the stump telling it like it is.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Mississippi workers protest pro-management bias in the state Workers' Compensation Commission

Mississippi workers today began a three-day protest on the Gulf Coast against the state Workers' Compensation Commission and its reported bias in favor of employers and against workers.

A source close the labor action told this blog today that members of the Gulf Coast building trades associations, frustrated by what they see as workers' inability to get a fair hearing before the commission, formed a picket line this morning near the Beau Rivage casino in Biloxi, Miss. The source also said that casino officials have threatened the picketers with arrests if they didn't move.

The protesters plan to continue their picket until Friday at 12 noon.

This blog has been at the forefront in reporting on the Mississippi Workers' Compensation Commission and its rulings. According to a study by Jackson, Miss., attorney Roger Doolittle, members of the commission voted to reject administrative law judge decisions favoring workers between 75 and 91 percent of the time.

Stay tuned to Labor South. More will be coming on this story.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

IKEA: Work with Unions at Home, Fight 'em in the South / The Southernization of Another Foreign-Owned Plant

If you get a job at IKEA, the famous Swedish-based furniture manufacturer, you’ll do a lot better if you’re Swedish and not a Southerner from the United States.

At IKEA’s 335-worker plant near Danville, Va., workers start at $8 an hour and get 12 vacation days. They don’t get a choice on eight of those days. The company makes that decision.

However, if you work at one of IKEA’s plants in Sweden, the minimum wage is $19 an hour and you’re guaranteed five weeks of paid vacation.

These and other interesting facts reported recently in the Los Angeles Times point to an unsettling fact that most American workers—particularly Southern workers--wouldn’t like to admit but know deep down inside to be true: To foreign-owned companies opening or operating plants in their midst, they’re the same as the Mexicans and the Chinese who now do the cutting and sewing at the textile mills that once were here. In other words, cheap.

One of the many ironies of this is the fact that the community leaders in Danville and the state of Virginia put forth a $12 million incentives package to get IKEA, a plant they hoped would turn the tide of an area that once depended on tobacco and those long-gone textile mills.

They figured IKEA is a class act that will offer better wages and working conditions that any mill worker can could ever hope for. Even with the economic downturn, Danville’s median wage is more than $15 an hour.

After all, IKEA reported a 6 percent plus hike in profits in 2010. The company is an international giant.

What they got is a company that peopled its factory floors in Danville with temporary workers—one-third of the entire workforce—who come even cheaper and more docile because they never know how long the pay checks will keep coming in. They got a company that last fall dropped pay for its packing department workers from $9.75 an hour to $8 an hour.

Workers are so frustrated with the pay situation and also working conditions—unannounced-but-mandatory weekend shifts, strict and threatening workplace rules, intense pressure at the worksite—that a majority of them have said they’re interested in forming a union, Nathaniel Popper’s article in the L.A. Times says.

Most Swedish workers are unionized, and IKEA has a code of conduct that recognizes workers’ rights to organize. However, in Virginia, IKEA has hired a union-busting law firm to keep the union out, and it has required workers to attend anti-union meetings, much like Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn did with his workers in Tennessee some years back when they started talking union.

IKEA has an interesting history. It was founded by Ingvar Kamprad, a Sam Walton-like figure in Sweden’s furniture industry who undercut competitors with super-low prices as he made his company a global retail giant.

Like Mr. Sam in Arkansas, Kamprad was so driven to beat the competition that he cut secret deals with hardline Communist rulers in Soviet-dominated Poland in the early 1960s to transport factory equipment to that country so he could take advantage of its dirt-cheap workforce and conditions. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s account in the March 28 edition of New Yorker magazine.

Of course, Kamprad is not the first industrialist to sign a deal with the devil to get a good return on his investment. As Gladwell recounts, L’Oréal’s Eugène Schueller collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. Crusading journalist George Seldes long ago chronicled how Henry Ford, Standard Oil, J.P. Morgan and William Randolph Hearst did business with and provided funding and other support to Hitler, Mussolini, and Spain’s Francisco Franco before World War II.

The two-faced hypocrisy of many foreign industrialists who invest in the U.S. South was demonstrated in a 1981 essay by corporate consultant Richard A. Beaumont. “It’s incredible but true that I will sit in the office of a large chemical company somewhere in Germany and the guy will tell me with a straight face the trouble with American employers is that they are anti-union and that they don’t understand their social responsibilities. Five minutes later he’s saying, `Now, when I go to the South, how do I operate on a non-union basis.’”

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A tribute to good friend Marty Fishgold and others in a passing era of New York City's labor movement

The recent death of Robert “Bob” Fitch, a longtime New York City labor activist and writer, was another marker in the passing of an era in the Big Apple. It brought back a personal and painful reminder of an earlier marker, the death of veteran labor editor Martin Fishgold last August, and also that of organizer Charles Ensley last June.

Bob Fitch

Bob Fitch, who died on March 4, was a rarefied soul, a true intellectual whose brilliant exegeses and analyses on the various labor conference panels I served with him—the most recent being at the “How Class Works” conference in Stony Brook, N.Y., last summer—often left me scratching my hand with wonder.

A man who looked at least 20 years younger than his 72 years, Fitch was the author of many papers, essays, and other works, including the 1996 book, The Assassination of New York, an account of the power of real estate moguls and Wall Street in his city. “So much of what’s attributed to anonymous global forces—like the deindustrialization of the city and its transformation into a global postindustrial metropolis—were consciously guided by bankers, developers and their hired hands,” wrote Doug Henwood in his recent tribute to Fitch in The Nation magazine. “They used all the instruments of state power—subsidies, zoning laws, eminent domain—to get their way.”

But they didn’t escape the scrutiny of Bob Fitch, who knew that Democrats were just as guilty as Republicans in caving to such powers. His was a voice that will be missed.

Martin Fishgold

(To the right you see my "impressionistic" photograph of Marty Fishgold from our trip in June 2009 to Pittsburgh, where we both spoke at a labor conference. Here Marty is his cool-looking self at a bridge near PNC Park, where we'd just watched my beloved Pirates beat the New York Mets. The photograph was copied from a shot I took with my old Olympus Superzoom 90, thus what I choose to call its "impressionistic" quality.)

After receiving a call from a mutual friend last August that Marty Fishgold had died, I quickly contacted Bob Fitch for confirmation. “Yes, Joe, I think it’s as bad as you’ve heard,” Bob said. Fishgold had indeed died at the age of 70.

As I’ve written in earlier postings for this blog, Marty Fishgold was a personal friend, an unlikely friend, in many ways, for this born-and-bred Southerner.

Marty was a Brooklyn-born New Yorker who grew up in one of the multi-level brick apartment buildings in what is now the city’s Russian section in Brighton Beach, near Coney Island. He gave my wife Suzanne and me a tour of his old stomping grounds during one of our trips up there. He was the descendant of Russian Jewish immigrants himself, socialists who opposed the Czar and brought their radical ideas with them to their new homeland.

A former president of the International Labor Communications Association and longtime editor of The Unionist, the publication of AFSCME Local 371 in New York, Marty carried on the torch of his father and grandfather, championing the cause of the working man and woman all his life. He could be a tough, even severe, critic, as much of the labor movement itself as of the corporate bosses and their political operatives.

Again and again he called for more democracy within the labor movement, and for a freewheeling labor press that’s not beholden to and subjugated by the movement’s own overpaid bosses.

I first met him at a conference in Chicago, and I immediately had a good feeling about the guy, his honesty, his integrity, his lack of pretense, and his convictions. We later met and joined forces at labor and media conferences in Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, and New York.

“Hey, Joe, I figured out what defines the working class,” he once told me over the phone. “The working class mows its own lawn.”

I agreed and laughed and thought about the countless yards I’ve mowed. Then I remembered my own big yard at my house outside town and the fact that my wife and I now hire somebody to mow it. Have I lost my credentials? I asked myself. Marty may not have intended it that time, but he always made you think.

I brought him down to Ole Miss once to speak to students here. He liked the South, poked fun at our food---“Whaddayu call that stuff, chili-cheese what?” he asked after my wife introduced him to that artery-choking Southern delicacy known as chili-cheese fries. He came down to visit several times, and whenever he did, he always brought with him a load of real New York bagels. They were delicious.

My best memories of Marty are those when we visited him and his late wife Karen at their home on Long Island. I loved the literature at his house—the rare collection of early editions of Jack London’s books, the collection of early 20th century articles from the radical magazine The Masses. On a table across the room was a photograph of the young Marty, a Brando look-alike, I remarked, and Karen agreed.

Marty was a writer as well as an editor and activist. I know he was working on a novel, The Portuguese Poet, and sent me excerpts. I was impressed.

Karen died not very long before Marty’s own death. A sweet lady and quiet, steadying force in her husband’s life, she had fought a valiant, years-long battle against cancer. It was a huge blow to Marty to lose his lifelong partner. Soon after she died, their beloved Siberian husky, Natasha, also died. I’m sure Marty spent many hours on his sailboat thinking through the losses in his life.

He was a good friend even though we had our disagreements, even some strong ones toward the end. He was one of the tough guys, big and headstrong, but with a heart just as big and just as strong in its empathy for regular folks.

Charles Ensley

I didn’t know Charles Ensley, but I remember hearing Marty Fishgold and others in the New York movement talk about him. Like Marty, he was a fighter on the frontlines, a champion of the city’s social workers for decades as president of the 15,000-member Social Services Employees Union Local 371 (Marty’s local).

“Mr. Ensley was independent, outspoken and often irascible, clashing with other union leaders as well as mayors of both major parties,” labor writer Steven Greenhouse wrote in his obituary in the New York Times.

Ensley, 69, died in June 2010.

A native of Alabama, Ensley was committed to rooting out corruption within labor’s ranks, whether it was vote fraud or embezzlement. He also championed racial equality, and as a black man even took on a top official within Mayor David Dinkins’ administration when he felt she was unfairly bypassing qualified whites—and the city’s civil service rules--in an effort to hire more blacks.

Ensley’s father had worked at the Birmingham News in Birmingham, Ala., and “fought for equal pay for the newspaper’s black employees,” Greenhouse wrote. That’s where the son “learned to stand up for the rights of the downtrodden.”

Friday, April 8, 2011

Judge sides with labor and against union-buster

Here's a quick item for Labor South:
A federal judge has ruled in favor of labor and against a union-busting outfit in Memphis. See this article that appeared today in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Given the Republican tilt in the nation's judiciary these days, victories like these are reasons to celebrate.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A view from Taipei of Japan and man's resilience

(To the left you see a photograph of Taipei 101, taken by my wife, Suzanne Centenio Atkins)

TAIPEI – I’m sitting in my room on the 17th floor of my hotel, looking out the window at the world’s second tallest building, the Taipei 101. Behind me, the BBC news continues to report on the unfolding catastrophe in Japan—earthquake, tsunami, nuclear plant explosions, thousands dead or missing.

A former journalism student at Ole Miss (and my very able graduate assistant), Takehiko Kambayashi, now a correspondent for the German Press Agency (DPA) living in Saitama, just north of Tokyo, sent an e-mail that he “thought the roof would collapse” after the initial 8.9 earthquake that hit northeast Japan.

“Many aftershocks while I kept filing,” he reported. “I will keep filing. … The quake-stricken area was a lovely part of Japan. We’ve been there many times and, in fact, my family was planning to visit there in May.”

Here in Taiwan, 1,400 miles to the south, President Ma Ying-jeou placed the entire island on tsunami alert. However, by the time the tsunami reached Taiwan it was only a half a meter high. The Taiwanese take no chances. This is a country prone to earthquakes and typhoons. An earthquake in 1999 killed 3,000 people here. In 1963, a typhoon named Gloria flooded the city of Taipei for three days.

Taipei today is a city of roughly 3 million people.

When the tsunami hit Japan, I could hardly tear my eyes from the television.

This was a disaster of biblical proportions--whole towns washed away, multi-story buildings collapsed like stick houses, sea-hardy boats capsized as easily as a child’s toy in a bathtub, and then all the people caught in an unfathomable maelstrom. I was in my hometown of Oxford, Miss., roughly 300 miles north of the Gulf Coast, when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and I remember winds still fierce enough to take down nearby trees. I feel a similar helplessness and anguish for the distant suffering that I know is taking place.

The earthquake hit on the day of my arrival here, and it has been the topic of everyone’s conversation ever since. Taiwan was once part of Japan. The Chinese ceded it after losing a war to its eastern neighbor in 1895. Once known as Formosa, Taiwan stayed under Japanese control until 1945. Four years later, it became the refuge for Chiang Kai-Shek’s army fleeing the Communist takeover of the mainland and was declared the national Republic of China.

The early years of rule by the Generalissimo and his Kuomintang party were so utterly corrupt that a London Daily News reporter claimed that “the Formosans are probably the only Orientals who wouldn’t be sorry to see the Japanese back.”

(At the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall)

Yet the culture here has always remained resolutely Taiwanese and Chinese, seen everywhere in the flourishing night markets, the world-famous cuisine, the performances of traditional opera, dance and music, and in the Buddhist and Tao shrines and temples across the land.

(One of Taipei's thriving markets)

“Taiwan represents an unbroken line of five thousand years of Chinese culture,” says Martin Kriegel, a New York-bred attorney and now expatriate who has been living in Taiwan for a year. “In Mainland China during the Cultural Revolution many aspects of traditional Chinese culture were suppressed, or were attempted to be eradicated entirely. Today both the Taiwanese and Chinese cultures seem alive and flourishing.”

Back in my room, night has fallen, and I’m still staring at the Taipei 101 building, 101 floors, 1,667 feet, rising high above the rest of Taipei, dwarfing everything around it, a monument to a land once seen as a bulwark against world communism, a place where American presidents raised toasts with the Generalissimo and Madame Chiang to communism’s eventual defeat. Today the United States recognizes mainland China as the true and legitimate China.

Taipei 101, completed in 2004, was built to “let the international community see Taiwan’s limitless potential,” a placard inside the building proclaims. Six years later, Dubai built the Burj Khalifa, 162 stories and 2,717 feet high, another testament to those dreams, hopes, ambitions of man that are so vulnerable to the destructive whims of nature and politics but are also so ever resilient. That human resilience will be seen in northern Japan, as it was in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast, when the tears have abated, and man inevitably returns to rebuild.