Monday, May 30, 2011

Race & Immigrants on tap as issues in the 2012 presidential election

(To the right is a photograph of Newt Gingrich speaking at CPAC in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 10, 2011. The photograph is by Gage Skidmore)

Would-be president Newt Gingrich calls Barack Obama our “most successful food stamp president,” Santana gets booed at the “Civil Rights” baseball game in Atlanta for criticizing Georgia’s new immigration law, and politicians in Alabama forbid undocumented children from attending the school prom.

Welcome to the opening act of the 2012 presidential election, an event guaranteed to inundate voters with an ocean of talk about the evils of government handouts, the hordes of immigrants who take our jobs and whose children threaten our schools, the president who may still be a foreigner despite that Hawaii birth certificate he recently produced.

And if that doesn’t work, surely there’ll be a gay marriage or two somewhere in the West to reignite those never-resolved fears of a homosexual takeover of the nation.

We all need distractions, don’t we? Is there a better time than a presidential election? We don’t want to have to think about some of the real issues that are out there—the 44 million Americans (one out of every seven) who live in poverty, the 50 million Americans either foreclosed out of their homes or facing possible foreclosure, the deepening divide between Wall Street and Main Street.

Let’s indeed not focus on what crusading journalist Robert Scheer calls the “Wall Street casino”, the bankers, investors, and speculators who created the “trillion dollars’ worth of toxic mortgage-based securities at the heart of the nation’s economic meltdown,” or their enablers in Washington—both Democrat and Republican—who’ve worked to take down the protective wall of regulation FDR established to prevent such disasters.

Former Georgia congressman and U.S. House Speaker Gingrich helped set the stage for the presidential election this month when he called it the most important since 1860 and derided Obama as a left-wing “food stamp president.” A year ago he criticized what he called Obama’s “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior.” Please tell me: When did “anti-colonial” become a bad thing?

Gingrich went on to praise General Electric for paying no corporate taxes last year, and he endorsed the defunding of the National Labor Relations Board for ruling against Boeing’s effort to punish strikers at its plant in Washington state by setting up operations in South Carolina. Let’s see if he’ll campaign on getting rid of Medicare, like some of his fellow Republicans want to do.

On the same day Gingrich gave his speech at the Georgia Republican Party convention, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law an Arizona-style anti-immigration bill that gives local law enforcement power to demand immigration papers from anyone they suspect to lack such papers. Those without papers will be jailed.

Two days later, rock musician Santana appeared before thousands at major league baseball’s annual “Civil Rights Game” and used the opportunity to blast the Georgia law. The crowd booed him loudly, but Santana held his ground and told them “you should be ashamed of yourself.” My response was to start humming Black Magic Woman with new appreciation.

Georgia, Alabama, and Florida are doing their best to get on the Arizona bandwagon, and it seems children are often the target. In the spirit of those Arizonans who’ve pushed to overturn the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and deny citizenship to Latino children born here to undocumented workers, the Alabama state Senate passed a law denying prom participation, the 4-H club, and other extracurricular activity to undocumented children.

It’s all a prelude to what’s to come. Politicians like Gingrich will base their campaigns on fear, on thinly veiled allusions to race, including Latinos, and the sense of “us against them.” Was this not the heart of the “birther” issue regarding Obama’s own citizenship, an effort to make the president someone who’s not one of “us”?

Polls show that 72 percent of Americans support sensible immigration reform, and most Americans don’t feel threatened or alarmed by the presence of immigrants in their midst unless politicians and the media stir up such feelings.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Gift wrapping operation shifting to "foreign suppliers" and cutting 600 jobs in Memphis

Six hundred union workers at Cleo Inc. in Memphis, a company that makes gift wrap products and is owned by Pennsylvania-based CSS Industries, is shutting down and shifting to "foreign suppliers" to do the work, according to a company report.

As reported in the Memphis Commercial Appeal today, the company has been in Memphis since 1953 and has maintained a 1.75 million-square-foot plant in the city.

It also has a ribbon-making plant in Maryland, the only other unionized plant run by CSS.

This is yet another reason why workers have to organize on a global scale if they're going to hold on to their rights in today's global marketplace. They have to meet neo-liberal dogma with an ideology of their own that says workers have a right to be in a union and someday corporations are going to have no place to run away to that doesn't recognize that fundamental principle.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

GOP targets teacher union in Tennessee for destruction

The seed that was sown with huge Republican victories in the Tennessee legislature last November has produced its fruit: passage of a bill to end 33 years of collective bargaining by school teachers.

Both the state Senate and House have passed versions of legislation to repeal the 1978 Education Professional Negotiations Act and replace it with a complex new process worked out in secret by Republicans with no Democratic input and which essentially ends most union-related rights for the 52,000-member Tennessee Education Association.

The new act, called the Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act, is a contradiction in terms, both in its birth and in its projected implementation. One key provision is to outlaw payroll deductions that might be used by employee associations for political purposes.

That provision is an obvious effort to cut off a traditional source of funding for Democratic candidates.

Under the new act, school boards become the ultimate authority in most decisions regarding teachers. The legislation is expected to get the nod of the state's Republican governor, Bill Haslam, and become the law of the land.

It's another advance in the march of Republican legislators across the country--from Wisconsin to Tennessee--to strip public employees of their right to be part of a union.

It hasn't been unusual for union members in past elections to vote for Republican candidates despite the long history of animosity toward unions within the GOP. That animosity is more clearly visible today than it has been in a long time, and let's hope union members see it just as clearly.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The ghost of Henry Grady hovers over the GOP's drive to undermine the NLRB / A tale of Boeing's "run-away" plant in South Carolina

(To the left is a portrait of Henry W. Grady, 19th century champion of the first New South.)

The recent battle between Boeing and the National Labor Relations Board raises an issue that goes to the heart of the way Southern pols have recruited industry since Henry Grady of the Atlanta Constitution preached a "New South" after the Civil War.

The National Labor Relations Board, an ineffective protector of workers' rights under the Bush regime, has finally regained a sense of its original mission under President Obama and is showing a new feistiness that is driving Southern Republicans ballistic.

After Boeing reacted to a strike by union workers at its Puget Sound facility by announcing it was moving a production line to a nonunion operation in South Carolina, NLRB General Counsel Lafe Solomon ruled the company had violated the National Labor Relations Act. Companies can't relocate plants as a direct response to a strike by workers, Solomon said.

The reaction to Solomon's ruling has been fierce. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., proposed legislation to strip funding for the complaint against Boeing, a bizarre idea to begin with but one with the clear intention of frightening the NLRB into a more submissive role. See union organizer Mike Elk's recent article in In These Times for a more detailed breakdown of the tug-of-war going on in this story.

Like the rest of the South, South Carolina is a "right-to-work" state, or as labor activists say, "right-to-work-for-less", which makes it attractive to corporations wanting to establish "run-away" plants to get away from unions.

Although the South has been promoting its low wages and docile workforce since the days of Henry Grady, that type of promotion continued to be a founding principle through what was to become the "Sunbelt South" in the 1950s through the 1990s. Here's how Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais described the practice in their 1955 book, Labor's Untold Story:

"The run-away-plant movement ... has become the accepted policy of big business. ... (It) was to have a two-fold effect: the attainment of maximum profits through lower wages in newer areas and weakening of unions through unemployment in older areas. The run-away-plant movement was underwritten by the government which under the Defense Production Act allowed the issuance of `certificates of necessity' carrying a high amortization tax so that the plants could be paid for out of untaxed profits."

For the government now to be on the side of union workers is an unbearable outrage to pro-corporate Southern elites like U.S. Sen. Jim Demint, R-S.C., who said the NLRB members were acting like "thugs".

Turn back the clock just a year or two and what you have is a Republican-dominated NLRB that allowed plenty of corporate anti-union thuggery. In the so-called Kentucky River cases, the NLRB made it easier for companies to designate workers as "supervisors" and thus strip them of their right to organize. One company in Mississippi, Croft Metals, Inc., of Magnolia, Miss., refused to count the results of a union election at its plant for more than four years, and got away with it, waiting long enough to be able to name its workers "supervisors." Union observers said a majority of the workers supported joining a union.

It's no accident Southern workers earn less and have fewer benefits and workplace protections than any other workers in the country. Boeing is acting much the same way as the textile industry when it set up shop in the "Cheap South" a century ago.

Come South where there's a "plentiful supply of cheap labor," Henry Grady told Northern businessmen after the Civil War. Soon the textile industry would re-locate from New England to the South, and a century later it would relocate again to Mexico and then China.

The same principle is driving the bulk of international trade agreements, from NAFTA on. The agreements, for all the high-faluting ballyhoo about their benefits, essentially seek to take advantage of the cheap workers in Mexico, Asia, and elsewhere across the Global South.

However, there's a rising consciousness about these unprincipled principles, and that's the good news. For a poor region or nation to want jobs and industry is understandable, and so is aggressive recruitment of industry, but why do cheap labor and a docile workforce have to be part of the package? At what point does that become a Faustian bargain?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The passing of Hazel Dickens, and the ongoing grand tradition of the music of the people

(The painting you see is Thomas Hart Benton's 1934 The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley, which is located in the University of Kansas Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence, Kansas.)

I remember the first time I heard Hazel Dickens sing her classic Black Lung and thinking how rare it is you hear such raw, honest emotion in a song. It's a song that's primitive, like honesty often is, and angry and full of good old righteous indignation at social injustice.

"He went to the boss man, but he closed the door," she sings about the worn-out coal miner who's the subject of her song. "It seems you're not wanted when you're sick and you're poor." Later, after that coal miner dies, the boss man shows up "with his little bunch of flowers." To that, she says, "take back those flowers. ... The die has been cast."

Dickens died April 22, another milestone in the rich history of people's music in this country. A lot of people may have never heard of her. One of a family of thirteen who lived in a three-room shack in Montcalm, West Virginia, she was a living link to singers like Ella May Wiggins, the labor minstrel during the Depression-era textile strikes in North Carolina who was shot to death by anti-labor goons. The last words of the 29-year-old mother of five were: "Lord a-mercy, they done shot and killed me." Her murderers were never brought to justice.

This is the real America, the one beneath the shiny veneer the Wall Street public relations types put out there.

It's a tradition goes at least back to John Henry, and it's one that should be taught be in schools. Did you learn about it when you went to school? I doubt it. There's about as much chance of that as there was you got a scintillating lesson on what happened at Haymarket Square in Chicago in 1886.

How rich is this tradition? Listen to Sarah Ogan's Come All You Coal Miners from 1944. The first time I heard that song I wondered, "How in the world did she get away with that?" Talk about class consciousness in the Southern working class. Listen to her lyrics:

Coal miner, won't you wake up and open your eyes and see
What the dirty capitalist system is doing to you and me.

Of course, the tradition includes Florence Reece and her Which Side Are You On?, the anthem of labor protest that has reached far beyond the coal mine industry injustice that inspired it. Like Dickens and Ogan, Reece knew whereof she sang. She was the wife of a coal-mining labor organizer who was hunted by Sheriff J.H. Blair's thugs.

Better known are Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill, and their many labor songs. They're all part of an international tradition that goes back to the French Revolution's La Marseillaise and the Paris Commune's L'Internationale. When the Polish shipyard workers created the anti-Soviet, freedom-seeking Solidarity movement in the 1980s, their minstrel was Jacek Kaczmarski, the Bob Dylan of Poland, a poet as much as a musician.

One of my prize possessions is a rendition of the immigrant song "De Colores" by Baldemar Velasquez and Aguila Negra, itself an anthem for Latino workers in this country.

All forms of music have had their rebels who composed, sang, and performed on behalf of the people--Beethoven and Mussorgsky in classical music, Kurt Weill in popular opera, Charlie Haden in jazz, Jimmy Reed's Big Boss Man in the blues, Steve Earle in country music, Rage Against the Machine in rock. These are some who come to mind, but the list is too long to include all.

This is the tradition Hazel Dickens represented. Too bad you didn't read this in your newspaper or see and hear it on the TV and radio news.