Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hope in Mississippi: Labor activists fighting the odds in a state that's the model for national GOP

(To the left is Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance Executive Director Bill Chandler in his Jackson, Miss., office. He was first sent to Mississippi by United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez in 1971)

JACKSON, Miss. - A hardened, intransigent rightwing has taken over the Republican Party and proved its willingness to take the nation to the economic brink to protect its well-heeled financial backers. Legislators have targeted government workers and immigrants as the source of their states’ economic ills. Meanwhile, all three branches of the federal government pay homage to the nation’s true power: Wall Street.

So why are worker activists in the nation’s most conservative state—veterans like Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance Executive Director Bill Chandler, United Food & Commercial Workers organizer Rose Turner, and Mississippi Association of Educators President Kevin Gilbert--optimistic about the future?

They live in a state where “right-to-work” is embedded in the state constitution, where teachers cannot legally strike or even engage in collective bargaining, where, in other words, the nation as a whole seems to be heading.

“There’s a sense of people coming together,” says Chandler, a veteran of labor wars going back to the 1960s. “It’s reminiscent of the ‘20s and ‘30s, when people were excited about the sense of unity, but this is more divergent and bigger.”

“You can take one of two philosophies and look at it as an obstacle,” Gilbert says. “We look at it as an opportunity. We could say, `Oh, woe is me,’ but we look at it and say, `What can we do?’”

Turner, a veteran of the historic and successful 1990 strike by catfish workers in the Mississippi Delta, puts it this way: “We are just clucking along like little chickens, hoping everything turns out all right.”

(To the right is labor activist Rose Turner)

It’s hard to see the reasons for any optimism from the national headlines.

The power of money in today’s politics cannot be overestimated. Billionaires Charles and David Koch, the corporate-backed, money-doling group known as ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), and their lobbyist friends such as former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi have now become the fulcrum for what gets debated and what gets done—whether in Washington or in the state capitols.

Bolstered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that opened the floodgate to corporate funding of political campaigns, these financiers are why the same white-collared Wall Street thugs who nearly destroyed the economy in 2008 are still holding the true reins of power. They’re also the brains behind the so-called Tea Party Movement, which despite the faux populist rhetoric about “big government” by its frontline soldiers is really only about one thing: the complete corporatization of American society.

The trick is many of those frontline soldiers don’t know this. Years of ingesting Fox News propaganda has made them really believe that it’s all about getting back to America’s roots. What are they going to do when they find out the truth?

And herein lies one of the sources of the activists’ optimism.

For most Tea Party soldiers, immigration is nearly as crucial an issue as big government.
They helped push nearly 1,400 legislative bills and resolutions in the first half of 2010 targeting immigration policy and undocumented workers.

However, many in the GOP establishment don’t want immigration reform. They actually like the status quo. Why? The status quo supplies an endless source of cheap labor to industry. Undocumented workers get the least pay and benefits, have trouble organizing, and can always be replaced if they complain. In other words, they’re the perfect employees!

Thus a major split within the Republican Party regarding immigration looms on the horizon. Just wait and see.

Another source of optimism is this: Most young people don’t buy the Tea Party rhetoric or the establishment GOP’s mantras to big business.

Chandler, who worked with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in the 1960s and 1970s, first came to Mississippi to help with civil rights leader Charles Evers’ unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 1971. “There was nothing for the youth” in the state to encourage political activism or even awareness, he says.

“Look at the 2008 election, a majority of the under-25 age group (in Mississippi), 52 percent, voted for (President) Obama. That’s very interesting. That shows more of an awareness among the youth of another world. I think that presents an opportunity.”

Here in Mississippi, named the nation’s most conservative state in a 2011 Gallup Poll, the opportunity Chandler sees is compounded by changing demographics. More than one-third of the population is African American, a number likely to grow given recent statistics showing more African Americans leaving the North and returning to their Southern roots. Add to them other minorities such as the greatly increasing Latino population---from 10,000 in 1990 to an estimated 150,000 today. Many may be undocumented now, but they are here and are likely to stay. So are their children.

If just a quarter of the state’s struggling working-class whites were ever to realize that their best political alliance is with blacks and Latinos, not billionaires on Wall Street, Mississippi would undergo a revolutionary change.

Chandler’s MIRA organization, however, isn’t waiting for the revolution. MIRA has already earned national kudos for the alliances it has forged with the 50-member-plus state Legislative Black Caucus and with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and thus far it has been able to keep an Arizona-like bill from passing the state Legislature. In fact, it has been key to passage of six pro-immigrant bills in the Legislature, including provisions for court interpreter services and in-state tuition for college students.

The UFCW’s Turner is as battle-savvy as any organizer in the state. She helped rally hundreds of workers at the Delta Pride catfish plants in the perennially poor Mississippi Delta in the summer of 2010 when they threatened to strike rather than accept a contract offer that would have returned them in many ways to the same conditions that forced them to strike in 1990. The company relented, and a fairer contract was negotiated.

Turner is busy now with an organizing campaign at a re-opened 150-worker poultry plant in Water Valley, Miss., that was union-represented before it shut down in 2003. “In two weeks we had over 75 cards signed,” she says. “I feel good about it. Most of the people worked there before. They see the difference between having a contract and not having a contract, in working in a union plant and in a non-union plant.”

MAE President Gilbert says education activists in other states like Wisconsin and Ohio have contacted his office in recent months to ask about strategies for dealing with a powerful and intransigent political-business alliance totally hostile to unions, something Mississippians have dealt with since “right to work” legislation was adopted in 1954 and embedded in the state constitution in 1960.

“They are not used to this,” says Gilbert, whose organization represents 8,000 teachers and other school workers across the state. “They are used to having payroll deductions for union fees, collective bargaining. … Sometimes it’s hard to make lemonade out of lemons, but we try. The more people we have, the more talent and ability we have to be able to do the things we want to do.”

Although prohibited from striking or collective bargaining, his organization lobbies legislators, trains teachers, provides them legal assistance and other benefits, and works with other organizations to make the state keep the commitment to education it made in the historic 1982 Education Reform Act.

Although under the radar of the mainstream press, change is taking place in many parts of the South, which legendary labor leader Sidney Hillman once called a “venture into unplowed fields” for union organizers. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee recently won a three-year battle to get tobacco giant Reynolds American to agree to meet with it and to survey the abuse of workers—most of them migrants--on tobacco farms across North Carolina, the state with the nation’s lowest union membership rate. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida has won similar battles and is now pressuring the grocery story chain Publix to do more to improve wages for tomato pickers.

If catfish plant and poultry workers, migrant workers and teachers--those at or near the bottom end of the supply chain in this modern-day economy--can score gains or at least hold their own against the formidable powers-that-be in Mississippi, then maybe some optimism about the future is justified—and not only here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Let's keep the history of working people from being erased

(To the right is the monument at Haymarket Square in Chicago with labor historian Jeffrey Helgeson talking of its history)

As a young boy growing up in Sanford, N.C., I recall often standing in awe in front of the giant Depression-era mural that dominated one of the walls in the city's post office. The larger-than-life people and warm, dramatic colors made an impression on me, and I somehow felt connected to it. Isn't that what good art does?

Lucky for me Paul LePage wasn't mayor of my town at that time. Likely he would have blasted the mural as an example of New Deal socialism and ordered it to be removed.

The people of Maine aren't so lucky, however. LePage is their governor, and he's apparently a typical modern-day Republican who sees anything that even hints at challenging his own religion of Darwinistic capitalism as smacking of socialism and communism.

That's why he ordered an 11-panel mural by artist Judy Taylor depicting the history of Maine's working people taken down from the lobby of the Maine Labor Department. Depictions in the mural included cobblers, textile workers, labor strikes, and, horror of horrors, 1930s-era U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, one of FDR's closest aides and a comrade-in-arms on worker issues.

A legal battle is still underway to restore the mural to its rightful place, but the nation's judiciary is hardly a refuge these days of pro-worker sentiment.

The irony is LePage, who (according to the Associated Press) never even saw the mural in person, brings to mind what Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin would do when officials, even close aides, fell out of favor. They simply disappeared from the history books and even from official photographs. They were erased as if they had never existed. Of course, Stalin often took it further, relocating them to Siberia, or worse.

A similar battle is now being waged in West Virginia, where activists are fighting to save Blair Mountain--site of a historic nine-day strike by 10,000 coal miners in 1921 who wanted to join the United Mine Workers. Massey Energy, owner of the mine where 29 miners died in an explosion in April 2010, and Arch Coal want to remove the mountain top--in other words, destroy the mountain--so they can search for coal.

These actions by LePage and the mining companies are simply the latest chapter in the attempted rewriting (or erasing) of history that conservatives commissioned long ago. It leaves us a history with many blank pages. You can see it by the dearth of statues in the United States honoring true American worker heroes, people like Mary "Mother" Jones, Ella May Wiggins, Mary Heaton Vorse, Jock Yablonsky, and Walter Reuther.

Travel across this nation and tour the handful of landmark sites in its labor history. The battles to erect monuments were often as fierce as the events that inspired them.

I've just returned from the Working Class Studies Association Conference in Chicago, where participants were given a tour of that great city's labor sites. One of the most important such sites in the nation is Haymarket Square, where in 1886 workers demonstrated for the eight-hour day and were met with a huge show of force from local police. Someone tossed a bomb, killing one and injuring dozens, and prompted a battle that left nearly a dozen people dead, seven of them policemen. Eight anarchists were tried for the incident, and four were executed, none of them as a result of "a shred of evidence," according to historian Thomas R. Brooks.

A monument finally exists on the Haymarket Square site today, but it came after many, many battles that included an earlier monument to the police at the site that was dynamited allegedly by the radical Weather Underground group in 1969. Even today it's a monument that causes much dispute and disagreement.

Another important labor site is the Ludlow Monument in Ludlow, Colo., commemorating the massacre there during a major strike at the Rockefeller-controlled Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in 1914. As many as 19 died, including eleven children and two women but only one of the militiamen who'd descended en masse on the workers with rifles, machine guns, bombs, and coal oil (which they poured onto the striking workers' makeshift tents and set on fire).

The monument was erected in 1918, defaced by unknown parties in 2003, and repaired and unveiled again in 2005.

Several years ago, I traveled back to my native North Carolina to do research for my book Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press. One of my stops was in Gastonia, N.C., at what I believed to have been the old Loray Mill, an abandoned, five-story, red-brick shuttered building when I saw it in 2003, but in 1929 it was the site of one of the most dramatic textile strikes in Southern history.

It was near here that minstrel Ella May Wiggins met her death at the hands of anti-labor goons, her last words being "Oh, Lord-a-mercy, they done shot and killed me." She was a 29-year-old mother of five who would serenade the workers during their strike against the grueling "stretch-out" (in which production requirements for workers were doubled, tripled and even quadrupled) on the factory floor and huge cuts in their wages.

I took lots of pictures on my old, now-discarded Olympus camera, but I'm still not absolutely sure it actually was the Loray Mill. I asked folks in the neighborhood, and no one knew.

That's what happens when history is discarded. People forget. Yet, I wonder if ghosts haunt that old building at night, one of them maybe even Ella May Wiggins, looking for the justice they never found in life. Call me irrational, but I'm inclined to believe that sort of thing.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

FLOC's latest victory against Reynolds American may justify organizer's optimism

(To the left is a picture of FLOC leader Baldemar Velasquez during an early march in the Reynolds American campaign)

Last summer Farm Labor Organizing Committee activist Diego Reyes Jr. told me he was hopeful about the future for migrant labor in North Carolina and elsewhere in the South despite all the odds. "I believe there is going to be a change," he said. "That's where change begins."

Reyes' faith in the future may be justified. FLOC scored another in a long line of victories for migrant workers in May when tobacco giant Reynolds American announced it would meet with FLOC and other groups in an effort to assess working conditions in the fields. The agreement was a milestone in a three-year effort by FLOC to get Reynolds to take action.

"We want Reynolds to understand ... they have the power and the money to influence the system," Reyes said. "We need Reynolds to understand they have a lot of responsibility."

FLOC officials said they plan to make sure the company lives up to its agreement to look for abuse in its supply chain and to work with FLOC and other groups. "While this is a vindication of the past three years of struggle, the campaign will continue until real progress is made," FLOC officials said in a statement.

Statistics from FLOC and the National Farm Worker Ministry indicate that 24 percent of tobacco pickers (traditionally known as primers in the world of tobacco) suffer from nicotine poisoning each season. Exposure to harmful pesticides and crowded, unsanitary living conditions in labor camps and remote, substandard trailers add to the woes of an estimated 100,000 immigrant tobacco workers in North Carolina.

"As workers, we have suffered a lot in the field," said Reyes' father, Diego Reyes Sr., a 46-year farm worker who travels each year from his home in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, to work on a farm near Sanford, N.C. (In this photo are Reyes Jr. on the left and Reyes Sr. on the right. They are sitting in the remote trailer that Reyes Sr. shares with five other Latino workers.)

During the past three years, Reynolds consistently refused to meet with FLOC officials, saying it wasn't responsible for what happened in the fields of its suppliers. "We cannot enter a bargaining agreement on the workers' behalf," a Reynolds Board of Directors statement said. "They are not our employees."

It's a view that's typical in the neoliberal model for the global economy followed by Reynolds American and other major corporations, and it echoes a tactic used during the era of U.S. and European colonialism: hiring subcontractors to supply workers and thus avoid responsibility for worker abuses. During the days of the East India Company in British-controlled India this was known as the sardari labor system, and while possibly effective in alleviating guilt feelings among absentee landlords in Britain it only worsened the lot of the dark-skinned workers on the plantations and in the mines of the colonies.

Last fall FLOC intensified its campaign against Reynolds American by launching a highly public divestment campaign against major Reynolds lender, JPMorgan Chase. The Wall Street firm is a leader in the consortium of lenders that funnels close to $500 million in credit to Reynolds American.

JPMorgan Chase itself has been fighting battles on several fronts in the wake of the 2008 Wall Street crash and the ongoing recession. Hundreds of activists, workers, and religious leaders have protested in more than 200 cities against the company's role in massive home foreclosures. According to the Wall Street Journal, JPMorgan Chase has nearly $20 billion worth of home loans in foreclosure.

In late April, FLOC was successful in getting the British American Tobacco company to agree to a meeting. BAT owns 42 percent of Reynolds American.

Founded and led by the charismatic Baldemar Velasquez, FLOC has scored a number of agreements with major firms, such as Campbell, Vlasic, Heinz and Deans Foods. Perhaps its largest and most significant victory came in 2004 with its agreement with North Carolina-based Mt. Olive Pickles, the largest labor agreement in the South.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A rising movement of the "least of people" to challenge the neoliberal gods

(In this modern world where the ideology of neoliberalism has replaced the "old-fashioned" ideas of Karl Marx and Adam Smith, we have Marx on the left (from a Chicago Tribune interview in 1878) looking to the right, and we have Adam Smith on the right below looking to the left. Maybe both would say today, "What happened?")
I'll soon be filing a report from my recent trip to Chicago, where I participated in the Working-Class Studies Association 2011 conference and presented a paper titled An Under-the-Radar Labor Movement Taking Root in the Global South.

This paper, which I'm converting into a magazine piece, details some of the work that is going around the Global South, including the U.S. South, on behalf of migrant workers and other workers at the bottom of the supply chain in today's neoliberal economy. In the U.S. South, the Farm Labor Organizing Commmittee, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, and other groups are making headway against enormous odds, forcing mega-corporations to pay attention and act to preserve a good corporate image. This blog has tracked many of these efforts, which get little attention in mainstream media.

However, similar actions are taking place around the world, particularly Asia, that region where the once-Southern textile industry now resides and where the lowest wage workers on the globe are rising up and asserting their rights. Just one example is the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a grassroots movement founded in India to establish a pan-Asia minimum wage for garment workers. The alliance now claims member organizations from 11 Asian nations as well as from the United States and Europe.

This blog has already reported on groups within the Migrant Empowerment Network in Taiwan (MENT) and on the Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) in Singapore and their successful efforts to get government involved on behalf of "the least of people," to use the words of Father Peter Nguyen Hung Cuong of Bade City, Taiwan.

More will be coming. However, to understand the challenge these groups and their under-the-radar movement face one must understand neoliberalism, the true religion of modern-day global capitalists, the mantras of which politicians ranging from Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Tony Blair, to, yes, it sadly appears, Barack Obama have chanted and are chanting with the passion that only high-dollar campaign contributions can inspire.

What this religion preaches is free trade, the free, unfettered flow of capital to promote investment, and ultimately the accumulation of yet more wealth by its practitioners. What it depends on, however, are the same peasants who provided the backbreaking labor to build the infrastructure for the mercantilism that Adam Smith so despised, those docile peasants whose cheap labor enables the vast accumulation of wealth of the few.

Yes, neoliberalism reaches beyond the old ideologies of Smith and Marx in its utter sanctification of greed, and that's why you have the leaders of the world's largest communist country, China, embracing it enthusiastically.

But read about neoliberalism from someone much more astute that this writer. Very informative is Anup Shah's essay A Primer on Neoliberalism, which I've now linked to this page. Here is the link as written:

Saturday, July 2, 2011

New Orleans jazzman Steamboat Willie plays and sings from the heart

(To the right you see a photo of Steamboat Willie playing his horn at the Cafe Beignet on Bourbon Street. The photo was taken by my wife Suzanne Centenio Atkins.)

Here's a little July 4 feature about a hard-working jazzman in New Orleans.

NEW ORLEANS – When the goateed man in the Panama hat puts his trumpet to his lips and plays Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans, you know he knows. You hear it in every note--when he plays and when he sings. You miss it, he tells you, “because that’s where you left your heart.”

I never go to this city without stopping at the Café Beignet in Music Legends Park on Bourbon Street, where, just beyond the statues of Pete Fountain, Al Hirt and Fats Domino, Steamboat Willie performs every night. Check out this link:

On Bourbon Street, it can be hard to find the music that made this city famous. Along the daiquiri bars and strip joints you’re more likely to hear electric blues, rock, and Memphis soul. What Steamboat Willie gives you is in the song.

the moss-covered vines, those tall sugar pines
… that lazy Mississippi … that moonlight on that ol’ bayou

“I’m in a lovely little park, with children, people in wheel chairs, people who might want a cup of coffee, not necessarily a drink, little children dancing in front of my stage,” Steamboat says about his nightly gig. “The music is as lovely as we can make it. … I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I am in the right place. God gave me something that I could do, and I am giving from the heart.”

It was a long, convoluted path that led the 60-year-old East St. Louis, Ill., native to Music Legends Park, however, and even after he got there, he almost lost it all. It’s a story worth telling.

Born Larry Stoops “on the poor side of the tracks,” he was the son of a mechanic and a homemaker. He learned to sing and play in the Pentecostal Church. “I was eight when I started playing. My brother had a cornet in the house. We just taught ourselves how to play.” As for singing: “my two sisters put me on a slab porch and wouldn’t let me off till I sang harmony.”

With the $50 Nash Rambler his father bought him—on condition that he himself re-build the motor—he took off to Tupelo, Miss., to study at the Pentecostal Bible Institute. He sold Kirby vacuum sweepers and worked at a local Big Star Grocery for $1 an hour to put himself through school. His first job after graduation was selling Bibles.

Married at 20, he got a post as an assistant pastor in Maine but “just couldn’t make it,” he says. “I couldn’t make enough money to feed myself or my wife. One day I got a six-pack of beer, called the pastor, and let them know I quit. I didn’t even drink. They bought me a bus ticket … and sent me back to Illinois.”

Then God gave him a cornet. “I was making car seats and coming out of the office when this lady put a cornet in my hands and said, `I can’t play it. You keep it.’” He took the instrument and one night sat in with a jazz band at a country club in St. Louis. That was his start. Eventually he found his way to New Orleans, picking up his nickname “Steamboat Willie” during a gig in Biloxi, and he figured he never leave the Big Easy—at least until 2005 when Hurricane Katrina sent him on an itinerant journey from Texas to Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, and Oregon.

“A nightmarish situation,” he recalls. “You don’t want to talk about it too much. Every time you look on the news and see water on top of everything, to realize that your life has ended and you don’t know if it is ever going to come back. I cried a lot. I still cry sometime.”

The stress from Katrina eventually contributed to a heart condition that might have killed him if he hadn’t met Dr. Sam Fillingane, a Jackson, Miss., physician who treats cardio-vascular illnesses. “He nursed me and got me back” to good health, Steamboat says.

“Steamboat’s a good fella,” Fillingane says about his former patient. “Let’s keep him tooting that horn.”

That’s what Steamboat plans to do. “I want to use my music to help children, or (treat) cancer … doing something in a bigger way, so that when I lay down to die, I feel I’ve done something that God wanted me to do. That’s my goal in life.”