Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Crime pays" for the private prison industry and modern-day convict leasers

(The photograph to the left is of convict laborers at Mississippi's Parchman Farm prison in 1911)

It all started in Mississippi. Of course.

Deprived of his slaves by the Confederacy’s loss in the War Between the States, wealthy, politically connected cotton grower and railroad magnate Edmund Richardson needed cheap labor for the 25,000 acres of cotton spread across his 50 plantations in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta.

With the help of his political friends, he engineered a scheme in 1868 to lease former slaves who had become prison inmates after the war. He put them to work in his cotton fields and on his railroads and levees. He worked them hard and grew even richer. Federal and state authorities were so pleased with the agreement they even gave him money to cover transportations costs and other expenses.

The system quickly spread across the South, a region whose leaders have always loved cheap labor whether it be slave, indentured servant, sharecropper, tenant farmer, non-unionized cotton mill hand, or undocumented worker. And they love to work them hard, too. Conditions were so brutal by 1882 that nearly one-fifth of Mississippi’s leased convicts died from overwork or related causes.

In 1906, Mississippi Gov. James K. Vardaman became so disgusted that he led a successful campaign to reform a system “rivaling in brutality and fiendishness, the atrocities of … Torquemada” solely to benefit “some political dictator’s Delta plantation.”

Convict leasing across the land finally ended in 1928 when Alabama joined the rest of the nation and ceased the practice.

Enter Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a 21st century Republican who would’ve enjoyed sipping mint juleps with Edmund Richardson on the back veranda. After the legislature waged an Arizona-like assault on undocumented workers, the governor was bombarded by angry Peach State farmers who complained they stood to lose $300 million from the loss of labor in their fields.

That’s when Deal came up with a “partial solution to our current status as we continue to move toward sustainable results with the legal options available.”

Translation: Let’s put a chunk of Georgia’s 100,000 convicted criminals who are on probation to work on the farm. He instructed his commissioners of labor and agriculture to proceed.

Of course, making money on convicted criminals and prison inmates has become big business in modern-day America. The Corrections Corporation of America, which operates three of Mississippi’s five private prisons, reported $1.6 billion in revenues in 2008. It’s no accident that the growth of private prisons since the early-to-mid 1980s has paralleled a phenomenal growth in incarceration—and correctional outlays.

The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Russia and China, both with long histories as police states, pale in comparison. Nowhere is incarceration more popular than in the Deep South. Mississippi ranks only behind Louisiana in the nation, and 67 percent of Mississippi’s inmates are black.

“The majority of people incarcerated in private prisons are in the eleven states of the old Confederacy,” write social activist Si Kahn and Elizabeth Minnich in The Fox in the Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy. “This keeps the South imprisoned in its own tragic history of building an economy on the backs of unfree people.”

In neighboring Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal has proposed privatizing three state prisons as a money-saving measure. However, statistics show correctional spending—here in Mississippi and across the nation--has skyrocketed since the first private prisons appeared. Although some officials blame “truth-in-sentencing” and other tough-on-crime measures, the private prison industry lobbied hard for those same measures. In other words, “crime pays” for this particular industry.

Ron Welch, Jackson attorney and longtime defender of prisoner rights in Mississippi, says the state today actually compares well with other states in oversight of its private prisons. However, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union and civil rights attorney Robert McDuff have filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of 13 inmates against the Walnut Grove facility to protest what they say are barbaric conditions. Walnut Grove is owned by the GEO Group of Florida.

Finding out what actually goes on inside private prisons is not always easy. In fact, Congress took up legislation in 2007 to place the industry under the purview of the Freedom of Information Act. Lobbying by industry leaders killed the bill.

“Roughly 25,000 federal criminal prisoners are jailed in private facilities at any given time,” U.S. Rep. Tim Holden, D-Pa., said at the time. “Yet private prisons are not required to publicly disclose information about their facilities’ daily operations.”

New legislation was introduced this year and remains pending. The industry, I’m sure, is prepared.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Union members carrying the banner in Virginia, Florida, and the Gulf Coast

Time for another Labor South round-up:

Verizon workers in Virginia join walkout

Virginia workers are among the 45,000 employees of Verizon Communication who have staged a walkout stretching from the mid-Atlantic states to Maine to protest a company that pays its chief executive officer 300 times what they earn, a company that reported $6.9 billion in net income during the first six months of 2011, yet it wants to cut wages and benefits amounting to $20,000 per employee.

Members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) decided their livelihood was on the line and that corporate crocodile tears about a decline in revenue were essentially a Verizon song-and-dance that's at odds with the facts.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Verizon "isn't under any financial stress."

FedEx wins a round with the Teamsters

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters this months withdrew a petition for an election at a FedEx facility in Brockton, Mass.

The union has been eyeing Memphis-based FedEx for some time and saw the Brockton ground facility as a place with potential for success. Earlier this month, however, union leaders decided they would wait and fight another day.

Professors unite in Florida

Faced with a governor every bit as anti-union as Wisconsin's Scott Walker, teachers in Florida's higher education system have wasted no time organizing.

According to Labor Notes, unionized faculty members at the University of Florida have seen their numbers rise from just 20 percent density last year to more than 40 percent today. At the state's unionized community colleges, union density has reached 70 percent and even higher. Florida State University professors are also organizing rapidly.

And among those fighting the good fight for laid-off faculty is the United Faculty of Florida organization.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott and other Republicans have pushed legislation to ease the decertification of public employee unions as well as make voting for the general population more difficult.

Unions remain strong on the Gulf Coast

On Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, Jim Couch, business manager of the 1,800-member International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 733, says organized labor remains strong despite layoffs, Northrop Grumman’s spinoff into a much leaner Huntington Ingalls Industries, and the U.S. Navy’s planned trimming of its fleet from 600 to just over 300 ships.

“We’re holding our own,” Couch says. “Even though we have a new company, we all know each other. We have a very cordial relationship. We do sit down and talk to each other, and we agree to disagree at times.”

The IBEW is just one of several unions that together represent more than 75 percent of the company’s 9,000-member workforce on the Gulf Coast. These include electricians, carpenters, boilermakers, and other skilled craft trades. In 2007, thousands of Northrop Grumman workers went on strike for better wages and benefits, and a contract was eventually approved.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

CNN's August 14 Blair Mountain documentary: Where's the passion? Where's the justice?

(To the right is a photograph from the Battle for Blair between miners and coal operators' private militia in 1921)

H.L. Mencken, the “sage of Baltimore” and old-school curmudgeon of journalism, once had this to say about journalistic objectivity: “I’ve been a reporter for many years, and I can tell you that no reporter worth a hoot ever wrote a purely objective story.”

As a professor of journalism ethics, I talk a lot about objectivity, how it means different things to different people, and how some notions of it typically give the ultimate word to the powerful or at best short-change the side of justice because “objectivity” means both sides get equal billing in the story--whether they’re equal or not.

That’s what happened in the early days of the civil rights movement. Racist sheriffs in the Deep South complaining about “outside agitators” got equal say with local blacks who were “sick and tired of being sick and tired” of a system that kept them at the bottom.

Where’s this leading? To this past Sunday evening, August 14, and CNN anchor and special correspondent Soledad O’Brien’s Battle for Blair Mountain: Working in America, a documentary that attempts to tell the story of the battle between neighbor and neighbor in Sharples, W. Va., over whether the Arch Coal and (unnamed in the documentary) Massey Energy coal companies should destroy nearby Blair Mountain in search of coal and profits.

“It’s us against the world,” coal company supporter Linda Dials tells O’Brien. Her husband, James, a modern-day “coal miner” who essentially tries to rebuild the mountains his employer destroys, puts it this way: “I’ve got to work. That’s the bottom line.”

O’Brien, paying homage to CNN’s notion of journalistic objectivity, threads a treacherous path through “both sides” of a complex, emotion-laden story. The Dials represent one side, and they get the first word and the last word.

They want the government to allow the coal companies to remove the mountaintop to get to the coal that lies underneath. Mountaintop removal is, as O’Brien says, a very efficient way of coal mining. Blast away, and there’s the coal! It only takes 25 workers to do what 80 workers would do in underground mining, an option the companies now feel is too expensive.

Arch Coal declined an interview with O’Brien. Officials at notorious safety-standard violator Massey Energy (which began calling itself Alpha Natural Resources after 29 miners at its Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia were killed in an explosion in April 2010), it would seem, were never asked for an interview. Both companies applied for as many as six permits to blow the mountain up.

James Dial earns $65,000 a year (nearly twice what local school teachers earn) doing “reclamations” on destroyed mountains—that is, taking his bulldozer and crew and trying to rebuild a mountain with the refuse of rock and sand mountaintop removal leaves. He’s a trained carpenter, but that line of work doesn’t pay $65,000 a year in rural West Virginia. He and his wife lead the effort to let the companies have their way.

On the other side of the equation are folks like: Jimmy Weekley, whose house is close to Blair Mountain; Billy Smutko, who worries about “what do you get” 30 years from now after all the mountains are destroyed, and along with them streams and other water sources; and Chuck Keeney, whose great-grandfather was one of the 10,000 coal miners who went on strike on Blair Mountain in 1921 to fight coal company tyranny and be able to join the United Mine Workers. That bloody battle was one of the key events in labor history in this country, and Keeney and others would like to preserve Blair Mountain for that reason as well.

O’Brien does an admirable job bringing together scientists, government officials, and activists who tell how destructive mountaintop removal is in Appalachia. It creates an environmental disaster, they say. This is where she frames the story: environment versus jobs, tree huggers versus blue-collar workers.

Yet the truth is that mountaintop removal destroys more than the environment. It destroys communities as well as jobs. In fact, the best quote in O’Brien’s documentary comes from Billy Smutko: “When mountaintop removal started, that’s when the community started disappearing.”

The New York Times and other media outlets have written about the destruction that mountaintop removal leaves. This is how the Times put it in its headline to an article on the issue this April: “As mountaintops fall to mining, towns disappear and people scatter.”

The Dials don’t see it that way. James Dial wants to keep his $65,000-a-year job. Nothing wrong with that, until a journalist puts that perspective on an equal level with a mountain of evidence and the perspective of nearly everyone else who has any real insight into what mountaintop removal ultimately means.

As is often the case with so-called “objective” stories, the real issue lies beyond the two sides presented. Where is there real scrutiny of the coal companies and their practices? Their involvement in the communities? Their past records? They hand O’Brien a press release and take a powder. Where is there a real look into the history of this area, the epic, century-old struggle of miners for social justice?

What comes to mind is TV journalist/celebrity Diane Sawyer’s prize-winning A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains broadcast on ABC in February 2009, the culmination of a two-year project by Kentucky native Sawyer about Appalachian poverty that said practically nothing about the role of industry in that poverty but tons about corporate media’s lack of zeal for real muckraking journalism.

Where is the passion that drove George Stoney, Judith Helfand, and Susanne Rostock in their riveting documentary about the Depression-era cotton mill strikes, The Uprising of ’34? Where is the passion that makes Alexandra Lescaze’s 2003 documentary about textile workers in North Carolina, Where Do You Stand?, fill the viewing room with righteous indignation against greed and injustice?

The facts in O’Brien’s story do indicate where justice truly lies, and, to her credit, she did a lot of legwork to gather and present those facts. However, the context is deeper and broader than what is presented in Battle for Blair Mountain: Working in America.

Ol' H.L. Mencken was a conservative (in many ways) Germanophile who probably would argue with me into the wee hours on most issues in politics. However, I have a feeling he would say this to Soledad O’Brien: “You were there. What did you see? What did it tell you? Did it make you angry? You got the facts. Did they tell a story, a story the people need to hear, a story of passion and tragedy? A story that might make a difference? Tell that story, and tell it with passion, dammit!”

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Delta's role in the FAA shutdown, IKEA's Virginia workers vote union, and the Southern heart of the Tea Party Movement

Here's the latest Labor South round-up, and once again much of it shows the South's profound influence on national politics today--whether it's Atlanta-based Delta Airlines conspiring with House Republicans in the shutdown of the FAA, or the Southern domination of the Tea Party movement.

FAA gets temporary retrieve but labor union issue remains

President Obama signed a bill Friday ending the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, but the central issue that made House Republicans willing to render 4,000 agency employees and thousands of airport construction project workers jobless--labor union rules--remains unresolved.

"The House Republicans freely admit that this is simply an effort to leverage one issue to hijack the legislative process and gain the upper hand on negotiating an anti-labor provision," U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., of the Senate Commerce Committee said on the Senate floor last week.

Indeed, the ongoing assault on both public and private labor unions waged by Republicans across the country continues, and it was at the heart of the two-week FAA shutdown, which cost the deficit-strapped federal government $350 million in revenues as a result of uncollected taxes on airline tickets. Congress went on vacation without authorizing the FAA.

Although some Republicans claimed the main issue was their opposition to the funding of rural air service that was included in the FAA budget, their desire to destroy unions was the primary mission.

At issue was a National Mediation Board ruling that non-votes will no longer count as "no" votes in union elections in the airline industry. As in practically every other kind of election, only those votes cast in a union election will now count as either "yes" or "no". The NMB oversees the airline industry.

Backing the Republicans in their anti-union mission is Delta Airlines, which actually benefited from the shutdown by pocketing the portion of ticket prices that would have gone to the federal government as taxes. Delta CEO Richard Anderson, whose salary is $9 million, has strongly criticized the NMB ruling.

Rockefeller specifically pointed to Delta as a culprit in the shutdown. "I wish I understood why the policy objections of one company--Delta Airlines--mattered more than the livelihood of thousands of people," the senator said.

The authorization signed by Obama Friday leaves the issue unresolved but one that Congress will have to face when its five-week vacation comes to an end.

Ikea workers vote union

In a 221-69 vote in late July, workers at Ikea's Danville, Va. plant chose the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers to represent them in future contract negotiations with the Swedish furniture maker.

The vote came after a tough campaign that included the company's hiring of the union-busting Jackson Lewis law firm. The workers' issues included "stretch-out"-like conditions at the work site, required overtime, eliminated raises, and low pay.

The campaign was marked by irony. Ikea had long enjoyed a stellar reputation as a good corporate friend to its workers in Europe, and it had cooperated with unions there. Its European workers also enjoyed wages that started at $19 an hour, compared to the $8 an hour its beginning Virginia workers earned.

The Southern heart of the Tea Party movement writer Michael Lind's August 2 and linked here story on the Tea Party movement exposes the Southern extremists who are its base.

"It should be called the Fort Sumter movement," Lind writes. "Today's Tea Party movement is merely the latest of a series of attacks on American democracy by the white Southern minority, which for more than two centuries has not hesitated to paralyze, sabotage or, in the case of the Civil War, destroy American democracy in order to get their way."

Despite the movement's Boston-evoking name and the media's association of it with the Midwest, the Tea Party is at its core the white Southern conservative elite, Lind writes, and he notes that the four states with the most Tea Party representatives in the U.S. House are: Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and Georgia.

"The fact that Tea Party conservatism speaks with a pronounced Southern drawl may have escaped the attention of the mainstream media, but it is obvious to members of Congress who have to try to work with these disproportionately-Southern fanatics," Lind writes.

So much for the much-ballyhooed New South. As the author of this blog has written before, today's South in some key ways isn't really so new after all, certainly when it comes to who rules and who serves.