Monday, September 26, 2011

The story of a labor town in the Deep South and the sheriff who stood up for workers

(To the left is a photograph of a mural just off Main Street in downtown Water Valley depicting the town's colorful railroad history)

WATER VALLEY, Miss. – The odds against the striking workers at Rice-Stix Dry Goods Co. seemed overwhelming.

Aligned against them were the company, the town’s business leaders, its banks, the local newspaper, the courts, even the governor of Mississippi who had called out the National Guard. Only one store in Water Valley would even do business with the strikers.

It was October 1952, and Mississippi “was not a great place to be on strike,” Rice-Stix worker Nellie McCulley told ACTWU Voices, the publication of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union.

But she and the 650 other workers at Rice-Stix’s plants in Water Valley and Farmington, Mo., had had enough of sub-minimal wages and disrespect. “The pay was low,” McCulley said. “But it was the unfairness the company carried out that really made people mad. They had a good time playing favorites with their kin or friends.”

Then came an unlikely ally: Yalobusha County Sheriff Floyd Farmer. When Gov. Hugh White’s National Guardsmen unsheathed their bayonets and began arresting workers willy-nilly, Farmer told his deputy to release them. The strikers were hard-working neighbors, not criminals.

“As soon as they locked them up, my daddy was letting them out the back door,” recalls Water Valley native and veteran labor organizer Danny Forsyth, whose father was Sheriff Farmer’s deputy. “The sheriff almost got impeached. They had an impeachment hearing … at the old gymnasium. (People) filled that gymnasium full. There like to have been a riot. They were not able to impeach him. It wouldn’t have been legal anyway.”

After six weeks, the workers, singing the old union song and later civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome on the picket line, won their strike.

The story of Sheriff Farmer and the Rice-Stix workers is one of many labor union tales in this former railroad town of roughly 4,000 in north Mississippi.

Another chapter in that history was written this August with the 80-to-28 vote by workers at Water Valley Poultry to join the United Food & Commercial Workers Union. The former Mott’s Conagra-Blue Coach Foods plant had been union-represented before it shut down in 2003. “Hopefully we can go ahead and try to get a contract with the company,” UFCW organizer Rose Turner said. “That’s what we’re looking forward to.”

Efforts to get comment from company officials were unsuccessful, but Turner said she expects a struggle ahead over a contract. “I know they are going to fight us.”

Water Valley’s history with labor unions goes back to legendary 19th-century railroad engineer Casey Jones, who once lived in Water Valley and who held dual membership in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. Jones, subject of song and legend after his death in a train accident in Vaughn, Miss., in 1900, was even master of his brotherhood’s Water Valley Lodge.

“They had a good reason back then to have a union,” said 84-year-old Jack Gurner Sr., who oversees the Casey Jones Museum in Water Valley. “The railroad company was quick to fire a man if he made a mistake, and the union would make them hire him back.”

The other side of Water Valley’s labor tradition, however, is entrenched opposition to unions, even from folks like Jack Gurner Sr. “As far as I’m concerned, all the union wants is dues. If an individual has a problem, it is his problem.”

The labor tradition is woven into Water Valley’s culture and history in complex ways. Blue-collar workers at Rice-Stix, Big Yank clothing, Mott’s and now Water Valley Poultry have voted again and again to join a union. “They see the difference … in working in a union plant and in a non-union plant,” Rose Turner said.

When Water Valley was struck by a devastating tornado in April 1984, ACTWU donated $10,000 to a disaster relief fund and collected contributions from union locals around the country. The Red Cross’ 12-county relief effort was headquartered in ACTWU’s union hall in Water Valley.

Yet something Nellie McCulley said decades ago still rings true today. “Unions in Mississippi are still having a hard time. I’ve learned that everyone has to work just as hard now to get the union organized as the way they did before.”

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Unionized Kroger buys nonunion Schnucks stores in Memphis; Louisiana business leaders fight against higher wages for migrant workers

Goodbye to nonunion Schnucks grocery stores in Memphis

The ubiquitous Rose Turner, organizing director for Local 1529 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, was on the streets of Memphis talking to grocery store workers when I called her a few days ago.

Kroger's Delta Division was in the process of taking over nine Memphis-area Schnucks supermarkets. Kroger had announced its purchase of the stores from one of its major competitors earlier in the month.

Kroger workers are unionized, and the St. Louis-based Schnucks had resisted unionization ever since it came to Memphis 10 years ago. According to the Memphis Daily News, Schnucks' 13 percent of the area market will add to Kroger's 30 percent market share.

Schnucks' 1,200 workers in Memphis will have to reapply to Kroger's to keep their jobs. Several Schnucks stores in the area will close as a result of the deal.

"Schnucks was union in St. Louis, then they tried to be nonunion" in Memphis, Turner said. "We tried to organize them when they first came here. They said, `We are going to close if we go union.'"

(To the left is UFCW organizer Rose Turner)

Well, they closed anyway after 10 years, and a union-represented company bought them out, Turner said.

Turner is fresh from a successful organizing campaign at Water Valley Poultry in Water Valley, Miss., and she also is a key organizer of catfish plant workers in the Mississippi Delta.

Louisiana business coalition files suit to keep from paying migrant workers better wages

Federal rules requiring wage increases of up to 83 percent for migrant workers with H-2B visas have prompted a protest from Louisiana business interests, including sugar cane and seafood processors, amusement park operators and hotel owners.

Earlier this month, the business coalition filed a federal lawsuit in Alexandria to keep the rules from being implemented, according to the Associated Press. The business coalition argues that the rules put its members at a competitive disadvantage, and they will not be able to pay the higher wages.

The rules are scheduled to take effect Sept. 30. A hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for Sept. 23.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Dorothy Day, radical conscience of America, lives on in All Is Grace

(To the left is a photograph of Dorothy Day in 1934.)

I didn’t waste much time when I learned that a new biography of Dorothy Day had been published. I had to order it, of course, since books by or about Day seem never to find themselves to the shelves of your local corner bookstore.

At last it arrived, All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day, by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books, and even though I’ve read and studied her life many times, I’ve now learned that there was so much I didn’t know about this enigma in American literature and social consciousness.

Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, social activist, newspaper editor and writer, author of the classic autobiography The Long Loneliness, and resurrectionist of the grand-but-almost-forgotten tradition of Catholic social teaching, is a haunting, even troubling figure in modern-day America.

Few have stood farther to the Left on many social issues—from labor rights to civil rights—or bore as many bona fide credentials—from her jailing as a card-carrying IWW Wobbly during the original Red Scare at the end of World War I to marches with United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez and with civil rights leaders in the segregated South in the 1960s.

Yet her Christian faith was unwavering, a faith that embodied both a clear-eyed look at the cold realities of this earthly life and a mystical union with the crucified Son of Man and the church he entrusted to his disciple Peter.

Forest, an old hand at the Catholic Worker and friend of Day, captures this dichotomy well. I’ll make a confession here: I’ve not yet completed the book. I plan to read it slowly, too slowly to wait before offering this review. However, I’ve read enough to know that it provides a new, in-depth look at Dorothy Day, filling in many gaps with wonderful details about her life and her views. Yet perhaps what I love best about it are the photographs.

The photographs are wonderful—from the book’s cover photo by Bob Fitch showing her busy at her typewriter in a cluttered room with her beloved books lining the shelves behind her to the closing photographs of her funeral procession through the streets of New York in 1980.

The story of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker is familiar to many, but it’s still a fascinating one. The daughter of an itinerant sportswriter, Day saw poverty and the marginalized up close and personal at an early age. A radical and a rebel from her last days in high school and first days at the University of Illinois, she dropped out of school and launched her writing career with socialist publications like The Call. She had a lover, became pregnant, had an abortion, lived the bohemian life in New Orleans and later Provincetown, befriending playwright Eugene O’Neill, and taking in a common-law husband who was an atheist. Pregnant again, she vowed she would have this child, and the religious impulses that she had long resisted became too strong to ignore.

An Episcopalian by birth, she found herself drawn to the Catholic Church and had her daughter Tamar baptized in it. She and her common-law husband parted. Later in New York she met the vagabond French poet and philosopher Peter Maurin, who with her co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement at the beginning of the Great Depression and the Catholic Worker newspaper that was at the movement’s heart. They and a long line of volunteers who would eventually include such folks as The Other America author Michael Harrington fed and sheltered the poor and jobless in the movement’s “houses of hospitality” while growing their own food at communal farms outside New York and elsewhere. Meanwhile, they put out a newspaper that hit hard at the issues of the day while searching the issues of the soul as well.

Day, whose father came from Tennessee, kept an eye on the South even as she wrote about urban life in New York. The first issue of The Catholic Worker (cost: 1 cent per edition, 25 cents per year’s subscription—still true today) in May 1933 dealt with the treatment of black labor on the river levees in the South. The newspaper’s third issue focused on child labor and the Carolina textile mill strikes.

In 1936 Day traveled to Memphis to get a first-hand look at the Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union and its struggles to improve workers’ lives in the area. “During that trip I saw men, women, and children herded into little churches and wayside stations, camped out in tents, their household goods heaped about them, not one settlement but many—farmers with no land to farm, housewives with no homes. I saw children ill, one old man dead in bed and not yet buried, mothers weeping with hunger and cold. I saw bullet holes in the frame churches, and their benches and pulpits smashed up and windows broken. Men had been kidnapped and beaten; men had been shot and wounded. The month after I left, one of the organizers was killed by a member of a masked band of vigilantes who were fighting the Tenant Farmers’ Union.”

Such was Day’s evocative writing, a pared-down, even simple style yet one brimming with compassion and righteous indignation against social injustice.

Day was an activist as well as a journalist. As a result of that Memphis trip, she telegrammed a plea for help to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who in turn contacted Tennessee’s governor. The governor was unmoved, and so was the Memphis Commercial Appeal, which editorialized against outsiders like Day “who came to criticize.”

My hope is this new biography will help excite further new interest in Day. A movement is already underway to have her declared a saint, something she likely she would have opposed. Her life is a testament to the validity and strength of Catholic social teaching, a tradition ignored and nearly forgotten until recently.

The phenomenon of once-staunchly Democrat Catholics, all of them immigrants or descendants of immigrants, many of them once poor, siding with the Republican Party in recent decades is, as the late and fiery Catholic labor priest Monsignor Charles Owen Rice of Pittsburgh once lamented, “another cross in my old age.”

This writer recalls attending the annual meeting of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists here in Oxford, Miss., in October 2009, and hearing one speaker attempt to brand even fascism and Nazism as sins of the Left, not the Right.

In a Labor Day speech this month, however, the head of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockdon, Calif., praised labor unions and pointed to Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 and subsequent papal encyclicals and statements as unassailable proof of the Church’s deep commitment to the right of workers everywhere to unite and to be treated justly as workers and human beings regardless of claims against them by capital.

Dorothy would approve.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor South's Labor Day Round-Up: Poultry workers in Miss. say "Yes!", Walmart fires striking workers in Chile, Puerto Rican students strike against tuition hike, Roosevelt-era firebrand Kennedy dies, Ala. bests Arizona in immigrant hunt, and Ikea founder's Nazi skeleton rattles in closet

(To the right is UFCW organizer Rose Turner)

Poultry workers in Mississippi vote union

Workers at Water Valley Poultry in Water Valley, Miss., recently voted overwhelmingly to join United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1529.

The vote was 80 for the union and 28 against at the 150-worker plant, said Rose Turner, organizing director for UFCW Local 1529. "Hopefully we can go ahead and try to get a contract with the company," Turner said. "That's what we are looking forward to."

The plant was unionized before it shut down in 2003. Campaigning for union representation began after it reopened. "In two weeks we had over 75 cards signed," Turner said.

Contract negotiations may still be a battle, she said. The company is owned by Global Foods in Fresno, Calif. "I know they are going to fight us," she said. "I just want to go ahead and get a contract they can live with."

The plant is located in rural northeast Mississippi. The little town of Water Valley, population approximately 4,000, has a long history of unionization that goes back to the days of railroad legend Casey Jones, a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers who died trying to save his passengers in a train accident in Vaughn, Miss., in April 1900.

(To the left is a photograph of legendary train engineer Casey Jones, 1864-1900)

IWW balladeer Joe Hill put a twist on the legend with his song "Casey Jones--the Union Scab" in 1912. By all accounts that this author has found, however, the real Casey Jones was a loyal union man.

Walmart fires workers in Chile for joining general strike

Twenty-two Walmart workers in Chile have lost their jobs because they participated in a general strike by workers across the country protesting changes in labor legislation, social security, tax reform, and education and health policies.

Arkansas-based Walmart was the only company in Chile to fire workers because of their participation in the protest. The company, virulently anti-union at its U.S. stores, has union agreements at stores in other countries.

Students and professors in Puerto Rico protest tuition hikes and ongoing privatization efforts in public education

Off the radar for most mainstream media in this country is the ongoing crisis in higher education in Puerto Rico, where students have been beaten and arrested, professors threatened with firings, and the largest of the University of Puerto Rico's campuses, Rio Piedras, shut down after massive student protests.

Thousands of students agreed to strike rather than accept an $800 increase in tuition in April 2010, ultimately leading to the shutdown at different times of nearly the entire 11-campus system of the university. The university administration agreed to postpone the tuition hike, but as the year drew to a close it went ahead and imposed the hike. Protests led to a police occupation of the university, banning of political demonstrations, and hundreds of incidents in which "students have been arrested, beaten, and at times sexually assaulted or tortured," according to Academe, the publication of the American Association of University Professors.

Supporting students and opposing the police crackdown were the Puerto Rican Assocation of Professors and the Brotherhood of Nonfaculty Employees.

The tuition hikes fit well with Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuño's ongoing efforts to privatize public institutions. The University of Puerto Rico has lost $336 million in government funding since 1997, and the $800 tuition hike amounts to a 50 percent increase in the cost of tuition to students.

Although polls show he's very unpopular with Puerto Rican voters, Fortuño is a darling of the Republican right-wing, which views him as a potential ambassador to the Latino population. Academe reports that Fortuño participated events in California sponsored by the Koch Brothers and conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation.

Stetson Kennedy dies

One of the last of the firebrand activists from the 1930s, Stetson Kennedy, 94, died in August at the Baptist Medical Center in St. Augustine, Fla.

Kennedy was a veteran of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Federal Writers' Project, a Ku Klux Klan infiltrator, and fellow traveler with the likes of folksinger Woody Guthrie and author Zora Neal Hurston. Guthrie even wrote a song about him.

The Jacksonville, Fla., native was the author of Southern Exposure, The Jim Crow Guide, and I Rode With The Ku Klux Klan. He went undercover to expose the Klan in the 1940s, joining the organization, learning its secret rituals and code words, risking his life, and subsequently casting a light on that secret world.

"My ideology was the same as Woody Guthrie and Carl Sandburg," Kennedy said at the Oral History Association's 40th annual meeting in Little Rock, Ark., in 2006. "The people, yes! Democracy, of and for the people."

Alabama's anti-immigration law, called "the nation's cruelest", took effect September 1

Not content with letting Arizona get away with being the most regressive state in the nation on immigration issues, Alabama, as of Sept. 1, has what the New York Times calls "the nation's cruelest immigration law."

The law requires law enforcement agents to check anyone suspected of lacking immigration documents, threatens the license of anyone who hires undocumented workers, requires that public schools determine students' immigration status, and criminalizes anyone "concealing, harboring, or shielding" an undocumented worker.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against the law, and top church leaders in Alabama have condemned it as inhumane.

Anti-immigration measures in Georgia and elsewhere in the South have been discussed at length in this blog. In April of this year, Ashley Furniture Industries in Ecru and Ripley, Miss., fired more than 500 undocumented workers, a shock to many considering what writer Yasser Fernandez in the publication Mira en Accion says is the long trail of "supervisors, managers, and human resource employees" at the company who've "engaged in identity theft scandals, dubious hiring practices, and worker rights abuses against undocumented immigrants."

Tea Partyers love what government can do, too!

Despite all their ballyoo about the federal deficit, government spending, and just bad government in general, Tea Partyers among U.S. House freshman have proven they can manipulate government with the best of them.

According to a report by USA Today last week, U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., one of more than a dozen freshmen members of the House Tea Party Caucus, raked in nearly $90,000 in contributions from agribusiness, a special interest he has pushed and promoted in his short tenure in Congress. House freshmen took in more than $37 million in contributions by mid-2011.

Fincher sponsored a bill to require quick federal approval of "genetically modified crops for commercial sale," USA Today reports. "Fincher has received more campaign money from agribusiness than any other industry."

The report indicates that Tea Partyers have in abundance something else that has long been a mainstay in Washington: hypocrisy.

Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad and his Nazi ties

Ikea, the Swedish firm that accommodated unions in Europe but fought them in Virginia, has a skeleton in its closet that's rattling to get out.

A new book by author Elisabeth Asbrink says Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad's Nazi ties during World War II were a lot stronger than he has admitted.

Kamprad, who has acknowledged his "stupidity" in being attracted to Swedish fascism as a youth in the early 1940s, was actually very much involved in recruiting followers to the New Swedish Movement, Asbrink says. The group, led by fascist Per Engdahl, was a pro-Nazi organization.

A spokesman for Kamprad says he has long disavowed any beliefs he might have had as a young man regarding fascism.

Ikea, the world's biggest furniture retailer, fought a unionization drive at its Danville, Va., plant, but workers there in July voted overwhelmingly to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Labor Day Post Coming Up

Just touching base quickly to say that a Labor Day (although I still consider May 1 the real Labor Day) round-up is on the way with reports on a successful organizing campaign in rural Mississippi, labor rumblings in Puerto Rico (yes, that's part of the South), Tea Party pork-barrelers, and more.

Stay tuned!