Thursday, October 27, 2011

Money rules, and that's why we should "Occupy Wall Street"

(To the left is Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour)

Haley Barbour, the stalwart Republican and former Washington lobbyist who is now ending his second term as Mississippi’s governor, has no problems with the big money now pouring into political campaigns.

“Money is speech in American politics,” Barbour told a crowded auditorium at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at Ole Miss recently. “What we need are unlimited contributions that are transparent and made public in real time.”

Furthermore, big money is the best weapon conservative Republicans have against the manpower labor unions can put into an election on behalf of Democrats. Labor unions were able to put 10,000 volunteers on the streets during an election in Cook County, Illinois, last year, the governor said. “Their political strength was manpower.”

In other words, deep pockets versus people.

The governor is a smart politician. He knows the ways of politics today. It’s a system he helped put in place during his days as a Republican operative and then a well-heeled lobbyist in the nation’s capital.

In that system, money is everything. Politicians spend the lion’s share of their time begging for it, and then when they get it, they spend the rest of their time serving those who gave it to them. It not only buys air time for political ads, it buys entire television networks like Fox News and radio programs like Mississippi Super Talk Radio, where the corporate agenda is pushed onto people whether they want it or not.

“Wealth is virtue,” says the gangster Vautrin in Honoré de Balzac’s novel about greed, Père Goriot. That’s the philosophy today for the 1 percent that essentially rules this nation, and that’s why protesters have gathered in Zuccotti Park—renamed Liberty Square--in New York to “Occupy Wall Street” and why protesters from Jackson to Memphis to Madrid have joined them. What about the other 99 percent?

“Those who worship money believe their buckets of cash, like the $4.6 million J.P. Morgan Chase gave last week to the New York Police Foundation, can buy them perpetual power and security,” author Chris Hedges wrote in The Occupied Wall Street Journal, the newspaper of the protesters in New York. “Masters all, kneeling before the idols of the marketplace, blinded by their self-importance, impervious to human suffering, bloated from unchecked greed and privilege.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, allowing an unlimited corporate cash flow into campaign coffers, has emboldened the hard-line right-wing billionaires Charles and David Koch to invest millions in the America they want to create, financing shadowy political organizations, think tanks, and politicians like Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain, who wants to give more tax breaks to corporations while raising the sales tax on average Americans.

The Koch brothers are major supporters of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that writer Mark Pocan calls “a dating service” that matches “legislators and special interests, culminates with the birth of special interest legislation, and ends happily ever after.” ALEC’s corporate friends include Walmart, British Petroleum, Chevron, State Farm, and, of course, Koch Industries, Inc.

ALEC tries to do on the state level when the Koch brothers are doing on the national level. Aiding them are political bosses like Art Pope of North Carolina, the multi-millionaire C.E.O. of Variety Wholesales whose deep-pocketed political machine helped Republicans win 18 of 22 legislative races and take over the General Assembly in North Carolina in 2010. One of Pope’s key targets is higher education in North Carolina, which he feels is too dependent on state funds and too populated by liberals. His goals also include embedding pro-corporate courses championing conservative writers like Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek in university curriculums.

To check out the good investigative work that the North Carolina-based Institute for Southern Studies is doing on Pope, who also has played a role in Herman Cain’s rise to prominence, go to

In view of Pope’s activism in North Carolina, the actions of the so-called “Forward Rebels” group in Mississippi bear watching. The group is talking football now, using newspaper ads to blame the University of Mississippi football team’s losses on the Ole Miss administration, but its chief media officer, Lee Habeeb, is a conservative radio talk show boss who recently spoke at a Tea Party rally in Oxford. What is its ultimate agenda? Some believe it's to make Ole Miss a conservative think tank where right-wingers like the Koch brothers and Art Pope can come and be treated like royalty.

Only time—and maybe money—will tell.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A '60s protester rejoices at "Occupy Wall Street"

I was a student protester in the late ’60s. My small cell of anti-war activists lived and breathed protest. It began in the last days of the civil rights movement—sit-ins, getting taunted, spit on, and threatened by football players and frat guys—but quickly shifted to the Vietnam War. The war was never-ending and the death toll was on the evening news every day.

“Why Are We In Vietnam?” Norman Mailer asked, and he provided the answer. It was our pride, our short-sightedness, our blindness to the greedy among us, our macho, parochial view of the world that saw or cared only for America—and America was these United States, not that Spanish-speaking part or Canada.

I was a student at East Carolina University, a school in North Carolina's poorest and blackest region, not the much-lauded (and certainly very fine) University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, North Carolina State, or Duke, but the “other” school, the one that had to clamor and claw its way through a state General Assembly full of Chapel Hill-trained lawyers to attain its university status in 1967. So protest was in the air at ECU in the late 1960s. Not that everyone liked shaggy-haired anti-war protesters, some of whom stunk suspiciously of cannabis, and other sign-carriers who were either art or philosophy majors, and, well, just weird anyway.

It was intense, too intense, with lots of burn-out potential. We devoured Soul on Ice, The Wretched of the Earth, and I.F. Stone, talked "movement" endlessly over pitchers of beer at the Rathskeller, planned and plotted the “revolution” that would change this country from a take-from-the-poor-and-give-to-the-rich war monger to something closer to what Jefferson envisioned. Despite protests, marches and sit-ins, however, the war wore on until its final, inglorious end. Before it was over, I was even drafted and sent to Vietnam myself—Canada was not an option—and when I got there, I found a whole new set of buddies who survived, like me, by simply accepting as best they could the theater of the absurd we had all entered.

So how wonderful and gratifying is it to this old ‘60s protester that the “Occupy Wall Street” protest has now spread from New York to across the nation and world? What do you think? Even the old, conservative South so scrutinized in this blog has joined in! From Raleigh, Memphis, and Shreveport to Jackson, Miss., and McAllen, Texas, Southerners are adding their voices to the chorus of protest against the plutocracy that has entrenched itself in this nation, corrupting and compromising Democrats as well as Republicans to the point that it is Wall Street that is served in today’s economy, not the 99 percent of the rest of us.

The glory of this protest is that labor unions are now marching side by side with students, professors, activists, and just plain folks who’ve had enough of give-to-the-rich politics. That’s what was sorely missing in the late ‘60s. Let’s hope Barack Obama is listening. I hope and think he is, but my friends will tell you I’m the last optimist in the room.

I haven’t marched yet in this protest, but I’ve contributed monetarily and spiritually, and I plan to march just as soon as I can. Can’t find those old protest signs anymore, but that’s all right. It’s a new day, even if it’s, in its heart of hearts, the same protest.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

More cutbacks in legal services for the poor in the nation's poorest state

(To the right is Nancy Jones, one of many poor north Mississippians who've depended on North Mississippi Rural Legal Services for legal aid.)

Two years after the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services laid off workers, slashed wages up to 19 percent, and eliminated needed programs for the poor, the agency is now shutting down its office in the region's largest city and eliminating a unit that handles public benefits issues.

"The struggle for legal services in North Mississippi goes on," said Elaine Lantz, regional organizer with the National Organization of Legal Services/UAW Local 2320. The union represents workers at the agency.

The agency covers 39 counties across northern Mississippi and helps clients with food stamps, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, evictions, and other needs. Dependent on federal and state grants and other funding, it has faced budgetary cutbacks now for years, resulting in decisions two years ago to eliminate a unit that helped those facing eviction from their homes and to transfer half its small staff of lawyers off courtroom duty and onto full-time "hotline" telephone duty.

With the budget crunch still continuing to deepen, the NMRLS board this week decided to shut down its Tupelo, Miss., office--which served 10 counties--and relocate its services to the agency's office in Oxford, Miss. "Cuts necessitated that one office must be closed," NMRLS executive director Ben Cole told the Oxford Eagle in Oxford. "The overall effect this will have on legal aid services is not yet known, but it is going to directly impact clients in the Tupelo area."

With the closure of the office in Tupelo--north Mississippi's largest city--the NMRLS will have four remaining offices across the region, including the Oxford office.

Lantz said "one thing that is very bothersome" is that the board of directors is currently raising "outside" non-program money to build a new building for its offices in Oxford. "In a time when funds for legal services are shrinking, it does not make sense to spend time raising money for a new building. Any fund raising efforts should go toward maintaining client services."

In a public hearing on NMRLS cutbacks in August 2009, Nancy Jones, then 54, a mother of three and grandmother of six, said legal services helped get her unemployment checks restored and eliminate a $4,100 fine imposed on her by the state because she had unknowingly failed to meet a requirement that she re-register with a temp service after a series of layoffs from several jobs.

"We were out in the street, looking for a job, unemployed for eight months," Jones said. "I was already poor. A lot of us out there don't have no job, no money. I know I didn't have money to pay for an attorney. ... I don't know what I would've done."

At that same hearing, veteran paralegal Henry Boyd warned, "You've got the wolves out there waiting for the NMRLS to go down. Who's going to serve these people? Let's don't cut our help to poor folks."

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Occupy Wall Street protest spreads to the South, ex-Schnucks workers get the shaft, Avondale closing worries New Orleans residents, Alabama bans "incendiary" book in prison

It's time for another Labor South roundup:

Occupy the South

The ongoing Occupy Wall Street protest in New York is spreading across the country, including the South. Activists in Memphis, Raleigh, and other Southern cities are organizing similar protests to represent the "99 percent" of the population not raking in the dough over the past several years.

In Memphis, according to a draft statement by the protesters, "workers, students, the unemployed and those on Social Security benefits"--in other words, those who are not part of the 1 percent of the nation's population that has accumulated billions as a result of America's top-down economy--will stage a protest in the city's Overton Park and join what has the potential to become a massive national movement similar to what has taken place in the Middle East over the past year.

These are people who "have not benefited from the various financial bailouts, tax breaks and other subsidies that the dominant 1 percent of the population has gained over the past years," the statement says.

In New York, police arrested some 700 protesters on Brooklyn Bridge last weekend. Mainstream media has resisted giving the protest any coverage, but it has now grown large enough and spread far enough that they can no longer ignore it.

Major labor unions have now joined the protest, providing an element that was missing in the protests of the late 1960s. Perhaps now, after four decades, students, activists and blue-collar workers can finally join together to take their stand against the plutocracy that has taken over this country.

Shafted by Schnucks

The St. Louis-based Schnucks grocery chain gave only an eight-day notice to its more than 1,000 employees in Memphis that it was selling nine stores to Kroger and closing three stores in the area.

Featured in a recent posting in this blog, Schnucks strongly resisted unionization in Memphis, and now its former workers can see how a union might have protected them from the treatment they got.

Federal regulations require a 60-day notice but waive it for companies that provide 60 days of pay and benefits instead. Schnucks employees told the Memphis Commercial Appeal, however, that company officials said they won't get the pay and benefits. The federal rules include loopholes--such as exceptions for work sites with less than 50 employees--that Schnucks may try to crawl through.

Employees said they worked hard for the company, chipping in to help it make its pledge to United Way. Now they feel discarded and disrespected.

One bright side, however, is that Kroger is unionized, and Schnucks workers who manage to land a job at one of that company's stores will find themselves better protected in the future.

Avondale blues

Plans by Huntington Ingalls Industries, formerly known as Northrop Grumman, to shut down the onetime 5,000-worker Avondale Shipyards in New Orleans are going to have a profound effect on housing values and the economy in the neighborhoods around the shipyard, residents say.

According to the AFLCIO Now blog, a recent survey showed 90 percent of area residents believe the closing could drop housing values more than 20 percent. The workforce at the shipyard has dropped from 5,000 to 3,000 as the company moves toward shutting it down. It's the kind of blow that still-fragile, post-Katrina New Orleans doesn't need.

A dangerous book in Alabama

Convicted murderer Mark Melvin, serving his 19th year in an Alabama prison for two murders he helped commit at age 14, has been denied his request for a copy of the book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon.

According to the New York Times, Melvin claims officials at Kilby Correctional Facility near Montgomery, Ala., told him the book was "too incendiary" and "too provocative" for him to possess it.

The book, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009, deals with the notorious convict leasing system--also discussed earlier in this blog--that spread across the South after the Civil War and which allowed plantation owners once again to take advantage of free black labor.

Melvin has filed a lawsuit on the matter. He was released on parole in 2008 but then returned to prison due to what the Times called, quoting his lawyer, "a technical violation."