Thursday, December 22, 2011

Occupiers in 2012: Continuing the fight for progress "from the bottom up"

Among the stacks of books, newspapers, and magazines that crowd my office is a collection of century-old editions of Populist Party leader Tom Watson’s The Jeffersonian. What caught my eye as I recently browsed through them were artist Robert Carter’s drawings on pages 4 and 5 of the Jan. 9, 1908, edition.

On page 4 was a gathering of well-dressed, big city New Year’s Eve revelers—top hats, glowing gowns, expensive furs, happy smiles—under the caption “The Wine Line” and with this description: “While Caruso sang the `Chime Song’ at the Plaza, and the great ones of society clinked glasses … something very different was going on at the back door.”

The “back door” scene was on page 5 under the caption “The Bread Line”. Here a bedraggled gathering of women, children, and old men, faces down-turned, their clothes ragged, waited patiently. “At nearly all the restaurants the unfortunate straggled and shivered waiting for 1 o’clock, when the passing out of the free bread and coffee would begin,” read the description.

Watson’s Atlanta-based weekly was one long critique of the excesses of “the captains of finance on Wall Street” and the equivalent of what we’d call today the “1 percent”. At its heart, before it disintegrated into racism and bogus monetary issues, the Populist movement was a stirring precursor to the Occupy Wall Street movement and the strongest challenge in the nation’s history to our Wall Street-beholden two-party system.

As the year 2012 looms, the protest that began in September against the “captains of finance” who nearly destroyed the nation’s economy in 2008 promises to continue to shape the political dialogue in a crucial election year and steal some of the thunder from the corporate-sponsored Tea Party movement.

“I’m here because the political process is completely broken,” Occupy Memphis protester William Newton told me one chilly morning recently. “The banks own both parties. We have a small presence here, but we are the nucleus of the next step.”

(William Newton)

An attorney with a background in mortgage banking and specialty in corporate mergers, Newton, 59, is a former “hawk” and “Goldwater supporter” who has seen the modern-day corporate world from the inside and didn’t like what he saw. “Our country has been high-jacked. I’m here because I couldn’t live with myself otherwise.”

The validity of Occupier complaints has been confirmed in several recent studies.

According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the top 1 percent of the population (in wealth) has seen its income grow 275 percent since Ronald Reagan first took office. As for the rest of us, our income grew less than 40 percent. But the wealthy do give. For example, they contribute $7 to every $1 small donors give to political campaigns, a 2010 study by Common Cause showed.

No wonder two-thirds of the nation believe wealth should be re-distributed to make it more fair, support higher income taxes on the wealthy, and oppose tax cuts for corporations, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll in October. Seven in 10 say Republicans in Congress primarily support the rich.

Yet you won’t get much of a feel for the growing class resentment in this nation from Fox News. It took what writer David Love called the “Bull Connor” tactics of the police in New York, Oakland, and other cities against Occupy protesters even to get mainstream media’s attention to the movement.

With his fiery, populist-sounding speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, in early December, President Obama indicated that he is now ready to take on the true powers-that-be in this nation and fight tooth-and-nail for the little guy. However, the continuing presence of Wall Street insiders like Treasury Secretary Timothy Geitner in the president’s inner circle, the legacy of his many concessions to congressional Republicans, and his projected $1 billion campaign kitty can’t help but breed a certain amount of skepticism.

Even progressive politicians spend “most of (their) time on the phone asking rich guys for money,” musician, Rage Against the Machine member, and activist Tom Morello told The Progressive magazine recently. “I’ve never been a fan of waiting around for some President or Supreme Court panel to wave a magic wand and set things right.”

Progress comes from the bottom up, Morello said, not the top down. William Newton knows this. That’s why he’s “occupying” Memphis and preparing for “the next step.”

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Workers around the world are getting "behind the mule" and plowing for social justice

(To the left is Tom Waits during an interview in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2007. Photo from Theplatypus)

I’m going through a real Tom Waits phase right now. A belated discovery for me, Waits is one of our geniuses. The great storyteller, musician, performer, actor, and man of the times, who has waged holy war against major corporations that tried to appropriate his music for their advertisements, has some good advice for the social movement taking shape in this country and around the world: “You gotta get behind the mule in the morning and plow.”

(Check out Tom Waits' amazing 2008 performance of "Get Behind the Mule" in Atlanta on YouTube. Tried to link it but no luck)

And that’s exactly what a lot of folks are doing, plowing for their rights, whether it’s “Occupy” sites around the country or in Southern towns like Greenville, N.C., home of my alma mater, East Carolina University. An old tobacco town in North Carolina’s poorest region, Greenville is where the lowest of the low-paid, sanitation workers, have taken a stand in their fight for better pay and conditions.

“Just because we pick up garbage doesn’t mean we have to be treated like it,” says nine-year-veteran sanitation worker Harold Barnes in a recent online letter from the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). “We are all grown men, not children, and this is the day we decided we are going to stand up for what we actually believe in.”

Barnes and other sanitation workers began an occupation of their workplace on November 9 that forced the city to sit down and bargain with them. The work action was inspired by training conducted by UE’s Research & Education Fund (UEREF) and its Southern Workers International Justice Campaign (SWIJC).

A key issue for SWIJC and UE is the collective bargaining rights denied public employees in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

“The ban on collective bargaining in the public sector has led to the unmistakable prevalence of widespread race and sex discrimination in the workplace … as well as racial and sexual harassment,” proclaimed the International Labor Organization of the United Nations in 2007.

In Greenville, according to the UE letter, SWIJC “helped the workers connect with community allies and city council members, organize themselves democratically and talk with the media. Their actions forced city management to meet and negotiate over their issues and ensured that no one suffered retaliation despite the fact that strikes by public employees are illegal in North Carolina.”

Despite what writer David A. Love recently called “Bull Connor” tactics by police in various cities to quell the “Occupy” protests, the movement is growing and taking on a deeper resonance. Labor writer David Bacon says the movement is embracing the “planton tradition” of protest in places like Mexico, El Salvador and the Philippines, where workers and strikers are “living at the gates of the factory or enterprise where they work.”

Bacon says “each planton is a visible piece of a movement or organization—a much larger base” that includes “unions, students, farmers, indigenous organizations and other social movements.”

UE is a legendary militant union with a proud tradition, having survived ostracism during the McCarthy era and gone on to be at the forefront today in the building of a truly international labor movement. This year marks the 75th anniversary of UE’s soldiering for social justice.

Truly an international movement is underway. Witness the recent walkout by 7,000 workers at the Yucheng factory near Dongguan in southeastern China. They are protesting the Taiwanese owners’ recent dismissal of 18 section managers, new rules that eliminated worker bonuses, and plans for a possible relocation.

On Nov. 23, 1,000 workers at a Guangdong factory that makes keyboards for Apple and IBM went on strike to protest overtime policies that required workers to work as late as 2 a.m. in addition to their regular shifts. According to China Labor Watch, workers sometimes put in as many as 120 hours overtime a month at the factory. Even so, the factory has managed to avoid paying legally required double (overtime) wages by forbidding the workers to work on Saturdays.

The Economist reported in its Oct. 29 edition that rural migrant workers within China are growing increasingly angry at companies that withhold pay when the companies get short of cash. Even though the government has passed a law forbidding financially viable companies from doing so, “this has done little to protect the more than 150 million rural migrants who perform most of the country’s manual labor,” the magazine reported.

Workers and activists around the world are indeed getting “behind the mule” and plowing hard for their rights these days. Organizations like the UE should be praised for helping these workers see that theirs is a global fight that needs global solidarity.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Occupy Memphis: From lawyers to the homeless, a protest against the plutocracy

(To the right is the logo for the Occupy Wall Street movement that was created by Kalle Lasn and others. Lasn is a native of Estonia and resident of Canada who edits the magazine Adbusters.)

MEMPHIS - William Newton is a 59-year-old Memphis lawyer whose specialty is mortgage banking, corporate mergers and loan recovery. In the 1960s, he was a right-wing Barry Goldwater supporter and hawk on the Vietnam War who flunked his physical for the military.

Now he's a self-proclaimed "anarchist"--a hot-button term but one that he defines as calling for "no rulers," not "no rules." Newton believes "the political process is completely broken" and "the banks own both parties."

(William Newton)

That's why he is camping out across from City Hall in downtown Memphis as part of the Occupy Memphis protest. Approximately 40 protesters spend every night here. The group swells to as many as 80 on the weekends. When a march is called, their numbers top 120.

"I'm here because I couldn't (otherwise) live with myself," he said on the morning after Thanksgiving day, standing in front of a small village of blue, green and white Occupy Memphis tents near the trolley line on north Main Street.

He pointed to City Hall across the street. "This is a police state we live in. They would treat us like Oakland if they could get away with it."

He referred to the hardline crackdown by police on "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrators in Oakland, Calif., and other cities.

Newton is one of the comparatively small-but-impressive army of "Occupy" protesters who are proving that the spirit of protest is alive and well in the South as well as in New York, Oakland and other cities and regions. "We are seniors, teachers, small business owners, clergy, and union members," proclaims The First Declaration of Occupy Memphis. "We are clerks, firefighters, nurses, police, and immigrants. We are service workers, veterans, entrepreneurs, students, and unemployed, and recipients of Social Security benefits."

They are also the homeless. "This is worldwide," said Donna Crawford, 59, an Arkansas native who has been homeless "off and on" every since her "first divorce" 10 years ago. "All these cutbacks. The ministries are not helping. I worked for them."

Crawford sees the protest in a very personal way. The richest nation in the world offers little to the marginalized, the poor, the ones who fall through the cracks. Homeless "women everywhere have nowhere to go," she said.

(Donna Crawford)

Occupy Memphis, like its counterparts around the country, denounces "the control of our government by the 1%. We the People have a right to govern ourselves; that right has been usurped by corporations, big banks, Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, and the wealthiest 1% of our population," the First Declaration says. "These elites put profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality."

They're not people who simply need a bath, as Republican presidential contender and former Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich says.

Everything that comes out of Gingrich's mouth requires more than a few grains of salt. This is what he said back in 1995 about workers' compensation: "If you are not at work, why are we paying you? It's not called a vacation fund."

This is the man who has become a top Republican candidate for president. He talks like a man who has never worried about an injury on the job, never worried about doctors' bills. He talks like the 1 percent.

Who is more real in our world today? William Newton and Donna Crawford, or Newt Gingrich?

The time has come, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, to "begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."