Friday, December 28, 2012

Mr. Sam's "chintzy" treatment of workers comes home to roost

(This column further develops a recent Labor South posting on Walmart and the global labor solidarity that the company's treatment of workers is inspiring.)

“Mr. Sam” said it best 20 years ago.

“In the beginning, I was so chintzy. … I really didn’t pay my employees very well,” the founder of Walmart said in his 1992 autobiography, Sam Walton: Made in America. “I was so obsessed with turning in a profit margin of 6 percent or higher that I ignored some of the basic needs of our people, and I feel bad about it.”

Not bad enough, however, to change the course or culture of the world’s largest retailer. Walmart’s “chintzy” attitude toward the wages and benefits of its workers isn’t news. What may be news to many, however, is just how bad it is for workers at Walmart suppliers around the world.

This became tragically clear Nov. 24 when a fire broke out in the Tazreen garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 112 workers. They burned to death in a building without fire exits. The factory produced apparel for Walmart and Sam’s Club as well as for Sears, Disney, Sean Combs’ Enyce and other Western corporations.

Walmart was quick to distance itself from the tragedy. Spokesmen said the company had ended relations with the factory prior to the fire and even conducted an audit that indicated safety problems there. Investigations by the New York Times, Bloomberg News and others have indicated, however, that a third of the factory’s production lines were committed to Walmart and suppliers still used it this year.

In addition, Walmart apparently took a lead role in opposing an effort in 2011 to have corporations step forward and fund improved safety measures within the South Asian garment industry.  Funding such measures “is not financially feasible” is how one top Walmart official described it in a document revealed by Bloomberg News reporters.

The Tazreen tragedy has sparked an international outcry. Protesters in Charleston, S.C., including members of the International Longshoremen’s Association, last week showed their solidarity by briefly shutting down the Wando Welch Shipping Terminal, where the ship Maersk Carolina and its load of Tazreen-made, Walmart-bound clothing had docked.

The protest may just be a prelude to an East Coast and Gulf Coast-wide longshoremen’s strike on December 30 if contract negotiations between the ILA and ports and shipping companies’ representatives don’t produce acceptable results.

Walmart workers across the country have staged walkouts and strikes for the past month to bring attention to the company’s treatment of its workers. Walmart’s assault weapon business has also come under scrutiny since the recent shooting deaths of young children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

The garment and textile industries that once were the cornerstone of the economy of the U.S. South are now spread throughout Asia and are a $20 billion-a-year enterprise in Bangladesh alone. Walmart is a $1 billion customer of Bangladesh’s garment factories.

What is life like in those factories? At the Tazreen factory, 70 percent of the 1,400 workers are women. Women are a dominant part of the industry’s workforce. Wages are minimal, benefits few, hours long, and working conditions poor. An investigation by Dhaka fire officials after the Tazreen tragedy showed that at least 64 of 232 nearby factories have safety problems.

In September, an even worse tragedy took place in Karachi, Pakistan, where 262 workers died in a horrible fire at a textile factory. The factory had actually been given a thumbs-up in a safety inspection three weeks earlier by the industry-backed nonprofit Social Accountability International organization. Survivors of the blaze told of workers trapped by locked exits and windows.

A larger story exists here. It’s a story with a long, sad history.

It goes back as far as 1911, when 146 workers, most of them young women, either burned to death or jumped to their death in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City. The women worked sixty hours a week in a factory where the doors were impossible to open—an anti-theft measure, some believe. When fire broke out, they faced the choice of a fiery death or jumping from as high as the ninth floor to the street below. “Down came the bodies in a shower, burning, smoking—flaming bodies, with disheveled hair trailing upward,” wrote United Press reporter William G. Shepherd in his harrowing eyewitness account.

Eighty years later, in September 1991, a fire broke out in the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, N.C., killing 25 and injuring 40 or more. “Let me out!” passers-by heard the trapped workers scream. A subsequent investigation revealed the doors were locked to prevent employees from stealing chickens.

Last June a 20-year-old worker died in an explosion that also injured two others at the Pascagoula, Miss., plant owned by the Madison, Miss.-based Mississippi Phosphates Corp. He was the second employee to die in an explosion at the plant in two weeks. Mississippi Phosphates has a dozen or more federal safety violations on its record and has faced some $20,000 in resulting fines.

The fire that killed three and injured three more workers on an oil platform in the Gulf Coast in November is a bigger story in the Philippines than here. The reason? The workers were all Filipino, and a class action lawsuit claims such workers in Louisiana live in slave-like conditions, working as many as 100 hours a week and sleeping under lock and key in a crowded bunkhouse.

In today’s neo-liberal, global economy--and Walmart is a key player in that economy--workers are the cheapest commodity. Corporations spend millions on sophisticated public relations to create their own “Mr. Sam”-like image while overseeing a world of sweatshop labor that Charles Dickens would recognize. Meanwhile, we shoppers continue our merry search for sales, rarely, if ever, giving a thought to the hands that make the products we buy.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Return of the Labor Priest - a Christmas gift for Msgr. Rice

Monsignor Charles Owen Rice, the legendary labor priest from Pittsburgh, once wrote that as a young man he “held labor to be not just a worthy cause, but virtually a holy one. Unions were not merely something that would make life better for working people but they could lead to the reform of society.”

Father Rice fought a long lifetime—he died seven years ago last month at the ripe old age of 96—for working people. He fought with his pen in the pages of the Pittsburgh Catholic and on the streets protesting steel magnates and the other forces arrayed against workers.

Yet in his last decades, he watched his fellow Catholics grow increasingly conservative and removed from their immigrant roots. It was “another cross in my old age,” and he didn’t take it lying down. “What we really need in this country is a healthy and vigorous conviction in the bosoms of the lower class that the upper class is their enemy and is out to fleece and suppress them. We need working class solidarity and a sturdy recognition that the poor and almost poor have to stick together.”

He was 80 when he wrote those words.

The ghost of the old Irishman may be smiling from heaven, however. After a steady decline to what fellow warrior Msgr. George Higgins once lamented as a “vanishing point” in the number of labor priests in the country, a resurgence is taking shape.

In April of 2013, dozens of labor priests of a new era will converge in Reno, Nev., to share ideas and work out strategies to help the working stiff in a nation where 46 million live in poverty, including 16 million children.

This new generation of labor priesthood, which has received backing from the National Federation of Priests’ Councils and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, continues to carry the banner of Catholic social justice teaching that goes back to the words of Jesus, to the Biblical exhortation to “be doers of the word and not hearers only,” and even to the Old Testament, too. That teaching was upheld in Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 with its inspired defense of workers, their rights, and their unions.

As described in an August-September cover story in the National Catholic Reporter,  Father Clete Kiley of Washington, Father Ty Hullinger of Baltimore, Father Patrick Besel of Baltimore, and others stood side-by-side with workers in July in a global boycott of the Hyatt Hotels chain to force the company to recognize the need for fair wages and safe working conditions.

Father Les Schmidt, a still-active labor priest from the earlier Rice-Higgins era, took part in the cross-country bus trip that brought undocumented workers to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., in September to highlight their own human rights issues.

(Father Jeremy Tobin at the Norbertine Priory of St. Moses the Black near Jackson, Miss.)

Immigration and immigrant workers are very important issues in the social ministry of this newer generation of labor priests, and they have also been a major focus of the energies of Mississippi’s own leading labor priest, Father Jeremy Tobin of Raymond, himself the grandson of Irish immigrants and the subject of an earlier column by this writer.

Tobin, who grew up in Chicago, lights up the pages of the Mississippi Catholic with his columns just as Rice did at the Pittsburgh Catholic years ago. Here’s a taste from Tobin’s December column: “Labor laws exempt agricultural workers from minimum wage. Compound this with current visa policies for immigrant workers sets up a system of cheap labor and high profits. This accounts for the longstanding exploitation of immigrant farm labor. … We have the opportunity and the will to correct these imbalances.”

Like Rice before him, Tobin can breathe fire from his newsprint pulpit.  Here’s his take on references to undocumented workers as “illegal”: “The very symbols and hallowed buildings of America were built by slave labor. … What is legal? Slavery was legal, but it was an abomination that split this country, and we still live with its curse. … People are not illegal. Things are illegal.”

As we celebrate the birth of Jesus this Christmas season, let’s remember his message and his messengers, including priests like Rice, Higgins, Tobin and the others who stand shoulder-to-shoulder with working people and remind us of the words from Isaiah in the Old Testament: “Let justice descend, O heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the skies drop it down.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Out of the Bangladesh tragedy may come global worker solidarity

(A photograph of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. From the New York World)

The horrible tragedy at the Tazreen garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, may become a milestone in the development of true global solidarity among workers.

Red banner-waving garment workers protested in the streets of Dhaka after the Nov. 24 fire that killed 112 of their colleagues. The factory, which serves major Western corporations like Walmart, Sears, Disney and Sean Combs’ Enyce, had no fire exits for the trapped workers in the fire.

Some political leaders in Bangladesh—where organized labor is weak and labor organizer Aminul Islam was murdered earlier this year—have tried to blame the fire on arson and sabotage, but workers and their defenders know better.

Groups like the International Labor Rights Forum and the Workers Rights Consortium have called for a full-scale investigation.

The role of Walmart and other major corporations is also under scrutiny. Although the giant retailer has tried to distance itself from the factory and the incident, Bloomberg News and other news organizations have already turned up reports and documents indicating a third of the production lines at the Tazreen factory were committed to Walmart and that suppliers did business there this year.

Furthermore, reports show Walmart led other corporations in opposing a 2011 measure that would have made corporations responsible for funding better safety measures in the sprawling South Asian garment industry, a $20 billion industry in Bangladesh alone.

The tragedy evoked memories of the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York, which took the lives of 146 workers. Most of them were young women. They were trapped inside a building where the doors were impossible to open, and thus they were forced either to die a fiery death or jump from as high as the ninth floor to the street below. Eighty years later, a similar fire broke out in the Imperial Foods Products plant in Hamlet, N.C., killing 25 and injuring 40 or more.

The Tazreen factory fire and subsequent protests come on the heels of nationwide protests against Walmart here in the United States. Hundreds of Walmart workers went on an unprecedented strike against the virulently anti-union, Arkansas-based company on “Black Friday”, the busiest day of the year for many retailers.

An earlier strike by warehouse workers at a Walmart-affiliated firm, Inland Empire, in California won a rare concession from the company to improve job safety. That strike was supported by warehouse workers from as far away as Korea and Chile. A similar strike took place in Illinois.

Corporate Action Network and OUR Walmart, groups that aided workers in the “Black Friday” protests, have expressed solidarity with Bangladesh workers.

Global solidarity among workers is the only way to meet the challenge of today’s global economy and the neo-liberal principles that govern it, a philosophy that promotes transnational business deals at the cost of a relentess search for cheaper labor and fewer governmental restrictions.

The U.S. South knows all about that race. The garment and textile industries now spread across South Asia used to call places like North and South Carolina home.

However, workers around the world are waking up and seeing beyond their cultural and language differences to what they have in common.

The landmark protests by members of the International Longshoremen’s Association against a union-busting Danish firm in Charleston, S.C., in January 2000—termed the “first major labor battle of the Twenty-first century” by Clamor magazine--was ultimately successful in part because of the refusal by dockworkers in Spain and elsewhere in Europe to load the firm’s ships until a contract was negotiated with the ILA.

More recently, the United Auto Workers has been working closely with union leaders in Brazil and other countries, sponsoring student and activist meetings, exchanges and other programs that help instill a sense of the workers rights’ cause as a true and just civil rights movement for today.

Monday, December 3, 2012

A changing Southern electorate: Finding that populist core that money can't buy

I’ll never forget the moment I was most proud of Mississippians. It was election day 1983, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Allain defeated his Republican opponent, Leon Bramlett, by a 10-point margin.

Just weeks before election day, Allain, a crusading populist who as attorney general had battled successfully against the state’s big utility companies and the conservative Delta demigods who held executive as well as legislative power, was publicly accused by powerful Republican financiers of being a homosexual who trafficked with black male transvestites and collected pornography in his apartment.

Although Allain’s previous wide margin among voters slipped as a result of the allegations, he made good his claim that Mississippians would provide the ultimate “lie detector’s test” on election day. It was the dirtiest race that this veteran reporter has ever covered, and the dirt throwers were rebuked.

I felt the same way this past election day when President Obama won re-election despite an avalanche of money spent against him by wealthy corporate donors who remain anonymous thanks to the U.S. “Corporate” Supreme Court’s 2010 “Citizens United” ruling.

By mid-October, the so-called “Super PACs” created after Citizens United had raised an estimated $660 million. Such groups spent $65 million-plus on television ads in the presidential race, much of it negative and most of it against Obama, before October.

The poison spread about Obama by that campaign money and the Republican Party’s media arm, Fox News, for months—no, let’s say years—came from the same bilious cesspool as the one those Mississippi Republican financiers bathed in back in 1983. It was that poison—Obama the “socialist”, Obama the Kenyan foreigner--that contributed to the incident on the University of Mississippi campus the night of the election, when students protesting Obama’s victory filled the air with the noxious “N” word.

On paper, the president and Republican opponent Mitt Romney had comparable campaign chests, each nearly $1 billion. Some 56 percent of Obama’s individual donors contributed $200 or less. Only 23 percent of Romney’s donors did. Romney billionaire supporters Sheldon and Miriam Adelson together gave $20 million to their candidate, nearly six times the size of Obama’s largest individual contribution.

In the world of post-Citizens United politics, however, the cash story isn’t on paper or in the files of the Federal Election Commission. It’s back in the smoke-filled rooms where Antonin Scalia and his black-robed brethren believe it ought to be.

Big Money did get results this past election day even though it failed to buy the White House or U.S. Senate seats sought by the likes of Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or held by Jon Tester of Montana. Aided by gerrymandering, Republicans kept a majority in the House although that majority shrank and House Republicans together actually received less total votes than Democratic candidates. Here in Mississippi, outside cash played a significant role in Josiah Coleman’s victory over “Flip” Phillips in the state Supreme Court race in northern Mississippi. Only money and the negative ads it buys could explain why a political and judicial unknown like Coleman could beat a seasoned veteran and well-known attorney like Phillips.

What trumped money among the voters nationwide who cast their ballot for Obama was a sense that the president’s mission indeed was unfinished and he deserved another four years to complete it, that he inherited a mountainous mess from his Republican predecessor in 2008, and over the next four years faced a solid block of Republican obstructionists in Congress who believed his defeat was more important than the welfare of the nation.

People across America got it that the chameleon-like Romney was the embodiment of what writer Gertrude Stein meant when she said, “There is no there there.” They got it that Obamacare is not the evil embodiment of Soviet-style health care that Republicans and their media water boys at Fox News and SuperTalk Mississippi Radio want us to believe.

They believed the little guy will get a fairer deal from Obama than Romney would’ve ever given him. Let’s hope that the president delivers.

As noted before in this blog, most of the states in the nation’s poorest region—a region with a sordid history of voter suppression, racism, and oligarchical rule--went solidly for Romney. It’s one thing for bankers, oilmen, and corporate magnates to vote for one of their ilk, but quite another to see the (overwhelmingly white) small business people and blue-collar workers who did the same.

Beyond questions of race, did so-called “values” play a role? Southerners are religious, and I suppose many bought what they heard from the pulpits and right-wing radio.

They needed to remember what writer Thomas Frank once said: “Values may `matter most’ to voters, but they always take a back seat to the needs of money once the elections are won.”

Take Romney. He loved to talk jobs and his business acumen during the campaign. However, the company he once led, Bain Capital, made a mint by buying and forcing other companies into bankruptcy in part so it could break prior promises of pension and benefits for workers. That’s a fact, and that’s why he preferred to allow General Motors to go into bankruptcy rather than endorse Obama’s “bailout” of the auto industry.

The good news, however, is that the fine details of the 2012 election show that the South is changing. North Carolina-based Facing South reports that Obama’s decline in Southern votes between 2008 and 2012 roughly paralleled the national vote. Nonwhite voters are indeed becoming a larger share of the electorate, in the South as well as the nation, and this portends well for progressive politics.

Mississippi, once tagged the nation’s most conservative state, went for Romney, of course, but by the seventh smallest margin of the “red” states, according to the Jackson Free Press. Obama actually got a higher percentage of Mississippi votes in 2012 than he got in 2008. A close analysis of election results shows Mississippi voters trending left rather than right even though the state today remains very conservative. Factors in that trend include a 37 percent black population and a growing number of Latino and other minority voters in the state.

In that trend are also white voters. Obama actually carried the day among young Mississippi voters. That’s got to be scary to Republicans.

Maybe even some older white voters in Mississippi will rethink their views about Obama and Democrats over the next four years. After all, a long time ago—before Fox News and Citizens United—a lot of them voted for a grassroots populist Democrat named Bill Allain.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Walmart and Hostess workers protest in the streets, remind President Obama of why he got re-elected

Not content to bask quietly in the afterglow of President Obama’s re-election victory, workers are taking to the streets in a grassroots effort to bring attention to the erosion of their rights that modern-day neo-liberal economics has promoted.

Today, “Black Friday” for shoppers across the land, workers at Walmarts around the country are staging a walkout against the low pay and benefits provided by the world’s largest retailer, an outfit that enjoyed a 9 percent hike in income for the third quarter.

Arkansas-based Walmart’s effort to get the National Labor Relations Board to issue an injunction against the Black Friday walkout failed as the board stated the matter was too complex to decide in the short time frame given it.

A group called OUR Walmart is organizing the protest with the support of the United Food and Commercial Workers, an issue in the company’s call for an injunction. No company has fought harder against unions than Walmart.

Meanwhile, Texas-based Hostess Brands Inc. is blaming its striking workers for the company’s request for bankruptcy protection. Hostess, which produces Twinkies, Wonder Bread and other popular brand-name snacks and foods, is shutting down 33 factories nationwide and adding 18,500 workers to the jobless ranks.

After negotiating contract agreements with the Teamsters union, company management tried to force major cuts in wages and benefits on its bakery workers, but the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union agreed to strike rather than concede.

At the same time Hostess wanted its workers to swallow deep wage and benefits cuts, it also wanted to reward its executives with $1.75 million in bonuses.

“Wall Street vultures are blaming workers for getting rid of your sweets—and that’s just not right,” said AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka in a statement. “The Wall Street hedge fund managers who run the company have squeezed every cent out of Hostess for eight years. And they’ve put their friends with no experience in the baking industry in high-level management positions.”

Critics say company leaders have failed to keep pace with a changing market, struggled with debt, and failed to invest in its operations or workforce. The Silver Point and Monarch hedge funds control more than half the company’s debt.

The situation at Hostess is typical for modern-day corporate practices. Wall Street types run the company into debt and into bankruptcy, blaming workers instead of their own greed and management incompetence.  Bankruptcy legalizes broken promises and helps clear the way for those at the top of the food chain to stuff their pockets before splitting.
This was the way of Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, and he would have further institutionalized such practices had he become president.

But Mitt Romney didn’t become president, and workers at Walmart, Hostess and other places we’ll read about tomorrow are out there on the streets reminding President Obama of why he got re-elected and that they’re not going to acquiesce to the old way of doing business any longer.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Nissan workers in Mississippi tell of fear and intimidation

(To the right is Nissan worker Pat Ruffin)

CANTON, Miss. - Pat Ruffin admits she’s scared.

But, the Nissan auto worker told a crowd of approximately 50 at the Holiday Inn Express recently, she’s also tired.

“I’m sick and tired of the videos about plant closings," she said. "That’s intimidation. That scares me. I have a family. I  have bills.”

Ruffin was one of eight employees at the giant Nissan plant in Canton to appear before the newly formed Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan to tell their stories about working at a plant where pro-union sympathies are strongly discouraged. A growing number of workers in recent months have called for an election to determine whether the United Auto Workers should represent them.

The plant employs roughly 3,300.

“Talking about a union, that is forbidden at Nissan,” Ruffin said. “They try to persuade you against unions. I want to hear both sides. I’m tired of Nissan’s side.”

Coworker Douglas Brooks agreed. “I come to work and I give my best, 100 percent. We are people with families and lives. If we live in America, let’s act like we live in America," he said. "Being from Mississippi doesn’t mean we’re all morons. There’s got to be something good about unions because they’re still around.”

Workers told a panel that included local ministers and officials such as state NAACP President Derrick Johnson that they face increasing pressure from company managers and officials to disavow any interest in joining the UAW. They are routinely called into one-on-one meetings and into group sessions where anti-union videos are shown. Some workers said their pro-union sympathies have put them under increased scrutiny from managers for any slight infraction that could lead to getting them fired.

“They probably got a picture of me up at HR (Nissan’s human resources office) with a big X across it,” openly pro-union Nissan employee Wayne Walker said. “A union troublemaker. … When you first come to this place they put the fear of a union in you. Keep you fearful. They’ll say, `You lucky to have a job.’ We want a union and a  contract.”

Nissan officials did not speak at the gathering. However,  Nissan spokesman Travis Parman said in an earlier interview that “our communications meetings with employees are not new. We continuously and routinely meet with our employees to openly discuss matters pertinent to our business.”

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has made no secret of his anti-union views and once strongly warned Nissan workers that a union “is not in your best interest” shortly before an election at the company’s plant in Smyrna, Tenn. Workers there rejected the union.

(Below is Isiac Jackson Jr.)

“We believe that as American citizens we have a right to free choice,” Alliance chair Isiac Jackson Jr. told the workers.  “God gave us a right to choose. We’re going to be out there walking the line for you.”
Jackson said the Alliance’s next goal is to gain entrance into the plant, where members can tell the other side of the union story.

Nissan worker James Brown said he believes Nissan workers in Canton would support a union if a fair election were held. “The key is to take fear and intimidation away. This is the key to having a fair election," he said. "So many of my co-workers say they want it but are afraid to come out publicly.”

Friday, November 9, 2012

Same Ol' Poor Ol' South On the Losing Side

Labor, civil rights, immigration and other social justice activists will gather in Charleston, S.C., December 7-9 to convene the 9th bi-annual Southern Human Rights Organizers’ Conference and take what organizer Dane Strobino calls another step forward in “building a genuine Southern Workers Assembly and alliance.” 

The group was active at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, and the implications of the re-election of President Barack Obama is likely to be a major topic of discussion. They know they have their work cut for them in a region that largely was on the losing side in the presidential election, voting against Barack Obama's bid for a second term in office. Only Virginia and probably Florida went against the Southern grain.

In some key ways, the SHROC is building on the earlier work of groups such as Southern Conference for Human Welfare in the late 1930s and 1940s, an organization that championed working-class Southerners at the time when Franklin D. Roosevelt had declared the South as “the nation’s number one economic problem.” 

This is the region with the nation’s largest black population, a growing Latino population, one that used to be called the “Solid (Democratic) South” and that was a key component of Roosevelt’s election-winning coalition. You might think politics today would finally be more competitive down here. Why isn’t it?  

Here are a few reasons as seen by this Southern born-and-bred observer:  

The South is still pretty much a top-down place whose political, business, media and religious elite run things and who refuse to budge from a rock-ribbed allegiance to minimal government, a give-away-the-store attitude toward business, an image of Jesus that reflects very little of what’s taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Sadly, this is still a race-haunted South. Southerners, by the way, led in the number of ugly, racist responses to Obama’s victory on Twitter.  

What has been long clear in the Republican agenda is that the GOP would like to turn the nation into one large South—de-regulated and anti-union with the barest of services provided by government.  

If Republicans ever succeed in that goal, maybe the South will cease being the poorest region because every region will be poor.  

And the South is poor.  Let’s look at some statistics offered recently by Gene Nichol, law professor and director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina, in the Texas-based Progressive Populist .

Of the 12 poorest states in the nation, 10 are Southern. Mississippi’s shameful 23 percent poverty rate is at the very bottom. Louisiana, Arkansas, and Georgia aren’t far behind. The nation’s poverty rate is 15 percent. The South has more poor children than any other region. More than one-quarter of the children in nine Southern states are poor. Go South if you want to find people without health insurance. That’s where you’ll find more of them than in any other region. 

Was there another region where Obamacare was more cursed than in the South? Mississippi Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has said he opposes the expansion of Medicaid envisioned by Obamacare even though it would benefit more than 300,000 of the many needy in this poorest of all states and even add an estimated 9,000 new jobs. His is a typical attitude among Republican leaders in the South.

It’s a crying shame. After all the talk about the “New South” and the “Sunbelt South” and “Detroit South”, it’s still, in many ways, the same ol’, poor ol’ South”. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Mississippi students see labor and civil rights as their social justice movement

(Martin Luther King Jr.)

On the evening of March 18, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed striking sanitation workers in Memphis, and this is what he told them:

“All labor has worth. … Don’t despair. Nothing worthwhile is gained without sacrifice. The thing for you to do is stay together. … Let it be known everywhere that along with wages and all of the other securities that you are struggling for, you’re also struggling for the right to be organized and be recognized.”

Seventeen days later, King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in downtown Memphis.

(To the right, A. Philip Randolph)

The next year, a great leader of both the civil rights and labor movements, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters founder A. Philip Randolph, had this to say: “The labor movement has been the home of the working man, and traditionally, it has been the only haven for the dispossessed; and therefore, I have tried to build an alliance between the Negro and the American labor movement.”

Josh Dedmond, Monica Atkins and Tyson Jackson are wanting to build on the alliance King, Randolph and others envisioned four decades ago. They believe labor and workers’ rights can be the civil rights movement of today.

That’s why they and other Jackson, Miss.-area members of the newly formed Mississippi Student Justice Alliance are planning an “I Am” labor-and-civil rights conference in Jackson in late November. The conference is named after the “I Am A Man” sign sanitation workers carried in Memphis. The Jackson conference will feature veterans of that 1968 strike.

“This is in the same vein as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee," says Dedmond, 25, a recent Tougaloo College graduate in African-American and religious studies. SNCC played a key role in the civil rights movement. “There is an enormous power in students regarding social justice issues. The two movements are inextricable from one another.”

The Mississippi Student Justice Alliance’s target: helping workers at the giant Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., realize their goal of joining the United Auto Workers despite management’s disdain for that idea.

Dedmond, Atkins and Tyson are also now working with the UAW and its Global Organizing Institute, helping recruit and educate young people from around the world about labor issues.

“We started figuring out about the workers at Nissan and how they wanted a fair election process,” said Atkins, 23, a Chicago native who graduated from Jackson State University in April. She said she decided to stay in Mississippi after graduation because “here there is a lot more opportunity to make a difference.
Making a difference in Mississippi can be an uphill fight. King and Randolph would be the first to tell them.

At the Nissan plant, pro-UAW workers not only face an anti-union CEO in Carlos Ghosn but also a conservative state with a union-hostile “right-to-work” law embedded in its constitution, a Republican-led legislature and a Republican governor who has publicly expressed support for outside groups that would help fight a union at Nissan or Toyota in Mississippi.

What the striking workers in Memphis sought in 1968 “is exactly what the Nissan workers are asking for,” says Jackson, 31, who studies political science at Tougaloo. “That is respect.”

(To the right, Tyson Jackson at the UAW office in Canton, Miss.)

The UAW has laid the foundation for an all-out organization effort at the 3,300-worker plant. A community network that includes U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., area ministers and civil rights-era veterans and activists has pledged to assist in the union’s call for an election free of intimidation.

Mississippi’s rich civil rights history was a factor in the UAW’s decision to take a stand in Canton. In the early 1960s, state NAACP leader and civil rights martyr Medgar Evers worked hand-in-hand with state AFL-CIO leaders Claude Ramsay, Thomas Knight and Ray Smithhart. Like other labor leaders in the South, they endured many defections of white members from their ranks as a result of their stand for civil rights.

Most of the workforce at the Nissan plant in Canton is African-American. They make some of the best wages in a state that perennially ranks at the nation’s bottom in wage earnings. However, workers complain that they haven’t had a pay raise in years, have little or no say-so regarding working conditions, and face a constant barrage of anti-union propaganda.

Federal law guarantees that workers have the right to organize and join a union without harassment. The truth is, however, workers across America now face the kind of hostility that Mississippians have known since segregationist Gov. Ross Barnett secured “right to work” as state law.  They get little or no backing from Congress or the U.S. “Corporate” Supreme Court, and even some major Democrats like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel seem antagonistic to unions.

If there’s to be a resurrection of the labor movement, the UAW seems poised to play the kind of pivotal role it played both in past labor and civil rights history. Its sit-down strikes (a tactic later embraced by civil rights activists) in the 1930s helped establish modern-day labor. In the 1960s, UAW leader Walter Reuther marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr.

“When (police commissioner) Bull Connor is destroying freedom in Birmingham, he is destroying my freedom in Detroit,” Reuther said during the famous March on Washington in August 1963.

That’s the spirit—along with those of King and Randolph—that Redmond, Atkins and Jackson are hoping to rekindle in Mississippi.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Big money pours into presidential politics while Walmart workers and Louisiana salt mine workers fight for their rights

Just a couple weeks to election day, and Americans will see how far Big Money can determine the political future of this nation.

The world has changed since the U.S. “Corporate” Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling two years ago.  Reporter Lee Fang told the story of that change in a recent edition of The Nation magazine.  In the pharmaceutical industry alone, spending on federal elections jumped from $200,000 in 2008 to nearly $10.4 million by the very next election cycle. Fang says 98 percent of it came “from undisclosed corporate sources.”

Money can’t by everything. After all, a $222 million payroll, the fattest in all of major league baseball, couldn’t buy the New York Yankees entry into the World Series this year. In fact, the Yankees utterly flopped in the American League Championship Series, losing 0-4 to the pennant-winning Detroit Tigers and their venerable manager, the great Jim Leyland.

Of course, we’re talking politics, not baseball.

I plan to be writing at greater length about the election in the days ahead, looking at the billionaire Koch Brothers and whether they have enough cash to buy the White House as well as assessing other issues such as former President Bill Clinton’s role in the Obama candidacy.

Unlike nearly all of my Democratic and liberal friends, I am absolutely no fan of Bill Clinton. He and his old club, the Southern-dominated Democratic Leadership Council, nearly cut the heart and soul out of what was left of FDR’s Democratic Party, charting a centrist, Republican-like path that paid scant attention to labor and working-class voters while raking in big bucks from Wall Street.

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, always full of hagiographic praise for Clinton, will be the first to tell us the former president deserves a ton of credit if Obama wins. I won’t buy it. If Clinton does indeed have the magic appeal to working class folks that Matthews claims, it certainly doesn’t have to do with anything he ever accomplished on behalf of working people.

Working people don’t have a lot of political leaders who’ll fight the good fight for them. Obama comes a lot closer to such a leader than Clinton ever will. Still, by and large, working people have to get out and do the fighting themselves.

And they are.

Arkansas-based Walmart, already fending off protests and worker walkouts in a dozen or more states, now faces a possible class action lawsuit for allegedly breaking federal minimum wage and overtime laws. A suit was filed this week in a federal court in Illinois claiming, among other things, the giant retailer failed to maintain accurate records of its employees’ working hours, and that employees from Walmart’s staffing agencies weren’t paid for work that they did.

A group called OUR Walmart is helping organize another walkout just one day after Thanksgiving. Walmart typically does more business that day than any other day in the year, the Associated Press reports.

Down in Louisiana, a hundred workers with the Carey Salt company of Cote Blanche won a victory with the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB ruled that the company “forced the miners into an unfair labor practices strike, and then illegally refused to take them back when the miners, represented by the Steelworkers, offered to return to work,” according to labor writer Mark Gruenberg in People’s World.

Carey Salt is a salt mine operation whose parent company is North American Salt.

The NLRB’s 3-0 (including the board’s Republican member!) ruling forces the company to go back to the bargaining table with workers’ representatives to work out a new contract. It also requires that Carey get rid of the workers it hired to replace union members, put those union workers back on the payroll, and give them back pay.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The world's retail Goliath notices its workers aren't happy

(Walmart in Laurel, Md.)

The world’s retail Goliath may be finally feeling some pain as a result of the growing number of slingshot-wielding Davids at its feet.

Some 200 demonstrators protested Walmart’s treatment of its worker outside its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters Wednesday, Oct. 10, bringing home a message that has been getting louder and louder across the nation and beyond.

Workers have long complained about poor pay, poor benefits and management insensitivity to workplace issues at Walmart, but the company has been resolute in preventing them from ever joining a union and speaking as one voice.

Is a change in store for Mr. Sam's company?

As reported recently by Josh Eidelson of (, workers went on strike at Walmart stores in Laurel, Md., and Dallas, Texas, and others soon joined them.

Just last month, warehouse workers who handle Walmart products went back to work after a 15-day strike that forced the giant to concede to developing a plan to improve working conditions at Inland Empire and other companies that do business with Walmart.

The strike, which included a 50-mile march from Inland Empire warehouses to Los Angeles’ downtown area, won support from warehouse workers in Illinois and from as far away as Korea and Chile.

Helping to organize these workers is a one-year-old group that calls itself OUR Walmart, which is not a union but is supported by the United Food & Commercial Workers union.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

James Meredith, still a loner, still on a mission, 50 years later

(James Meredith on the Ole Miss campus in 1962)

OXFORD, Miss. – James Meredith’s new book, A Mission from God, co-authored with William Doyle, sometimes reads like the opening confession in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.

“I befuddle people,” Meredith admits. “People have an awfully hard time trying to figure me out.”

Here’s more:

“I’m not a team player. I am my own team.”

“A lot of folks think I’m a real odd bird.”

Like the unnamed narrator in Dostoevsky’s classic 19th century novel, Meredith confesses he’s a self-absorbed loner.

“I am immortal. … I am a moment in history … My ego is so enormous. … Someone once wisecracked that my name should be changed to `I, James Meredith.’”

(To the right is Meredith during a recent book signing at Off Square Books in Oxford, Miss.)

Meredith has baffled admirers and detractors much of his life, certainly since that day 50 years ago when he, the lone black man in a sea of white, entered the campus of the University of Mississippi and enrolled as its first black student. A riot by angry whites left two dead, dozens shot, and more than a hundred more injured. President John F. Kennedy sent 20,000 troops to Oxford in what some have called "the last battle of the Civil War." Oct. 1 marks the 50th anniversary of Meredith's admission to Ole Miss.

In his own words, the Attala County native is “a civil rights hero who absolutely hates to talk about civil rights,” a black man who rejects the term “African-American,” a man who once joined the staff of the original modern-day GOP obstructionist, the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina (also known as “Senator No”).

Meredith endorsed Mississippi segregationist Ross Barnett’s gubernatorial bid in 1967 and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s bid for Louisiana governor in 1991.

Meredith’s career after his dramatic showdown at Ole Miss has been a series of fits and starts: abortive runs for Congress and other offices, including president of the United States; a mixed record of business ventures; a law degree from Columbia University although he never took the bar exam and never practiced law.

When I first met James Meredith in Jackson back in the early 1980s, he had just founded what he called the Reunification Church, which he believed would help him fulfill his “divine responsibility assigned by God,” revealed in a “series of dreams,” and “use my life for the betterment of my people and mankind.”

The church turned out to be a dream that never quite worked out.

Today, nearing 80, he admits he has one great regret: “I have not done nearly enough to help America’s poor, and especially its poorest black citizens.” As for communicating his ideas of “triumphant American citizenship, black advancement, and black self-transformation” effectively to others, “I have failed completely” so far.

He always set his sights high, and he always had a strong sense of self. When the mob at Ole Miss crowded close to him in 1962, shouting epithets and threats, he said his view of himself was this: “I am a Zen samurai. I am invincible. Nothing can harm me.”

After all, he had come back to Mississippi after years in the U.S. Air Force to declare war on racism at “the holiest temple of white supremacy in America,” Ole Miss. A man who eschewed Martin Luther King’s philosophy of nonviolence, Meredith “believed in overwhelming physical force and the threat of organized violence, legally applied by the federal government” as the only means to defeat the Jim Crow South.

When he began his lonely 220-mile “March Against Fear” from Memphis to Jackson in 1966, “I could feel the spiritual presence of my late father walking beside me, and along with him were no less than Jesus Christ and the Founding Fathers of America. There was George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Frederick Douglass, along with my African and Indian royal ancestors … .”

He would be shot on the second day of that journey.

Today, when I walk the tree-lined pathways of the beautiful campus of Ole Miss, I see what James Meredith helped accomplish here. I see students of all races burrowing in their books, hurrying to their classrooms, laughing outside the Student Union. What Meredith did not only changed a university but also a state and a nation.

He admits he has always been “a loner among blacks as well as whites.” He would never be the leader on the steps of a great memorial preaching to the multitudes, never the congressman negotiating compromises over thick stacks of legislation, certainly never the civil rights leader-turned-media celebrity.

He would and will always be that lonely figure, a mystic and a mystery, who stepped onto the stage at a critical moment, braving more than his share of what Shakespeare called the “slings and arrows,” showing unimaginable courage and fortitude, enough to override those baffling moments since then. That includes even now as he rejects the statue of him on the campus he integrated as a “false idol” that “must be destroyed and ground to dust.”

Meredith is still on a mission today, and again it has to do with public education. He wants to "challenge every American citizen to commit right now to help children in the public schools in their community." And, in doing that, he says, "I'm still marching against fear" and for courage and commitment.
One key to the James Meredith mystery that’s never been much discussed is provided in his book: his love for Mississippi. He left it many times, but he kept coming back. “Mississippi is mine. And one must love what is his. I love Mississippi like a bee loves honey.”

That’s a profound statement from someone whose love hasn’t always been requited. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Victor Bussie: Remembering a Southern labor legend

(To the right is Victor Bussie at his Baton Rouge home in 2006)

Victor Bussie, longtime Louisiana labor leader and a legendary figure in the Southern labor movement, died at 92 a year ago this month in Baton Rouge, La. I interviewed Bussie at his home in Baton Rouge back in February 2006. Here's a column I wrote from that interview. I thought now might be a nice time to remember a special friend of working folks.

BATON ROUGE, La. – Labor patriarch Victor Bussie, confidante of presidents, senators and governors, saddens at a half-century-old memory of a politician and friend who gained national notoriety for exploits that included an affair with a French Quarter stripper but who was simply “Uncle Earl” to the working people of Louisiana.

Bussie was with Earl Long in the late 1950s when the three-time governor’s mental breakdown forced his family and friends to send him to a mental institution in Galveston, Texas.   “He had been crying all the time for grape juice. He loved grape juice. We’d bring him some, and he’d pour it all over himself. He looked horrible. … It made me realize if it could affect a person in the position of governor … it could affect anybody.”

(To the left, Earl Long giving one of his famous barn-burners)

It was one of a hundred tales the 87-year-old Bussie told during a recent visit related to a book-in-progress on the Southern labor movement. As president of the Louisiana AFL-CIO from 1956 to 1997, the trained firefighter withstood many a firestorm during a tumultuous time in history. A key player on the political as well as the labor scene, he recalled President Kennedy once summoning him to the White House to get him to convince U.S. Sen. Russell Long, D-La., to support the bill to establish Medicare. Bussie’s lobbying transformed Long from a powerful opponent to a leading champion.

“I said, `Senator, I’ve come to tell you the AFL-CIO is not going to support you any longer. You’re blocking a program that’s more important to us than any other thing else you could have voted for or against. … Russell Long helped pass the bill.”

Bussie offers the perspective of long years in the trenches when he looks at the working lives of Southerners today and yesterday. Like Claude Ramsay in Mississippi, he saw his state AFL-CIO suffer major defections—40 percent of the membership in Louisiana—because of his strong stand in support of civil rights during the 1960s. His home was once bombed by Klansmen.

He worked with Earl Long and others in keeping a full-fledged, anti-union “right to work” law--which critics call a “right to work for less” law because of its long-term effects of keeping wages and benefits down— off the books in Louisiana during the civil rights era. This was a rarity in the South. The state finally passed such a law in 1976.

Still, the movement that Bussie and others fought so hard to preserve is today at its lowest ebb since the 1920s.  Union membership has dropped from a post-World War II high of roughly one-third of the workforce to approximately 13 percent. Last summer the defection of the Teamsters and other major unions from the national AFL-CIO split the movement. Meanwhile, the transformation of the U.S. economy from a manufacturing to a service base continues unabated, leaving many good-paying union jobs in the dust.

Also continuing unabated is the anti-union assault by business groups such as the so-called “Center for Union Facts—an organization led by former tobacco industry lobbyist Richard Berman that has begun running full-page ads in the New York Times and other leading newspapers vilifying unions.
Still, the statistics and campaigns don’t deter the optimism Bussie feels about the movement. The high-priced campaigns can’t kill an idea—the idea of working people joining together to have a united voice on issues that affect their working lives.

“People are gradually beginning to realize there is no strength without an organization,” Bussie said. “They are beginning to realize what can be done to them if their enemies are given full control.”