Saturday, March 31, 2012

From China to Spain to Mississippi, it's "a fight from the cradle to the grave."

(To the right is Woody Guthrie in a 1943 photograph)

The great balladeer Woody Guthrie pretty much hit the nail on the head in a letter he wrote to Folkways Records chief Moe Asch in 1946:

“I have always said in my songs and ballads that this old world is a fight from the cradle to the grave. … I believe that the real folk history of this country finds its center and its hub in the fight of the union members against the hired gun thugs of the big owners.”

Guthrie, whose 100th birthday will be celebrated in July, was recently redeemed and forgiven by his home state of Oklahoma--after decades of exile--for his pro-worker views. The public in Tulsa now get to see the archives of the composer of “This Land is Your Land” as a result of actions by the Guthrie family and the purchase of the archives by the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

In this round-up of labor activity in the U.S. South and in the Global South, a round-up that shows how both are indeed interlocked and share the same issues and challenges, the truth of Guthrie’s words is validated.

A long-awaited report from the Washington-based Fair Labor Association this week eliminated any doubt about the poor working conditions of the Chinese workers who help produce those iPads and iPhones we enjoy so much, exposing the ugly truth hidden under all the hagiography given the late Apple CEO Steven Jobs.

Those conditions include 60-to-70-hour work weeks at minimal pay, conditions that have led to a number of suicides and which the Apple corporation and its partner in China, Foxconn, say they’re going to remedy. Let’s see if they do. Foxconn has a 1.2 million workforce.

Elsewhere in Asia, working-class folks are being encouraged to stand up for their rights. Political and religious leaders in the Philippines recently urged Filipinos to finish their three-decade-old revolution against tyranny by ridding the country of the corruption left in ousted ruler Ferdinand Marcos’ wake. This comes at the same time of the 35th anniversary of the death of Larry Itliong, the Filipino immigrant who helped Cesar Chavez launch the farm workers movement and the United Farm Workers in the United States in the 1960s.

These events remind me of the Filipino activist workers I encountered during my trip last year to Taiwan, an inspiration to me.

“If you are a caregiver, you work very long hours,” Nelva Baldon, a 32-year-old caregiver and activist from the city of Iloilo in the Philippines, told me in Taipei. “The government needs to do more. We don’t have the laws protecting us. If we are sick, we have nothing. … The employers treat us like slaves. We understand we are workers, and we have to work, but they treat us like slaves.”

“We need a little confrontation sometimes,” agreed fellow caregiver Sheila Z. Mayanoia, 39, also from Iloilo.

Filipino workers like Baldon and Mayanoia are at the forefront of the cause for workers’ rights in Taiwan, said Sister Eulalia P. Loreto of the Migrant Workers’ Concern Desk at St. Christopher Catholic Church in Taipei. “Filipinos think they have to be heard. They are vocal, and they insist on their rights.”

Another interesting and related development is growing interest in the novel, For The Win, by Canadian writer and blogger-activist Cory Doctorow. The novel, discussed in a recently aired National Public Radio report, depicts a “virtual” uprising by young people in China, India and California against their government and corporate bosses, an uprising that may be “virtual” but with broad implications for real-life worker rights.

Certainly a real-life uprising is taking place in Spain, where millions of working-class people have taken to the streets to protest European Union-mandated austerity measures and the anti-labor policies of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. In a nation where 25 percent of workers and close to 50 percent of young people have no jobs, workers filled the Puerta del Sol Plaza in Madrid and other locations across the nation this week, waving red union banners, stalling public transportation, shutting down schools and factories, and demanding political accountability as to why leaders see “austerity” as the only solution for Spain and Europe’s economic woes.

Here closer to home, Mississippi legislators, now dominated by conservative Republicans, found themselves facing growing opposition to proposed draconian Alabama-style anti-immigrant legislation after business interests complained about the potential loss of cheap workers and law enforcement officials complained about the impact on their jails. That didn’t keep state House members, however, from reversing an earlier vote on workers’ compensation and approving a bill that, among other things, does the following:

- Requires employees to provide employers with medical proof that an injury or illness is directly job-related.

- Allows employers to test employees for alcohol and drugs whenever an injury on the job takes place.

Jackson, Miss., labor attorney Roger K. Doolittle said the bill is a direct and blatant attack on workers’ compensation and workers. Ironically it comes after a recent non-partisan state government study that showed that workers already get the raw end of the deal as a result of rulings and actions by the existing Mississippi Workers’ Compensation Commission.

Like Woody said so long ago, it’s “a fight from the cradle to the grave.”

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Two preservers of Southern folklore celebrated for making the world know of the poor South's many riches

(Alan Lomax at a festival in Asheville, N.C. Library of Congress)

In a 1987 interview, folklorist Alan Lomax told me this great story about meeting Depression-era bluesman Robert Johnson’s mother. Lomax talked to her in her lowly shack in Sledge, Miss., and she described to him how her son got religion before he died in 1938.

Remember: this is the famous bluesman who, legend has it, sold his soul to the devil at the Delta crossroads of highways 61 and 49 in order to master his guitar. According to another legend, he died after a jealous lover (or her jealous husband) poisoned him on the night of a performance at a juke joint in Three Forks near Greenwood, Miss.

“When he was dyin’, they called me there,” she told Lomax. “When I walked in, my son was on his dyin’ bed. He said, `Mama, look on the wall, my guitar is hung up there. I’m givin’ up that devil’s instrument.’”

I thought about that story as I watched another legendary preserver of Southern folklore receive some well-deserved recognition this week. Photojournalist and music promoter Dick Waterman is featured in the cover story of the latest edition of the magazine Mississippi Observer, a product of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi. He also was honored during an event marking the magazine’s launching at the university’s Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics.

(Dick Waterman this week at the University of Mississippi's Overby Center)

A Massachusetts native and longtime Oxford, Miss., resident, Waterman helped launch the 1960s blues revival by tracking down long-forgotten masters like Son House and later managing and promoting House and other greats such as Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Mississippi John Hurt, Mance Lipscomb, Junior Wells, and Buddy Guy. He also managed blues rockers like Bonnie Raitt.

Waterman, perhaps even better known for his photography of blues and rock musicians like Mick Jagger, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson, has always been a strong champion of musicians’ rights and worked hard to protect often-illiterate bluesmen from financial exploitation. “I don’t like bullies, male bullies, female bullies, financial or corporate bullies,” Waterman once told me. “I tried to be fair.”

The South may be forever the nation’s poorest region, but it is also arguably the nation’s richest in the music and art of its folk culture. A certain fragility always hovers around such culture. People become ashamed of its close association with poverty and rural backwardness. “Progress” always threatens, as does the nation’s corporate culture, which only values what is profitable.

Texas-born Lomax, who died in 2002, traveled the South and beyond in the 1930s and 1940s, discovering bluesman Muddy Waters on a Delta plantation and recording for the first time wandering troubadour Woody Guthrie. His amazing collection of thousands of hours of recordings and film and thousands of photographs and videotapes are now being made available online. In January, the label Global Jukebox released a collection of Lomax’s field recordings to honor what would have been his 97th birthday.

In my interview with Lomax, he told me about his historic discovery of McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, whom some consider the greatest of all blues musicians. Morganfield “was barefooted and he didn’t even own a guitar. I lent him mine.”

Lomax said this about his work. “The whole point was to give voice to the voiceless. This is the century of communication. We (whites) have monopolized the whole communication system. It is a much more severe kind of exploitation than economic exploitation. I have devoted my life to give equity to the situation.”

Dick Waterman has fought a similar battle. He battled lawyers and corporate heads to secure for bluesman Big Joe Williams a 27-year copyright renewal on his classic song Baby, Please Don’t Go. He didn’t want Williams to end up like other bluesmen who went empty-handed while others made millions on their music.

Waterman traveled 4,000 miles in his successful search for Son House, the singer and guitarist who had inspired Robert Johnson, bringing House out of obscurity and into national recognition while he was still alive and able to enjoy it.

In their own way, Lomax and Waterman are working-class heroes. They traveled across the South and knew that beyond its poverty was an unfathomable richness, and they devoted their lives to preserving it and protecting it.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Mississippi Democrat Leaders: We need to return to our populist roots

(William Jennings Bryan giving a speech on July 3, 1908)

Talk to most Mississippians down at the local coffee shop, and the first thing they’ll tell you is they’re conservative, says Mississippi Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, and one of the last Democrats in the state still holding a regional or statewide office.

Talk to them 30 minutes, and they’ll tell you, “Wall Street is running over Main Street,” Presley says. “You’ll see a fire-breathing William Jennings Bryan populist.”

In a recent panel discussion at the University of Mississippi’s Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics, Presley and state Rep. Bobby Moak, a Bogue Chitto, Miss., Democrat and state House minority leader, talked about their party and its prospects in the new Republican-dominated Mississippi.

For Presley, the Democratic Party has to rediscover its populist roots.

“We’ve got to get Bubba back,” Presley said. “We’ve lost rural white folks. We’ve not been talking to them.”

(Bobby Moak and Brandon Presley at the recent Overby Center panel discussion. Photograph by Mykki Newton)

The party has to look beyond the racial divide that has helped cripple it in the past, a division exploited by the surging Republican Party, and re-connect with hard-working, often-struggling Mississippians, both black and white, who share core Democratic values. “It’s not right versus left. It’s top versus bottom,” Presley said. “Who is going to control the government? Those who can afford access?”

Democrats have to make sure “the lady wiping tables at the diner” has access, too.

Old-style populism created the position Presley holds. Despite the frequent racist rantings of many of them, progressive Southern politicians at the turn of the last century established commissions and agencies to protect the public by overseeing utilities, banks, railroads and insurance companies. They pumped needed money into public education, went after rogue companies taking advantage of consumers, championed small farmers and small businessmen.

In Washington, progressive Democrats like Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt pushed through legislation like the Glass-Steagall Act to rein in financial speculators and other greedy interests. Sixty years later, the party’s leader, Bill Clinton, applauded the repeal of Glass-Steagall as a milestone in “modernizing the financial services industry, tearing down those antiquated laws and granting banks significant new authority.”

Clinton and the economically conservative, Southern-dominated Democratic Leadership Council steered the modern Democratic Party away from populism to its own version of corporatism, a party liberal on social issues like abortion but one as committed to Wall Street interests as the Republicans.

Of course, Democrats have always fought with one another over the soul of their party. They’re not like Republicans, who, as Moak says, “march in lockstep,” or as Presley says, “get a fax everyday on here’s what you should do.”

In the late 1800s, it was the challenge of the progressive Populist Party, the largest third party in the history of the nation, that forced Democrats to become the progressive party. In the one-party South, populist Democrats were at constant odds with the so-called “Bourbon” Democrats, or Redeemers, who, like modern-day Republicans, were inextricably linked to corporate interests and used methods like the poll tax to limit or even eliminate the franchise of poor whites as well as blacks.

With Republicans controlling both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature as well as the governor’s mansion today, the parade of bills coming up for debate is like one steady assault on people of limited access and limited means--“personhood” proposals aimed at overriding the statewide vote against such a measure, the establishment of charter schools despite underfunded existing public schools, Alabama-style anti-immigrant proposals, bills aimed at gutting workers’ compensation.

Tea-partyers and other right-wingers who mistakenly call themselves populists gain ground in places like rural Mississippi, ground ceded by Clintonites long ago, by talking religion and values. The gods they serve, however, have nothing to do with religion.

As writer Thomas Frank has observed, they “may talk Christ, but they walk corporate.” Anti-immigrant bills rarely effectively target the business owners who do the hiring. Charter schools are a Trojan horse aimed at privatizing the public school system. “Personhood” is smoke and mirrors, doomed to defeat in the first court willing to take it up.

In such a climate as today, Democrats in Mississippi have to know who they are and be willing to take a stand on what’s important, Presley said. “We get back the rural people by showing that we’re not wimps. We’ve got to show we’re not afraid to take on a fight.”

Friday, March 2, 2012

Super Tuesday, the Tea Party & the South: Preaching the gospel of raw capitalism and the evils of government

(An unknown Pentecostal preacher)

I’m a Catholic who grew up in the Pentecostal Holiness Church, and I’ll never forget the little Macedonian Pentecostal Church outside of Sanford, N.C., where my Uncle Eb preached. From the pulpit he reminded me of an Old Testament prophet with his eagle eyes, beak nose, and gravelly voice.

When my father, my brother and I were the only three in the congregation not to answer the call to come forward and pray at the altar one Sunday, Uncle Eb stared at us across the church and warned, “Remember, you’re not too young to go to hell.”

I loved those people even though Uncle Eb inspired some pretty scary visions of hellfire and damnation. They were hard-working farmers and textile workers, far from wealthy, many poor, some dirt poor, and their faith was the rock-ribbed center of their lives. They spoke in tongues, danced up and down the aisle, waved their hands in the air to feel the Holy Ghost about them. The preacher never talked about the wonders of wealth and capitalism although he gave Elvis Presley and his ilk a hard time occasionally.

It was certainly not the Pentecostal Church you’ve seen and come to know on television since the days of Jim and Tammy Bakker, a church that seems to revel in its wealth, that surrounds itself with the trappings of material goods, and whose leaders often equate a no-holds-barred capitalism with Christianity itself.

That’s the Pentecostal Church, along with other Protestant denominations and many Catholics, that has allied itself with the Tea Party movement and a hard-right Republican Party that wants to install corporate rule in this country. That’s why you’re hearing GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum (a Catholic) talking about breaking down the wall between church and state, resurrecting abortion, homosexuality, and even birth control as issues that should concern Americans even more than jobs.

As the March 6 “Super Tuesday” primaries approach and voters go to the polls in Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, Oklahoma, and other states, bear in mind that Southerners dominate the Tea Party that is so central to Republican politics today. Purdue University history professor Darren Dochuk, in the New Labor Forum (Winter 2012 edition), says 39 of the 62 members in the congressional Tea Party Caucus are from the South, including 12 from Texas. Actually, he writes, they are part of a long-standing tradition of conservative evangelical leaders who’ve been aligning themselves against liberal Democrats since at least the New Deal.

In the 1940s, CIO organizer Lucy Randolph Mason, a Virginia aristocrat and committed Episcopalian who believed in the labor cause, often found herself face to face with the mill village minister, a man usually totally compromised by the financial support he got from the mill owner and one who thus considered labor unions minions from hell. She describes one of them, Preacher Jones, in her autobiography To Win These Rights: “The preacher dropped his bull-like head and hunching forward said to me: `You don’t believe in no kind of religion—you believe in a social religion and that ain’t Christianity … .’ I, too, leaned forward and asked earnestly, but politely: `Then you don’t believe in the teachings of Jesus? … His whole life … (was) all part of a great social religion.'”

In the modern South, Pentecostal, Methodist, and Baptist leaders are joined by first generation Southerners who came to Atlanta, Nashville, and the Research Triangle in North Carolina with their business and engineering degrees and pro-business ideas, set up shop, and laid the foundation for the rise of Sunbelt South politicians like Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush. For those politicians, the old bugaboo of communism that preachers used to fire congregations back in the 1940s was replaced by the bugaboo of government.

But, just as Preacher Jones was a tool of the mill owners to keep the workers pliant and passive, the religious right today is also merely a tool for the oil barons and Wall Street types who truly rule. In the 1950s and 1960s, Dochuk writes, oilmen H.L. Hunt and J. Howard Pew stayed busy “marshaling their fellow church folk in fights for right-to-work legislation and the deregulation of industry.”

From time immemorial, “the Southern oil business has been dominated by petro-patriarchs who have used their company profits to fund evangelical institutions that legitimate their business pursuits. The marriage has always been a natural one: in the freewheeling culture of Southwestern oil—where high-risk, high-reward wildcatting has romanticized the rags-to-riches man who demands to be left alone—evangelicalism has celebrated its own fierce, masculine individualism.”

Instead of Hunt and Pew, today we have the Koch brothers.

Make no mistake: MONEY is their one ultimate principle, their god, not religion, not the teachings of Jesus Christ. In the past they used fear of communism, socialism and civil rights on the bully pulpit to stir up the great unwashed. Today it’s government.

That’s why there’s something sickening when a right-wing Republican like U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor gets a ton of positive publicity, as he recently did, for paying lip service to the civil rights movement. This week Cantor, joining with civil rights legend and Democratic House member John Lewis of Georgia, pushed through the Republican-dominated House a resolution to preserve the stories of members of Congress who participated in the movement.

Ah, the civil rights movement, so safely tucked away in the history books now. Let’s praise it and show how progressive we can be 40 years after the fact. And after we do, let’s get back to the business of the day and make sure those civil rights don’t interfere with the markets or with our corporate friends, the people we truly serve.