Friday, April 20, 2012

MIRA fighting the good fight for immigrant workers in Mississippi ... and winning!

(Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance Executive Director and veteran labor organizer Bill Chandler)

Four years ago, noted labor writer David Bacon had this to say about the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance and its fight for immigrant workers in the nation’s most conservative state: “Blacks plus immigrants plus unions equals power.”

Yet again this past legislative session, MIRA helped worked another miracle, preventing an arch-conservative state Legislature from passing a draconian, Alabama-and-Arizona-style anti-immigration bill. Twice in this year’s session, Republican legislators tried to win approval of House Bill 488, the so-called “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act of 2012”, and both times they failed.

The proposed law’s provisions, its name antithetical to what it would do to Latino families and neighborhoods as well as law enforcement authorities, called for law enforcement authorities to arrest anyone suspected of being in the country illegally and to notify federal immigration officials of those arrests. Fines would be levied against any reluctant law enforcement agency.

“We all know that the immigration debate is far from over,” MIRA said in a statement to supporters after the legislative battle. “It’s a small victory in a larger battle for immigrants’ and workers’ rights. … Don’t let this success lull you into thinking that the mentality behind the bill is gone. We know it’s only a matter of time until the intent of the bill is revived.”

Indeed, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican elected last year with strong backing from the Mississippi Tea Party, has vowed to pursue the matter and may even call a special session of the state Legislature to take it up. Last year’s historic elections also brought Mississippi a Republican House as well as Republican Senate in the Legislature.

However, MIRA is a formidable foe that has helped defeat an estimated 220 such bills over the past decade, a time when other Southern states like Alabama and Georgia were enacting laws identical to the ones being rejected in Mississippi.

The secret to MIRA’s success thus far has been its work with the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, whose membership includes 31 of the House’s 122 members and 11 of the Senate’s 52 members. Each year MIRA holds a joint convention with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It also works with the NAACP and state labor leaders. MIRA Executive Director Bill Chandler is a veteran labor organizer who worked with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers during the historic strikes of the 1960s.

In this year’s battle, the failure of so-called “immigration reform” in Alabama also helped prevent such measures in Mississippi. The cost of Alabama’s anti-immigration law, the nation’s strictest, could be as much as $2.3 billion annually and up to 140,000 lost jobs, according to a University of Alabama study.

The 2010 Census estimated that Mississippi has about 90,000 Latinos—a number much too low, according to Chandler. The estimated number of undocumented workers is 45,000.

Those workers, however, fill many chicken plants and construction sites across the state, and the prospect of worker-less plants and constructions sites as well as overcrowded jails prompted an amazing coalition of business and law enforcement groups to stand alongside MIRA in opposing this year’s anti-immigrant effort. Those groups included: the state’s own chamber of commerce, called the Mississippi Economic Council; the powerful Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, which has 200,000 member families; the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police; Mississippi Sheriff’s Association; Mississippi Association of (County) Supervisors; and the Mississippi Municipal League. Religious leaders also weighed in against the measure. These groups traveled across the state to tell legislators of their opposition.

Law enforcement officials particularly worried about overcrowded jails becoming even more overcrowded and filled with immigrant workers.

This is already a huge problem nationwide. Thanks to hard lobbying by the private prison industry and the federal Operation Streamline initiative, Latinos make up more than half of the inmates serving out felony convictions in federal prisons today even though Latinos only represent 16 percent of the nation’s population. The Texas Observer reports that Operation Streamline has pumped $1.2 billion into the private prison industry and cost taxpayers an additional $320 million just to fund the program.

This comes at a time in which immigration across U.S. borders is actually on the decline. The number of undocumented workers in the nation went from 12 million in the pre-recession days of 2007 to 11.2 million by 2010.

Immigrant groups like MIRA are striking back. In Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is continuing its pressure on the Publix grocery store chain to pay one penny more per pound of tomatoes, money that then goes to raise the wages of the state’s largely immigrant tomato-picking workforce.

Thanks to Depression-era Southern members of Congress, federal labor law excludes farmworkers, making the job of CIW and other groups that much more difficult to win rights for migrant workers. However, CIW has been successful in getting 10 major food corporations to agree to the penny increase, which CIW estimates has put an additional $4 million in workers’ checks since January 2011.

In Alabama, religious and labor groups continue to fight that state’s disastrous anti-immigration law, and they have made their fight global by going to Daimler officials in Germany and Hyundai officials in South Korea to get their support. Both auto companies have plants in Alabama.

MIRA's Chandler told me Friday evening that indeed the battle is far from over in Mississippi. The anti-immigrant forces in the state are determined. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach--one of the authors of Arizona's anti-immigrant law--even came to Mississippi to rally support. It wasn't enough to turn the tide in their favor, but still it's too early for MIRA to pop champagne, Chandler said.

Nevertheless, Chandler admitted, some fellow activists brought champagne over anyway "and they popped it."

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Immigration, targeted state workers, workers' comp, and student loan debt on tap at Labor South. Meanwhile, a swan song at one newspaper

Greetings, Labor South readers, and sorry for the pause since last posting. Lots going on, of course, on the Labor South front.

In the works is another look at the immigration situation across the South with Tea Party-inspired legislation confronting business-unfriendly realities such as worker-empty fields and construction sites. This is a clash long predicted in this blog and now playing out within the Republican Party. A fascinating part of this story is the fact that the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance continues to work miracles with the help of the Black Legislative Caucus to forestall or kill Alabama-style anti-immigrant legislation in the state.

However, on other fronts here in Mississippi--traditionally the South Exaggerated--the new Republican leadership continues its assault on workers' compensation and now, Wisconsin-style, state workers. Another issue Labor South is pursuing is the ongoing college student loan debt crisis that threatens to worsen as states cut higher education budgets and universities hike tuition rates.

Meanwhile, this writer has made a big change in deciding to discontinue his nearly 30-year-old column in Mississippi's largest newspaper, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, an act prompted by the latest round of early retirement buyouts at the Gannett-owned newspaper that claimed two of its most senior editors, both personal friends: David Hampton and Jim Ewing. I'll continue writing and publishing, of course, here at Labor South and in different venues. More on that later.

On that note, however, I thought I'd share with you my farewell column for the Clarion-Ledger, which is scheduled to run this Sunday (April 15). In this blog, I've never provided a great deal of detail on my 36 years as a working journalist. Maybe some of you might find interesting the column's history and some of the reaction it has received over the years.

Remember: I'll be posting again soon on this blog and writing plenty of columns and articles elsewhere, but here below is my swan song at the Clarion-Ledger:


An old IWW Wobbly tune often comes to mind when I get a nasty letter from an irate reader taking exception to something I wrote in a column.

“You ain’t done nothing if you ain’t been called a Red” goes the song, and certainly I’ve been called a “Red” and worse many times. Maybe the worst ever was this: “Do you ever consider the possibility that you are a f _____ moron? Not just disingenuous and hypocritical but cognitively impaired?”

After considering that possibility, I decided the letter writer might himself be “cognitively impaired” so maybe some empathy was in order.

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting lately about the column because this is the last regular one that I’ll write in these pages, ending a nearly three-decade run since my first one way back in the early 1980s on the Shoccoe dam project. The pending departure of old friends and colleagues like David Hampton and Jim Ewing from the Clarion-Ledger signaled to me that perhaps I, too, should pack my pen and paper and move on. I’ll keep writing. It just won’t be here.

This will be welcome news to letter writers like the fellow quoted above. Lordy, some of them have been nasty. One writer described a column I wrote back in 1994 as “the most ridiculous, irresponsible and leftist I have ever read since I arrived in Mississippi.” Fast forward to 2010 and this is what another reader said: “What a crock of s#&%#. Just as I thought a ray of sanity had made it through the left-wing pinko fog of your Goofy, child-like dream world, you come back with this garbage.”

Then the writer added this: “Are you trying for the Bill Minor Most Disliked Person in the State Award … ?” (Note: I’ve patched up some of the punctuation.)

That’s where the writer messed up. Comparing me to Bill Minor was the best compliment he could have ever paid me. Minor is a hero of mine and, in my book, the greatest Mississippi journalist ever.

Of course, not all the letter writers wish me God’s speed to Hades. One just recently had this to say: “You are truly a friend to the decent working folks of Mississippi.” That meant a lot. So did the card my good friends Sandy and Alice Margolis once sent me to mark the Jewish New Year. On it they wrote, “We believe you have a Jewish heart because you believe in justice and truth and honor.”

What a blast being a journalist and a columnist is. For me, it has meant having a platform to pursue worthy stories that are ignored or overlooked by much of the mainstream press. Here in Mississippi those stories include the ongoing saga of workers’ compensation and the assaults against it, the plight of workers at catfish plants in the Delta, the struggle of working people anywhere to have a voice and sayso in their lives.

As a veteran political reporter, I realized years ago the old red-button issue of civil rights rarely raised a fuss among readers any more. The minute I started talking about labor unions, however, it was, Katy, bar the door! Like the late, great state AFL-CIO president Claude Ramsay once told civil rights leader Aaron Henry, “These people are going to make peace with you before they make peace with me. All you want is a seat at the table, but I want some of their money.”

A column doesn’t always have to be about politics or, even for me, labor unions. Mine has been a ticket into the lives of an unbelievably interesting assortment of people. There was traveling Pentecostal evangelist John Meador and Catholic mystic and healer Father Clarence Waguespack of Vacherie, La. I’ll never forget farmer-philosopher Aron Self, who preferred to plow with horses and mules rather than tractors. Nor will I Mamie Stitt and the other semi-pro baseball fans rooting for their hometown Verona (Miss.) Black Sox.

Bartender Clyde Goolsby, bluesman Terry "Harmonica" Bean, and shadowy civil rights-era figure Buford Posey were among the many who opened their doors to me. Places also were great subjects, whether it was Lusco’s restaurant in Greenwood (Miss.), Red Square in Moscow, a beer garden in Munich, or Durty Nelly’s, a 350-year-old tavern in County Clare, Ireland.

Maybe the column that stands out the most is the one I wrote about my first wife Marilyn and her death from cancer in 1994. I described how we met in North Carolina and how she so fascinated me with her tales of Mississippi that we eventually moved here. That column brought me dozens and dozens of letters from across the state.

And you know what? Every single one of them was full of support and well wishes. I’ll never forget it. I saved every letter.