Monday, May 28, 2012

A new column venue & recalling an encounter with I.F. Stone; Student loan debt, a scandal of our times

(I.F. Stone in 1972)

 A new venue for my column, and remembering an encounter with I.F. Stone

I was a lowly intern at a major newspaper up north, sitting at my desk in a corner plotting my day when a small, elderly, bespectacled man walked past me to a nearby telephone. Notebook in hand, he picked up the receiver and dialed.

“Hello,” he told the voice at the other end. “This is I.F. Stone … .”

I don’t remember the rest of his conversation because I was in shock. Before me stood one of my heroes, the dean of “alternative” journalists, the man who exposed the federal government’s lies about the risks of atomic bomb testing and was rewarded for it with a 5,000-page file on him in the vaults of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

I introduced myself after he hung up, of course, later interviewed him, and never forgot the encounter. I tell this story because this is my first column in Mississippi’s premier “alternative” newspaper, the Jackson Free Press, a publication that keeps alive the spirit of journalists like Stone, George Seldes, Dorothy Day, telling it like it is whether the powers that be want to hear it or not.

There’s lots to write about in this beleaguered-but-wonderful state of Mississippi--its “business friendly” governor and legislature boasting of making it harder for workers to file claims for injuries, vowing to crack down on immigrant workers, cutting education funds at the same time they’re giving corporations more tax breaks.

However, today let’s talk about student loans, a scandal of our times, what writer Jeffrey J. Williams has called a modern-day “system of bondage similar … to indentured servitude,” even worse in some ways because today the shackles can last a lifetime rather than the one-to-seven years imposed two centuries ago in England and the Colonies.

Student loan debt, a scandal of our times

(To the right is Donica Phifer)

Donica Phifer needs a job. She’s 26 years old, holds degrees in journalism and music from the University of Mississippi, lives with her mom and disabled dad in tiny Tishomingo, and owes $44,000 in student loans. Add interest and the IOU amounts to $58,000.

“It is frustrating, I won’t hem and haw around it,” says Phifer, who graduated in December. “I’m not the only person. It’s terrifying. … Right now I don’t know if (college) was worth it. I spent $40,000 for two pieces of paper. … There has got to be a better way than kids taking out thousands and thousands of dollars in loans. … I hate being in debt. My gosh, I hate it!”

Phifer says the bad economy has put fresh graduates like her in competition with experienced workers who are also hunting jobs. Out of approximately 100 job applications, she has gotten 25 interviews so far. “They come back and say, `We really liked you but we want someone with professional experience.’”

Phifer’s loan is held by Sallie Mae, the nation’s largest private lender, a company that started out as a federal nonprofit operation. In the spirit of privatization that now threatens to turn our public schools, prisons, and universities into corporate entities, Sallie Mae went private in 2004, and in 2011 it spent $3 million of its subsequent multi-millions in profits to lobby the federal government against such things as the Fairness for Struggling Students Act, which would have allowed loan forgiveness to students who declare bankruptcy (a right they now don’t have).

Things may soon get worse for students. The interest rate on subsidized Stafford Loans will double to 6.8 percent July 1 if Congress doesn’t act. Republicans are refusing to agree to keep the current cap unless Democrats make concessions on Obamacare.

Phifer is right when she says she’s not alone. The average college loan debt is now $25,000, compared to $2,000 a quarter century ago. Students currently in college will owe an average $34,000 if politicians don’t do something about it. The total college loan debt across the nation is $1 trillion.

Who’s to blame? Here in Mississippi, the state Legislature cut college and university funding yet again this year, setting the stage for another tuition hike—from 8.5 to 10 percent. Tuition has risen 40 percent in the past decade, while the median wage rose a mere 2.4 percent. The state provided 56 percent of funding to higher education in 2000. Today it’s 37 percent, according to the nonprofit Mississippi Economic Policy Center.

The de-regulation frenzy in Washington during the Reagan and Clinton administrations enriched Wall Street but helped impoverish future college students. People are starting to protest. The “Occupy” movement has embraced student loan debt as a cause. President Obama, seeking re-election, told students in Iowa recently, “I’m president of the United States, and I just finished paying off my college loan eight years ago.”

“Take thou no usury of him,” God tells Moses in Leviticus, “but fear thy God.”

Some Old Testament cleansing may be necessary to fix the rampant usury indenturing an entire generation in this country. Whether the philistines in Washington are truly paying heed is another matter.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Tribute to a Warrior: Mississippi journalist Bill Minor's 90th birthday

(Yours truly and Bill Minor together at his 90th birthday party)

An array of friends, family, activists, journalists, judges and politicians gathered Sunday to celebrate the 90th birthday of the “dean” of Mississippi journalists, Bill Minor, who continues to pummel the antics of political neanderthals in his syndicated column across Mississippi.

It was an event that truly celebrated the life a journalist who has suffered far more than his share of slings and arrows over the years, a righteous believer in social justice who has always seen his profession as a calling and a mission in a state where many of the nation’s most egregious assaults on justice have taken place.

With his wife Gloria by his side, Minor recalled his days in the U.S. Navy during World War II and joked about the many political enemies across the state who probably would like to “drop a bomb” on the birthday proceedings. It was a party filled with lots of good laughter, memories and awareness of the battles and wars still to be fought in Mississippi.

An especially poignant moment in the celebration came when Minor received a call from his son Paul, who is serving an eight-year prison sentence on judicial corruption convictions, a case fraught with political implications given Paul Minor’s previous role as a major contributor to the Democrat Party and one of the trial lawyers who helped bring about a multi-billion-dollar settlement with Big Tobacco in 1997. Paul Minor gave his father a wonderful tribute, comparing him to a fine wine that grows better with age.

A Louisiana native, Bill Minor covered one of the South’s most colorful characters and politicians, “Uncle” Earl Long, in the Pelican state but found his true calling when he set up shop as the New Orleans Times-Picayune correspondent in neighboring Mississippi in 1947. His first story at the bureau was the funeral of Mississippi’s notoriously racist U.S. Sen. and former governor Theodore Bilbo.

Over the next six decades, Minor covered every conceivable story in a state that made headlines throughout much of the civil rights movement. He covered the rise of the Dixiecrats in the 1948 presidential election, the trial of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant for the murder of 14-year-old black youth Emmett Till in 1955, James Meredith’s enrollment as the first black student at the University of Mississippi in 1962, the murder of activist Medgar Evers in 1963, the “long, hot summer” of 1964 when three civil rights activists were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi.

Even when “the network crews, big city reporters, and photographers” no longer roamed “the state in packs” after the last of the bloody excesses of Mississippi’s response to the civil rights movement, Minor stayed put rather than move on to a big city newspaper up North. He covered the rise of the Republican Party in Mississippi and the South, the so-called “Sunbelt” era, and the eventual Republican rise to dominance that has once again put the squeeze on minorities through anti-immigrant demagoguery and “Voter ID” bills.

Fifteen years ago, as the first recipient of the John Chancellor Award for Excellence, Minor wrote, “there is respect for longevity and continuity in reporting from the same outpost, through good times and bad.”

Indeed. No parachute journalist here. Just a good man who made a commitment and stuck with it, much like the muckraking journalists of a century ago, the Steffens and Tarbells who didn’t walk away from a story until they had told all of it.

I’ve been an admirer of Bill Minor ever since I first arrived in this state in the early 1980s. I remember how he inspired me by reminding me that “this is the frontier,” and in so many ways it still is. I recall my pleasure when learning that Minor had once crossed paths with another journalist I’ve always admired, A.J. Liebling.

As recalled in his classic book, The Press, Liebling was shocked to read Minor’s story in the Times-Picayune in the late 1940s about Mississippi’s reaction to a bus drivers’ strike by creating a state Bureau of Investigation, the MBI, a “secret special force … to have the right to arrest without warrant any person whom they suspected of intent to interfere with a bus line, and to search him.” Liebling called Minor a “straightforward reporter” and praised him for reporting a story that should have been reported across the country.

Given the federal government’s own recent record of arrests and imprisonment without trials and, in some cases, even formal charges, perhaps Mississippi was ahead of its time. I’ve got a feeling Bill Minor sensed that could be the case, and that’s one reason he stayed in Mississippi.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Labor South Roundup: 175 birds a minute, child safety on the farm, and workers getting the squeeze at Pinnacle

Here's another Labor South roundup from across the region:

175 birds a minute

Without first studying the effects on assembly line workers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has changed the rule on line speeds at poultry plants for the first time in more than a half-century, increasing the speed from 91 birds a minute to 175 birds a minute. An extended comment period on the new rule comes to a close at the end of this month.

The United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents poultry workers, has opposed the change, saying the USDA should first consider the effects on workers. An estimated 43 percent of poultry workers have shown indications of carpal tunnel syndrome and other musculoskeletal disorders, according to a 2007 Duke University study. Latino workers, a major portion of the poultry industry workforce today, are more than twice as likely to have such disorders as workers in other manual labor or low-skill jobs.

"Tens of thousands of poultry workers may soon find their already dangerous job becoming much more so, with almost no public debate," author Gabriel Thompson wrote in an article on the issue in The Nation's May 14 issue.

Using a strange logic, USDA claims the change actually will improve food safety by increasing pre-assembly line inspections and freeing staff to pay more attention to safety problems. It also will save taxpayers $90 million by reducing the overall number of online inspectors. Furthermore, Thompson writes, the rule will mean $257 million in annual savings to the industry.

As it made public its new rule, the USDA pledged to work with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to determine how the rule change will affect workers.

That's exactly the reverse of what the process should be, the UFCW argues.

Child labor on the farm

The Obama Administration has stepped back from plans to place new restrictions on child labor on the farm. The Labor Department, responding to studies showing three-fourths of young people who die from work-related injuries worked in agriculture, proposed new rules preventing children under 16 from operating power-driven farm equipment, including tractors. The rules also would have prevented children under 18 from working in stockyards, grain silos and feed lots.

The proposed rules specifically exempted children working on farms owned by their parents.

That didn't prevent a howl of protest from Southern members of Congress, however. "This rule could prevent children under 18 from using such tools as a power screwdriver, a milking machine or something as simple as a wheelbarrow on the family farm," charged U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

The American Farm Bureau Federation also opposed the new rules, saying the family farm also means farms owned by uncles, grandparents and other relatives, and restricting child labor there could be very disruptive to operations.

The rule changes never mention wheelbarrows.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said 40 percent of fatalities of under-age workers are connected to "machines, equipment, or facilities related to agriculture" even though only 4 percent of young people actually work on the farm.

The Labor Department, bombarded with protests from farmers and farming interest groups, has backed off the proposed rules changes but pledged to work with the Farm Bureau, 4-H and others in developing programs to improve child safety on the farm.

Is Delta pushing an anti-worker agenda at Pinnacle?

The United Steelworkers says the Memphis-based Pinnacle Airline Corp. is feeling the heat from its partner, Atlanta-based Delta, in seeking to re-negotiate agreements with three unions representing pilots, transport workers, and other workers.

Pinnacle is facing Chapter 11 bankruptcy and asking union members to agree to hand back pay and benefit gains won over the past couple of years.

Delta is an important partner with Pinnacle, and the Steelworkers believe it is pressuring the troubled airline to put more squeeze on workers. Delta officials have denied the Steelworkers' claim but asserted they do want Pinnacle to be competitive and successful.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

New poultry plant rules, child labor on the farm, and Charlie Louvin's memoirs on tap

Apologies for the delay in posting. The end-of-semester rush here at the University of Mississippi, where I teach journalism, kept me away from the blog, but things should ease up soon.

Coming up will be another Labor South roundup with the following items scheduled:
- Government plans to allow the line speed in poultry plants to increase, making it more likely for workers to develop carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive motion problems. It's just too bad those workers don't have the thick wallets their bosses have to pay lobbyists to protect their interests.
- On a similar note, the debate in Washington regarding proposed child farm labor restrictions has had Southern members up in arms. And you can believe it's not the children that got them concerned. Remember these Southern pols are the philosophical descendants of those Depression-era members of Congress who successfully exempted farm workers from New Deal labor protections.
- Why is it the spectre of bankruptcy is raised whenever airlines want to take on labor unions? Memphis-based Pinnacle is the latest.

A little farther down the road expect a review of a book I'm reading, Satan Is Real by country music legend Charlie Louvin. So far I'm definitely "louvin" this book, which details Charlie and his brother Ira's rise to stardom from their cotton patch origins in Alabama. The book reads (so far) like one of the Louvin Brothers' haunting songs, Southern gothic at its core!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Walmart stands side by side with Chiquita (the former United Fruit Company) and all the other bad apples among U.S. corporations abroad

Walmart shadiness is nothing new—its union-busting, its disdain for its low-paid workers, its hypocrisy regarding family values and old-fashioned morality, its take-no-prisoners approach to profits, the whole sordid legacy of Third World sweatshops, squeezed-out suppliers, and scorched-earth tactics toward mom-and-pop stores.

Now the world’s largest retailer now apparently can add massive bribery to its litany of sins, bribery on a scale that puts it in league with other huge U.S. corporations that have wreaked havoc beyond American shores, companies like Chiquita, or as it was formerly known, the United Fruit Company.

(To the right is a 1916 advertisement for the United Fruit Company)

Walmart is under fire as a result of an in-depth investigation by the New York Times that exposed a widespread pattern of bribes totaling upwards of $24 million in Wal-Mart de Mexico, its largest and hottest foreign subsidiary. The scandal reaches all the way to the inside of Walmart’s top corporate boardroom, tainting former chief executive H. Lee Scott Jr., who “rebuked internal investigators for being overly aggressive” in their own investigation of bribes in Mexico, the New York Times reported. Apparently Walmart’s current top executive, Michael T. Duke, was also aware of the problems in Mexico.

However, it was only after learning of the New York Times investigation that Walmart officials notified the U.S. Justice Department that violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act may have occurred.

Until these revelations, Mexico had been a land of golden opportunity for Walmart, becoming the home to a fifth of all Walmart stores in the world and the worksite for more than 200,000 “associates”. Wal-Mart de Mexico’s chief executive, Eduardo Castro-Wright, had become company vice-chairman and was seen as a potential candidate for Walmart’s top job.

The Times reported that former Walmart executive Sergio Cicero Zapata admitted in interviews that he “helped organize years of payoffs,” targeting “mayors and city council members, obscure urban planners, low-level bureaucrats who issued permits—anyone with the power to thwart Wal-Mart’s growth.”

Walmart should be used to scandal by now but not perhaps a scandal of this scale. Seven years ago, former No. 2 Walmart executive and Sam Walton protege Thomas Coughlin was found guilty of stealing up to a half-million dollars from the company.

Coughlin’s defense was that the money was used to fund union spies at the notoriously anti-union company.

Walmart’s bad behavior doesn’t necessarily have to involve breaking the law, however. A Business Week investigation in 2006 exposed how Wal-Mart (it changed its name to Walmart in 2008) and Nike bullied their way into the Chinese economy by squeezing suppliers for the lowest possible prices on goods and, in essence, encouraging behind-the-scenes sweatshop conditions at the same time they were assuring their critics back home that they were discouraging such conditions.
That particularly report came a decade after revelations that television star Kathie Lee Gifford’s line of clothing sold at Wal-Mart was made in sweatshops in Central America and New York City.

(To the left is an 1890 sweatshop)

Bad behavior is nothing new for mega-U.S. corporations abroad. One only has to look to the sordid legacy of the United Fruit Company, now called Chiquita Brands International. As far back as the turn of the last century, United Fruit stood front and center in Latin American politics, helping to overthrow unfriendly regimes, calling on friends in the U.S. military to help, and inspiring rage in future revolutionaries like Che Guevara and writers like Gabriel GarcĂ­a-Marquez.

More recently, Chiquita officials admitted to making payments to a terrorist paramilitary group in Colombia known to operate death squads and attack union organizers and dissident workers. The company reached an agreement with the Justice Department to pay a $25 million fine. It claimed, however, the payments were to protect its workers and plants.

Guess who was once a top attorney for Chiquita. None other than U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Chiquita, the Dole Food Company, and other U.S.-based companies continued to use the cancer-causing pesticide Nemagon in Latin America and the Philippines long after it was banned in the United States, exposing workers to a host of deadly physical ailments.

Want a bit of irony? Dole’s top executive, David Murdock, notorious in Kannapolis, N.C., for taking off with millions of dollars in workers’ pensions when he sold his Cannon Mills textile operation there, returned to Kannapolis years later with a promise to build a “biopolis” of research laboratories to study nutition and healthy foods and eating practices. At the same time, the hypocrite was fighting efforts in Nicaragua to hold his company accountable for its use of nemagon and the resulting health-care disaster to its workers.

Modern-day superstar corporations like Apple aren’t all that different in this dark tradition within U.S. corporate culture and behavior.

A long-awaited report from the Washington-based Fair Labor Association recently eliminated any doubt about the poor working conditions of the Chinese workers who help produce iPads and iPhones. Those conditions include 60-to-70-hour work weeks at minimal pay, conditions the Apple corporation and its partner in China, Foxconn, say they’re going to try and fix. Foxconn has a 1.2 million workforce.

If Apple is indeed serious about righting the wrongs of  such corporate behavior abroad, it would certainly a break from the dark tradition of its corporate brothers.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Let's Celebrate May Day!

(The Haymarket Riot, May 15, 1886. From Harper's Weekly)

It's May 1, the true Labor Day, and plenty of working folks around the world are protesting, marching, waving banners and signs, publicly acknowledging and supporting the long struggle that has gone on and still continues for their rights. They need to be loud and united because that's the only way politicians and the corporate media will pay attention.

Otherwise, it's not on their agenda.

Working people are the agenda of Labor South, however. I will be posting a piece this week about Walmart and its shenanigans in Latin America, as exposed in the recent investigative piece by the New York Times (okay, some corporate media still produce good investigative work!). Another story coming soon will deal with the scandal of student college loan debt.

May is, of course, a month rich in symbolism for workers. It was during a post-May Day labor gathering at Haymarket Square in Chicago in 1886 that a bomb was thrown, killing 11 people and leading to a severe crackdown on labor activity and the turning of public opinion against unions. The press had a lot to do with that, pointing an accusing finger at union organizers with scant regard for evidence. Eight men were convicted in the bombing, only two of whom were even present during the protest and none of whom was directly linked to it. Four of the eight were eventually hung, and a fifth committed suicide in jail.

The Haymarket Affair prompted a global reaction with protests in England, Holland, Russia, Italy and Spain. Six of the eight convicted men were German immigrants, prompting German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to ban public meetings for fear of an outbreak of violence.

At the trial of the Haymarket Eight, the state attorney told the jurors that "these men ... are no more guilty than the thousands who follow them." However, he said, "convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and you save our institutions, our society." Check William J. Adelman's Haymarket Revisited for the full story.

What were the labor protests at Haymarket Square all about? The eight-hour day. Yes, workers wanted an eight-hour workday, rather than a 12 or 14 or 16-hour workday.

And now in the Jackson Free Press ... By the way, my columns will soon appear in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss., along with the other publications that often run them, such as the Institute for Southern Studies' Facing South in North Carolina and The Progressive Populist in Texas. The Jackson Free Press is Mississippi's premier alternative newspaper, a feisty weekly committed to old-style crusades for social justice in a state crying out for just that. I'll be proud to have my writings in those pages, as I am in the other publications. They all believe in good journalism, something else this state and this nation desperately need.