Thursday, June 28, 2012

Hardworking Hollywood Cowpokes: TV Western heroes gather to tell tales

(To the left is Hugh "Wyatt Earp" O'Brian at the recent TV Westerns film festival near Memphis)

Okay, this is not as momentous as the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling today on President Obama's health care law, nor is it as serious as most of my other postings on this blog, but it does have to do with hard-working folks looking back at their careers with a lot of pride and nostalgia. They happen to be TV Western stars from Hollywood's yesteryear.  They and many of their fans gathered near Memphis in early June, and I was there to tell the story of that event. They worked hard at their craft--character actor L.Q. Jones said he and others in television's 90-minute-long "The Virginian" series "did the equivalent of a full motion picture every eight days." Hugh O'Brian said the cast of "Wyatt Earp" worked 12-hour days five and six days a week. Their duties at this conference kept them pretty darn busy, too, as you'll see. This feature ran in the Jackson Free Press in mid-June.

OLIVE BRANCH, Miss. – I’m staring into the face of Marshal Wyatt Earp. It’s not exactly as I remember him back when I was a 10-year-old would-be cowboy and Wyatt was on television every Tuesday night. He’s in a motorized wheelchair now, his once-jet black hair is gray, and he’s sporting a beard.

But it’s him, the same black tie, starched white shirt, long black coat, purple vest.  All around him are photographs of the Wyatt I remember. “The first adult Western,” he says proudly of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, which first aired in September 1955. “Look at the wardrobe. The first thing you wanted was to be authentic.” No fancy sequins, no scarves with polka dots. “Wyatt was marshal, and he wore what business owners wore.”

He’s not really Wyatt Earp, of course. He’s Hugh O’Brian, the 87-year-old actor who played him on television for seven years and still speaks of him like he’s a close friend. They’re on a first-name basis.

O’Brian is one of a couple dozen TV Western stars of yesteryear working the banquet rooms of the Whispering Woods Hotel and Conference Center. Clint “Cheyenne” Walker is signing autographs. James “The Virginian” Drury is telling jokes. Great character actors, their faces better known than their names, people like L.Q. Jones, Ed Faulkner, Henry Darrow and Roberta Shore, are regaling fans with Hollywood tales, of working with Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Barbara Stanwyck, directors Sam Peckinpah and Samuel Fuller.

(To the right is L.Q. Jones)

It’s the fourth annual “A Gathering of Guns” TV Western film festival, and some 900 fans from as far away as Australia have come. Many are dressed in cowboy and cowgirl garb themselves, looking like an army of aging walk-ons on the set of a major Warner Brothers production.

Ellen Diiorio could have just stepped out of a Conestoga wagon. In her bonnet and calico dress, she’s anything but new millennium. “I represent the fortitude of the prairie women who helped forge this country,” she tells me. “I know we had a lot of heroes in the Old West like Wyatt Earp, but there were women, too, who had the strength and fortitude to carry the day.”

Of course, she’s not a prairie woman. She’s a 60-year-old 4-H Club secretary and elementary education teacher from Westfield, N.J. She’s also such a big fan of the late actor Dan Blocker, who played “Hoss” on Bonanza, that her email address even carries his name.

Charles Gunn’s black Stetson, string tie and brown vest tell me he’s a fan of a different sort. “I like the singing cowboys, like Johnny Western and Rex Allen Jr.” In fact, he adds, “I’m a singer, too.”

And indeed he is. The 63-year-old Warrenton, Ga., resident hands me his card: “Charles W. Gunn – Southeast’s Singing Cowboy – Clean Family Entertainment”.

Western and Allen are themselves somewhere in the hotel, but Gunn is now enjoying L.Q. Jones’ tales from his 114 movies and 500 TV credits. “Barbara Stanwyck was one of the toughest ladies God ever made,” Jones says. “Didn’t weigh 90 pounds, but this woman could make a sailor blush. You could do nothing to make her mad but screw up.”

Fan Lynne Mercer, 47, came all the way from Canberra, Australia. Too young to have seen many of the original shows, she’s mainly seen reruns. Still, “when I saw The Virginian it blew my mind. The Western style of life, a simple life, not complicated, outdoors. Of course, it wasn’t an easy life.”

This is a Hollywood version of an oldtimers’ baseball game, only much more demanding. The festival works its all-star cast hard. They tell stories, perform in short plays and comedy stints, shake innumerable hands, sign endless photographs.

“I’m so busy I only had a chance to eat two bites of my birthday cake,” says Clint Walker, who just turned 85. He’s not as big as he was when he starred in Cheyenne, a time when he stood 6’6” with a 54-inch chest and 38-inch waist. He’s still big, though, and a big man gets hungry.

(To the right is actor Clint Walker signing autographs)

He glances down the growing line of autograph seekers. It’s four in the afternoon. “I haven’t had lunch yet,” he says. But then the gentle giant dutifully signs every photograph, and he takes his time doing it, too.

The average age of the stars here is 75, and many of them are well into their 80s, says Ray Nielsen, co-director of the event. Several of those invited—Robert Horton, James Stacy, Will Hutchins, Ty Hardin—were unable to come because of illness. Most of the fans are in middle to late middle age.

The Western “doesn’t resonate with the younger generation,” Neilsen says. “It’s too tame for them, not enough pyrotechnics.”

Look at 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens, he says. Hollywood figured it had to mix in science fiction to make a Western successful today. “We’re a dying breed but that’s okay.”

The Western’s faded appeal to modern audiences is a reason why some stars are reluctant to come to festivals. “It is hard for them to believe that people still remember and care,” Nielsen says. An example is famed character actor Clu Gulager, whose refusal to come to this year’s festival prompted fans to chant “We Want Clu!” at one panel session.

“When they come for the first time, they are overwhelmed,” Nielsen says. “They find out that not only do the fans know them, they know more about them than (the actors) themselves. They are bowled over by it.”

As for the fans, he says, the festival brings back what it was like so long ago to sit in front of the screen and watch your heroes under the Western sky. “When you spend three or four days in the `reel’ world versus the `real’ world, you tend to block everything else out, the problems, the concerns, the economy. It’s all out the window. You are living in the moment. When the festival ends, and you go back to the `real’ world, it is a real downer.”

You know what? I’m feeling that way myself.

Friday, June 22, 2012

UAW targets Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., for its Southern campaign

 (To the left is a photograph of workers at the Flint, Mich., sit-down strike in 1937, a pivotal event in the creation of the modern-day United Auto Workers. The photograph was taken by Sheldon Dick for the U.S. Farm Security Administration.)

After months of speculation about where the United Auto Workers was going to focus its do-or-die Southern campaign to organize workers, the giant 3,000-worker Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., has emerged as Battleground No. 1.

The $1.4 billion, nine-year-old plant has been eyed by UAW leaders for several years as a potential prize in its efforts to regain ground it has lost over the past several decades. UAW membership has dropped 75 percent in the last 30 years, and that decline has been aggravated by the proliferation of non-unionized foreign-owned auto plants in the South.

Early speculation had the union targeting the Volkswagen plant near Chattanooga, Tenn., and the Daimler-owned Mercedes plant near Tuscaloosa, Ala., but it’s Nissan’s Canton plant that’s in the crosshairs.

On May 1, the UAW moved its headquarters from nearby Gluckstadt, Miss., to the Nissan Parkway directly across from the sprawling plant. “We can look at them everyday and they can see us,” said Sanchioni L. Butler, a national organizer now working full-time in Mississippi.

A recent press conference in Canton organized by community leaders had U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., standing alongside state NAACP President Derrick Johnson and others pledging their support for the unionization effort at Canton.

Butler said community leaders were at the forefront in organizing the press conference, not the UAW. Hundreds of workers at the plant have already indicated their support for a union, she said.

The UAW wants to avoid a repetition of its failed 2001 campaign to organize the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn. On the day before the election, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn appeared in a video that was required viewing for workers. “Bringing a union into Smyrna could result in making Smyna not competitive, which is not in your best interest or Nissan’s,” he warned them. They got the message.

Nissan and Ghosn have already started to use similar anti-union tactics in Canton, UAW officials said. “All we want is a fair election,” Butler said.

The union also won’t find any support among Mississippi’s conservative Republican leadership. Gov. Phil Bryant, in a speech to business leaders this week at the University of Mississippi’s Center for Manufacturing Excellence in Oxford, expressed concern that the UAW was going to try to organize the new Toyota plant near Tupelo, Miss. “The automobile industry is very fragile,” said Bryant, as quoted in a Memphis Commercial Appeal article. “That’s what worries me. If the union involvement becomes active in the Southeastern automobile corridor, what does it do to industry? And I just don’t see a positive outcome to that.”

Mississippi is a “right-to-work” state, which makes organizing doubly difficult. In fact, the state embedded “right-to-work” in its constution during the administration of Gov. Ross Barnett in the early 1960s. The state invested $363 million in the Nissan plant.

Working in UAW’s favor this go-around is the workforce at the Nissan plant, which is estimated to be 80 percent African-American, Butler said. That’s the exact reverse of the Smyrna plant. African-Americans have traditionally been more inclined to vote unions than Southern whites.

Another favorable factor may be Mississippi's history. It was here that some of the bloodiest battles of the civil rights movement were fought. It is here where the idea of a social movement based on social justice at the workplace can find fertile ground, UAW leaders believe.

Butler said the issue for workers at Nissan is and will be fairness and respect at the workplace, not money. Although Nissan workers in Canton have historically earned less than their counterparts at other auto plants, they still make more than most Mississippi workers.

Over the past several years, the UAW has laid the groundwork for a future campaign in Mississippi, developing relationships with community, political, and religious leaders. The test of that work lies ahead.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Labor South round-up: Labor victories in Alabama and N.C., migrant workers suffering behind bars and at workplace, the return of the graveyard shift, & Art Pope gets more exposure

Organized Labor wins in Alabama and North Carolina

Organized labor scored two major victories in the South in recent days as 1,200 workers at the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Russellville, Ala., joined the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) and the Reynolds American tobacco company in North Carolina finally agreed to meet with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) to discuss the needs and concerns of migrant workers.

“Unions may be under attack across the country but working people still desperately need the security and dignity that comes with a union voice,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said this week. “This resounding vote will be heard by poultry workers throughout the South as a message of hope.”

Workers at the JBS-owned plant voted 706 to 292 to join the union, which is affiliated with the United Food and Commercial Workers. As the American division of the Brazilian beef and poultry firm JBS, Pilgrim’s Pride is the largest chicken producer in the United States and a leader in one of Alabama’s largest industries.

The victory capped one of the largest organizing drives in Alabama over the past 10 years.

Workers at the plant said respect, not money, was the key issue for them in joining the union. “We had no respect from management, and absolutely no voice in anything that affected us,” sanitation department worker Cheryl Kowalski said in a RWDSU press release. “The bottom line was `do what you are told or you don’t have a job.’ But the union provided us with a glimmer of hope.”

The company fought tooth and nail against the union, forcing workers to attend anti-union meetings, distributing “Vote No” T-shirts and anti-union literature, and pressuring local businesses to ostracize union activists.

In North Carolina, tobacco giant Reynolds American’s agreement to meet with FLOC marks a major step forward in a nearly five-year campaign to get industry to recognize and deal with health and other issues of tobacco workers, 90 percent of whom in North Carolina are undocumented migrants, according to Oxfam.

(To the left is FLOC President and founder Baldemar Velasquez)

FLOC says nearly one out of every four of the 30,000 workers in North Carolina suffer from nicotine poisoning. Exposure to harmful pesticides and long hours under the summer sun have also contributed to strokes and even death. Workers often live in crowded, unsanitary camps or in remote, substandard trailers.  They suffer these conditions for minimum or sub-minimum pay.

FLOC has been dogged in its efforts to get Reynolds American to recognize its responsibilities, which the company has rejected in the past by saying the workers are not its employees but rather of the tobacco farms that hire them. Those tobacco farms, however, helped Reynolds earn nearly $1 billion in profits during what has been called the Great Recession and the many billions more it reports in annual international sales.

The path that now leads to a meeting between Reynolds and FLOC has been one filled with struggle. In recent years, FLOC has waged a JPMorgan Chase divestment campaign to force the Wall Street powerhouse to put pressure on the North Carolina company. JPMorgan Chase is a leader in the consortium of lenders that funnels close to $500 million in credit to Reynolds American. FLOC leaders also showed up repeatedly at shareholders’ meetings to press the issue.

The meeting will take the form of an “Industrial Council” with FLOC and Reynolds representatives present and also representatives from the North Carolina Growers Association and Phillips Morris’ parent company, the Altria Group.

Obama’s new promise to young migrants, and the reality of migrant workers’ lives—both at the workplace and behind bars

President Obama’s promise this week to cease deporting DREAM Act-eligible immigrant youths came as welcome news to a beleaguered minority in this nation. Let’s hope it’s more than just a campaign trail gesture and leads to real solutions.

Certainly those migrants suffering behind bars because they came to the United States looking for work need some help.

Inmates at the privately run Adams County Correctional Facility near Natchez, Miss., say last month’s riot at the 2,500-inmate facility—which claimed the life of one prison guard and caused several injuries—was the result of a history of neglect and abuse. They told members of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance (MIRA) that poor medical care has led to as many as 11 deaths over the past year. Only one doctor works at the prison, they said.

Most of the inmates at the facility, which is run by the Correctional Corporation of America (CCA), are immigrants who were convicted of re-entering the country without documentation.

(To the right is MIRA Executive Director Bill Chandler)

Roughneck guards, a minority but still palpable presence, “beat inmates, discriminate against them, and humiliate them constantly,” MIRA reported in a recent newsletter. The correctional officer who died was allegedly beaten during the riot after dumping chemicals from a rooftop onto inmates below, MIRA reported.

Privately run prisons are a growing issue in Mississippi. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has charged the East Mississippi Correctional Facility near Lost Gap with inadequate staffing and malfunctioning door locks, exposing employees to assaults from inmates. The facility is owned by the GEO Group of Boca Raton, Fla., which announced in April it was discontinuing contracts for East Mississippi and two other facilities in Mississippi. The company faces more than $100,000 in OSHA fines.

One of those other prisons, the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, was at the center of a recent federal class action lawsuit that resulted in the removal of children there to protect them from sexual and physical abuse.

Migrant workers on the outside often don’t fare much better than those serving time in prison. Stolen wages, unpaid overtime, round-the-clock working shifts, and squalid living conditions led workers at C.J.’s Seafood in New Orleans recently to go on strike despite a hostile anti-immigrant and anti-organized labor climate that gets them little sympathy from local and state officials.

The workers have filed a complaint with the Department of Labor about their working conditions. C.J.’s Seafood, which reports $20 million in annual earnings, lists Walmart as its top customer and is currently in a dispute with DOL over new regulations that insist workers be paid and be paid fairly.

Back to the graveyard shift at auto plants in the South and across the country

As a sign of the rebounding automobile industry, General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Nissan and Kia have re-instituted the third shift at plants across the country. Workers will go on the “graveyard” shift at Hyundai’s Alabama plant in September.

According to Automotive News, 22 of the 83 assembly plants in North America will have three shifts by the beginning of 2013, a sharp contrast to the early 2000s when only 7 percent of plants maintained a third shift.

Adding the third shift came at the urging of the Obama Administration, which sees it as a means to add profits to an industry that, at least among its some of its domestic leaders, required federal bailout money to survive just a few years ago.

A final note: Good work by Facing South opens door to further scrutiny of North Carolina kingpin Art Pope

The May-June edition of Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors, features an article by University of North Carolina French professor Hassan Melehy on North Carolina right-wing kingpin Art Pope, who “offers money to fund academic programs in Western civilization and free-market economics at state universities while his think tanks attack `radical’ faculty and argue for decreased state funding of higher education.”

Pope, North Carolina’s version of billionaire right-wingers Charles and David Koch, is coming under increased public scrutiny for his efforts to inculcate higher education with his own Ayn Randian views. The reason: Facing South, the crusading online publication of the North Carolina-based Institute for Southern Studies, which first exposed Pope’s backroom dealings and manipulations. Good work, Facing South!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Walker & Koch Inc. pull it off but the fight continues

(King Kong in the 1933 film)

Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker's victory in Tuesday's recall election is being called a crushing blow to organized labor in this nation, and it certainly isn't happy news. Walker is at the forefront of the corporate-financed, GOP-led assault on unions, particularly public unions. His victory will inspire further assaults.

However,  let's be clear. He bought this victory, he and his billionaire friends Charles and David Koch, who together are the King Kong of modern-day, post-Citizens United campaign financing. He and his friends spent as much as $50 million so that he could finish out his term in office. The labor ground forces who pushed for and got this recall election, God bless 'em, forced Walker & Koch Inc. to spend $50 million! Think about that!

"Last night was not what we had hoped for, but we're beginning to build the long-term infrastructure that allows us to talk to--and organize--both union and non-union households," wrote Michael Podhorzer, executive director of Workers' Voice, in a letter released to supporters today.

Podhorzer notes that the anti-Walker grassroots campaign had already succeeded in returning Democratic control back to the state Senate in Wisconsin, a huge victory against the Republican tide in that state. For the recall election, groups like Working America had some 11,000 members "on the doors talking to non-union members."

A post-election poll showed 75 percent of union members in Wisconsin voted for Democratic candidate Tom Barrett. Why 25 percent of union members would vote for Walker raises the key question Thomas Frank asked in his book What's The Matter With Kansas? Why do people vote against their own interests?

Meanwhile, the grassroots are still stirring across the land, including in the South.

Here in Mississippi, United Auto Workers officials recently joined hands with U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and the state NAACP in a press conference to pledge to work together to organize the giant Nissan plant in Canton, near the state capital of Jackson.

In Memphis, AFSCME Local 1733 released a study showing that the city and Shelby County, Tenn., where Memphis is located, handed major corporations like Fed-Ex, International Paper, and Cargill some $41.6 million in property tax breaks in fiscal 2011. That came at the same time the city cut pay for most municipal workers by 4.6 percent to meet a $47 million budget deficit.

It's the kind of politics we have all across America today, whether it's in cities like Memphis or in our federal government in Washington, D.C.

There's plenty of money in this country. Not everybody is suffering in this "Great Recession". Just ask Scott Walker's bank rollers. To them, the recession is not only over, it never really happened.

For many out there, however, it's a depression, not a recession, and it's far from over. Here's how writer Dale Maharidge puts it in his and photojournalist Michael S. Williamson's wonderful book Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression:  "My great recession is your Great Depression if you lose your job and your home. The oxymoronic term `jobless recovery' is an insult to those who have been laid off."

Walker & Koch Inc. are immune from such realities. They can drown the political process with a flood of cash and muddy up reality for only so long. Even King Kong eventually met his end, and, you know, he wasn't even that bad a guy. In fact, I think I've insulted the big ape by comparing him to Walker's friends.