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!