Saturday, October 27, 2012

Mississippi students see labor and civil rights as their social justice movement

(Martin Luther King Jr.)

On the evening of March 18, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed striking sanitation workers in Memphis, and this is what he told them:

“All labor has worth. … Don’t despair. Nothing worthwhile is gained without sacrifice. The thing for you to do is stay together. … Let it be known everywhere that along with wages and all of the other securities that you are struggling for, you’re also struggling for the right to be organized and be recognized.”

Seventeen days later, King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in downtown Memphis.

(To the right, A. Philip Randolph)

The next year, a great leader of both the civil rights and labor movements, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters founder A. Philip Randolph, had this to say: “The labor movement has been the home of the working man, and traditionally, it has been the only haven for the dispossessed; and therefore, I have tried to build an alliance between the Negro and the American labor movement.”

Josh Dedmond, Monica Atkins and Tyson Jackson are wanting to build on the alliance King, Randolph and others envisioned four decades ago. They believe labor and workers’ rights can be the civil rights movement of today.

That’s why they and other Jackson, Miss.-area members of the newly formed Mississippi Student Justice Alliance are planning an “I Am” labor-and-civil rights conference in Jackson in late November. The conference is named after the “I Am A Man” sign sanitation workers carried in Memphis. The Jackson conference will feature veterans of that 1968 strike.

“This is in the same vein as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee," says Dedmond, 25, a recent Tougaloo College graduate in African-American and religious studies. SNCC played a key role in the civil rights movement. “There is an enormous power in students regarding social justice issues. The two movements are inextricable from one another.”

The Mississippi Student Justice Alliance’s target: helping workers at the giant Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., realize their goal of joining the United Auto Workers despite management’s disdain for that idea.

Dedmond, Atkins and Tyson are also now working with the UAW and its Global Organizing Institute, helping recruit and educate young people from around the world about labor issues.

“We started figuring out about the workers at Nissan and how they wanted a fair election process,” said Atkins, 23, a Chicago native who graduated from Jackson State University in April. She said she decided to stay in Mississippi after graduation because “here there is a lot more opportunity to make a difference.
Making a difference in Mississippi can be an uphill fight. King and Randolph would be the first to tell them.

At the Nissan plant, pro-UAW workers not only face an anti-union CEO in Carlos Ghosn but also a conservative state with a union-hostile “right-to-work” law embedded in its constitution, a Republican-led legislature and a Republican governor who has publicly expressed support for outside groups that would help fight a union at Nissan or Toyota in Mississippi.

What the striking workers in Memphis sought in 1968 “is exactly what the Nissan workers are asking for,” says Jackson, 31, who studies political science at Tougaloo. “That is respect.”

(To the right, Tyson Jackson at the UAW office in Canton, Miss.)

The UAW has laid the foundation for an all-out organization effort at the 3,300-worker plant. A community network that includes U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., area ministers and civil rights-era veterans and activists has pledged to assist in the union’s call for an election free of intimidation.

Mississippi’s rich civil rights history was a factor in the UAW’s decision to take a stand in Canton. In the early 1960s, state NAACP leader and civil rights martyr Medgar Evers worked hand-in-hand with state AFL-CIO leaders Claude Ramsay, Thomas Knight and Ray Smithhart. Like other labor leaders in the South, they endured many defections of white members from their ranks as a result of their stand for civil rights.

Most of the workforce at the Nissan plant in Canton is African-American. They make some of the best wages in a state that perennially ranks at the nation’s bottom in wage earnings. However, workers complain that they haven’t had a pay raise in years, have little or no say-so regarding working conditions, and face a constant barrage of anti-union propaganda.

Federal law guarantees that workers have the right to organize and join a union without harassment. The truth is, however, workers across America now face the kind of hostility that Mississippians have known since segregationist Gov. Ross Barnett secured “right to work” as state law.  They get little or no backing from Congress or the U.S. “Corporate” Supreme Court, and even some major Democrats like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel seem antagonistic to unions.

If there’s to be a resurrection of the labor movement, the UAW seems poised to play the kind of pivotal role it played both in past labor and civil rights history. Its sit-down strikes (a tactic later embraced by civil rights activists) in the 1930s helped establish modern-day labor. In the 1960s, UAW leader Walter Reuther marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr.

“When (police commissioner) Bull Connor is destroying freedom in Birmingham, he is destroying my freedom in Detroit,” Reuther said during the famous March on Washington in August 1963.

That’s the spirit—along with those of King and Randolph—that Redmond, Atkins and Jackson are hoping to rekindle in Mississippi.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Big money pours into presidential politics while Walmart workers and Louisiana salt mine workers fight for their rights

Just a couple weeks to election day, and Americans will see how far Big Money can determine the political future of this nation.

The world has changed since the U.S. “Corporate” Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling two years ago.  Reporter Lee Fang told the story of that change in a recent edition of The Nation magazine.  In the pharmaceutical industry alone, spending on federal elections jumped from $200,000 in 2008 to nearly $10.4 million by the very next election cycle. Fang says 98 percent of it came “from undisclosed corporate sources.”

Money can’t by everything. After all, a $222 million payroll, the fattest in all of major league baseball, couldn’t buy the New York Yankees entry into the World Series this year. In fact, the Yankees utterly flopped in the American League Championship Series, losing 0-4 to the pennant-winning Detroit Tigers and their venerable manager, the great Jim Leyland.

Of course, we’re talking politics, not baseball.

I plan to be writing at greater length about the election in the days ahead, looking at the billionaire Koch Brothers and whether they have enough cash to buy the White House as well as assessing other issues such as former President Bill Clinton’s role in the Obama candidacy.

Unlike nearly all of my Democratic and liberal friends, I am absolutely no fan of Bill Clinton. He and his old club, the Southern-dominated Democratic Leadership Council, nearly cut the heart and soul out of what was left of FDR’s Democratic Party, charting a centrist, Republican-like path that paid scant attention to labor and working-class voters while raking in big bucks from Wall Street.

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, always full of hagiographic praise for Clinton, will be the first to tell us the former president deserves a ton of credit if Obama wins. I won’t buy it. If Clinton does indeed have the magic appeal to working class folks that Matthews claims, it certainly doesn’t have to do with anything he ever accomplished on behalf of working people.

Working people don’t have a lot of political leaders who’ll fight the good fight for them. Obama comes a lot closer to such a leader than Clinton ever will. Still, by and large, working people have to get out and do the fighting themselves.

And they are.

Arkansas-based Walmart, already fending off protests and worker walkouts in a dozen or more states, now faces a possible class action lawsuit for allegedly breaking federal minimum wage and overtime laws. A suit was filed this week in a federal court in Illinois claiming, among other things, the giant retailer failed to maintain accurate records of its employees’ working hours, and that employees from Walmart’s staffing agencies weren’t paid for work that they did.

A group called OUR Walmart is helping organize another walkout just one day after Thanksgiving. Walmart typically does more business that day than any other day in the year, the Associated Press reports.

Down in Louisiana, a hundred workers with the Carey Salt company of Cote Blanche won a victory with the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB ruled that the company “forced the miners into an unfair labor practices strike, and then illegally refused to take them back when the miners, represented by the Steelworkers, offered to return to work,” according to labor writer Mark Gruenberg in People’s World.

Carey Salt is a salt mine operation whose parent company is North American Salt.

The NLRB’s 3-0 (including the board’s Republican member!) ruling forces the company to go back to the bargaining table with workers’ representatives to work out a new contract. It also requires that Carey get rid of the workers it hired to replace union members, put those union workers back on the payroll, and give them back pay.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The world's retail Goliath notices its workers aren't happy

(Walmart in Laurel, Md.)

The world’s retail Goliath may be finally feeling some pain as a result of the growing number of slingshot-wielding Davids at its feet.

Some 200 demonstrators protested Walmart’s treatment of its worker outside its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters Wednesday, Oct. 10, bringing home a message that has been getting louder and louder across the nation and beyond.

Workers have long complained about poor pay, poor benefits and management insensitivity to workplace issues at Walmart, but the company has been resolute in preventing them from ever joining a union and speaking as one voice.

Is a change in store for Mr. Sam's company?

As reported recently by Josh Eidelson of (, workers went on strike at Walmart stores in Laurel, Md., and Dallas, Texas, and others soon joined them.

Just last month, warehouse workers who handle Walmart products went back to work after a 15-day strike that forced the giant to concede to developing a plan to improve working conditions at Inland Empire and other companies that do business with Walmart.

The strike, which included a 50-mile march from Inland Empire warehouses to Los Angeles’ downtown area, won support from warehouse workers in Illinois and from as far away as Korea and Chile.

Helping to organize these workers is a one-year-old group that calls itself OUR Walmart, which is not a union but is supported by the United Food & Commercial Workers union.