Friday, November 23, 2012

Walmart and Hostess workers protest in the streets, remind President Obama of why he got re-elected

Not content to bask quietly in the afterglow of President Obama’s re-election victory, workers are taking to the streets in a grassroots effort to bring attention to the erosion of their rights that modern-day neo-liberal economics has promoted.

Today, “Black Friday” for shoppers across the land, workers at Walmarts around the country are staging a walkout against the low pay and benefits provided by the world’s largest retailer, an outfit that enjoyed a 9 percent hike in income for the third quarter.

Arkansas-based Walmart’s effort to get the National Labor Relations Board to issue an injunction against the Black Friday walkout failed as the board stated the matter was too complex to decide in the short time frame given it.

A group called OUR Walmart is organizing the protest with the support of the United Food and Commercial Workers, an issue in the company’s call for an injunction. No company has fought harder against unions than Walmart.

Meanwhile, Texas-based Hostess Brands Inc. is blaming its striking workers for the company’s request for bankruptcy protection. Hostess, which produces Twinkies, Wonder Bread and other popular brand-name snacks and foods, is shutting down 33 factories nationwide and adding 18,500 workers to the jobless ranks.

After negotiating contract agreements with the Teamsters union, company management tried to force major cuts in wages and benefits on its bakery workers, but the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union agreed to strike rather than concede.

At the same time Hostess wanted its workers to swallow deep wage and benefits cuts, it also wanted to reward its executives with $1.75 million in bonuses.

“Wall Street vultures are blaming workers for getting rid of your sweets—and that’s just not right,” said AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka in a statement. “The Wall Street hedge fund managers who run the company have squeezed every cent out of Hostess for eight years. And they’ve put their friends with no experience in the baking industry in high-level management positions.”

Critics say company leaders have failed to keep pace with a changing market, struggled with debt, and failed to invest in its operations or workforce. The Silver Point and Monarch hedge funds control more than half the company’s debt.

The situation at Hostess is typical for modern-day corporate practices. Wall Street types run the company into debt and into bankruptcy, blaming workers instead of their own greed and management incompetence.  Bankruptcy legalizes broken promises and helps clear the way for those at the top of the food chain to stuff their pockets before splitting.
This was the way of Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, and he would have further institutionalized such practices had he become president.

But Mitt Romney didn’t become president, and workers at Walmart, Hostess and other places we’ll read about tomorrow are out there on the streets reminding President Obama of why he got re-elected and that they’re not going to acquiesce to the old way of doing business any longer.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Nissan workers in Mississippi tell of fear and intimidation

(To the right is Nissan worker Pat Ruffin)

CANTON, Miss. - Pat Ruffin admits she’s scared.

But, the Nissan auto worker told a crowd of approximately 50 at the Holiday Inn Express recently, she’s also tired.

“I’m sick and tired of the videos about plant closings," she said. "That’s intimidation. That scares me. I have a family. I  have bills.”

Ruffin was one of eight employees at the giant Nissan plant in Canton to appear before the newly formed Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan to tell their stories about working at a plant where pro-union sympathies are strongly discouraged. A growing number of workers in recent months have called for an election to determine whether the United Auto Workers should represent them.

The plant employs roughly 3,300.

“Talking about a union, that is forbidden at Nissan,” Ruffin said. “They try to persuade you against unions. I want to hear both sides. I’m tired of Nissan’s side.”

Coworker Douglas Brooks agreed. “I come to work and I give my best, 100 percent. We are people with families and lives. If we live in America, let’s act like we live in America," he said. "Being from Mississippi doesn’t mean we’re all morons. There’s got to be something good about unions because they’re still around.”

Workers told a panel that included local ministers and officials such as state NAACP President Derrick Johnson that they face increasing pressure from company managers and officials to disavow any interest in joining the UAW. They are routinely called into one-on-one meetings and into group sessions where anti-union videos are shown. Some workers said their pro-union sympathies have put them under increased scrutiny from managers for any slight infraction that could lead to getting them fired.

“They probably got a picture of me up at HR (Nissan’s human resources office) with a big X across it,” openly pro-union Nissan employee Wayne Walker said. “A union troublemaker. … When you first come to this place they put the fear of a union in you. Keep you fearful. They’ll say, `You lucky to have a job.’ We want a union and a  contract.”

Nissan officials did not speak at the gathering. However,  Nissan spokesman Travis Parman said in an earlier interview that “our communications meetings with employees are not new. We continuously and routinely meet with our employees to openly discuss matters pertinent to our business.”

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has made no secret of his anti-union views and once strongly warned Nissan workers that a union “is not in your best interest” shortly before an election at the company’s plant in Smyrna, Tenn. Workers there rejected the union.

(Below is Isiac Jackson Jr.)

“We believe that as American citizens we have a right to free choice,” Alliance chair Isiac Jackson Jr. told the workers.  “God gave us a right to choose. We’re going to be out there walking the line for you.”
Jackson said the Alliance’s next goal is to gain entrance into the plant, where members can tell the other side of the union story.

Nissan worker James Brown said he believes Nissan workers in Canton would support a union if a fair election were held. “The key is to take fear and intimidation away. This is the key to having a fair election," he said. "So many of my co-workers say they want it but are afraid to come out publicly.”

Friday, November 9, 2012

Same Ol' Poor Ol' South On the Losing Side

Labor, civil rights, immigration and other social justice activists will gather in Charleston, S.C., December 7-9 to convene the 9th bi-annual Southern Human Rights Organizers’ Conference and take what organizer Dane Strobino calls another step forward in “building a genuine Southern Workers Assembly and alliance.” 

The group was active at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, and the implications of the re-election of President Barack Obama is likely to be a major topic of discussion. They know they have their work cut for them in a region that largely was on the losing side in the presidential election, voting against Barack Obama's bid for a second term in office. Only Virginia and probably Florida went against the Southern grain.

In some key ways, the SHROC is building on the earlier work of groups such as Southern Conference for Human Welfare in the late 1930s and 1940s, an organization that championed working-class Southerners at the time when Franklin D. Roosevelt had declared the South as “the nation’s number one economic problem.” 

This is the region with the nation’s largest black population, a growing Latino population, one that used to be called the “Solid (Democratic) South” and that was a key component of Roosevelt’s election-winning coalition. You might think politics today would finally be more competitive down here. Why isn’t it?  

Here are a few reasons as seen by this Southern born-and-bred observer:  

The South is still pretty much a top-down place whose political, business, media and religious elite run things and who refuse to budge from a rock-ribbed allegiance to minimal government, a give-away-the-store attitude toward business, an image of Jesus that reflects very little of what’s taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Sadly, this is still a race-haunted South. Southerners, by the way, led in the number of ugly, racist responses to Obama’s victory on Twitter.  

What has been long clear in the Republican agenda is that the GOP would like to turn the nation into one large South—de-regulated and anti-union with the barest of services provided by government.  

If Republicans ever succeed in that goal, maybe the South will cease being the poorest region because every region will be poor.  

And the South is poor.  Let’s look at some statistics offered recently by Gene Nichol, law professor and director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina, in the Texas-based Progressive Populist .

Of the 12 poorest states in the nation, 10 are Southern. Mississippi’s shameful 23 percent poverty rate is at the very bottom. Louisiana, Arkansas, and Georgia aren’t far behind. The nation’s poverty rate is 15 percent. The South has more poor children than any other region. More than one-quarter of the children in nine Southern states are poor. Go South if you want to find people without health insurance. That’s where you’ll find more of them than in any other region. 

Was there another region where Obamacare was more cursed than in the South? Mississippi Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has said he opposes the expansion of Medicaid envisioned by Obamacare even though it would benefit more than 300,000 of the many needy in this poorest of all states and even add an estimated 9,000 new jobs. His is a typical attitude among Republican leaders in the South.

It’s a crying shame. After all the talk about the “New South” and the “Sunbelt South” and “Detroit South”, it’s still, in many ways, the same ol’, poor ol’ South”.