Wednesday, January 30, 2013

UAW Labor Rally at Tougaloo College in Miss.: an Old-Time Revival Meeting

The gathering at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday night seemed more like an old-time revival meeting than a labor rally, but maybe that’s because it signaled what could be a revival of the labor movement in the South and beyond.

Hundreds gathered inside Holmes Hall at the historic school to show support for workers at the giant Nissan plant in nearby Canton who want an election to determine if they should be represented by the United Auto Workers.

“We have to support Mississippi’s greatest resource—labor, its workforce,” said Dr. Isiac Jackson Jr., who chairs the newly formed Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan as well as serves as president of the General Baptist State Convention and Liberty Missionary Baptist Church.

A men’s choir stirred the crowd with renditions of “Look, Oh Happy Day” and “Praise Him” as preachers, workers and activists talked of labor rights as civil rights. Tougaloo, which serves a predominantly black student body, played a historic role in the 1960s as a meeting place where civil rights activists planned and developed movement strategies.

“This is historic,” said Father Jeremy Tobin, Mississippi’s premier labor priest and a speaker at the meeting. “For the first time we are reaching beyond the borders of Mississippi, taking it to the world.”

(To the left is Father Tobin with Tougaloo College President Beverly Hogan)

Indeed, Brazilian labor leaders João Cayres and Vagner Freitas were at the meeting pledging their support. Nissan workers and activists have made their case in Brazil and other countries as well as at international auto shows. Tuesday’s meeting was reported live by the Ed Schultz Show on MSNBC.

Also rallying the crowd was actor Danny Glover. “I’m here with my brothers and sisters who are standing up,” Glover said. Mississippi civil rights martyr “Medgar Evers would have been here right with these workers. … We’re here today because we believe we will win.”

Nissan leader Carlos Ghosn has opposed organizing efforts at his U.S. plants in the past, even warning workers at the Smyrna, Tenn., plant that a pro-union vote was “not in your best interest or Nissan’s” during an earlier organizing effort there. Schultz said Tuesday that Ghosn told Reuters recently he is neutral in this latest UAW effort.

That’s not what Nissan workers in Canton are hearing, however. One worker after another Tuesday told of intimidating one-on-one sessions and group sessions with management, each of which is very anti-union and often threatening. The workers said they want their fellow workers to hear the other side and they want an election free of fear.

“The fear and intimidation is so prominent I’ve become desensitized,” Nissan worker Wayne Walker said. “We’re tired of being threatened.”

“Allow the union to give their side and allow workers to hear both sides,” said Bishop Ronnie Crudup of New Horizon International Church. “We’re not going to stop. … Allow a free election.”

Huge banners in the hall proclaimed “One Voice, One Dream, One Team, Nissan Workers United”.  Students from Tougaloo College and other nearby schools waved pro-labor signs. “Amens” and applause filled the air.

It was a revival all right, and the people on the stage were preaching to the choir.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Obama's progressive agenda, and what's on the mind of the South?

On the Bibles of two men once reviled in the South, President Obama took the oath of office for his second term Monday, a day that also honored one of those two men, Martin Luther King Jr.

After a first term in which he relied heavily on Wall Street insiders like Timothy Geithner, Obama outlined a decidedly progressive-minded agenda for his second term. It’s one that the South’s white oligarchy of business, political, religious and media leaders will fight tooth and nail.

In his speech, Obama made clear his commitment to pay equity, immigration reform, gay rights, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He offered “hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice.” This country “cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” he told Americans.

In the words of writer John Nichols of The Nation, Obama in his speech “completed the arc from FDR and LBJ to today.”

Tea Partyers and the rest of the GOP’s right wing—groups with distinctively Southern accents—are bound to decry the speech and the man who made it for declaring “class warfare,” as if a declaration of war hadn’t been declared long ago by their own financial backers.

Obama called for equal pay for “our wives, our mothers and daughters.” He reached out to “the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity.” He called for equal treatment for gay men and women.

All powerful words from a former community organizer and the nation’s first black president.

And bitter medicine for those who opposed him. “Needless to say, we are disappointed that, by re-electing Mr. Obama, the majority of this country has assured that we will see four more years of negligent leadership,” said the Oxford, Miss., Tea Party in a December open letter to Mississippi Republican Congressman Alan Nunnelee. “WE WILL NEVER THROW IN THE TOWEL EVEN THOUGH THE CARDS ARE STACKED AGAINST US!!!!” (capitalization and exclamation points provided by the writers of the letter.)

It’s a typical view across much of the white South, which shows every sign of slipping into a kind of political backwater, increasingly irrelevant in a forward-moving nation where non-Latino whites are expected to become a minority over the next three decades.

"Now the South is becoming isolated again," writes George Packer in The New Yorker.  "The Solid South speaks less and less for America and more and more for itself alone."

Southern Republicans in Congress are so far to the right of everyone else that they opposed by an eight-to-one margin the hard-fought fiscal compromise hammered out on New Year’s Day. Most of the nation, shocked, saddened and disgusted by the violence in Newtown, Conn., that slaughtered innocent children as well as adults, wants stricter gun controls. Not in the South, where a recent poll showed a plurality of folks oppose any restriction on their freedom to buy and keep guns. That includes Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant.

In some ways, the South indeed seems to be seceding again, just as it did after the election of Abraham Lincoln, a man as much or more hated in Dixie as Martin Luther King Jr.  and perhaps even Barack Obama.

The hatred for King came not only because he challenged the racial code but also because he challenged the class system inherent in the Southern economy.

Here’s King on the Southern way of doing business:

“We are tired of working our hands off and laboring every day and not even making a wage adequate with the daily basic necessities of life.”

“In the Right to Work law, there is no right to work and there is no work, and this is the fraud we need to stop.”

And, finally, in a speech to striking sanitation workers in Memphis shortly before his death: “You’re commanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. For the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician. All labor has worth. You are doing another thing. You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”

No wonder King had enemies across the South. Think of all the plantation owners and cotton mill owners—joined by their political, religious and press advocates—who vowed never to “throw in the towel” to racial integration and labor rights at the workplace.

Obama’s choice of Bibles Monday was heavy with symbolism. Like the Bible itself, his speech was full of powerful words. Now comes the test of those words.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Labor South on the 2013 battlefront: longshoremen digging in, auto workers organizing, immigrants standing together, plus a couple writers detailing how we got here

(To the right is James O. Eastland, the late U.S. senator from Mississippi who symbolized Old South segregationism and anti-unionism)

The year 2013 promises to be an action-packed one for labor in the South as well as across the country. Republicans lost major ground in the national elections, but they’re digging in their heels at the state level--nowhere more so than in the South. Expect more efforts to further entrench and enrich the plutocrats at the expense of the people.

Labor South will be covering a wide range of developments in the coming weeks and months. The nation soundly rejected the Southern model of governance in the presidential election, an anti-union, anemic-government model that the Koch Brothers and their ilk pushed hard with their billions.

Down here in the South, however, that model is our reality, and the fight from the ground up continues.

Longshoremen along the East Coast and Gulf Coast are digging in their heels in their demands for a viable contract, and some progress has been made. Whether a threatened strike by the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) ultimately takes place remains to be seen. The longshoremen in Charleston, S.C., are ones to watch. Their successful protest of an anti-union shipper in 2000 got international support and was called “the first major labor battle of the 21st century.”

Things are also heating up in Canton, Miss., where the United Auto Workers continues to benefit from growing grassroots support for an election to determine if workers at the giant Nissan plant there want to join a union. Again international support is coming in from workers in Brazil and beyond.

This blog has followed the events in Canton closer than any other news operation, so stay tuned. The next item on the calendar comes as early as the end of this month when a major community event is planned around the union question at Nissan.

Just today (Jan. 10), by the way, Nissan celebrated its 10th anniversary in Canton with the announcement of the addition of the Murano crossover to its line of automobiles in production.

Immigration will be another hot topic this year. Republicans at the national level saw their Latino deficit at the polls on election day and desperately want to do something about it. However, at the state level, politicians like Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant built their careers in part on immigrant-baiting, and their Tea Party constituents aren’t going to let them off hook just because of last November.

Rest assured, however, that groups like the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance are prepared to take on the challenge, just as they have in the past.

Another special you’ll get at Labor South in the near future is a feature column/review of the compelling new book Fever Season: The Story of a Terrifying Epidemic and the People Who Saved a City by Jeanette Keith. This is a book about the 1878 yellow fever epidemic that devastated Memphis, Tenn., and changed its character forever. A city that was a “Casablanca on the Mississippi” filled with European immigrants, many of them poor, became home to poor Southern whites and blacks.

Keith’s book details how political leaders failed miserably in dealing with the 1878 crisis, leaving it to brave volunteers to chip in and help those suffering. The question of public/private responsibilities and the role of government is not a new one, as this book makes obvious.

Another interesting new book is Maarten Zwiers’ James Eastland & The Shadow of Southern Democrats 1928-1966. The Dutch scholar describes how Southern segregationists thought they represented the true American ideal. His book also provides a long-overdue, in-depth, scholarly treatment of arguably the most powerful of all the Southern segs, the late James O. Eastland of Mississippi, plantation owner and chair of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee at the height of the civil rights movement.

It was Eastland who in the 1950s called for a South-wide effort "to fight the Supreme Court, fight the CIO, fight the NAACP, and fight all conscienceless pressure groups who are attempting our destruction," organizations that, he said, want to "socialize industry and the great medical profession of this country." Sound familiar? 

Lots of action coming! And, as always in the South, it comes with a lot of baggage from the past.