Thursday, February 28, 2013

What's Needed for Labor Success in the South: Some Holiness Fire!

(This column is a follow-up to my earlier posting about the United Auto Workers rally in Tougaloo, Miss., in late January. It ran in the Feb. 13 edition of the Jackson Free Press, which embargoes columns from additional publication for two weeks. This provides an analysis of what's needed in successful labor organizing in the South.)

TOUGALOO, Miss. – I’m a Catholic now, but I grew up in the Pentecostal Holiness Church. My grandfather was a Holiness preacher. I know about revivals. Preachers exhort, and people respond. They sing, they shout, they come to the altar, and they pray.

Everything seems possible at a revival. People can conquer the world at a revival. They feel they’re not alone. They look around and see the spirit flowing through the congregation. When it’s over, they file out into the night like so many Christian soldiers “marching as to war.”

That revival spirit is what invigorated civil rights activists in the 1960s. Think of all the reverends who led that movement—Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams. The march on Selma in 1965 began in a church. Think of all the churches the racists burned hoping to kill the movement.

Any social movement in the South needs religion as part of its DNA if it’s going to succeed. What was true for the civil rights movement in the 1960s is true for the labor movement today. Labor organizing in the South must be a “civil rights crusade,” Congress of Industrial Organizations leader Philip Murray said many years ago.
The spirit of revival certainly was in the air at Tougaloo College’s Holmes Hall January 29, where a crowd of 200 or more gathered to show support for Nissan workers seeking a union election at the giant plant in nearby Canton, Miss. Preachers, workers, and activists talked of labor rights as civil rights. A men’s choir fired things up with “Look, Oh Happy Day” and other songs.

“I pastor people who work at Nissan,” Bishop Ronnie Crudup of the New Horizon International Church told the crowd. “I’m outraged that in 2013—this is not 1930—intimidation and threats could be used on citizens in the state of Mississippi. We say to Nissan, `This is unbecoming (of) you. Allow the union to give their side and allow workers to hear both sides.’”

The rally at Tougaloo College—a place rich in civil rights history--was the latest community response to a years-long organizing effort by the United Auto Workers. The Nissan plant in Canton is ground zero in its struggle to break through the wall of non-unionized foreign-owned auto plants in the South. Success or failure could be pivotal not only to the UAW’s future but also the future of the labor movement in this country.

Nissan’s worldwide workforce is largely unionized, but CEO Carlos Ghosn has strongly resisted union efforts here in Mississippi and Tennessee. Workers in Canton say they’re subjected to endless anti-union meetings with management.

“Plant closings and layoffs are things they talk about,” Nissan worker James Brown said. “If Nissan has an anti-union video, we’re asking the UAW to show a pro-union video. It’s not just about money. It’s about retirement, health care.”

It’s also about respect and human dignity, workers said at the rally. They told of arbitrary decisions by management to reduce pension benefits, change work hours, delay or eliminate pay raises, and expand the plant’s temporary workforce. Nissan officials insist direct relations between management and individual employees are best, not “third party” representation by a union.

Ironically, Mississippi’s anti-union governor, Phil Bryant, has actually encouraged outside (also known as “third”) parties to help prevent unions from coming to Mississippi auto plants.

When the Freedom Riders arrived in Mississippi a half-century ago, their task to integrate what historian James Silver called the “closed society” must have seemed impossible to most. Nowhere was the resistance to racial integration stiffer. To succeed they had to appeal to the nation’s conscience, its sense of right and wrong. Theirs had to be a broad social movement that involved more than integrating a water fountain or a movie theater.

To succeed the labor movement must be about more than paychecks. “Human rights are worker rights, and worker rights are human rights,” Mississippi’s fighting labor priest, Father Jeremy Tobin, told the crowd January 29.

Workers have a legal and a human right to organize, to speak as one voice across the table from management on issues that affect their lives. They should not be intimidated and threatened for exercising that right.

Back in the 1930s, the lowest paid workers in the Southern economy—sharecroppers and tenant farmers—organized together as the biracial Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, and they won key battles in getting plantation owners in the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta to recognize their rights. They did this despite gun-toting vigilantes who tried to stop them.

An STFU rally was like “a southern evangelical revival,” Mississippi-bred historian Elizabeth Anne Payne has written. “Fiery sermons, passionate exhortations, and emotional hymns … gave testimony about the power of the STFU in Holiness style, witnessing that the Holy Spirit could instantly transform lives through the union.”

I saw some of that spirit at Tougaloo College January 29.  

Saturday, February 23, 2013

ALERT to foreign companies in the U.S. South: IKEA workers in Ga., Va., and Md. are enjoying their union membership

Here’s a story of how Southern workers locked arms together and demanded their rights to join a union at a foreign company that thought it could have its way in the Old “Right To Work” South. The workers won, and now they’ve got a seat across the table from management on the decisions that affect their lives.

Leaders of the Swedish firm IKEA thought coming to the U.S. South would be a perfect marriage.

They could take advantage of a cheap, docile labor force and a political establishment willing to hand out millions of dollars in incentives while working with local business and media leaders to discourage any potential unionization effort.  At the same time, the company could enjoy an international image as a progressive Swedish firm with a code of conduct recognizing workers’ rights to join a union.

The marriage worked for a while. The company won a $12 million incentives package from local and state governments to open a plant in Danville. Operating through its subsidiary Swedwood, it started its workforce there at $8 an hour, rather than the minimum $19 an hour paid in Sweden. Workers got 12 days vacation—eight days of them at the company’s choosing—rather than the five weeks promised Swedish workers.

A third of the workforce was temporary. Packing department workers saw their pay drop from $9.75 an hour to $8 an hour. That was in 2010, the same year IKEA reported a 6 percent hike in profits. Workers were subjected to unannounced-but-mandatory weekend shifts and stretch-out-like production requirements on the assembly line. The company hired a union-busting law firm to make sure unions stayed out.

Then the honeymoon ended.

By July 2011 workers in Danville had had enough. By a vote of 221-69, they won a union election and joined the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). Intimidation from supervisors continued even after the election, but the workers held their ground and the union put an international spotlight on IKEA and the hypocrisy of its code of conduct in view of its treatment of workers in Virginia.

Now the union fever has spread to other IKEA operations in the South and beyond. Inspired by the Danville vote, IAM went on to organize workers in Perryville, Md., Savannah, Ga., and Westhampton, N.J., winning elections in all three places, and is now campaigning in two other distribution centers.

The workers at IKEA’s warehouse/distribution center in Savannah are enjoying a new contract this year that gives them a 17 percent pay raise over the next three years plus keeps a lid on the costs of their health insurance.

Workers in Savannah also secured a Joint Safety Agreement and a Joint Partnership Agreement that help promote a safe working environment, according to IMAIL, the Machinists News Network.

An IAM member told one of this reporter’s key labor watchers that IKEA workers in Maryland accepted transfers to Savannah and brought union cards with them. The workers in Savannah immediately caught the fever.

This is the kind of story the mainstream media ignores. It has widespread implications for the labor movement in the South. Look at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., for example. Here you have an international firm whose workers are unionized in other countries. Yet the company fights union efforts in Mississippi and Tennessee.

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn may need to have a conversation with IKEA leaders.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Mississippi legislator: charter school supporters include the same people who've fought against public education for years

Mississippi state Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, a longtime champion of public education, said the current debate on charter schools in the state Legislature is essentially the latest battle of a longstanding war against public education.

“Ever since I’ve been in the Legislature we’ve been fighting over public education—those who believe in it and those on the other side,” said Bryan, a 29-year veteran legislator. “If you’ll look back over the years, you’ll find a group of people pretty much consistently on this side of the education issue and a group of people voting no on everything.

“Just look at the roll call. This is a roll call on education. Look who’s voting which way. Overwhelmingly the people voting no on every public school issue over the last eight years … if you compare the charter school roll calls, the people voting yes on charter schools are extraordinarily similar to the no votes from years past.”

Bryan and Mississippi First executive director Rachel Canter, a charter school supporter, debated the issue recently at the University of Mississippi’s Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics in Oxford. Mississippi First is a non-profit organization active in public policy issues.

“Too many children in Mississippi go to underperforming schools,” Canter said. “In many traditional schools we haven’t innovated in years. Charter schools can design different things. … We support charter schools and public schools.”

Bryan said charter schools will drain needed funds from public education. “They’ll be taking tax money that I pay to the Amory public schools … and that money will go to a charter school. That’s not good for public schools.”

Ironically, the legislators dumping new rules and regulations on public schools are the same ones who want to exempt charter schools from those rules and regulations, Bryan said.

Mississippi public education has had a tortured history. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954 caused such a firestorm that it led to the creation of the (white) Citizens Councils organization in Mississippi. The councils later spread throughout the South. The councils fought racial integration tooth and nail, helping elect segregationist politicians, harassing dissident, racially liberal journalists, and setting up private schools for whites.

To avoid racial integration, white parents across the state of Mississippi sent their children to private academies, leaving public schools populated by mostly black students.

Charter schools come directly out of the playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the conservative billionaire Koch brothers. The ultimate goal of that playbook is privatization, a shrinking of government and the public role in practically every aspect of American lives.

At the Overby Center debate, Canter said that teachers are what’s “really key” to charter schools and the flexibility that is their major attraction over public schools. Charter schools have much more flexibility in “who they can hire, how much they can pay them, under what circumstances they can terminate them.”

Ah, there’s the rub. Charter schools can show the door to teachers’ unions like the Mississippi Association of Educators and the Mississippi American Federation of Teachers. That’s also straight out of the ALEC-Koch brothers playbook. In fact, anti-unionism may be its founding principle.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Memphis and the 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic: From "Casablanca on the Mississippi" to "City of the Dead"

(To the left is Court Square in downtown Memphis, "the epicenter of the Memphis relief effort" during the 1878 yellow fever epidemic.)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – This city was a “Casablanca on the Mississippi” during the Civil War, occupied by federal troops and full of intrigue with a thriving black market. By 1878 the rough river town boasted 50,000 residents in an area two-and-a-half miles long and one mile wide, a dense population of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Italy, Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, white cotton traders, scalawags and carpetbaggers, and former slaves up from the plantations farther south.

It was a city of sharp contrasts—bars and brothels from its waterfront to its eastern edge, “a dangerous, dirty place” with pigs roaming the streets, but also churches, opera, French cuisine at the finer restaurants, and the ever-present Peabody Hotel.

Then came the yellow fever epidemic of the summer and early fall of 1878. More than half the population fled. Of the 20,000 who remained, 17,000 got sick and 5,000 died. It was a plague of biblical dimensions, and it exposed an even deeper dissonance in the city--the bravery and selflessness of those who stayed to fight, and the corrupt and cowardly leaders who fled after long refusing to fund the basic city services that might have lessened the suffering.

Memphis in 1878 became the city of the dead—people hiding behind shuttered windows and locked doors, the clickety-clack of wagons carrying the corpses to waiting gravediggers. Even the “rats, cats (and) dogs” were gone.

This is the story that unfolds in Jeanette Keith’s new book Fever Season: The Story of a Terrifying Epidemic and the People Who Saved the City. A historian who teaches at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, Pa., Keith offers an amazing tale that hits close to home, not only to Mississippians and Louisianians who remember all too well a different kind of disaster, Hurricane Katrina, but also to the nation’s East Coast, still reeling from the effects of Superstorm Sandy.

It’s a human tale of untold suffering and amazing courage that also makes you question whether we’ve really progressed that much in our understanding of public and private life, the role of government, and the limits of charity.

“Yellow Jack”, as it was known, is a horrific disease. The victim’s temperature tops 105, delirium sets in, the skin “turns bronze”, and the destruction of the body’s organs produces the telltale “black vomit” and the stink of impending death. It is caused by infected mosquitoes—mosquitoes that originally came from Africa on slave ships--but people didn’t know this in 1878. They wouldn’t know until Major Walter Reed and others made that determination in Havana, Cuba, decades later.

The 1878 epidemic wreaked havoc in neighboring Mississippi, too. Some 3,000 died. Towns were decimated, some losing half their population. Despite a skinflint Mississippi government “that favored the rich” and largely left the poor and sick to charities and relatives, a state Board of Health was created the year before that helped fight the fever, according to historians James W. Loewen and Charles Sallis.

In Memphis people looking for causes pointed to the city’s filth and squalor. Cotton traders in Memphis grew rich, but as a municipality the city “was a failure,” Keith writes. Only the well-to-do had any kind of water or sewage system. Garbage went uncollected, streets turned to mud after heavy rains, and crime ran rampant while political leaders enjoyed mint juleps with cotton traders at the Peabody.

 Of course, people blamed the poor, particularly the Irish workers who populated the teeming warren of shanties along the river levees.

Race complicated things. Memphis largely escaped the ravages of the Civil War, spending much of it occupied by Union troops. White bitterness after the “Lost Cause”, however, led to one of the nation’s worst race riots in 1866. Newly enfranchised black voters aligned with the city’s Irish and Italian immigrants in the mid-1870s and put a half-dozen blacks on the city council and an Irishman in the mayor’s office. Reconstruction ended in 1877, however, and white rule soon reasserted itself—with a vengeance.

As horrible as it was, the 1878 epidemic provided an opportunity for a major Southern city to point the way to a truly “New South” where people of all stripes could work together. Among the heroes who stayed in Memphis to fight the scourge were Catholic priests and nuns, Episcopalian nuns, the brothel madam Annie Cook, doctors, nurses, journalists, and a host of former slaves who as soldiers, police officers, relief workers and nurses used their newfound freedom to help others.

They were celebrated for a while, then attitudes on race and even class hardened. Banquets held after the plague would exclude not only blacks but also working-class Irish and women. “The very fact that white Memphians (and white Memphis) would not have survived without the aid of blacks was something that whites had to deny and hide,” Keith says.

Memphis was a changed city after 1878, even losing its charter for a while. From a city of European immigrants it became a city of poor Southern black and white immigrants. Modern Memphis is a city of 650,000, famed for the music that those poor Southerners made its legacy, plagued by poverty and crime still, and one, like the South as a whole, working even today on those old issues of race and class that seem never to go away completely.