Thursday, March 28, 2013

Labor South Roundup: A labor veteran on organizing, talk of a labor board at VW in Tennessee, a steelworkers strike in Texas, and "Southernomics" assessed

(Labor veteran Danny Forsyth at Ole Miss)

This week’s Labor South roundup features a labor veteran telling students at the University of Mississippi about organizing, discussions between Volkswagen and the United Auto Workers in Tennessee regarding a German-style labor board, a steelworkers strike in Texas, and good reads regarding the Southern model of economics.

A veteran organizer talks about what works in a campaign

Danny Forsyth, a good friend who worked the frontlines of the textile mill battles in the last decades of the 20th century as a labor organizer, spoke this week to Ole Miss students in a course I’m teaching on social movements and press coverage in the South. As he has done in the past, he offered some good advice for current and future organizing campaigns.

“You’ve got to train your local leaders, get your core group together and train them. Whenever I left town, the local leadership could do what was necessary to do.”

Forsyth, who’s retired now and lives near Water Valley, Miss., knows what he’s talking about. Over a four-year period in the 1980s, he said his organizing efforts helped secure 20 victories out of 22 campaigns. Forsyth worked with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union of America (ACTWU)—later reconfigured as the Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE)—in the long battle to establish a union at the giant textile mill in Kannapolis, N.C. Victory was finally achieved in 1999.

Forsyth worked with Crystal Lee “Norma Rae” Sutton on campaigns, and during the civil rights era with activists like Fannie Lou Hamer.  In the 1960s, Ku Klux Klansmen tried to gun Forsyth down during an organizing campaign in the Mississippi Delta.

Forsyth said the best organizing is from the ground up, utilizing the methods espoused by famed community organizer Saul Alinsky. For example, each meeting with local workers would include teaching/training sessions on such topics as “power”. Workers would learn where they fit in vis-a-vis the existing power structure in a plant or community and see that they could have power, too.

Community is key to organizing, he said. Plus organizing is hard work. Forsyth may have been the first organizer to use a computer in collecting data useful for a campaign.

Working in the South is a challenge because of the entrenched opposition of the power structure. Connecting with workers was not hard for Forsyth, however. “I’m an old Southern boy,” he said. “During the campaign at Cannon (Mills in North Carolina), they put me in front of the camera because I talked the language.”

A labor council at Volkswagen in Chattanooga?

Tennessee’s conservative politicians are all a flutter about revelations that Volkswagen officials are talking with the United Auto Workers regarding the possible creation of a German-style labor board at the company’s plant in  Chattanooga.

The company may unveil a plan for such a board as early as May with formal discussions beginning in July. UAW President Bob King has indicated an openness to the idea although certain legalities may have to be considered before implementation.

Under the German system, workforce representatives are elected democratically, and the union is able to work with the company in resolving worker issues.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam seemed aghast at learning of the development. “I would hate for anything to happen that would hurt the productivity of the plant or to deter investment in Chattanooga,” he said in a statement. Haslam went on to say he doesn’t see any need to change the existing, non-union structure and that workers are happy at Volkswagen.

Volkswagen employs 3,200 at the Chattanooga plant. It has been seen as a company less defiant of unions than other foreign companies with operations in the U.S. South, such as Nissan. The UAW is building a major campaign at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss.

Observers say the labor board idea may offer potential for union growth in the South. However, organized labor needs to be careful that what evolves is not the equivalent of a “company union”, where workers seem to have representation but management actually calls all the shots.

Steelworkers on strike in Texas

After learning their company, Firestone Polymers, wanted to triple the deductible on their health plan and lower insurance payments after the deductible is met, members of the United Steelworkers at the company’s Orange, Texas, plant went on strike.

These workers’ jobs are particularly risky due to the exposure to potentially dangerous chemicals. Firestone Polymers makes synthetic rubber.

“Local 13-836 members are concerned about their health care costs because they … work in a dangerous environment,” according to a USW release.

The plan offered by Firestone Polymers mirrors similar plans offered by other companies in today’s economy. They seem attractive in that they include a lower premium--and lower costs to the company--but studies show they ultimately result in higher costs and health risks for workers.

On the Southern economy as a model

A recent cover story for the Austin, Texas-based Progressive Populist, headlined “Southern Poverty Pimps”, describes in detail how “the ‘original sin’ of the Southern political class is cheap, powerless labor.”

In his article (, writer Michael Lind details what this blog and its author have been decrying for some time, a Southern economic model increasingly adopted beyond the South that preserves the wealth and power of an entrenched oligarchy at the expense of workers and ultimately the nation as a whole.

“Southernomics is radically different,” Lind writes. “Southern economic policymakers have sought to secure a second-tier role for the South in the national and world economies, as a supplier of commodities like cotton and oil and gas and a source of cheap labor for footloose corporations. This strategy of specializing in commodities and cheap labor is intended to enrich the Southern oligarchy. It doesn’t enrich the majority of Southerners, white, black or brown, but it is not intended to.”

Southern “pimps”—Lind’s term for the region’s conservative leaders—threaten non-Southern states by seeking to strip them of “their best companies and industries” and thus cripple their economies. They do this through cheap labor and other repressive means at home.

Another interesting read is Katherine S. Newman’s analysis of tax policies in the South and West, part of a series about inequality called “The Great Divide”.

In her article “In the South and West, A Tax on Being Poor,” which appeared in the New York Times earlier this month (, the Johns Hopkins University sociologist outlines the dependence on regressive taxes-- like the sales tax--in the South and West, a dependence that certainly has long characterized the South.  The rich and corporations get the breaks at the expense of the working class and the poor.

Meanwhile, Southern states like Mississippi look to the federal government to fill the gaps they refuse to fill. “The Southern states reap more tax dollars in federal benefits that they pay in taxes,” Newman writes. Mississippi “saw a net gain of $240 billion between 1990 and 2009” while states that do more to care for their people “lose out for every dollar they pay.”

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The radical early writings of Carl Sandburg, the "people's poet" - a good story for St. Joseph the Worker day

(Carl Sandburg's modest office at his home in Flat Rock, N.C. Note: his typewriter sits on a crate.)

Today is St. Joseph the Worker’s day in the Catholic calendar, a time to celebrate working people and the working stiff’s saint. So it’s appropriate for Labor South to talk about Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), the poet of the people who grew up poor and was a bricklayer, dishwasher, hobo, soldier and journalist en route to his career as a poet.

During a recent trip across the South, from Mississippi to my home state of North Carolina, I stopped in Flat Rock, N.C., and visited for the first time the Sandburg home, where the Illinois native moved with his family at the age of 67 and remained for the rest of his life.

It’s a great place, home to the more than12,000 books the Sandburgs collected and the descendants of the goats from the goat farm Carl’s wife Lillian (he called her Paula) managed.

My great discovery was that Sandburg was a radical firebrand in his youth, full of passion for the working class, serving as secretary to Milwaukee’s first Socialist mayor from 1910 to 1912 and writing for the International Socialist Review from 1912 to 1918. He interviewed Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) leader Big Bill Haywood behind bars and “the Wobbly spirit of direct confrontation permeated” his writings, according to poet and Sandburg scholar Matthias Regan,

Another discovery during my visit was Regan’s book Carl Sandburg: The People’s Pugilist, a compelling collection of Sandburg’s writings in the early 1900s.

I never knew of Sandburg’s politics even though I’ve always liked his poetry and have his homage to newspapers—“I am out in the rain and sun where men work / I am the daily newspaper / Books? They stand clean and dreaming on shelves in houses / I am dirty and always fighting”—taped to my lamp in my office.

The public image of Carl Sandburg is of the friendly, guitar-playing, white-haired poet and biographer of Abraham Lincoln, safely neutered from any real critique of society. It’s much like Jack London is remembered as a teller of dog stories, not the wild-eyed radical who would sign his letters “Yours for the Revolution” and who wanted to be the voice for “socialists, anarchists, hobos, chicken thieves, outlaws and undesirable citizens of the United States.”

Don’t tell me we don’t censor in this country and make our poets, writers, artists, and musicians safe for public consumption in our history books and lecture halls.

Here are a few lines from one of Sandburg’s early poems:

“I dreamt a million ghosts
of the young workmen rose
in their shirts all soaked in crimson
and yelled:
God damn the grinning kings.
God damn the kaiser and the czar!”

 Here’s Sandburg on the 20th century evangelist Billy Sunday:

“You come along—tearing your shirt—yelling about Jesus.
I want to know what the hell you know about Jesus? …

It was your crowd of bankers and business men and lawyers
that hired the sluggers and murderers who put Jesus out of the running.

The bankers and corporation lawyers of Jerusalem got their sluggers
and murderers to go after Jesus just because Jesus wouldn’t play their game.
He didn’t sit in with the big thieves.”

Lots of anger, passion, righteous indignation there! Sandburg’s journalism was even more to the point. Here’s an excerpt from a column in 1915 on a proposed inheritance tax:

“You politicians sitting around Washington, here’s a little job you can do if want to make good on this bluff you’re always pulling about how you love the people.

“Pass a tax law ordering that when John D. Rockefeller, J. Pierpont Morgan … or any other multi-millionaire is shoveled away in his grave, then the United States Government shall step in and take away everything from the children and relatives except one million dollars for the heirs to live on. …

“You can use the millions and millions of dollars taken away from those dead industrial kings to push along what the working class wants. You can take the kids out of factories and send them to school and feed ‘em.”

Pretty strong stuff, huh? Bet you never read that in your American Lit class.

Scholars say Sandburg distanced himself from his radical youth later in life. However, Matthias Regan says the populist spirit that inspired those early poems, articles and columns was the breeding ground for all his works. That’s why he’s still today called the “people’s poet”.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Labor South roundup: Blues in Mississippi, stretch-out in Alabama, wage theft in Virginia, desperation in Memphis, and a contract in Louisiana

Here’s a quick roundup of what’s going on and what’s coming up for Labor South. I’m heading out for a cross-South trip Saturday, traveling from Mississippi to North Carolina. I’ll be visiting friends and relatives but also poking around to see what’s happening in our Southland.

Howlin’ mad blues

(Bill "Howl-N-Madd" Perry)

I just finished a piece for the Jackson Free Press on Mississippi bluesman Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry, who has been performing and recording since the 1960s and who got his start with legendary Chess Records in Chicago. He has worked and performed with blues greats like Willie Dixon, T-Bone Walker, Clarence Carter and Little Milton.

Perry is also an actor and a raconteur with enough stories to fill an encyclopedia! He’s a living testament to the South’s oral tradition. I’ll be posting my story on him soon.

Alabama poultry workers endure the stretch-out on the assembly line

(To the right is 1920s cotton mill worker, troubadour and labor martyr Ella May Wiggins)

The Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice released a study this week on the Alabama poultry industry and the injuries and other health issues that plague its workers—and eventually consumers as well-- because of  “stretch-out”-like conditions on its assembly lines. You thought the “stretch-out” was a thing of the past, something from the days of Ella May Wiggins in the 1920s cotton mills? Not in the poultry industry, not in the automobile industry, and not in any industry at a time when unions are down and the government watchdogs are in bed with management.

“Making matters worse, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is poised to implement a new regulation in April that will allow poultry companies to increase the speed of a plant’s processing line even though plant employees say current line speeds make their work more dangerous,” the SPLC said in a March 5 release. “This proposal also threatens consumer safety by removing hundreds of federal inspectors from processing lines and burdening plant workers with the responsibility of removing tainted chicken from the line.”

Wage theft

The Chicago-based magazine In These Times provided a compelling report in its March 2013 edition on wage theft across America. Spencer Woodman’s article profiled Charlottesville, Va., worker Anthony M. Van Buren’s efforts to get his due pay from Star Valley Painting Contractors Inc.

The Star Valley company owed Van Buren $1,000 in back pay, the 59-year-old worker said. He said he was fired when he complained about it. Even though such nonpayment violates the law, the Virginia Bureau of Labor informed Van Buren that it is “no longer taking wage-and-hour claims and that it was up to him to investigate and prosecute the crime,” Woodman writes.

Apparently this is increasingly the case across the nation as “austerity”-minded legislatures cut budgets and funds needed for labor bureaus and other agencies that supposedly protect workers.

A desperate worker hits the streets of Memphis

Pamela Bridgeforth-Freeman told the Memphis Commercial Appeal this week that “I screamed out to the Lord” and the Lord told her to take her case to the streets.

So the 59-year-old former medical transcriber at a local medical facility in Memphis went to Union Avenue “dressed up with pearls and a bright red coat” and asked passers-by for a job. This was her first day out of work after losing her job. She has been unsuccessful in finding a job in the traditional way since she learned she was losing hers five weeks ago.

Stop: Meet your new employee said the sign she carried to Union Avenue. If the homeless can beg for food on the streets, why can’t she ask for a job, she said.

Due to new technology that replaced the need for workers like Bridgeforth-Freeman, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis has laid off 15 transcriptionists.

Bridgeforth-Freeman told the Commercial Appeal she has had a job ever since she was 13, and she prefers to work rather than get unemployment checks.

Steelworkers and Carey Salt end three-year dispute in Louisiana

Local 14425 of the United Steelworkers and Carey Salt in Cote Blanche, La., have ended their three-year dispute and agreed on a new contract that provides a 3 percent wage increase over each of the next three years plus additional worker benefits.

The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that Carey Salt, a subsidiary of Compass Minerals Inc., wrongly implemented a contract offer without worker agreement in 2010. The NLRB, however, also faulted workers for going on strike as a result. These issues remain and aren’t resolved by the new contract.