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 (http://www.populist.com/16.05.lind.html), 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 (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/09/in-the-south-and-west-a-tax-on-being-poor), 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.”