Friday, April 26, 2013

Death in Bangladesh and Texas: Will bottom-feeder industries and their corporate customers ever put people over profits?

(A late 19th century sweatshop in the garment industry)

How many tragedies will it take before the bottom-feeders of the global economy stop their relentless, immoral search for the world’s cheapest wages and decide that fair labor costs and safe working conditions are a part of doing business?

When textile workers stood up against their bosses in New England and joined unions like the Industrial Workers of the World in the early 1900s, the industry packed its bags and moved to the U.S. South, where a new generation of oligarchs had succeeded antebellum plantation owners and promised a climate that may be post-slavery but not post-slave wages.

After six decades of what North Carolina mill worker Eva Bradshaw once described to me as being “just dollar bills to them, not humans,” the South’s textile workers also stood up and joined the Textiles Workers’ Union of the America and its later emanation, the Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE).

Aided by the North American Free Trade Agreement and other government intervention on behalf of Big Business, the textile and garment industries’ response was to pack their bags and move south to Mexico, where instead of paying a veteran Carolina mill hand $11 an hour it could get a Mexican worker for $1.47 an hour.

Then when Communist China decided that a capitalist underbelly works quite well with an authoritative regime that mouths Marx but tolerates little or no dissent among the proletariat, the textile and garment industries said, “Hmmmmmmmm.”

Chinese workers earn a mere 64 cents an hour, industry leaders noticed, and soon their factories were off on the Orient Express of New Liberalism!

Then those pesky Chinese workers started complaining. After all, they were living in the last bastion of the “workers’ paradise”, right? Protests, strikes and walkouts became regular events along southeast China’s industrial corridor in the 2000s. Finally Communist Party leaders realized they had to stop the constant turnover of Marx, Lenin and Mao in their graves and do something about workers’ demands. For example, increase wages and let workers elect their own union leaders instead of having the government appoint a factory manager to wear both hats.

That wasn’t welcome news to the gypsy textile and garment factories. So next stop: Bangladesh, which now ranks only behind China in the garment business, a country where the typical garment worker earns the equivalent of $37 a month.

 That’s why it should be a surprise to no one that yet another horror has been dealt workers in these industries. A poorly built, eight-story structure that housed multiple garment factories in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed last week, killing at least 400 and injuring many more. An unknown number of people remain trapped.

According to Bangladesh reports, workers were told to go to work despite the discovery of cracks in the building the day before the collapse.

Just last November, 112 workers were killed after a fire broke out in the Tazreen garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. They burned to death in a building without fire exits. The factory produced apparel for Walmart and Sam’s Club as well as Sears, Disney, Sean Combs’ Enyce and other Western companies.

Walmart and the Sears Holding Corp. have thus far opted out of joining a group of companies that have pledged to compensate victims of the Tazreen fire. In fact, Walmart apparently took a lead role in 2011 in opposing an effort to have companies step forward and fund improved safety measures among their suppliers in the South Asian garment industry.

More than 800 workers have died in Bangladesh factories since 2005.

Of course, the textile and garment industries don’t have a monopoly on poorly monitored plants that endanger the lives of workers. This became clear in Texas last week with the explosion of a plant owned by the West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas.  The explosion killed 14 and injured more than 160.

Labor writer Mike Elk has reported that the plant had no sprinklers, fire alarms and shut-off valves but it did have “1,350 times the legally allowed amount of highly explosive ammonium nitrate.”

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Mississippi & the South: Still ruled by "the handful" as GOP guvs say "No" to Medicaid expansion

(Fannie Lou Hamer in 1964)

Fannie Lou Hamer, a folk philosopher of the civil rights movement in the Mississippi Delta, knew what she was up against in a state and region where an entrenched hard-right oligarchy ruled at the expense of the majority.

“With the people, for the people, by the people--I crack up when I hear it,” said the former field hand, a woman wise far beyond her sixth grade education. “I say, with the handful, for the handful, by the handful, ‘cause that’s what really happens.”

Hamer spoke those words decades ago, but they’re just as true today as hard-right political leaders in Mississippi and across the South once again circle the wagons to make sure they stay in power even if it means suffering across the land.

Witness the spectacle of Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and the Republican bosses in the state Legislature opposing an expansion of Medicaid that would help 300,000 needy Mississippians even though the federal government will largely fund it. They’re not going to threaten their party or their own political necks by giving Obamacare a chance succeed.

Even the pleas of some 200 doctors and other health advocates who recently gathered in Jackson, Miss., fell on deaf ears as Bryant and Co. stood in the door to block any expansion, much like segregationist Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett tried to block integration at Ole Miss back in 1962.

The comparison is fitting.

In Mississippi you have the poorest state in the nation, where one in five nonelderly residents lacks health insurance, a state that recorded the nation’s largest growth in the gap between the rich and poor between the late 1990s and mid-2000s. This is a state that in the last two decades enjoyed a net gain (over what it paid in taxes) of $240 billion in federal aid to the poor and needy.

It’s the same story across the South, a region that will forever be the nation’s poorest so long as it continues to be ruled by oligarchies of self-interested pols and the business and corporate interests they serve. That has been the South through much of its sad history.

From Virginia to Texas, what Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson called the Confederacy, Republican governors have led the charge to oppose the Affordable Health Care Act and the Medicaid expansion that is a key part of it. Florida’s governor is the only exception.  “Many of the citizens who would benefit the most from this live in the reddest of states with the most intense opposition,” Kaiser Family Foundation President Drew Altman told the Associated Press.

The assault on the needy takes many forms. The Republican governor and legislature in North Carolina recently agreed to slash weekly benefits to the unemployed from $535 to $350. North Carolina has a 9.2 percent unemployment rate, fifth highest in the nation. It joins five other Southern and border states—Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and South Carolina—that have slashed benefits to the unemployed.

Back in Fannie Lou Hamer’s day, white Delta planters and their pet pols fought racial integration with every fiber of their being. Their minions killed and maimed activists. They burned churches and homes. They threw blacks like Hamer into jails and tried to beat them into submission.

The same federal government that finally forced Mississippi and the Delta planters to accept the black vote and black civil rights also allowed that same leadership to control federal aid to the poor. Planters grew rich on federal farm subsidies but were misers when it came to doling out food stamps or other poverty assistance.  They had no compunction about withholding assistance to any black upstart who challenged the system.

Read historian James C. Cobb’s The Most Southern Place on Earth about those times. It’s painful but an education. Mississippi was “a kind of prison in which live a great group of uneducated, semi-starving people from whom all but token public support has been withdrawn,” said one observer, a physician from North Carolina who refused to believe how bad things were until he saw them in person.

The same hypocrisy exists today. State leaders in Mississippi managed to find $356 million in incentives to lure Toyota at a time when they wouldn’t even fund a burn center, forcing burn victims to leave the state for treatment.

“Nothing could be a greater threat to the Southern cheap-labor economic strategy than universal, standardized federal social insurance,” author Michael Lind of the New America Foundation has written. “In order to maximize the dependence of Southern workers on Southern employers in the great low-wage labor pool of the former Confederacy, it would be better to have no welfare at all, only local charity (funded and controlled, naturally, by the local wealthy families).”

In other words, government “with the handful, for the handful, by the handful.” 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Pipeline workers walk picket line, poultry workers struggle, and longshoremen win contract

Here's the latest Labor South roundup--from pipeline workers in Mississippi and poultry workers along the border South to longshoremen on the East and Gulf coasts.

Picketing at the pipeline

Brian Anderson said he and the other pipeline workers on the picket line in Columbia, Miss., have a simple message.

“We’re protesting lower scale wages and no benefits. We look after worker benefits. We are not radicals, not going to smash heads or sabotage or anything like that. … What we are trying to do is educate the public that they are getting an inferior job.”

A welder from Longville, La.,  Anderson is a member of Pipeliners Local 798, which is protesting the Kinder Morgan company’s decision to award the non-union Loutex company a contract to build a pipeline in and beyond the Marion County area in south Mississippi near the Louisiana border.

Kinder Morgan is based in Houston, Texas, and Loutex is based in Joaquin, Texas.

The picket site is in Columbia, county seat of Marion County, and involves anywhere from 15 to 60 workers a day. Overall 300 workers are involved in the protest, which has been going on for the past couple of weeks, Anderson said.

Attempts by Labor South to get company comments regarding the picket were unsuccessful. However, Kinder Morgan representative Allen Fore told WDAM-TV in Columbia that the company awarded the project to Loutex because it offered the best and most competitive bid.

That bid was based on low-wage, low-benefits labor and other factors that may end up making the project more expensive, Anderson said.

“The costs on a nonunion contractor is higher than a union contract,” Anderson said. “We go in there and do the job. At the end of the job, the gas companies will give them (non-union companies) more money to get the job completed, and the cost of non-union goes on up. It takes them longer, and you don’t have the same kind of quality.”

Poultry workers beware

One of Labor South’s best friends, labor writer Bruce Vail, says poultry processors Perdue and Tyson are outsourcing jobs and seeking nonunion contractors in the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia area. The United Food and Commercial Workers, however, are on the scene and holding “the giant processing companies accountable for driving down living standards.”

It’s just the latest assault on poultry workers, many of whom still endure “stretch-out” conditions on the assembly line much like workers did in the 1920s. The Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center recently released a study detailing the resulting health problems plaguing poultry workers in Alabama.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, working hand-in-hand with industry leaders, is scheduled this month to implement new regulations allowing poultry companies to increase the speed on the processing lines. Also in the works are plans to remove hundreds of federal inspectors from those same lines. Here we have a clear case of the USDA aiding companies at the expense of workers and consumers.

The good news in the poultry industry, however, came last summer when 1,200 workers at the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Russellville, Ala., joined the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). The victory capped one of the largest organizing drives in Alabama over the past 10 years, and it came after a bitter fight with the company.

Dockworkers ratify contract

Longshoremen earlier this year threatened a strike that would stretch along the East Coast into the Gulf Coast if they didn’t get a fair contract from the U.S. Maritime Alliance. Well, they got their contract.

Nearly seven months after their previous contract expired, the alliance and the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) announced this week ratification of a six-year contract that will raise wages, provide protections for workers displaced by technology, and limit nonunion subcontracting and outsourcing.

ILA members voted this week by a wide margin to approve the contract. The alliance, which consists of port associations, carriers, and direct employers, is expected to vote to ratify within the next few days.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Howlin' the blues in Mississippi

OXFORD, Miss. – Bluesman Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry isn’t really howling mad.

(To the right is Howl-N-Madd Perry)

Even when he opens the door of the Two Stick restaurant here for our interview, he has a grin on his face as wide as the swath of sunshine that follows him in. Sporting a black beret, a stud in each ear, a dark pullover proclaiming Clarksdale, Miss., the Crossroads to the Blues, he shakes my hand like we’re old friends.

It’s not long before he’s telling the story of how he got the nickname. He was a country boy accepting a challenge from his uncle to butt heads with a billy goat. “BAAAM! It seemed like boiling hot needles were burning! I knocked the goat down, and my head didn’t hurt. It must have knocked my brains down to my ankles. My feet were on fire!”

All of us at the table—Perry, his daughter “Shy”, Oxford musician and Ole Miss biology instructor Wendy Garrison, me—are laughing. We laugh a lot during my two-hour interview with Perry, 65, a Lafayette County native bluesman who has been performing and recording since the 1960s.

One story leads to the next, such the time he and his family performed at “Big Mama’s Juke Joint” in Hong Kong. “Very elegant,” Shy recalls.

(Shy Perry)

“They spent $10 million on the place,” Dad says. “One night we had a tour group that flew down from Shanghai. They spoke no English except for the interpreter. Seeing those people clap their hands, getting up, hollering, dancing to the music, knowing they didn’t understand what we were saying … ."

He shakes his head and grins. “Of course, we were a good-lookin’ band!”

We’re sitting just a short walk from the Blues Trail marker on Oxford’s Square. The marker includes Perry among the region’s blues greats. Over his long career he has performed and worked with the likes of T-Bone Walker, Freddie King, Clarence Carter and Little Milton. Today he teaches blues as well as performs it.

Bill Perry’s blues trail has been long and winding. His sharecropping father, a gambler and moonshiner, won him his first guitar in a crap game. Young Bill sat in front of local bluesman Ned Bowles “like a bird dog that spotted a bird” to learn licks on a guitar.

The Perrys were poor, but music and moonshine made their house a popular destination. “Our house was the boogie house,” he says.

People bought moonshine and stayed to drink it and play music on the front porch. “I made up my mind I wanted to be an entertainer. Guys who played the guitar were always the center of attention. I never got attention.”

Still, the Perrys were different from other folks. Bill had a black father and a white mother.  “I was a tar baby with red hair.”

When the family moved from Mississippi to Chicago, life stayed hard. “You find out how cruel people can be. I guess that plays into what I call the blues.”

His father kicked him out of the house when he resisted a beating. “My dad was a strict, super-duper country dude. He believed in busting your butt if you got out of hand. I never was told I was loved. I was never hugged.

Perry’s mother cared for him and helped him, but his father laid down the law.

He started out playing gospel, worked at Chess Records, got to meet the great Willie Dixon. “I tried to learn every doggone thing I could about that studio.” With the help of Little Milton, he switched to the blues and made his debut solo recording in 1970 with “I Was A Fool”. The song got on the Billboard charts. A long career of performing and touring followed.

Perry “is able to tell of some awful things from touring in the segregated South in the ‘60s while seeing humor in how ridiculous the people perpetrating the situation were,” says his friend Garrison, herself a fine slide guitarist.

Perry moved back to Mississippi in the 1980s, a decision he has never regretted. “Here you got room. I’m not saying we’re perfect in Mississippi, but compared to Chicago we come about as close to perfection as you can get. I had enough squeezed-up living, 27 years of my life.”

Yes, no more city life for Perry, who lives near the tiny town of Abbeville, Miss., (population 421). “Oxford’s too big for me. Abbeville would be too big!”

Despite a stroke in recent years and near blindness, Perry travels constantly, performing solo or with other artists such as his own family. Wife Pauline, daughter Shy and son Bill Perry Jr. are all accomplished musicians. He also stays busy teaching young musicians at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale and other venues. He says one of his pupils, Christone Ingram, is a future great.

“I try to pass on what I know to be the truth. … This is my passion in life. My music and my family.”

Here’s Perry performing with harmonica player Adam Gussow:
This is a performance of  “I’m Going Back to the Crossroads” circa May 2010.

And check out this link to hear some of the other talent in this family. This is Bill Perry Jr. on the piano with his song "Jo-Lynn":