Saturday, May 25, 2013

On the road to Hong Kong and China: Reliving old memories while tracking a rising labor activism

(To the right: Yours truly overlooking Hong Kong in 1972)

My Army buddy Bob Vanover sadly admired the Hong Kong skyline our final day there back in April 1972 and sighed, “Take 
a last look, Joe. We’ll never see this place again.”

Always the optimist, I shook my head and proclaimed: “You never know, Bob. We could be back someday.”

We were both soldiers based in Plantation, Vietnam, on a week-long R&R (Rest & Recreation) in Hong Kong, taking a needed break from Hueys, dusty villages, water buffalo, lambrettas and the occasional pajama-wearing Viet Cong. We were in one of free Asia’s biggest cities, a teeming anthill of skyscrapers and crowded markets, back alleys and waterfronts, rickshaws and Chinese junks. Hong Kong was Asian but to us it was also “The World,” which then meant any place other than Vietnam.

Hey, Bob, wherever you are, you were wrong and I was right.

(Yours truly--out of uniform--and Bob Vanover in Vietnam)

Yep, Bob, I’m going back to Hong Kong next week, and I’ll spend much of the next three weeks there and on the mainland in Beijing, Xi’an, and possibly Shanghai. I doubt the Suzie Wong Bar is still in Hong Kong, but surely Thieves’ Market—also known as Cat Street--is still clogged with humanity, including a few of the kind who gave it its name.

(A crowded street--possibly Cat Street--in Hong Kong in 1972)

This will likely be my last posting on Labor South until my return in mid-June. The trip will be part play, part work. The working end will take place in Hong Kong, where I’m hoping to talk to folks about the recent successful dockworkers’ strike there and about the migrant worker issue, a long-term project of mine.

Some 450 Hong Kong International Terminals (HIT) dockworkers struck for 40 days between March 28 and early May to demand better wages and working conditions. The strike at the world’s third-busiest port pitted the members of the Union of Hong Kong Dockers and Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) against billionaire Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest man. Li Ka-shing controls the HIT and 70 percent of all port traffic in Hong Kong.

The strikers won and went back to work after securing a 9.8 percent boost in wages. They received local and global support for their cause with many Hong Kong citizens as well as activists from the mainland contributing to their strike fund.

“Our union works from below persuading worker by worker to join and get organized, with the effect of enabling rank-and-file workers to make their voices heard,” dockworkers union secretary Wong Yu Loy told labor scholar and writer Stephen Philion in a recent interview (

Wong Yu Loy told Philion—whom I hope to see while I’m in Hong Kong—that dockworkers occupy a unique and crucial link in the global economy, serving as a “vital cog in the corporate supply chain.” This was seen in the historic labor action by dockworkers in Charleston, S.C., back in 2000 when they successfully forced back a union-busting effort by a Danish shipping line. They got international support and won the day, just as their counterparts in Hong Kong have now done.

It’s another promising sign—in this eternal optimist’s viewpoint—of a rising worker consciousness around the globe. Tracking that is one big reason for this trip to Hong Kong.

Look at Bangladesh, where the garment industry moved to take advantage of the least-paid and most vulnerable workers of the world. Six months after 112 workers died in a fire at the Tazreen factory near Dhaka, another 1,127 were killed when the building housing the Rana Plaza clothing factory, also near Dhaka, collapsed. Another 2,000 workers face lifelong physical injuries and impairment as a result.

But these tragedies may bring about change. The underpaid, vulnerable workers in Bangladesh are standing up for their rights and making demands. The Bangladesh government recently agreed to raise the minimum wage and allow workers to form trade unions without factory owners’ prior approval.

Still, some 20,000 workers continued their protests in the Bangladesh garment center of Ashulia this week and faced police forces firing rubber bullets at them. Dozens were injured.

European retailers have responded to the tragedies by agreeing to a plan to improve working conditions in Bangladesh. U.S. retailers like Walmart are balking, however, citing concerns about the legal implications. Protesters plan to be in Bentonville, Ark., at Walmart’s shareholders’ meeting on June 7 to bring home the message that even giant U.S. corporations have to recognize the basic rights and dignity of workers, no matter where they are. At the protest will be Bangladesh workers.  

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Anti-union Nissan makes big gift to Evers Institute but forgets civil rights martyr Medgar Evers was a big union supporter

(To the right is a photograph I took of Ray Smithhart in Jackson, Miss., in 2004)

OXFORD, Miss. - My old friend Ray Smithhart would have loved the irony of union-fighting manufacturer Nissan making a gift of $100,000 to the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute.

Known in his later years as the “dean of Mississippi’s labor organizers,” Smithhart worked closely with civil rights martyr Medgar Evers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, forging a link between the labor and civil rights movements that Martin Luther King Jr. himself saw as key to the future of both.

(Medgar Evers)

“Medgar Evers told me I was the first white man who ever talked to him,” Smithhart told me during an interview the year before he died at 88 in 2005. “We had good relations.”

That’s why he must be smiling in heaven. Nissan, unionized around the world but fighting unionization at its plant in Canton, Miss., made its donation to the Evers Institute last month. “This organization talks about and looks at youth education, diversity, and racial reconciliation, and those are the same things Nissan looks at,” Nissan spokesman Jeffrey Webster said.

If Smithhart were alive today, he would likely ask Nissan to look deeper into Medgar Evers’ beliefs. “All people need their civil rights, especially the working people,” said Smithhart, who served as president of a United Rubber Workers local and secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO.

Mississippi and nation are marking the 50th anniversary of Evers’ slaying with a long series of tributes to the late activist and field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP. Evers was killed in front of his home in Jackson, Miss., on June 12, 1963. Events include the annual Medgar Evers Dinner in Jackson next month. Among those on hand will be Hollywood actor and labor activist Danny Glover, a vocal supporter of the union effort at Nissan.

“I think about Medgar Evers,” Glover said at a gathering of pro-union Nissan workers last July. “He was only 37 years old when he died. Medgar Evers would be right out here supporting you.”

Activists, community leaders and the United Auto Workers have been building support to get Nissan to allow a fair election for the 5,000 workers at its Canton plant. Workers say the company is already waging an intense anti-union campaign within the plant that includes one-on-one meetings with managers, videos and threats of plant closings and layoffs if workers choose to join a union.

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has opposed unionization at the company’s plants in Mississippi and Tennessee even though its workforce in other parts of the world is largely unionized.

The UAW has taken the Canton story to the world. Rallies have been held in Atlanta, New York, Detroit, and as far away as Brazil. Hundreds turned out for an evangelical-style gathering at Tougaloo College in January that featured Glover as well as an array of preachers, students, activists, and workers.

The $100,000 gift to the Evers Institute may be a sign that Nissan is feeling the pressure. The company also recently announced a $500,000 education grant to the Canton Public School District. Nissan reported $84.4 billion in net revenues and $4.37 billion in operating profit for the nine months ending in December 2012.

Yet things aren’t all rosy for Nissan’s relations with predominantly black Canton. Efforts by state lawmakers to back a $100 million plant expansion and supplier support plan in Madison County have rankled local political leaders, who are still miffed at a state-backed prohibition against Canton annexing the plant.

Nissan’s cash handouts, welcome as they may be, say nothing about the fundamental question of workers’ rights, itself a civil rights issue.
Evers died in the cause for those rights. Smithhart, too, was on the front lines, integrating water fountains, pressuring Jackson leaders to hire black police officers.  In 1962, goons fired 200 pellets into Smithhart’s car near Ripley. A Port Gibson police chief told him “no one would hear” from him again if he didn’t leave town.

“I would not let the anti-union forces intimidate me,” Smithhart said. “I stood my ground, and they did not like it.”

Claude Ramsay, state AFL-CIO president at the time and another Evers associate, told me this during a 1981 interview: “They’d call me and threaten me. I kept a double-barreled shotgun on the floorboard of my car, and I told them I’d take at least two of them with me.”

The labor movement “transformed misery and despair into hope and progress,” Martin Luther King Jr. once said. “The two most dynamic and cohesive liberal forces in the country are the labor movement and the Negro freedom movement.”

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Poor, uprooted, and on the margins: Writer Steve Stern's tales of Old World Jews in Memphis' Pinch District

When the one-legged, one-eyed rags peddler Lazar Malkin left on his journeys into the Mississippi hinterland to find customers for his collection of “shmattes and tools,” he liked to remind his fellow Jews on Memphis’ North Main Street, “The Pinch ain’t the world.”

Old Malkin was right, but he was wrong, too. The Pinch, the former Jewish quarter of Memphis, Tenn., located along North Main between Downtown and Uptown, was, after all, a world unto itself. Along with its “jewelers, tailors, and watchmakers,” its Hasidim, rabbis, meshuggener and various luftmensch, were Klotwog’s Feed Store, Rosen’s Delicatessen, Ridblatt’s Bakery, Hekkie’s Hardware, the Neighborhood House, and the Anshei Sphard Synagogue.

It’s the world you enter in writer Steve Stern’s wonderful collection of short-stories The Book of Mischief (Graywolf Press, 2012), a lost world, that perennial of Yiddish literature, that existed in a little corner of a Deep South city, a threatened world where “at night rabid animals stalked the perimeter … with now and then a werewolf among them; and never mind the marauding Klansmen” who’d taken the place of the Cossack troops that tormented these Jews back in Russia and Poland’s Carpathian Mountains.

Stern, a winner of the National Jewish Book Award and teacher at Skidmore College in upstate New York, spent formative years in Memphis and found in the Pinch District—now largely blighted but possibly facing a rebirth--a bottomless source of inspiration.

(To the right is an abandoned synagogue in today's Pinch District)

The Pinch is Memphis’ oldest neighborhood. It was here where Davy Crockett and Sam Houston caroused at the old Bell Tavern in the early 1800s, where waves of Irish and German immigrants came and worked along the nearby levees of the Mississippi River, where many of them perished or fled during the 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic that nearly destroyed Memphis.

Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia settled in the Pinch after the epidemic. They came here just as they came to New York’s Lower East Side and other places of refuge to escape the pogroms launched against them after Czar Alexander’s assassination in St. Petersburg in 1881.

This collection of Stern stories also includes tales from New York’s Lower East Side, the Catskills Mountains, and Eastern Europe, those shtetl and city ghettoes we know mainly today through “Fiddler on the Roof”, the paintings of Marc Chagall, the haunting pre-World War II photographs of Roman Vishniac, and the tales of Isaac Bashevis Singer.  Stern revisits the horrible last moments of the immigrant women at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York just before it goes up in flames in  1911. He juxtaposes the world destroyed at Auschwitz and Treblinka with today’s Prague, where that most iconic of Jewish writers, Franz Kafka, has become “Elvis”. His “jug ears stretched to satanic points … the forehead receding to a vampirish widow’s peak,” Kafka is everywhere—in the windows of bookstores and cafés, on T-shirts and coffee mugs.

Stern quotes Kafka to get to the heart of things Jewish: “In us all still lives—the dark rooms, secret alleys, squalid courtyards, and sinister inns. The fetid old Jewish town within us is more real than the hygienic town around us. With our eyes wide-open we walk through a dream, ourselves only a ghost of a vanished age … ”

(An alley today in Memphis' Pinch District)

And one “old Jewish town” was to become the Pinch District of Memphis, Tenn. Here along its alleys and narrow streets were refugees from a distant and hostile world, eternal wanderers it seemed, who now must contend with “a river … awash with dead men and snakes. Beyond our neighborhood the poor people married their own mothers and had two-headed children. For sport they wrestled pigs and cut the private parts off Negroes, which they framed and hung up in the barbershops. The South beyond the Pinch was Gehinnom, it was Sichra Achra, the other side.”

(To the right is another back street in today's Pinch District)

As is obvious here, Stern has a Jewish sense of humor, and it’s no accident he spends some time in this book in the Catskills amid the ghosts of “Sophie Tucker ... Fat Jackie Leonard, Danny Kaye né David Daniel Kaminsky.” In his story “The Wedding Jester”, his character Saul Bozoff may be Stern himself, a curious Jewish Southern writer who discovered in the Pinch a haunting of ghosts--“immigrants crying hockfleish and irregular pants, pumping their sewing machines like swarming hornets in the tenement lofts, braiding Yiddish curses into their yellow challah bread.”

Or preparing for the occasional visits of Memphis’ political czar, Edward H. “Boss” Crump, who would boast “Our sheenies are good sheenies” with just the hint of a threat behind that frozen smile and “rakish straw skimmer.”

These stories are filled with golem, dybbuks, tzaddik, and there's even a daughter of Lilith, the original “femme fatale,” Jewish, of course, a succubus as dangerous as she is seductive. Stern takes you to fantastical heights that require the suspension of Gentile logic and practicality. You fly in the air with Rabbi Shmelke “above the telephone lines and trolley lines” of the Pinch. You accompany Zelik Rifkin into a dream world of Pinch District doppelgängers who exist just above the tallest oak in the quarter. You swing with Felix Meltzer over the rooftops of Prague as he escapes the golem.

Stern tells us Saul Bozoff, the writer in “The Wedding Jester”, was never to be a bestselling author, lost as he was in “the place where history and myth intersected,” a writer “saturated in Jewish arcana” whose books are “catalogued as Fiction/Judaica.”

As literary critics Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg once wrote, the writers of Yiddish or Yiddish World literature, “virtually unknown to Americans,”  navigate a world that is “internally a community, a spiritual kingdom,” and “externally a society in peril, a society on the margin.”

Indeed, by and large, these are poor immigrants, dealers in rags and legends, refugees from oppression defiantly true to their faith and culture yet also fearful of those outside their world, the holders of power in whose smiles lies an ever-present threat of bad things to come. Yet what stories these lost world denizens have to tell.