Friday, July 19, 2013

Southerners in N.C., Miss., La., and Georgia are in the streets, standing up to the right-wing corporate agenda

The lingering image of the happy-go-lucky Southerner, content with his lot, happy to get a pat on the head from the local patriarch, is being shaken to its core. Across the U.S. South, workers, activists and regular citizens are standing up to GOP right-wingers, the Koch Brothers and next-of-kin plutocrats like Art Pope, and privatizing, corporate-driven organizations like ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council).

Let’s take a look:

North Carolina:

The “Moral Monday” protests in North Carolina against the draconian, anti-poor and anti-worker actions of the GOP-controlled General Assembly and Republican governor have led to hundreds of arrests but also a growing national awareness of the right-wing coup d’etat in a state that historian V.O. Key called a “progressive plutocracy” back in 1949 in his classic Southern Politics.

In their 1976 political history of the South, The Transformation of Southern Politics, authors Jack Bass and Walter De Vries updated Key with a reality check on what they called the “progressive myth” of North Carolina. Yes, this is the state that gave us comparatively progressive pols like Terry Sanford, but it also gave us Jesse Helms, the original “Senator No” whose Neanderthal-like progeny now fill the halls of Congress and legislatures across the region.

Nevertheless, this has been a state looked to as a beacon of hope by progressives in the deeper South. That is until GOP leaders took over and began their assault on unemployment benefits, collective bargaining, voter rights, Medicaid and education.  

Progressive North Carolinians didn’t take it lying down. They took to the streets with their “Moral Monday” protests, weathering attacks and name-calling from the right, and bringing a public spotlight to what is happening.

On the frontlines covering the protests and the issues behind them, of course, are my friends at the North Carolina-based Institute for Southern Studies in their Web magazine, Facing South (
Mississippi and Louisiana

Voters in Jackson, Miss., last month elected a mayor who may be the most radical and left-wing elected politician in the South: Chokwe Lumumba, an admirer of Malcolm X and slain Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, a founder of the Republic of New Afrika and once a defense attorney for rapper Tupac Shakur.

Chokwe Lumumba, who’d previously served on the city council, overcame a veteran incumbent and a Republican-backed African-American businessman to take leadership of Mississippi’s capital and largest city. In a city that’s 80 percent African-American and largely Democrat, Lumumba oversees a comparatively forward-thinking island in what seems to be a Republican-dominated sea, and, believe me, his election sent shock waves across that body of water.  However, his election may also point to a changing Mississippi where black and brown minorities, women, and young people are showing signs of increasing restlessness with the old ways.

Lumumba won election as a Democrat but he’s indicated no strong allegiance to the Democratic Party. That allegiance, instead, reaches beyond a two-party system where both parties often seem indistinguishable to the actual people themselves.  Sounds pretty radical, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile, members of Pipeliners Local 798 are continuing their protest of the Kinder Morgan company’s decision to award the non-union Loutex company a contract to build a pipeline stretching across south Mississippi into Louisiana.

The protest, reported in Labor South back in April, has involved hundreds of workers, and the center of it has now shifted from Columbia, Miss., to the new major warehouse location in Bogalusa, La., says Local 798 member Brian Anderson. “They’re still walking the picket line,” he says.


Workers are definitely standing up their bosses in Georgia. In Savannah, port truck drivers, civil rights activists, faith advocates, and residents have joined a coalition that calls itself “Stand Up for Savannah” to protest what they consider unjust conditions at the Port of Savannah. A forum sponsored by Georgia Local 728 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters several weeks ago attracted some 300 truckers who came and told their stories.

In Atlanta, both union leaders and UPS Freight got a wake-up call last month when the rank-and-file membership of the Teamsters’ union rejected a five-year contract proposal that the leadership and management had both approved. It was a 4,244-to-1,897 vote that left little doubt it was time to go back to the drawing board. The current contract expires July 31.

The vote also was indicative of divisions within the Teamsters’ union, where General President James P. Hoffa and the dissident Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) are often at odds.

Among the issues are the workers’ health care plan, pensions, and other benefits, and subcontracting by the company.

COMING SOON: A look at Walmart and its troubles in D.C., California, Missouri, and Bangladesh. Minimum wage versus living wage disputes, the illegal dumping of hazardous wastes, and the horrible conditions in subcontractors’ factories that have contributed to hundreds of deaths—these are among the issues haunting the Arkansas giant, and they don’t seem to be going away any time soon.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Hong Kong: Communists & capitalists versus workers in a neo-liberal city without collective bargaining laws


(Modern-day Hong Kong at night)

(This is my latest installment from my recent trip to China. Coming soon: a roundup of action closer to home, including the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina and UPS-Teamsters dispute)

HONG KONG – Chinese junks no longer dot Victoria Harbour. A foot-powered rickshaw is even harder to find. The stately colonial-era buildings at the heart of the old city are now dwarfed by skyscrapers.

Still, this is the same Hong Kong I visited as a young soldier on R&R from Vietnam four decades ago. Busy Nathan Road still teems with orange-robed Buddhist monks and bearded Sikhs, businessmen, women in mini-skirts and high heels, Indian hawkers peddling suits and watches, construction workers, and Westerners like me.

A frenetic energy is everywhere, and not only because of whistleblowing fugitive  Edward Snowden, holed up in some hotel here during my stay after exposing U.S. cyber-surveillance of practically everyone in the world, including U.S. citizens.

Seven million people are crowded into this tiny corner at the southeastern tip of China. It was a British colony the last time I was here. It’s theoretically part of Communist China now, but Mao ZeDong would roll over in his grave if he knew what the People’s Republic tolerates these days. No little Red Books in Hong Kong. No Red Guards shouting the Chairman’s famous dictum: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun!”

Nope, this remains the citadel of capitalism that Imperial Britain created after extracting it from Imperial China in the aftermath of the Opium Wars. Of course, there’s an edge, an unanswerable question: Just how long and to what extent will Beijing allow autonomy? After all, Mao’s portrait still looms over Tiananmen Square, and his successors still pledge loyalty to his party.

“Hong Kong has always idolized the free market economy,” says Hong Kong Labour Party Chair Lee Cheuk-yan during my interview with him at his office in the city’s Legislative Council Complex. “We let the market rule everything and then we don’t intervene, and that’s it. That’s the model for Hong Kong.”

(To the right, Lee Cheuk-yan)

Not that Lee thinks that’s a wonderful thing. In fact, he’s arguably Hong Kong’s top critic of both its capital-worshiping neoliberalism and Beijing’s hidden hand in its politics and business practices. Lee is general secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions—the city’s largest independent labor organization—and he was key organizer of both the city’s recent 40-day dockworkers’ strike and the giant June 4 vigil marking the 24th anniversary of the brutal crackdown of the 1989 pro-democracy rally in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Hong Kong’s wealth was built on the backs of its workers, and those workers deserve a fair share of it, Lee says.  “Workers rights should be entrenched everywhere in the world. We have to support independent unions. At the same time … democratic rights. We also need to support democracy in China. Unless there is democracy in China, it will be far more difficult for Hong Kong to have a real democracy.”

The recent strike on Hong Kong’s docks pitted workers against Asia’s richest man, billionaire Li Ka-shing, who controls more than 70 percent of the city’s port traffic. Workers hadn’t received a pay raise in more than a decade yet worked 12-hour or longer shifts with no breaks.

In a city without collective bargaining laws, the striking dock workers secured a 9.8 percent pay raise and a commitment to better working conditions. Public support for the strikers was widespread.

(Geoffrey Crothall)

“It touched a nerve with people,” says Geoffrey Crothall, communications director with the China Labour Bulletin in Hong Kong, a non-governmental organization that monitors and promotes labor rights in China. “Property prices are stratospheric. Just going to a local café or vegetable market is hurting ordinary people. People understand when dockworkers have not have a pay raise in 10 years. They can relate to that. They see it as an injustice, particularly when the employer is the richest man not only in Hong Kong but in all of Asia.”

The irony is that today labor-hostile billionaires are as tolerable to Hong Kong’s distant Communist overseers as they were to colonial-era British leaders. In fact, Lee says, Beijing believes the model of “colonial government really works well for them. As a one-party, authoritarian regime, they have no problem with that. … The capitalists support the Communist regime, and the Communist regime supports the capitalists in Hong Kong.”

The June 4 vigil Lee organized—attended by many thousands despite a thunderstorm and heavy rain—was the only such large-scale commemoration of the 1989 crackdown in all of China. In fact, Hong Kong reporters were detained in Beijing on June 4 during the daily flag-raising ceremony at Tiananmen Square.

Still, the strikers in Hong Kong did get a pay raise, and the fact that activists like Lee Cheuk-yan can speak as openly and as critically as he does is impressive. Perhaps even Mao would have to admit that political power today is as likely to come out of a stuffed wallet as the barrel of a gun.