Sunday, October 20, 2013

Southern Right-Wingers wage war against labor, plus a feature column on "The Last of the Letter Writers"


(On the far right in the photograph is the late raging Southern liberal Sander P. Margolis with yours truly and my wife Suzanne at a restaurant in Oxford, Miss., several years ago. This is my only photograph of Sandy.)

The Southern Right-Wing's assault on labor remains under-the-radar of most mainstream media even as it becomes increasingly war-like:

- In North Carolina, conservatives in the legislature are calling for a constitutional amendment to ban collective bargaining for public employees. The Southern Workers Assembly says a "South-wide and national campaign for labor/workers rights" is needed against "this right-wing  push."

- The loathsome National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board to prevent workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., from getting a German-style works council at the plant. Both company leaders and the United Auto Workers as well as a majority of workers at the plant are supportive of the works council, but Tennessee leaders like U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Gov. Bill Haslam are aghast at the idea of a major union-friendly plant on their home turf. The anti-union foundation alleges the UAW fooled and pressured workers into supporting the works council.  The UAW told Reuters the charges were "frivolous and baseless."

- Cedric Gina, president of the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa, and a South African labor delegation visited UAW headquarters in Canton, Miss., last week and met with workers at the Nissan plant there to get a better idea of those workers' struggles to get a union election at the 5,200-worker plant.  "We think this is not supposed to be happening in a so-called First World country, a so-called bastion of democracy," said Gina about Nissan anti-union tactics such as one-on-one meetings between management and workers warning of plant closures and lost jobs. NUMSA represents 325,000 workers in South Africa, including 2,000 Nissan workers near Pretoria. "This is really a shame. People in authority must be ashamed that a Japanese company has come and is allowed to exploit people in their own state, in their own country."

- The recent federal government shutdown in Washington, D.C., can be largely blamed on Southern conservatives in Congress, more and more analysts are saying. According to Zack Beauchamp in ThinkProgress, the U.S. House count of Southern Republicans on last week's re-opening of government was 73 voting "No" and 18 voting "Yes". The Southern accent at Tea Party gatherings is strong, even dominant, and it validates something I said in my 2008 book, Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press: "The South's political, business, religious and journalistic elite" continue to wage a civil war, and it's against working people. The regular folks among the Tea Party ranks sadly don't realize they're fighting a war against themselves. They hate government, but just try to take away their Social Security and Medicare. The South has always had plenty of people who work against their own interests. After all, this is the same South that South Carolina's John C. Calhoun rallied together in the failed "nullification" campaign of the 1830s, when he wanted Southern states to be able to override federal laws. It took another Southerner, President Andrew Jackson, to nullify the "nullification" effort.

Lots going on in the South these days, and the more things change, the more they stay the same!

(On a different note: Below is a feature column of mine that was recently published in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss. It's about a fellow Southerner and diehard liberal whom I call The Last of the Letter Writers.)    

OXFORD, Miss. – The letters from Edwards, Miss., began arriving around 11 years ago.

The penmanship was a big, wild scrawl not always easy to read. Jumping off those pages, however, was the passion of the writer.

“There will be unions in the South in time because it is right,” lawyer and former journalist Sander P. “Sandy” Margolis wrote in one of them, responding to a column of mine about unions and the raw deal working-class people get.


I miss getting those letters. Sandy Margolis, the last of the letter writers, died at age 74 two years ago last month. His had been a long illness, and the letters had stopped long before. Still, I knew, as long as Sandy Margolis was breathing, things like justice, truth and honor had a champion.

A Virginia native, he came from a Jewish immigrant family with roots in Lithuania. A grandfather lived in South Africa, and an uncle once wrote for the Yiddish newspaper, the Jewish Forward, in New York. His parents struggled during the Depression. His father lacked education and lost his job, but “FDR’s New Deal gave him hope for employment and a better life.” They lost family members to the Holocaust.

In the Margolis household, politics and social justice were part of the regular conversation.

“My father … saw through Nixon’s `Southern Strategy’ in 1968. He remembered when LBJ said after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that `we’ve lost the South.’ But my father never let racism dishonor his soul.”

Sandy studied at the University of Virginia and Notre Dame and got his law degree at Ole Miss.  He worked as a liberal reporter and columnist in political boss Harry Byrd’s Virginia during the time of  “massive resistance” to racial integration. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, United Auto Workers leader Walter Reuther and many thousands of others in the 1963 March on Washington.

He wrote columns for different newspapers, worked as a lawyer, and until he became ill fired off letters to the editor—perhaps the last place in the world where people still actually write letters.

Ah, those letters! Whether to me or to a newspaper they were full of fire. After Republican Haley Barbour’s election as governor in 2003—a campaign in which Barbour brandished his state flag lapel pin with its Confederate insignia and allowed his image on the ultra-right-wing Committee of Conservative Citizens’ Web site--Sandy said this in a letter to the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger:  “He orchestrated a racist campaign. He knew that playing the ‘race card’ works in Mississippi. … Will Haley Barbour now seek the way of honor and apologize to African Americans for his campaign methods?”

Those words produced an outcry. Another letter writer responded angrily by linking Sandy with columnist Bill Minor and yours truly as three “hysterical” liberals unable to cope with Barbour’s victory. Sandy said he was proud to be in such company.

The Margolis pen was just as sharp in a column as in a personal letter. “The promotion of extreme corporate wealth and favoritism is corrupting and corroding the bedrock institutions of our republic,” he wrote in a piece for the alternative publication Planet Weekly in 2004. “Even the press and media, the sentinels of our liberty, are being subverted by corporate ownership and used as public relations and propaganda tools.”

Like the great crusading Jewish journalists Abraham Cahan, George Seldes and I.F. Stone, Sandy was an unabashed intellectual. His writings are replete with quotes—Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Edmund Burke, Lewis Carroll, William Faulkner.


Although proud of his Jewish heritage, he admitted he was “not a formally religious person.” Yet, he said, “we must treat every human being as a child of God, with justice, mercy and love.”

His wife Alice and his daughters Kate and Amanda keep his memory alive. And now maybe I’m helping a little, too. A postcard from Sandy and Alice hangs on the wall next to my desk, and I’ll never forget what they wrote. “We believe you have a Jewish heart because you believe in justice and truth and honor.”

No letter has ever pleased me more than that card.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Nissan's Canton, Miss., plant violates the international labor standards the company promised to uphold, report says

(Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn at the India Economic Summit in 2009. Photograph by Matthew Jordaan)

Nissan, a company with headquarters in Yokohama, Japan, a Brazilian-born CEO who divides his time between Japan and France, and plants around the world, including Canton, Miss., is in direct violation of international labor standards that it promised to uphold, an international labor law expert told reporters at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., today.

“Nissan has committed itself to … international standards,” said Lance Compa, author of Choosing Rights, a 46-page report on Nissan practices at its Canton plant. “Unfortunately Nissan is not living up to these international standards at the Canton plant. Nissan has engaged in a longstanding, aggressive campaign of interference with workers’ freedom of association.”

The report, commissioned by the United Auto Workers, includes a long litany of complaints from Nissan-Canton workers about a “Big Brother”-like atmosphere at the plant, where television screens in break areas broadcast repeated anti-union messages claiming the complicity of the UAW in the downfall of the nation’s Big Three automakers. The same message is hammered home again in intimidating and threatening one-on-one sessions with management.

The intimidation has only increased since the growth of a grassroots campaign calling for a union election at the plant over the past year, Compa said. Others at the press conference agreed.

Nissan-Canton worker Wade Cox, a 10-year veteran and production technician, said supervisors and even a vice president have joined in a chorus of union-bashing that includes threats that the 5,000-plus-worker plant will shut down if workers vote union. “They place fear in people’s hearts because of job security,” Cox said. “We’re just asking that we have this opportunity to have a fair and free election, free from intimidation and free from threats. Right now we don’t have a fair process. We ask that Nissan do better.”

According to the International Labor Organization’s 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and ILO Conventions 87 and 98, companies like Nissan that are members of the United Nations Global Compact are prohibited from “imposing pressure, instilling fear, and making threats” against workers seeking union representation, the report said.

These standards prohibit a company from “creating an atmosphere of intimidation and fear,” from “pressuring or threatening retaliatory measures against workers,” and from “denying reasonable access for workers to hear from union representatives inside the workplace.”

Nissan joined the UN Global Compact in 2004. Yet, in a Feb. 25 letter to Compa, Nissan officials said, “our understanding of the principles of freedom of association and the effective right to collective bargaining as defined at the international level is that it does not require companies like Nissan to abrogate or otherwise disregard rights available to it under national law.”

Furthermore, “international labor standards … do not apply to private enterprises like Nissan. Rather, they apply to governments, which then use them as guidance to structure national law.”

In other words, Nissan prefers the much more lax interpretation of rights available to workers under U.S. labor laws, laws that have been weakened after decades of conservative and corporate pressure.  Compa said at the press conference that U.S. labor law, for example, allows companies to “predict” plant closings or use other conditional language, language perfected by the anti-union attorneys and consultants hired by companies like Nissan as a tool to keep workers fearful of unions.

“This is psychological pressure that violates international standards,” Compa said. “It’s also unethical and unfair.”

In an interview last summer, Nissan spokesman Travis Parman said, “Our communications meetings with employees are not new. We continuously and routinely meet with our employees to openly discuss matters pertinent to our business.”

Compa said workers testified to hearing management claim repeatedly that Nissan is a non-union company even though its plants outside the United States are unionized. Furthermore, “captive audience meetings” such as those in Canton are prohibited at Nissan’s unionized Japanese plants. At Canton, the UAW has no opportunity to counter claims by Nissan management, another violation of international standards.

The situation at the Canton plant “is like a political race, and one candidate has a monopoly on television advertisement, and the other has to pass out flyers,” Compa said.

“Let us be fair with the only resource Mississippi has—people who are willing to work hard,” said Isiac Jackson Jr., a prominent Jackson, Miss.-area minister and chair of the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan, at the press conference. “Mississippi people work hard, and they (Nissan) discovered they can work cheap.”

Jackson decried the growing use of “temporary” workers at the Nissan-Canton plant. These workers earn just half the wages of fulltime workers.

The report calls on Nissan to give full compliance with the international labor standards it agreed to uphold and to allow workers the right to a free and fair opportunity to consider whether they want to join a union.