Friday, November 29, 2013

Walmart protests, South African pressure on Nissan, child labor in the tobacco fields, and taxpayers subsidizing fast-food profits - the latest Labor South round-up

This latest Labor South round-up finds Arkansas-based Walmart all prepped for its big sales extravaganza but also facing demonstrations across the country protesting its Scrooge-like treatment of its workers, labor leaders in South Africa promising to pressure Nissan there to treat Southern workers better, and new reports on child labor in North Carolina’s tobacco fields and how taxpayers subsidize fast-food industry profits.

Walmart’s Black Friday

Just weeks after the National Labor Relations Board found Walmart in violation of labor laws by punishing workers for striking or trying to join a union, the retail giant faces protests across the country on the biggest shopping day of the year, today, November 29, also known as “Black Friday”.

The Arkansas-based company expects to rake in plenty of profits from hordes of shoppers, but protesters in cities across the country, including the South, will also be reminding those shoppers that more than a million Walmart workers are forced to work on this day, most of them at bottom-level wages and minimal benefits. In the meantime, the Walton family can comfortably watch its $144 billion pile of personal gold grow.

“These big-box stores are killing mom-and-pop shops, profiting off our local dollars, and then they can’t even pay their workers enough to pay the rent and put food on the table?” said Jess Morales of the national AFL-CIO in a press release. “We can’t let them get away with that.”

South African union members plan to put pressure on Nissan

According to a recent United Auto Workers Solidarity report, South African labor leader Cedric Gina, who was also interviewed by Labor South after a recent visit to Mississippi, said he and other union activists in South Africa will “raise the issue of why the company is interfering with its American workers’ right to form a union,” and they “will demand that the next meeting” of Nissan corporate and labor leaders “be held in Mississippi or Tennessee.”

Nissan’s South African plant is unionized, as are other Nissan plants across the world. However, the auto giant has fought organizing efforts at its plants in Smyrna, Tenn., and Canton, Miss.

Nissan workers in South Africa even won a corporate agreement in 2010 to ban the use of brokers or agencies that hire temporary workers, a huge issue at the Nissan plant in Canton.

Meanwhile, an anti-union campaign by major right-wing groups is gearing up and targeting UAW efforts at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Nissan plant in Canton. In These Times magazine recently reported on leaked documents indicating Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform has committed huge amounts of cash to fighting unionization in the South. The National Right-to-Work Legal Defense Foundation and Center for Union Facts are also involved in the campaign. In a recent op-ed piece for the Huntsville Times in Alabama, Center for Union Facts Executive Director Richard Berman brought out the same old tired tirade about labor bosses only wanting to organize workers so that they, the bosses, can continue to live in luxury from union dues. You’d think the anti-unionists could come up with something original after all these years!

Child labor in the tobacco fields

As a young boy growing up in central North Carolina, I worked many summers in the tobacco fields owned by my cousins. One year my father and a cousin leased a handful of acres for tobacco, and I was able to witness and partake in the entire process of growing and harvesting tobacco. We planted, topped (removing the flowers and tops that drain the plant’s energy), pulled suckers, primed (harvested), and hung the tobacco in barns. I did this in my teen years.

Federal labor laws have long allowed child labor in family-run farms. However, family-run farms today often are partnered with agribusiness giants, and those children working in the fields are likely to be poverty-stricken migrants from Mexico or further south.

A compelling report by writer Gabriel Thompson in The Nation magazine in November revealed widespread use of children on North Carolina’s tobacco farms. The state’s 90,000 migrant farmworkers do much of the fieldwork today, and they’re exposed to nicotine poisoning that can be potentially debilitating. A worker in a tobacco field in summer is daily exposed to nicotine levels that are the same as smoking a pack-and-a-half of cigarettes, Thompson reported.

Modern-day tobacco workers are exposed to pesticides and other hazards that endanger their health, particularly if they’re children. Monsanto and other companies have fought congressional efforts to provide better protection for these workers, much like Southern legislators in the 1930s worked hard to keep farm workers exempt from labor laws.

Russia, Kazakhstan and other countries have passed laws banning children from working in tobacco fields, Thompson reported. Ironically, the United States government has even given millions of dollars to efforts to ban such child labor in the country of Malawi.

Subsidizing fast-food profits

A recent editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch blasted the fast-food industry for low wages and benefits that have resulted in a $7 billion taxpayer annual subsidy to the industry.

“Seven billion dollars a year is what it costs taxpayers for Medicaid, food stamps and the other public assistance programs for fast-food workers who are paid poverty wages,” the editorial said.

The editorial cited a study by University of Illinois and University of California economists that said taxpayers last year funded $1.2 billion in assistance to workers at McDonald’s, a company that reported $1.5 billion in third-quarter profits.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Modern-day Southern "nullifiers" continue a tradition going back to John C. Calhoun and later Strom Thurmond

(To the left is the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C.)

Way back in 1988, I sat across from Strom Thurmond in his Capitol Hill office in Washington, D.C., and listened as he explained his opposition to federal anti-lynching laws and any other federal encroachment on states’ rights during his long career.

“I felt it was dangerous to shift it all to Washington,” the then-85-year-old U.S. senator and former Dixiecrat presidential candidate from South Carolina told me.  “Lynching was nothing but murder. All states had laws against murder. … I’ve never had any feelings against minorities.”

Never mind that Thurmond, who died at 101 in 2003, led the Dixiecrat revolt out of the Democratic Party in 1948 and into the Republican Party in the 1960s largely as a reaction against civil rights legislation. Never mind that he was a segregationist superstar during much of the civil rights movement.

Thurmond’s disdain for the federal government that provided him a paycheck through much of his life was in classic Southern tradition. As far back as the 1830s, another South Carolinian, John C. Calhoun, led the so-called “nullification” effort to allow states to “nullify” federal laws on tariffs and other issues. It took a fellow Southerner, President Andrew Jackson, to put the lid on that campaign after sending troops down to Charleston.

The tradition is going strong today. Southern conservatives in Congress deserve much of the blame for the recent federal government shutdown that cost the economy $24 billion. In the U.S. House vote to re-open government, 73 Southern Republicans voted “No” and only 18 voted “Yes,” according to Zack Beauchamp in ThinkProgress. The much-talked-about Tea Party leading the charge against government speaks with a decidedly Southern accent.

Yet who have these Southern leaders represented through the years? Calhoun and his fellow nullifiers risked civil war in large part to defend planters worried that higher tariffs would cost them British customers for their cotton. Three decades later, hundreds of thousands of Southern farm boys went to war to defend the right of those same planters to own slaves.

When Thurmond and his vice-presidential candidate, Fielding Wright of Mississippi, led the Dixiecrat ticket in 1948, a major plank in their platform was opposition to organized labor. Like their predecessors, their hot-button issue may have been race, but they were also determined to protect the interests of the Southern business and political elite.

Today, the Tea Party rank and file rants against the federal government, but just try to take their Social Security and Medicare away from them. Thanks to the demonization of not only Uncle Sam but also labor unions by Fox News and its counterparts here in Mississippi and elsewhere, the progeny of those same Southern farm boys who fought for slavery think they now have to fight for the rights of business owners and corporate CEOs to enrich themselves at the expense of a docile and voiceless workforce.

A South African delegation led by Cedric Gina, president of the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa, visited the Jackson, Miss., area recently and was shocked at the uphill fight Nissan workers in Canton, Miss., have to wage just to exercise their legal right to a union election. “We think this is not supposed to be happening in a so-called First World country, a so-called bastion of democracy,” Gina told me in a telephone interview. “To be so fearful, the workers, with no intervention. This is not supposed to be happening.”

NUMSA represents 325,000 workers in South Africa, including 2,000 Nissan employees near Pretoria.

Workers at the Nissan plant in Canton say they have been subjected to repeated meetings with managers who threaten a plant closure and lost jobs if they opt to join the United Auto Workers. Although well paid by Mississippi’s low standards, most of them have gone years without a pay raise and are subjected to arbitrary decisions by management on health and pension benefit changes, work hours, and working conditions.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has gone on record saying he supports outside groups that help keep unions out of his state.  He’s probably happy now that the Virginia-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation has issued a special notice to Nissan workers in Canton warning them of the horrors of joining together and speaking with a united voice.

After a majority of workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., indicated their support for a company-and-union-backed, German-style works council at the plant, the same foundation filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging UAW coercion. The UAW says the claims are ridiculous.

A thread that runs through Southern history even stronger than race is class. The ruling class in the South doesn’t tolerate challenges to its rule well—whether that challenge comes from united black people or from united working people.

(This column ran earlier in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss.)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A "Crimmigration" conference, Walmart on the dole in Mississippi, and Kellogg locks out Memphis workers

It’s time for another Labor South roundup, and this one tells of the upcoming “Crimmigration” conference sponsored by the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance (MIRA), a report by the Good Jobs First organization on how the nation’s poorest state has shelled out $27.1 million to the Walmart corporation in addition to more than $750 million in subsidies to Nissan and Toyota, and Kellogg’s lockout of hundreds of union workers in Memphis.


The 7th annual MIRA and Southern Christian Leadership Conference “Unity Conference” will feature speakers and panel discussions on “Crimmigration: The Tragic Consequences of US Drug Policies on Families and Youth”.

The conference will take place in Jackson, Miss., Nov. 15 and 16 and include a keynote address by Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, and also feature Javier Sicillia, poet and leader of the Mexican Movement for Peace and Justice.

MIRA has worked tirelessly for years on behalf of immigrants in Mississippi and along the Gulf Coast. By developing a close coalition with the Black Legislative Caucus and white moderates and liberals, the organization has been successful in keeping draconian anti-immigrant legislation from becoming law in Mississippi. This is despite the fact that Republicans dominate both houses of the state Legislature and Mississippi’s Republican governor, Phil Bryant, owes his political success in part to his demagoguery of the immigration issue.

The nation’s poorest state has plenty of cash for corporations on the dole

In its report “AccountableUSA”, the Good Jobs First organization, a self-proclaimed “resource for grassroots groups and public officials seeking to make economic development subsidies more accountable and effective,” says state and local governments in Mississippi have given $27.1 million in subsidies to 13 or more Walmart locations in the state. This is in addition to the three-quarters of a billion dollars Mississippi gave away in subsidy packages to land and nurture Nissan and Toyota automobile plants.

“Many Wal-Mart workers are ineligible for health coverage from their employer or choose not to purchase what is available, because it is too expensive or too limited in scope,” Good Jobs First reports. “These workers often turn to taxpayer-funded health programs such as Medicaid.”

Good Jobs First made news in Mississippi back in May when it reported that state and local governments have actually provided more than $1.3 billion in subsidies to the Nissan plant in Canton alone since 2000. This includes the $363 million subsidy package awarded by the state Legislature plus a wide range of other subsidies, amounting to the equivalent of $290,000 per job at the plant.

Kellogg locks out workers, idling hundreds in Memphis

 The cereal-making giant Kellogg, based in Battle Creek, Mich., has locked out 220 workers at its plant in Memphis after failing to win union approval of its plan to hire new “casual” workers at what will likely be reduced wages and to change production scheduling as well as staffing.

The Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union has filed a charge of unfair labor practices against the company. The lockout does not extend to Kellogg’s plant in Rossville, Tenn. The lockout affects Memphis because of the expiration of the previous agreement at that plant.

Kellogg’s Memphis plant produces Apple Jacks, Froot Loops and other cereals. It announced plans to lay off 70 workers at the plant back in April. Kellogg profits totaled $352 million for the quarter ending June 29, up $28 million from the same period last year.