Friday, January 31, 2014

Pete Seeger knew the answer to the question: "Which Side Are You On?"

(Pete Seeger performing at a CIO labor canteen in Washington, D.C., in 1944, with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the audience.)

Roots music fans across the country are mourning the recent death of American folk music hero Pete Seeger at the ripe old age of 94, and many of them, like me, are thinking about their favorite Seeger songs. It’s a huge body of work.

For me, there’s not much question. It’s not a Pete Seeger original, but the Seeger-led Almanac Singers’ version of Florence Reece’s Which Side Are You On? (from a 1955 collection--not sure when it was recorded) wins hands-down. It’s a haunting version, made more so by the slow, percolating sound of Seeger’s banjo in the background.

Don’t scab for the bosses
Don’t listen to their lies
Us poor folks haven’t got a chance
Unless we organize

Seeger’s long life stretched across modern labor history in this country, and he was a major champion of the movement, celebrating its music as well as its stand for the working man and woman. Seeger kept alive a tradition that goes back to the anthem of the French Revolution, La Marseillaise, and the Paris Commune, L’Internationale, across the ocean to Wobbly troubadour Joe Hill at the turn of the last century and Reece’s 1931 hymn to striking coal miners in Harlan Country, Kentucky. Also in that tradition is Sarah Ogan’s bitter indictment of rabid, unhinged capitalism in the 1944 ballad Come All You Coal Miners (recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax).

Seeger performed at rallies for the Congress of Industrial Organizations, worked with Lomax on a book of protest and workers’ songs in the late 1930s, sang and raised hell with balladeer Woody Guthrie, joined the American Communist Party for a time, got in trouble with the House for Un-American Activities Committee and was found guilty of contempt of Congress by that less-than-august body. He and his 1950s group The Weavers were banned from the television show Hootenanny in the early 1960s even though that show ostensibly championed folk music.

Seeger was the connection between those earlier traditions and a later generation of labor and folk-singing musicians like Joe Glazer and Anne Feeney. Rock ‘n’ Rollers like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello pay homage to Seeger’s legacy in their music.

Working people had a champion in Pete Seeger. They’ve always needed music to articulate things banners and speeches aren’t always able to say. Seeger knew that, and he provided a heck of a lot of that music. We’ll be hearing it for a long time to come.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Cereal maker Kellogg's union-busting in Memphis would make "Boss" Crump happy

(E. H. "Boss" Crump of Memphis in 1949)

Memphis, Tenn., is the city where political strongman E. H. “Boss” Crump launched what labor historian Michael Honey called a “Reign of Terror” in 1940 against efforts by the Congress of Industrial Organizations to organize the giant Firestone Tire and Rubber Company.

Police raids, beatings, arrests, and unprovoked street confrontations of blacks across the city succeeded in preventing the CIO from successfully organizing workers. One union activist, Robert Cotton, became one of Memphis’ “disappeared.”

Fifteen years later, the South’s leading segregationists—among them, Strom Thurmond and Mendel Rivers of South Carolina, “Big Jim” Eastland of Mississippi, Leander Perez of Louisiana and Herman Talmadge of Georgia—met in the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis to organize the Federation  for Constitutional Government. They declared war against union organizers as well as civil rights activists.

And, of course, in 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. lost his life in Memphis after supporting the city’s striking sanitation workers.

Today Memphis is against a center of labor strife as hundreds of workers protest their months-long lockout by the Battle Creek, Mich.-based cereal-making giant Kellogg. The workers, members of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union, refused to approve a company plan to cut wages and benefits as well as hire new “casual” workers at lower pay.

The 200-plus locked-out workers, an estimated 60 percent of whom are black, say production of Frosted Flakes, Corn Flakes, and Froot Loops has dropped to less than half. Still, the company has brought in scabs to replace the workers, and it insists that production is keeping pace with consumer demand.

This is yet another example of a company trying to join its Wall Street brethren in busting unions and lowering pay and benefits for workers in the process. Kellogg profits totaled $352 million for the quarter ending last June, up $28 million from the same period the previous year.

The lockout focused on Memphis because the company’s contract agreement with workers there expired last October. The lockout does not extend to the Kellogg plant in Rossville, Tenn.

Meanwhile, the Memphis workers are marching and protesting in freezing temperatures, and the company has cut their health care and life insurance benefits.

Citizens in Memphis are showing their support for the workers, however. An online petition has gained some 8,500 signatures, and hundreds rallied at the plant in November in a show of solidarity.

I know that I, for one, am not eating another bowl of any Kellogg cereals until the workers get fair treatment.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Nelson Mandela and Jesse Helms: A South African hero and a Southern mossback

(Here's one more look at the late Nelson Mandela and the Southern senator who dismissed him as a communist. This was published recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss.)

(Nelson Mandela in 2008)

When Nelson Mandela spoke to the U.S. Congress on June 26, 1990, the godfather of modern-day Republican obstructionism, the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, wasn’t in the chamber.

I was there as a reporter, but “Senator No” was protesting. “Before we get his halo in place too securely, let’s examine this guy,” Helms groused.

Of course, Helms had made up his mind about the man who led the fight for freedom against apartheid rule in South Africa. Helms called Mandela a “communist,” much like he called Martin Luther King Jr. a communist, and he opposed sanctions against South Africa like he opposed civil rights legislation and a holiday named after King.

Helms missed a good speech. It came just four months after Mandela’s release from 27 years in prison. Mandela died last month at the age of 95.

Echoing King’s speech in the 1963 March on Washington, Mandela said South Africa “has known nothing but racism for three centuries,” but it could become “an oasis of good race relations, where the black shall to the white be sister and brother, a fellow South African, an equal human being.”

Mandela even invoked King in his speech, citing him along with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass and others as having inspired South African freedom fighters in their “struggle to guarantee the people life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

(To the right, Jesse Helms)

If Ol’ Jesse were alive today, what would he say about his philosophical successor, Tea Party hero and Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas? “Nelson Mandela will live in history as an inspiration for defenders of liberty around the globe,” Cruz posted on his Facebook page Dec. 4. “Because of his epic fight against injustice, an entire nation is now free.”

Cruz has since caught hell from supporters even farther to the right than he is. Still, Cruz is no hero. Had he been a senator back in Helms’ day, he would have fought side-by-side with the owlish North Carolinian, raising Cain about commies in both the U.S. South and South Africa. It’s easy to praise someone after he’s safely entombed in the grave.

 Helms wasn’t the only conservative of his day who held contempt for Nelson Mandela. President Ronald Reagan, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and then-Congressman and future Vice President Dick Cheney all preferred racist, white-ruled South Africa and apartheid to Mandela and his African National Congress.

The world rightly mourns the death of a great leader in Mandela. Again much like King, he took his stand at a time when non-racist rule in his homeland seemed impossible. King spent time behind bars, and so did Mandela, nearly three decades of it. He even refused a pardon in 1985 when the condition for it was a renunciation of violence in the cause for freedom.

Like King, Mandela once believed nonviolence was the way to end racism, but the South African government’s own brutality convinced him the ANC had to arm itself and wage combat if it was to succeed. In the end, however, it was Mandela’s genius at negotiation and vision of a nonracial future, not violence, that won the day. He proved Mao Zedong was wrong when the old revolutionary insisted that “in order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun.”

The struggle, of course, goes on, both in South Africa and here at home. Mandela helped end apartheid, but deep poverty continues. One out of every four South Africans is jobless. Racism in the U.S. South is no longer officially sanctioned, but blacks continue to be the poorest in what is still the nation’s poorest region.

At the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, public protests by churches and groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Students for a Democratic Society and the Congress of Racial Equality forced Chase Manhattan and other major banks to withdraw some $40 million in financial support for South Africa’s white government.

Yet major banks today continue to be on the wrong side in social justice issues. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee’s divestment campaign against JP Morgan Chase for its support of Reynolds American finally forced the tobacco company in 2012 to agree to meet with FLOC regarding serious health and other issues among migrant workers in the tobacco fields.

Back in 1990, Mandela told Congress that he hoped the poor would never point a finger of accusation “at all of us because we failed to respond to the cries of the people for food, for shelter, for the dignity of the individual.” Mandela heard their cries. Who does today?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Fighting the "Spirits of Darkness" in 2014: Insight from a 16th century magician

(To the right: Cornelius Agrippa)

The 16th century German occult writer and magician Cornelius Agrippa had this to say about those of us suffering from chilly climes these days:

“As the Spirits of Darkness be stronger in the dark, so Good Spirits, which be Angels of Light, are augmented not only by the Divine Light of the Sun, but also be our common Wood Fire: and as the Celestial Fire drives away dark spirits, so also this our Fire of Wood doth the same.”

The American poet John Greenleaf Whittier used this quote to begin his famous poem, Snow-bound, a fitting way to begin Labor South’s journey into 2014. Aren’t we all hovering near the fire—be it wood, gas or electric—these days to keep warm as we prepare for the challenges of the New Year?

On the labor front, economists are warning that the U.S. income gap is threatening the nation’s economy and future. The richest 10 percent of Americans control 80 percent of stock market wealth. Average income for the middle 20 percent of Americans has risen just 5 percent over the past 20 years. For the richest 5 percent of Americans, income has jumped 17 percent.

Other than securing votes on election day, Republicans could care less about average Americans.  Their solution to our national ills is simple: reduce all spending except for corporate welfare and military contractors. Those out of a job and unemployment benefits need to look for the nearest breadline. To those with no health insurance, just don’t get sick. As for immigration, more fences, more border patrol, and more prisons should take care of it.

Let’s not let Democrats off the hook. Following in the footsteps of his NAFTA-loving predecessor Bill Clinton, President Obama is pushing a similar trade deal with Vietnam and other Asian nations so U.S. corporations, frustrated with rising wages in China, can now go elsewhere to find the bottom-feeders whose sweatshops and slave wages make that 10 percent of Americans who control 80 percent of stock market wealth happy.

 But “Angels of Light” are out there fighting these spirits of darkness. Organized labor is reaching across international borders today, joining with counterparts in other nations and making a difference. Rising wages in China are a result of a vocal workforce tired of getting next to nothing for doing the dirty work of rich corporations. Unions like the United Auto Workers are working closely with unions in Germany, South Africa, Japan and other countries to put pressure on international corporations like Volkswagen and Nissan. Migrant worker organizations both here in the United States and around the world are giving voice to the most downtrodden of modern-day workers.

It’s going to be an exciting year—full of challenge, with some losses and hopefully some big victories. Dig in your heels, join the Angels of Light, and let the “Celestial Fire” keep you warm and full of passion as it “drives away dark spirits”!