Friday, February 28, 2014

Pro-union Nissan worker in Mississippi: The UAW-VW vote in Chattanooga only "made us stronger"

(To the right is a picture of the 1963 March on Washington with the late United Auto Workers leader Walter Reuther third from the right. Photo by Rowland Scherman of the U.S. Information Agency)

Chip Wells, 43, an 11-year veteran at the 5,200-employee Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., says the recent bad news coming out of the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., did nothing to deter him and fellow pro-union Nissan workers from their campaign to join the United Auto Workers.

“People think that derailed us,” says Wells, who works in Nissan’s paint department, “but we think it made us stronger. That plant (in Chattanooga) was only opened for two years. They’re still in the honeymoon phase.”

The UAW “made some mistakes and they realize it,” he says. “The demographics were different. Here labor rights are civil rights, actually human rights.”

Wells expects a union election at Nissan’s Canton plant by this summer.  UAW President Bob King has tied his legacy to organizing in the South, and he plans to step down in June.

Wells says he traveled to Chattanooga to witness the Valentine’s Day 712-626 vote rejecting UAW representation at the Volkswagen plant. “When we got there, they’d lost by 43 or however many there were. Some were crying. To me, they took it too hard. We don’t need to be feeling like this.”

Despite its closeness, the vote at the 1,560-worker Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga was called “a devastating loss that derails the United Auto Workers union’s effort to organize Southern factories,” by the Associated Press. The New York Times called it a “stinging defeat” for the UAW. Others talked of a “fatal blow” to UAW hopes to organize the foreign auto plants in the South.

What’s missing from this picture is the nine-year-old campaign in Canton that has grown from small gatherings of activists, organizers, and a handful of courageous workers in 2005 to rallies of hundreds at local churches and college auditoriums. Caravans of workers, students and activists have traveling to trade shows across the country and as far away as South Africa and Brazil, where national labor leaders have pledged their support.

Even beyond Nissan in Canton, the UAW has an active campaign at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala., where, as with the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, the potential exists to establish a German-style works council with the UAW representing workers on key issues such as wages, benefits and working conditions.

In Chattanooga, the UAW should have insisted on more time to establish a firm foundation of community support that would withstand the inevitable anti-union political-business-media juggernaut. U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and outside groups like Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform led a virulent campaign warning of lost jobs, plant closings and a Detroit-like future if the UAW won.

The UAW underestimated the forces aligned against it. The union figured that Volkswagen’s own willingness to allow a fair election and creation of a German-style works council at the plant was sufficient to ensure victory. The UAW was wrong.

Mississippi is different.

The workers who voted in Chattanooga were predominantly white in a Republican stronghold in a Republican-dominated state. Mississippi is also Republican-ruled, but the Nissan plant has an 80-percent black workforce and is located near the capital city of Jackson, one of the state’s few Democratic strongholds. Then there’s the legacy of civil rights in Mississippi.

“The politicians are going to get involved, and it is going to be ugly,” Well says. “Down here in the South this is a mindset. This is the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. They didn’t like people coming in from the outside to tell them how to do their business. They look at the UAW the same way.”

Indeed, the summer of 2014 will mark the 50th anniversary of the murders of civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney in Neshoba County, Miss. Goodman and Schwerner came to Mississippi as part of a wave of young idealists hoping to help establish freedom and democracy during what became known as “Freedom Summer”. Chaney was a native Mississippian and the only black among the three.

“Labor Right Are Civil Rights” was the banner carried by a delegation of preachers, activists and workers from Canton to the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit. That slogan has inspired a network of students at historically black colleges and universities who are constantly working their computers and IPhones to build support for a union election at the Nissan plant.

“Our movement is moving,” says Hayat Mohammad, a 19-year-old English major at predominantly black Tougaloo College near Jackson and a leader of the Mississippi Student Justice Alliance. “We have such amazing talent—photographers, journalists—such active young people. Nissan is feeling the pressure.”

What the workers in Canton and Chattanooga face is what workers face all across the South. Yet union campaigns were successful at places such as Smithfield Foods in North Carolina in recent years and, decades before, with the textile giant J.P. Stevens in North Carolina.  The Farm Labor Organizing Committee and Coalition of Immokalee Workers have also won better wages and conditions for migrant workers in North Carolina and Florida. These campaigns were all hard-fought and took years.

“You’ve got to train your local leaders, get your core group together and train them,” veteran Southern labor organizer Danny Forsyth once told me in an interview. “Whenever I left town, the local leadership could do what was necessary to do.”

Forsyth knows what he’s talking about. Over a four-year period in the 1980s, he helped secure 20 victories out of 22 campaigns in the South. That includes the successful battle to establish a union at the giant Pillowtex textile mill in Kannapolis, N.C., in 1999.

The best organizing is from the ground up, Forsyth said, and it utilizes the same methods espoused by famed community organizer Saul Alinsky. Workers learn where they fit in vis-à-vis the existing power structure in a plant and see they have power, too. Community is key to organizing, Forsyth said.

A workers’ organizing committee has a firm foothold at the Nissan-Canton plant, Chip Wells says. “We are fighting for each other. We love each other. We’ve gotten to know each other, really become friends from not even knowing each other a couple years ago. If something happens to one, we all get behind each other.”

Anti-union pressures inside the Canton plant continue, Wells says. Plant leaders no longer subject workers to the anti-union videos that were once a staple, but they still “tell us how many plants (the UAW) closed down, insinuate things.”

Unlike Volkswagen, Nissan has given no indication that it will allow a fair, intimidation-free election at the Canton plant. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has been a vocal opponent of unions at his company’s Southern plants.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, has already publicly invited outside groups to come in and help fight unions at the auto plants in his state. He and other Republican leaders can be expected to do what Haslam and Corker did in Tennessee.

“It is our blood, sweat and tears that is in these vehicles,” Nissan worker Wells says. “We are prepared for the politicians.”

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Locked-out Kellogg worker in Memphis: Company leaders "don't care about our families."

(Locked-out Kellogg workers protest in Memphis. McGowen is on the left, Steve Lamar on the right.)

(Labor South will have more to say about the recent UAW-VW election in coming days. However, interviews with locked-out Kellogg workers in Memphis this weekend show that Southern people will stand by mistreated workers and union members despite recent interpretations of that vote in Chattanooga.)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Robert McGowen, a 23-year-veteran at the Kellogg plant in Memphis, Tenn., waved to another passing carload of people beeping their support of the protest taking place on Airways Boulevard.

“I’m totally amazed at what Memphis has done,” said McGowen, who worked in Kellogg’s packing department until last October, when he and more than 200 other workers were locked out by the company over a labor contract dispute. “They’ve been supplying us with food. The whole community has been supportive.”

Carrying a sign proclaiming “It’s about Job Security”, McGowen and a handful of other workers stood in front of the plant Saturday continuing a protest that has been ongoing since the Oct. 22 lockout, four long months that have included subfreezing temperatures, hard rains, and dwindling family budgets since the company stopped medical, vision and dental benefits.

Locked-out worker Steve Lamar, an electrician with 27 years of experience at Kellogg, said his wife recently suffered a brain aneurysm that he blames on stress from Kellogg’s actions. “They’re hurting our families,” he said. “They don’t care about our families.”

Community support has included a call by political and religious leaders in Memphis for a full-scale national boycott of Kellogg products until the lockout ends. Backing the workers and the boycott are organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Congress of Racial Equality. An online petition on behalf of the workers has gained thousands of signatures.

An estimated 60 percent of the 226 locked-out workers are black.

The Battle Creek, Mich.-based cereal-making giant’s CEO and president, John Bryant, gets much of the blame. Bryant took over leadership of the company in 2011. McGowen and other members of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union said they always got along well with Kellogg management until Bryant’s take-no-prisoners approach to union negotiations.

The union refused to approve a company plan to cut wages and benefits as well as hire new “casual” workers at lower pay. The lockout focused on Memphis because the company’s contract agreement with workers there expired in October. The lockout does not extend to the Kellogg plant in Rossville, Tenn.

McGowen said the contract disagreement was about fundamental “master issues” that the union local simply couldn’t concede.

The workers 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.

Kellogg reported a profit margin of nearly 24 percent for the quarter ending December 31, 2013, more than double the profit margin of the previous quarter. In an earlier report, it showed profits totaling $352 million for the quarter ending last June, up $28 million from the same period the previous year. CEO Bryant’s salary is roughly $6.6 million a year.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Corker & crowd can uncork their champagne over the UAW loss in Chattanooga, but another battle looms ahead in Canton, Miss., where workers are less likely to buy their bogus claims

More than a dozen billboards around Chattanooga, Tenn, screamed the same message: Workers! Vote “NO!” to having a voice in your workday lives! The United Auto Workers is only a cover for the “United Obama Workers”, one of the billboards said.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into Chattanooga from far-off Washington, D.C., and the bottomless pockets of Grover Norquist and his right-wing Americans for Tax Reform to preach the gospel that jobs go only to docile, voiceless workers in the modern-day economy. It was the local branch of Norquist’s organization, called the Center for Worker Freedom (Goebbels would admire the cynicism in such a title) that financed the billboards.

Republican politicians in Tennessee were practically apoplectic that Volkswagen managers were not joining them in the campaign to prevent  the 1,500 workers at the company’s Chattanooga plant from signing up with the UAW. U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who bitterly opposed federal assistance to the domestic auto industry at the height of the Great Recession, warned that Volkswagen’s leaders could become a “laughingstock” if they didn’t start behaving like corporate executives are supposed to behave. Like, say, Nissan’s anti-union chief Carlos Ghosn.

Back in 2001, just prior to an election at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., Ghosn warned employees that a pro-union vote was “not in your best interest." Workers heeded his threat and rejected the union.

Corker resorted to boldfaced lying. Volkswagen will only expand its plant if workers reject the UAW, Corker said. Even after Frank Fisher, CEO of Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant, said the claim was untrue, Corker still refused to step back from his concoction.

State Sen. Bo Watson emerged from the Chattanooga suburbs to make his own public claim that the Republican legislature in Tennessee will not grant incentives to a unionized plant to expand and add jobs. In other words, Tennessee’s political leaders would rather kill jobs than accept a union.

In its ongoing crusade to destroy unions everywhere, the National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation, Inc., provided lawyers to several hand-picked Volkswagen workers to make a claim before the National Labor Relations Board of illegal pro-union coercion by the company.

 On Valentine’s Day Friday, workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant voted 712 to 626 against joining the UAW and thus rejected the establishment of a German-style works council that would have given them a voice on wages, benefits and workplace conditions.

On Monday, those workers will go back to the plant, line up along the assembly lines, and do their jobs quietly, knowing they have no voice and will have none even if they have something to say.

Back in Washington, Grover Norquist and Bob Corker can uncork a bottle of champagne and enjoy the restful silence coming out of Chattanooga.

Drink heartily, gentlemen, because you and your union-hating friends like the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council may need to fortify yourselves for another battle looming ahead.

That battle will take place at the giant Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., where the UAW has spent years laying a foundation much stronger than what it had in Chattanooga, a plant with a majority-black workforce less prone to pay a lot of attention to white politicians who only emerge from their suburban havens when they want to warn and threaten.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Union busters mounting assault in Chattanooga as Volkswagen workers prepare for UAW vote

Stay tuned as Labor South follows the huge battle unfolding  in Chattanooga with the Feb. 12-14 vote by Volkswagen plant workers on whether to join the United Auto Workers.

It's a very important election that could lead to the unionization of the first foreign-owned auto plant in the U.S. South. The UAW also has campaigns underway at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., and the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala.

Anti-union forces are mounting a huge effort against the UAW, backed by the deep financial pockets of hard-right outside groups that know a vote to unionize could open the door to a significant change in the South, the least-unionized region in the country.

It's interesting to note that powerful Southern politicians in Tennessee are joining the outside interest groups opposed to unionization even though Volkswagen itself is remaining neutral. They're scared to death a pro-union vote could shift a power structure that has been in place in the South since the Civil War. Out the window goes the old anti-union argument against "third parties" getting between the workers and management!

If Volkswagen workers vote union, that sets the stage for the establishment of a first-ever, German-style works council in the South and nation, giving workers and their union a voice at the table--albeit in a new configuration--on wages, benefits and other plant issues.

This is potentially a pivotal moment in Southern labor history.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Labor rights are civil rights: UAW vote next week at VW plant in Chattanooga; showdown looming at Nissan's Canton, Miss., plant

(This column, a version of which ran recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss., fleshes out some of the issues mentioned in Labor South's initial forecast for 2014)

A group of workers, preachers and activists traveled from Mississippi to Detroit recently to proclaim what should be a core issue of 2014. “Labor rights are civil rights,” Open Door Mennonite Church pastor Horace McMillon of Jackson told folks at the North American International Auto Show.

McMillon and other members of the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan were at the auto show to make their case that the thousands of workers at Nissan’s plant in Canton, Miss., deserve an opportunity to have an intimidation-free election to determine whether to join the United Auto Workers.

Meanwhile, more than 1,500 workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., will vote in a secret-ballot election Feb. 12-14 to determine whether they want to have UAW representation on wage and benefits issues. A German-style works council may also be established at the plant.  The company has promised to allow a fair election.

At the Canton, Miss., plant, however, a major showdown may be looming this year given that UAW president Bob King plans to step down in June. The South has been a key focus of his administration. Nissan has strongly resisted unionization at its Southern plants.

The vision of “labor rights” as “civil rights” reaches far beyond the UAW and auto plants in Mississippi and Tennessee, however.

For starters, look at the income gap between the rich and all the rest of us. The richest 10 percent of Americans control 80 percent of stock market wealth. Average income for the middle 20 percent of Americans is up less than 5 percent over the past 20 years. For the richest 5 percent of Americans, income has jumped 17 percent.

Mississippi and the nation are now struggling with rising prison costs yet why are so few of the bankers, auditors and Wall Street financiers who caused the 2008 Great Recession behind bars?

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress play politics with the unemployment benefits needed by 1.3 million jobless and fight a raise in the minimum wage. The poor can’t even get in the door. Republicans led the way in cutting food stamps for the poor by 7 percent. Mississippi and other Southern states will lose billions of dollars because of their GOP leadership’s refusal to expand Medicaid and accept the reality of Obamacare.

Yet expect Republicans to stand solemnly alongside Democrats this year to commemorate Freedom Summer 1964--at the safe distance of 50 years-- when young activists Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were murdered because they wanted civil rights and equality for all.

Another commemoration should be held this year. The first major student protests of the 1960s began in 1964 with the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley, which was inspired by civil rights activists in the South. The Berkeley event opened the door to student protests across the country against racism, the Vietnam War and all the other betrayals of the nation’s ideals.

A new generation of protesters is already in the streets today, God bless them, and their voices are beginning to be heard.

The “Moral Monday” protests against the right-wing agenda of GOP leaders in North Carolina have led to 900-plus arrests, but now they are spreading across the South, the nation’s most repressive region. Legislators in Georgia and South Carolina as well as North Carolina opened their sessions last month month with protestors outside state Capitol walls demanding that the needs of workers and the poor be addressed, not just those of the fat cats and lobbyists who finance junkets and political campaigns.

Across the country Walmart and fast-food workers are taking a stand to demand a living wage from employers who’ve grown rich off their labors. The Walton family is worth an estimated $144 billion yet its workers can’t even afford the company health plan.  Taxpayers fork up $7 billion a year to subsidize the low-pay, low-benefits fast-food industry through food stamps, Medicaid and other government programs.

Blame falls on Democrats as well as Republicans. President Obama is leading the cause for the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership, another NAFTA-like agreement that will drain jobs and lower standards for U.S. workers while further enriching that top 10 percent who own 80 percent of Wall Street wealth. A recent New York Times investigation revealed that the United States spends $1.5 billion a year to buy uniforms and other clothing from factories in Asia, the same sweat-shops that were built after the collapse of the textile industry in the U.S. South.

This is an election year so expect a lot of talk about the “middle class”. That’s a term meant to delude, disarm and ultimately deceive. Working-class Americans—and that’s most of us, whether our shirt collars are blue or white--can truly commemorate the martyrs and protestors of 1964 by proclaiming with those preachers, workers and activists in Detroit that “labor rights are civil rights.” This is the year to demand that state and national leaders finally begin representing working people and the ideals that founded this nation.