Friday, March 28, 2014

NLRB says Kellogg lockout in Memphis violates federal labor law


(Locked-out Kellogg workers in Memphis protesting the company's actions. Robert McGowen is to the left.)

Just days after a false report circulated that Kellogg Co. was finally willing to negotiate with the 226 unionized workers it locked out of its Memphis plant last October, the National Labor Relations Board has filed a formal complaint that says the cereal giant is in violation of federal labor law.

The New Orleans office of the NLRB has scheduled a hearing on the case to take place in Memphis May 5.

The Battle Creek, Mich.-based company locked out its Memphis workers after their union, the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers, opposed plans to cut wages and benefits as well as hire new “casual” workers at lower pay.

“We wish that we could go back in there,” says locked-out worker Robert McGowen, a 23-year veteran at the Memphis plant and one of workers protesting Kellogg’s actions on the road outside the plant, sometimes in freezing temperatures. “All they got to do is open the gates and let us negotiate if they’re serious about negotiating.”

WMC-TV in Memphis reported March 20 that a NAACP official claimed the company was finally willing to negotiate with the 226 workers. The television station said the Rev. Keith Norman announced the development during a NAACP gathering.

McGowen says the report was “a cross-up” and that the company only submitted to workers the same contract offer it had proposed before. “We got a letter from the company saying they want to negotiate the same package. … They’re supposed to be negotiating with our union. That is another violation.”

McGowen says he and his fellow locked-out workers plan to continue their protest until the issue is resolved. “We are going to ride it out. We’re still out there.”

Their picketing outside the plant has won them widespread support from the local community and beyond, including the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C. Most of the workers at the Memphis plant are African American.

Workers lay the blame for the lockout on Kellogg CEO and president John Bryant. Bryant took over leadership of the company in 2011. McGowen says he and other members of the union always got along well with Kellogg management until Bryant’s take-no-prisoners approach to union negotiations.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Labor South roundup: Snowden & the South's history of spying, and a reported breakthrough on Kellogg lockout

Here are a couple items for this Labor South round-up of the week's goings-on: a recent panel including Labor South’s Joe Atkins considers NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s status as hero or villain; and a possible breakthrough on the Kellogg lockout of its Memphis workers.

Southern history should tell you whether Edward Snowden is a hero or villain

Yours truly was on a panel titled “What We Learn from the Snowden/NSA Files” held at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at the University of Mississippi March 19.

Also on the panel were: Mike German, former FBI agent and former senior counsel of the ACLU and currently a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University; and Matthew Hall, senior associate dean at the University of Mississippi School of Law. The moderator was Douglass Sullivan-Gonzales, dean of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College at the University of Mississippi.

Given the history in Mississippi and the South of state-backed spying on innocent citizens, Southerners should be particularly sensitive to the sprawling international snooping and spying on private citizens by the National Security Agency that whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed last year.

Snowden, a North Carolina native given refuge for one year by the Russian government, appeared recently by video link at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, and urged citizens to assert their privacy rights against an overreaching government that seeks to know what we talk about on our cell phones and access on the Internet.

I pointed out that I reside in a state (Mississippi) where a government-funded spy agency, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, collected information on private citizens during the civil rights movement with the direct intention of using it to intimidate, threaten, and damage those citizens promoting racial integration. More than 138,000 pages of secret, sealed documents compiled by the Sovereignty Commission were ultimately released. Like the Stasi in the former East Germany and other spy agencies, the Sovereignty Commission was particularly interested in private sexual information that it could use to threaten or silence dissidents. NSA files are also believed to contain such information.

Former NSA official Bill Binney, who helped establish the agency’s surveillance program, recently said the United States has already become a “police state,” something Mississippi in many ways was in the 1960s. Binney said much of the NSA’s collected data has been funneled to law enforcement agencies across the land to assist them in gathering evidence and other information—without warrants—to use against citizens in criminal or other legal cases.

Is it any accident that the United States has 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. One in four adult citizens in this country has a police record. Snowden’s NSA revelations may be telling us why. By the way, Louisiana and Mississippi lead the nation in putting people in prison.

I’ll be writing more about this later, but below is the link to our recent panel, where Mike German and I took Snowden’s side on the issue, and Matthew Hall took the position that he is a villain.

The link to the panel discussion (I often have difficulty linking to YouTube on this blog, so you may have to copy and paste to gain access):

or try:

Video from March 19, 2014.

Possible new developments in the Kellogg lockout of its Memphis workers

WMC-TV in Memphis reported Thursday (March 20) that NAACP officials are saying that the Battle Creek, Mich.-based cereal giant, Kellogg, is now willing to negotiate with the 226 workers it locked out from their Memphis plant after a labor contract disagreement last October.

Their union, the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers, refused to approve a company plan to cut wages and benefits as well as hire new “casual” workers at lower pay. As a result, they were forced to endure five long months without jobs or benefits. Their picketing outside the plant in often-subfreezing temperatures and hard rains galvanized local support from many organizations.

Most recently, the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C., pledged its solidarity with the locked-out workers.

Let’s hope Kellogg will do the right thing.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Mississippi character actor Johnny McPhail takes a quantum leap from the cotton patch to HBO's "True Detective"


(Johnny McPhail)

Quentin Tarantino opens the door of his New Orleans penthouse with a big smile, open arms, a string of compliments. Johnny McPhail steps inside.

The famous Hollywood director leads McPhail to a long table in the room, telling him along the way how much he loved him in Ballast. Tarantino proves it by reciting McPhail’s lines from the movie.

The 70-year-old actor from Oxford, Mississippi, grins under his mustache. He’s proud of Ballast. It won the directing and cinematography awards at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. It’s why he’s in this penthouse, why he got the call.

They sit down at the table and read from a script Tarantino provides. After a while, Tarantino stops and stares at McPhail, the mustache, the bushy eyebrows, the shoulder-length hair, the big presence at 6’4”, 215 pounds, the screen-friendly eyes that can range from pixie to world-weary.

Still, McPhail is missing something. Tarantino is making a movie about sadistic slave traders, bounty hunters, and decadent plantation owners. He’s going to call it Django Unchained, and he needs bad, the sinister element, at least a whiff of foreboding.

What the director of Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds, and Reservoir Dogs wants is evil, and he’s not sure McPhail has it. “You are too kind of a character to play any of these parts,” Tarantino tells him. “These are bad men.”

McPhail is remembering the call, the casting director telling him on the phone, “Mr. Tarantino would like to meet with you in his penthouse in New Orleans. Can you make it?”

“Oh, heck, yeah, I can make it,” McPhail told the casting director.

Now his big break is slipping away because he's insufficiently evil. He leans toward Tarantino, using all six feet and four inches and 215 pounds to make his point. “Quentin,” he says, “I can play bad.”

Tarantino reaches over and grabs the actor’s face with both hands, a Hollywood pope blessing an up-and-coming, if aging, seminarian of the Big Screen. He promises McPhail he’ll write him a part in Django Unchained.

And he delivers. McPhail’s part is a records keeper in Greenville, Mississippi, where the characters played by stars Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz go in search of information about Foxx’s wife, the slave Broomhilde.

The scene winds up on the cutting room floor.

“Everybody said he’ll make it up to me,” McPhail recalled recently as he sat with me in a coffee shop called the High Point here in downtown Oxford, Mississippi, “but I’m not worried. Got to move on.”

McPhail has moved on.

After a 20-year career that began with bit parts and local theater productions, McPhail is now playing a bar owner opposite star Matthew McConaughey in the hit HBO series True Detective. His other film credits include The Chamber, A Time to Kill, People Vs. Larry Flint, Cookie’s Fortune, and Big Bad Love.

McPhail acted in seven of the films shown during the recently concluded Oxford Film Festival, including his role as a zombie killer in Last Call. McPhail’s wife Susan, a rising actress herself, co-starred.

“He’s got this great character ability,” said Oxford Film Festival development director Melanie Addington, who has directed and written roles for McPhail. “See Ballast. His scenes were remarkable.”

The north Mississippi farm boy-turned-actor actually has something in common with Lana Turner, the Hollywood sex siren of yesteryear.

Both got discovered in a café.

Turner was 17, skipping school and enjoying a soda in a Hollywood ice cream parlor. Soon she had a movie contract and was a rising star. McPhail was turning 50 and enjoying a cup of coffee at Smitty’s in downtown Oxford when the casting director for the movie The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag (which was filmed in Oxford) spotted him.

“You’ve got an interesting face,” the casting director said. “You ever thought about being in the movies? Come by and see me.”

“And I did,” McPhail recalled. “I come from a small farm in Bruce (near Oxford), never had any idea I could ever do this. Anybody wants to be in films. I have always wanted to try different things, so when I turned fifty I decided to see what the film industry is all about.”

After picking cotton as a youth, working in factories and saw mills, and serving a stint as a labor organizer, McPhail decided he liked acting. Through his work on The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag, a 1993 movie starring Penelope Ann Miller, Julianne Moore and Alfre Woodard, McPhail met Elvis Presley buddy and “Memphis Mafia” charter member Red West, who also had a role in the movie. West befriended McPhail and gave him acting lessons.

McPhail’s acting philosophy is simple: Be natural. “When I went down to New Orleans for True Detective, (writer/creator) Nic Pizzolatto said, `Johnny, one rule is nobody does any fake accents.’ … They are looking for everyday people. … It’s hard enough to act without putting on a fake accent. One of the first rules I learned was, `Don’t let them catch you acting.’”

McPhail did lots of stage work in his early acting years, including a production of Larry Brown’s novel Joe at Oxford’s legendary Hoka Theater. He later got a part in the movie version of Brown’s Big Bad Love with Debra Winger. He has been frequently cast as “Big Daddy” in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Tennessee Williams Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi. 

He prefers film to the stage, however. “That’s your epitaph, man. Your great-grandchildren are going to see you.”

A film actor no longer has to be in Hollywood to get roles, McPhail said. “We do it all through the Internet now. I can be auditioning with someone in L.A. in a matter of minutes. I do it from home. I’ve got the lighting to make it look good.”

Besides, he said, Oxford is an ideal place for an actor. “Oxford, Mississippi, is one of the best. We are equidistant from Shreveport—they make a lot of movies there—Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Atlanta, then we are closer to Nashville.”

Looking back, McPhail said his acting life still seems like a dream. “Another quantum leap from a cotton patch in north Mississippi.”

A much different version of this feature column ran recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi.