Wednesday, April 30, 2014

UAW takes its case against Nissan in Canton, Miss., to a global court. Weak U.S. labor laws leave workers in auto plants and other plants like Kellogg in Memphis vulnerable

The United Auto Workers, frustrated with the weakness of U.S. labor laws, has taken its case against Nissan’s anti-union behavior at its Canton, Miss., plant to a global court.

The UAW has joined with the Geneva-based IndustriALL Global Union federation in appealing to both the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris and the U.S. State Department to mediate and ensure a fair union election at the giant Nissan plant in Canton.

“Nissan is a global company that should abide by the global standards that the United States and other countries have agreed on,” said UAW President Bob King in a press release.

“Nissan … works with unions in every part of the world, yet in the United States it acts very differently,” agreed Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL in Geneva.

The UAW and IndustriALL Global Union filed a formal request for mediation Monday, April 28. The IndustriALL Global Union represents more than 50 million workers, including those at Nissan and Renault plants.

 Nissan is a Japanese company partnered with the French auto company Renault in a Netherlands-incorporated Strategic Alliance. Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn heads both companies.  The United States, Japan, France and the Netherlands are OECD members that have endorsed the Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, which call on global companies with operations within their borders to behave ethically.

The OECD can help assure “a just and fair resolution that ensures all Nissan workers can exercise the fundamental right to freedom of association without fear of retaliation or threats of job less,” Raina said.

At the Canton plant, UAW has long held that Nissan is waging an anti-union campaign even though no election has been scheduled. Workers have been called into one-on-one meetings with management where unions are disparaged. Workers have reported many threats that the giant, 5,000-employee-plus plant would shut down if workers voted to join a union. These charges are detailed in a 2013 study of the plant by the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP.

Nissan CEO Ghosn has been a vocal opponent of unionization in past elections at the company’s Smyrna, Tenn., plant.

The UAW’s action comes after it dropped its challenge to the National Labor Relations Board to invalidate the failed February 14 union election at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

In Chattanooga, Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, both Tennessee Republicans, repeatedly lied as to their role in the vicious anti-union campaign that ultimately defeated the UAW in a 712-626 vote. Recently leaked documents have shown that they were part of a backroom blackmail deal to threaten Volkswagen with the loss of $300 million in government incentives if the plant went union.

Aiding in their campaign was right-wing Washington, D.C., political operative Grover Norquist, whose Americans for Tax Reform financed billboards across the city that, among other things, called the UAW “United Obama Workers”.

 U.S. labor laws are among the weakest in the industrialized world. Corporations drag cases through the courts for years, and the NLRB has few teeth to enforce its rulings.

A casebook study is Nissan-Canton employee Chip Wells, a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and a union supporter. The NLRB ruled recently that Nissan broke the law by retaliating against Wells for his pro-union stand. However, current labor law allowed Nissan to settle the case without admitting guilt, and now Wells must fight for back pay lost due to medical leave necessitated by Nissan’s treatment of him.

In early April, the five-member NLRB unanimously called for a federal injunction against Michigan-based Kellogg Co. for its six-month lockout of employees at the company’s Memphis, Tenn., plant after a union contract dispute. The national board’s ruling came after its New Oreans regional office found multiple violations against the workers’ rights. A May 5 hearing has been scheduled, but Kellogg still maintains its position on the contract dispute is unchanged.

If and when an election comes to the Nissan plant, workers will need to brace for a virulent anti-union campaign much like what took place in Chattanooga.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who earned his right-wing credentials as lieutenant governor decrying the evils of undocumented migrant workers, has said on record that he also doesn’t want “unions involved in our businesses or our public sector.”

He signed into law bills restricting workers’ rights to peaceful demonstrations, local governments’ rights in hiring union workers, and workers’ ability to negotiate with companies for a harassment-free union election.

With another “right-to-work” demagogue called Ross Barnett smiling from heaven, Bryant and his friends in the state Legislature let the workers at the Nissan plant in Canton know in no uncertain terms that they would fight any unionization effort.

The anti-union bills that Bryant signed into law this past legislative session came straight out of the playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council and the billionaire Koch brothers, whose agenda is to further entrench what a recent study by Princeton and Northwestern University scholars calls the oligarchy of wealth that has replaced U.S. democracy.

Republicans even got help from Democrats like Mississippi legislators Steve Hale, Bennett Malone, Ed Blackmon and Tommy Reynolds.

Workers indeed must look beyond the Democratic Party if they’re going to get justice in this country.

The corruption of U.S. democracy today has been clearly seen in recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that validate the corporate takeover of the two-party system. Corporate federal lobbying and campaign spending totaled $7.7 billion in 2011-12, compared to $237 million by labor unions. Corporate CEOs now earn 354 times the median pay of their workers, compared to 42 times that pay in 1980. It is not coincidental that private sector union membership has declined from roughly 19 percent in 1980 to 6.6 percent today.

Charles and David Koch, by the way, recently saw $1.3 billion added to their $100 billion personal piggy bank, making them the fifth and sixth wealthiest people in the world.

While Republicans have long been in the hip pocket of corporate industrialists, many Democrats are in there, too. It was Bill Clinton who pushed through NAFTA, and  Barack Obama is bound and determined to win approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, another boondoggle to aid fat cats and impoverish workers.

A recent international study showed that U.S citizens lag behind other industrialized nations in economic mobility, and no region of the nation has less economic mobility than the U.S. South.  The lack of upward mobility cuts across races. Unfair tax codes and lack of support for public education were among the reasons cited for the failure of the American dream.

Yet no institution did more to create the American middle class—and the American dream--than organized labor.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Was the police state that was Mississippi a model for the nation?

This column, a version of which ran recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss., is a follow-up to an earlier posting about the "What We Learn From The Snowden/NSA Files" panel discussion last month at the University of Mississippi.

OXFORD, Miss. – They wanted to know about your phone calls, your conversations, your meetings with others, your political leanings, your opinions, your friends, your confidantes, your extracurricular activities, your religious beliefs, your sexual habits.

Armed with such information, they knew how to deal with you if they considered you a troublemaker. At the least, they could make sure the whole world knew your every secret.

Who were they? In Mississippi between 1956 and 1977, they were the spies working for the state Sovereignty Commission, the taxpayer-funded, segregationist agency that targeted civil rights activists and sympathizers.

In East Germany during the Cold War, they were the spies with the Stasi, the secret security agency that compiled 6.5 million files on one out of every three of East Germany’s 16 million citizens, enough files to fill 120 miles of shelves.

Today, they are the employees of the National Security Agency and its contractors, and they not only spy on U.S. citizens but even the leaders of foreign countries. Among their files are the conversations German Chancellor Angela Merkel had on her cell phone.

Former President Jimmy Carter says he communicates with foreign leaders via snail mail because he believes the NSA may be snooping into his e-mail account. Since when can a federal agency violate the 4th Amendment constitutional rights against “unreasonable searches and seizures” of a former president?

Why do we know these things? Thank Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower now under the protection of former KGB officer Vladimir Putin in Russia. Snowden's leaks to The Guardian and the Washington Post regarding the NSA led to Pulitzer prizes for both news organizations this week.

Mississippians and Southerners in general should appreciate the importance of North Carolina-native Snowden’s actions, the topic of a panel discussion last month at the University of Mississippi that included me as a panelist along with former FBI agent and ACLU senior counsel Mike German, now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, and Ole Miss School of Law Senior Associate Dean Matthew Hall. Ole Miss Honors College Dean Douglass Sullivan-Gonzales was moderator.

Former top NSA executive Bill Binney, the creator of the agency’s surveillance program, says widespread government spying on regular citizens has turned the United States into a police state. Many of the NSA’s files go directly to law enforcement agencies to assist them in gathering information—without warrants—that can be used in legal cases against citizens, he says.

Is this why the United States has become the world’s largest gulag, accounting for 25 percent of the globe’s incarcerated population? One out of every four adults Americans now has a police record. Louisiana and Mississippi lead the nation in putting people behind bars.

In the Ole Miss panel discussion, Matthew Hall argued that Snowden is a villain because he became a fugitive after leaking the NSA files, rather than staying here to face the music like Daniel Ellsberg after leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

That argument fails to consider what has become of post-9-11 America. Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private whose funneling of government documents to WikiLeaks exposed the extent of civilian casualties from U.S. attacks in Afghanistan as well as the failure of U.S. counterinsurgency programs there, spent nearly a year in solitary confinement before his trial. United Nations investigator Juan Mendez told The Guardian in England that Manning’s treatment was “cruel, inhuman and degrading … torture.”

No state came closer than Mississippi to becoming a “police state” in the 1960s, and it was a model for much of the rest of the racist South. It investigated, intimidated and threatened anyone challenging the status quo. It interfered with murder cases against white supremacists, let loose police bullies on dissidents, and compromised many of the journalists who should have been exposing its evils. Mississippians can see it all for themselves in the more than 138,000 pages of Sovereignty Commission documents that were ultimately released.

In the wake of the NSA scandal, a wavering President Obama has both defended the agency and called for greater oversight of its powers. Snowden remains a fugitive with more than a few politicians still calling for his head. Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley, will spend much of the rest of her life in prison. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is a wanted man whom U.S. officials would love to see behind bars.

Memory fades across much of the world of the days when the FBI watched Martin Luther King Jr.’s every step, bugging his phone and photographing his whereabouts in the hope of catching him in a compromising position that would take him out forever and end his threat to the powers that be. Even the FBI itself now admits on its web site that its disgraced COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) spy network of the 1960s “was rightfully criticized … for abridging First Amendment rights.”

We haven’t forgotten here in Mississippi or the rest of the South. Have we?

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Another lying Tennessee politician exposed in the UAW-VW vote in Chattanooga

Another lying Tennessee politician has been exposed in the aftermath of the Valentine’s Day 712-626 vote rejecting United Auto Workers representation at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

NewsChannel 5/WTVF chief investigative reporter Phil Williams in Nashville reported Monday that state Gov. Bill Haslam apparently lied when he denied his administration’s role in a plot to make a $300 million offer of taxpayer-funded incentives to the company contingent on keeping the UAW out of the plant.

Williams cited a confidential document leaked to his station summarizing the Haslam administration’s “Project Trinity” program. The document, which state government officials had refused to give to a Nashville newspaper, described an offer of $300 million to Volkswagen to expand its Chattanooga plant with the requirement that “the incentives … are subject to works council discussions between the State of Tennessee and VW being concluded to the satisfaction of the State of Tennessee.”

Volkswagen had been in negotiations with the UAW to establish a German-style works council at the plant that would allow union representation for workers on wages, benefits, safety conditions and other issues.

Williams said rumors had circulated among Democratic politicians in Tennessee that incentives were tied to the union vote, but Haslam repeatedly denied these.

In other words, Haslam is a liar like his Republican friend, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. In the days before the election, and after pledging he would not get involved in the matter because “I do not think it is appropriate,” Corker came out from under his self-imposed rock and warned that Volkswagen will only expand its plant if workers reject the UAW. Volkswagen-Chattanooga CEO Frank Fisher denied Corker's claim.

Corker also said Volkswagen would become a “laughingstock” if it allowed a union to set up at the Chattanooga plant.

Although the workers did reject the UAW, Corker’s promise of a plant expansion announcement within two weeks of the election never materialized. In fact, the company’s top labor representative in Germany has said he and Volkswagen’s powerful works council in Germany may block any further expansion or investment in the U.S. South until workers there get union representation.

The revelations about Haslam’s role in the union vote at Volkswagen undoubtedly will add fuel to efforts by the UAW to get the National Labor Relations Board to invalidate the election. The union says outside interference undermined the integrity of the vote. The NewsChannel 5/WTVF report raises questions whether Haslam and Corker coordinated their attack on the UAW.

A hard-learned lesson about labor organizing in the South can be found in the 1987 movie Matewan, which tells the story of the violent confrontation between coal miners and company thugs in Matewan, West Virginia, in 1920.

“The coal company doesn’t want this union,” labor organizer Joe Kenehan, played by actor Chris Cooper, warns black, white and Italian immigrant miners arguing with each other rather than unifying against their common enemy. “The state government doesn’t want it. The federal government doesn’t want it. All of ‘em are looking for an excuse to come down and crush us to nothing.”

In the February vote in Chattanooga, the company said it was actually open to the union although low and mid-level management worked against it. Still, workers faced a barrage of anti-union propaganda, including more than a dozen billboards making such claims as the UAW is only a cover for the “United Obama Workers”.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into Chattanooga from Washington, D.C., and the pockets of Grover Norquist and his conservative Americans for Tax Reform. It was the local branch of Norquist’s organization, called the Center for Worker Freedom, that financed the billboards.

Labor organizer Joe Kenehan had some additional advice for his striking miners in Matewan that workers in the South need to remember today. “We got to pick away at this situation, slow and careful. We got to organize and build support. We got to work together.”

A united front by workers—black, white, immigrant and native-born—is the only way to deal with the united front that wants to keep unions out of the South.

Thanks go out to Lew Smith, a loyal Labor South supporter and key source for labor goings-on around the South, for the tip about the NewsChannel 5/WTVF story.