Thursday, June 26, 2014

SNCC veterans and young activists testify to workers' rights as civil rights at Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary Conference

(To the right, the FBI's "Missing" poster in 1964 for martyred civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwerner) 

JACKSON, Miss. – Larry Rubin, field secretary of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s, figured his time to die had come when a Mississippi law enforcement officer showed up at the door and told him to take a ride with him in his patrol car.

“We all knew we were going to die,” Rubin told a roomful of activists at the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary Conference at Tougaloo College in Jackson Wednesday.

After all, fellow civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney had died at the hands of a band of white racists that included local law enforcement in Neshoba County, Miss. Why not Larry Rubin, a white, Jewish, Antioch College-educated son of a construction worker from Philadelphia, Pa.?

The Mississippi officer took Rubin to a remote spot in the piney woods and stopped the car. Instead of shooting the labor and civil rights activist, however, the officer began asking questions about labor unions and whether they might be able to protect his brother from mistreatment at his blue-collar job. The officer may have been a racist, but ironically he had a sense of the need for workers’ rights against oppressive management, Rubin said.

“That incident changed my life,” Rubin said.

It also raised a key issue at this week’s commemoration of the SNCC-led voter registration drive and other civil rights activism during what became known as Mississippi's “Freedom Summer” in 1964. The fierce opposition those activists faced crystallized with the murders of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney.

As veterans like Rubin meet with today's young activists at the five-day conference, a frequent message being heard at the event is that workers’ rights are at the heart of the movement today. Along with multiple panels and discussions on workers’ rights, a scheduled highlight is a rally Friday by student activists from around the country at Nissan’s giant plant in nearby Canton, where they will demand fair treatment of workers and a fair union election.

A United Auto Workers release said the rally is part of “a growing movement of over 1,000 students from over 60 colleges nationwide (who) are again a major influence on the civil rights struggle today—labor rights for Nissan workers.”

Workers at the plant--its workforce is predominantly African American--have complained of a climate a fear inside its walls and active hostility by management to any prospect of a unionized workforce to address ongoing issues such as wages, benefits and working conditions. Nissan officials insist workers’ best option is what spokesman Travis Parman has called “direct, two-way communication as opposed to involving a third party.”

During a conference panel discussion on "Organizing the South" Wednesday--yours truly was a panelist--speaker after speaker from the audience stressed the importance of blacks, whites, Latinos, and all races working together if a labor movement is to be successful in the South. Workers must look beyond race, gender and other differences to see that the fight for their rights as human beings and workers is what should unite them, the speakers said.

Predominantly black Tougaloo College on Jackson's northern edge, site of the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary Conference, was a hotbed of activism during the Civil Rights Movement.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Nissan's Smyrna, Tenn., workers fear retaliation if they report on-the-job injuries, survey shows

Back in December 2006, several workers with Nissan’s $3.5 billion, 6,500-employee plant in Smyrna, Tenn., traveled to Mississippi to warn their colleagues at Nissan’s plant in Canton about the company’s attitude toward health and safety issues.

“I had a line inspection job, crawling in and out of trucks,” 59-year-old Gail Corley of Manchester, Tenn., told them. “The many injuries I had were knee injuries, and they sent me to the hospital, sewed me up, and sent me back” until finally “they put me out.”

With tears in her eyes, Corley said she’d once considered her Nissan job “a dream come true.” She was then anti-union and thrilled to be part of the Nissan “family.” A union supporter by 2006, she recalled the grin on the face of a fellow Nissan employee who was tight with management as she prepared to leave the company. “You’re 50,” he told her. “You can get a job and be a greeting lady at Walmart.”

Apparently not much has changed at the Smyrna plant. A recent survey by the Concerned Students for a Better Nissan (CSBN) organization indicated deep dissatisfaction with the company’s handling of worker health issues.

Of 99 workers surveyed, 26 of whom were interviewed in depth, one-third said they avoid reporting on-the-job injuries out of fear of punishment from managers and supervisors. Half of them said Nissan contests injuries that workers claim are job-related. “The first thing they want to know is what are your hobbies,” a 26-year veteran Nissan worker told the surveyors. “If you have a hobby, that is where the injury happened.”

Nissan’s “Kaizen” model at the workplace supposedly encourages worker feedback to help the company attain “continuous improvement” on the assembly line. The survey showed that “speed of production is valued over employee health, safety, and well-being.”

When I called Nissan officials back in 2006 for their response to complaints by Corley and other workers, company spokeswoman Vicki Smith had this to say: “We provide competitive wages and benefits along with a comprehensive shop-floor safety program. We have good employee relations at all our plants. Our policies, procedures, and programs are applied fairly to all.”

Gail Corley and many of the workers today at the Smyrna plant would beg to differ. Most of the workers surveyed by CSBN said they have been involved in a “near miss incident at work,” yet only half of them reported the incidents because of their distrust and fear of management. When workers do make recommendations, they said, the company does nothing to make substantive changes to fix problems.

“I avoid medical at all costs,” a 28-year veteran maintenance worker at the Smyrna plant told surveyors, “because the blame always gets laid at the feet of the worker. A trip to medical can result in termination or a write-up.”

The United Auto Workers, which was rejected by Smyrna workers in a past election amid strong company opposition and which is involved in an ongoing unionization campaign today at the Nissan plant in Canton, recently released the survey results. In the report, CSBN said the company “is setting a bleak precedent for future workers” and that “Kaizen and unionization can co-exist and thrive.”

CSBN recommended that “Nissan Smyrna consider a labor-management relationship based on mutual respect and cooperation, joint responsibility and shared problem-solving. That starts with workers having a true voice in their workplace through forming a union.”

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Labor priests, Walmart moms, shell-shocked pols, and Charlie LeDuff's "Detroit: An American Autopsy"

(An abandoned building in Detroit)

Labor priests gathering in Atlanta, Walmart moms protesting at head honcho Rob Walton’s home in Phoenix, political firestorms in Virginia and Mississippi—they’re all developments that point to the central issue of jobs and working conditions in the nation and to the fact that the South’s role is pivotal in that issue.

This latest Labor South posting features a quick peek at some of the events unfolding across the region plus a review/feature about a recent book that shines a light on one of the darkest spots on the dark underbelly of American society, Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy.

Country Club Republican gets a shellacking in Virginia

It’s fun to watch the Inside-the-Beltway world of Big Money, overpaid pundits, and bought-and-paid-for politicians scramble to make sense of what happened this week in Virginia’s 7th congressional district. The fall of Republican U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to a political unknown sent shockwaves across the nation’s capital. Cantor had a $5 million campaign kitty at his disposal, compared to Tea Party victor Dave Brat’s $200,000.

On red alert now is U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., another establishment Republican who faces Tea Partyer Chris McDaniel in a runoff June 24. McDaniel actually edged the veteran Cochran in the primary but failed to get the 50 percent-plus to avoid a runoff.

The Virginia election showed the clear divide between Country Club Republicans and Tea Party Republicans on issues such as immigration reform, where the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other Big Business interests want reform to mean a continuous flow of cheap migrant labor into their factories and onto their farms. Tea Partyers see that flow as a threat to blue-collar workers and yet another example of the government-business partnership that only helps itself and does nothing to help the “fly-over” America it views with contempt.

Priests and protesters

Tea Partyers have no idea that they actually share with labor priests and Walmart protesters some of the same outrage against the neo-liberal economics that drives the world’s economy today. They’re so focused on brown-skinned neighbors, federal spending, guns, and their own narrow view of God they fail to see the bigger picture that motivates many on the Left.

In the grand tradition of Monsignor George Higgins and other champions of the social teachings of the Catholic Church, the Priest-Labor Initiative founded by Father Clete Kiley two years ago met recently in Atlanta to push an agenda articulated by none other than Pope Francis himself in his attacks on virulent, uncontrolled capitalism that serves only the rich and punishes the poor. A couple dozen priests came to the event.

No corporation more embodies the evils of that capitalism than Arkansas-based Walmart, and more than a hundred Walmart “moms” and other struggling workers gathered outside company chair Rob Walton’s home in Phoenix recently to continue an ongoing protest against the retail giant’s treatment of its workers, its lousy wages and benefits, its dependence on the slave-like conditions imposed by its Third World suppliers.

Charlie LeDuff’s autopsy of the city of Detroit  

(Detroit's Renaissance Center--General Motors World  Headquarters)

I knew I was going to like this book the minute I saw it at Square Books here in Oxford, Miss. On the cover was reporter Charlie LeDuff, whom the Wall Street Journal describes as “a little gonzo, a little gumshoe, some gawker, some good Samaritan.”

LeDuff is my kind of guy. The Detroit native was a “cannery hand, a carpenter, a drifter” before he found his way to the newsroom. The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter quit a job with the New York Times to return to his hometown and find out from the inside what happened.

Bankrupt Detroit has been offered up as the textbook example of race politics-gone-wild, government-gone-wild, labor-gone-wild. LeDuff shows the elements of truth in a lot of the gone-wild accusations but also a much bigger picture that says something, maybe a lot, about America.

I was five, maybe six years old the last time I was in the city of Detroit. Like so many (what LeDuff calls) “Southern hillbillies” mid-20th century, my World War II veteran father piled his wife and two boys into the family car in the early 1950s and headed out of Pilot Mountain, N.C., and toward Motor City in search of a job. My German war bride mother had a relative there, Tante Fanni, who put us up while Dad looked for a job.

My memory of Detroit is vague but I do recall tall buildings and playing in a front yard with a little German kid who spoke no English. My little brother John’s pneumonia—it was winter and I remember snow was on the ground—and my Munich-bred mother’s still-too-fresh memories of trying to outrun bombs and fires on city streets (maybe this was a premonition, too) eventually sent us back down South.

Detroit is also fascinating to me because I live part-time in another struggling, benighted, threatened city, Memphis, Tennessee, where, as in Detroit, state officials have waved a threatening forefinger because of shriveled municipal coffers and unpaid bills.

(To the right is an alley in Memphis' Pinch District)

“The mosque was located on Clairmont Street near Linwood, not far from the epicenter of the 1967 riot, not far from the apartment where my grandmother died alone a half century ago,” LeDuff writes. “The neighborhood looked like a photo from postwar Dresden. Row upon row of burnt-out houses, boarded storefronts, weedy and vacant lots peppered with shattered glass, sparkling like quartz tailings.”

“Wow,” I thought to myself as I read those words. “He even mentions Dresden.”

That’s how pro-basketball coach Phil Jackson once described pre-revitalized downtown Memphis: “Dresden after the war.”

(Court Square in downtown Memphis)

Memphis had Stax Records--raw, just-off-the-farm “soul music” from Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, and Sam and Dave. Detroit’s soul music was “Motown”, the smooth, urban sound of the Temptations, Diana Ross, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.    

Detroit was almost down for the count after the 1967 riot. Memphis is still recovering from the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. there in 1968.

LeDuff’s account of Detroit is a reporter’s journey across an urban moonscape where a sprinkling of people still try to make sense of life and cling to a sense of order, a belief that “a newspaper reporter and a cop and a judge can deliver some justice” despite political corruption, crime lords, the all-American affliction of greed. Firefighters come closest to being the book’s heroes, working as they do in a city where arson is a way of life.

Like all good stories, LeDuff’s journey is a personal one, too. His return to Detroit is also a search to understand his streetwalker sister’s death. In the process, he learns even more about himself, the secrets of his family’s past and how those secrets link him to the Deep South in ways he would have never expected.

It’s a brilliant, sad book that offers up no pat solutions to Detroit’s problems or to urban malaise in general in post-industrial America--that is, other than the enduring humanity that still somehow rises out of those ashes and the hope that rises with it. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Old lion Cochran squares off against Tea Party upstart McDaniel again June 24 - Pork Barrel politics on trial in the Deep South


(U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.)

The kind of internecine warfare that once only Democrats engaged in has now become political reality within the Republican Party, certainly in Mississippi this week as establishment incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran battled Tea Party upstart Chris McDaniel to a draw Tuesday and rematch scheduled for June 24.

It was a bloody battle that featured both Cochran and McDaniel firing the political equivalent of tomahawk missiles on the airways, a McDaniel supporter apparently unaffiliated with the campaign alleged to have photographed Cochran’s ailing wife in a nursing home to fuel rumors about the senator's fidelity, and both sides bringing in GOP heavyweights to sway voters.

Cochran, 76, a U.S. senator since 1979 who previously served five years in the U.S. House, is the last of a long tradition of Mississippi senators and congressmen who set records for longevity by bringing home the bacon to the nation’s poorest state. It’s a legacy that included giants like the late John Stennis (41 years in the U.S. Senate), Jamie Whitten (53 years in the U.S. House), and G. V. “Sonny” Montgomery (30 years in the U.S. House), and one that nearly got Cochran defeated in the first round.

Jamie Whitten, called the “King of Pork Barrel” during his heyday, used to brag with a big grin on his face that “pork barrel” is only when it is in someone else’s district. Meanwhile, he raked in the federal dough for projects like the $2 billion Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway along the Mississippi-Alabama border. Stennis, Whitten, and Montgomery were as conservative as any politician in Washington at the height of their careers and despite their Democratic Party affiliation. Cochran has strong conservative bona fides himself, but that means nothing to the anti-federal government, anti-spending Tea Partyers.

McDaniel, a state senator who enjoyed the endorsements of high-profile right-wingers like Sarah Palin, has been called by some a last hope for a Tea Party that suffered losses in North Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky.  If he wins the runoff, he’ll face Democratic challenger and former congressman Travis Childers, who is hardly less conservative than Republicans in his state and more of a throwback to the day when all politicians in Mississippi were Democrats and nearly all of them were arch-conservative.

Jackson Free Press editor-in-chief Donna Ladd says progressives don’t really have a dog in the Mississippi race, but she sees times changing. In a column for The Guardian this week, she pointed out that under-30 voters in Mississippi led the South in voting for Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. The demographics are changing, she said, in Mississippi and across the South, yet “our politicos seem to still believe that the only people who vote in our state are white wingnuts and religious zealots who spread hate rather than love of their neighbors.”

Cochran is also bearer of another old tradition in Mississippi politics—the old truism that one of the state’s U.S. senators should be a gentleman and the other a sonofabitch. Stennis was considered the gentleman and the late U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland, well, the other during their long service together in the 1950s and 1960s. During the 1990s, Cochran was the gentleman while former Republican U.S. Sen. Trent Lott was the other.

However, Cochran’s gentile, quiet-spoken manner almost did him in during this last campaign, the hardest he has had to fight in decades. He was late gearing up for the battle with McDaniel and often seemed distracted even after it got underway.

No doubt his handlers are working super hard in his corner right now. I can almost hear what they’re telling him:

“Okay, champ, you’re even in the count now, but you gotta reach deep inside and find the moxie to beat that sonofabitch in the next round!”