(Maria Stoller Atkins as a young woman and more recently)
Apologies to readers of Labor South for the weeks-long delay since my last posting. I’ve been out of pocket recently with the August 29 death of my mother, Maria Stoller Atkins. She was 92 and a German native who introduced me to the worlds of classical music, philosophy, and social justice issues. During World War II, she was imprisoned by the Gestapo for an act of kindness to French prisoners. Working at a plant in France where they were held, she and another lady felt sorry for them and slipped them cakes and champagne during a holiday. The Nazis only released her from her Polish prison as Russian soldiers made advances on the Eastern Front. After the war, she married then-U.S. Army sergeant Roger Burton Atkins, my late father, in Munich, and they settled near his family in Sanford, N.C., where I spent my formative years. She was a deeply religious woman who knew first-hand the evils of racism and fascism, and I miss her greatly.
Much is happening on the labor front in the South. I just posted a column with the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss., that looks at the region-wide implications of the hard-right Republican takeover in my native North Carolina and the progressive populist Moral Monday movement that has risen there to confront it and its efforts to destroy any kind of safety net for the poor and marginalized in society. I’ll post the column on Labor South soon.
I see Moral Monday as a movement with great implications for the South as a whole and one of several developments that show a growing restiveness among working-class and progressive-minded folks in the region. It has already linked itself with the “Fight for 15” fast food workers seeking to organize a union and $15-per-hour wages. Even before Moral Monday, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and Coalition of Immokalee Workers were championing the rights of migrant workers in North Carolina, Florida and elsewhere, and they were winning battles with major food corporations to better wages and conditions.
A federal judge ruled last month that Michigan-based Kellogg Co. wrongfully locked out 226 workers at its plant in Memphis, Tenn., after a contract dispute. The judge ordered the company to allow the workers to return to their jobs. For 10 months, through rain, snow and blistering summer weather, the workers protested outside the Memphis plant, and their perseverance paid off. The judge’s ruling also exposed the rank greed and arrogance of Kellogg CEO John Bryant, a multimillionaire with no concept of how his actions affected his company’s workers in Memphis.
The United Auto Workers may have tapped into a new way of organizing the South with its decision to establish Local 42 in Chattanooga, Tenn., in the aftermath of the 712-626 vote against unionization at the Volkswagen plant there last February. Tennessee U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam shamefully interfered with the vote, raising false alarms that a union would destroy jobs and investment. Local 42 is a voluntary organization that will stand up for workers’ rights and hopefully grow large enough to win official recognition.
Things are happening all across Dixie. Workers at the Cargill ground beef processing plant in Fort Worth, Texas, have voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers union. After suffering unjust firings, harassment, and threats of cut wages, workers at the 200-worker plant decided their only chance at fairness was standing together in solidarity as a union.
In New Orleans, teachers fired as a result of anti-union local and state government opportunists in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are winning their legal battle in Louisiana’s state courts. A five-judge panel of the state’s Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the thousands of firings by the Orleans Parish School Board and state Department of Education were illegal. The case is now before the state Supreme Court.
An organizing effort is underway among Boeing workers in North Charleston, S.C. Unions have struggled at the company’s giant 7,500-worker plant there (this includes contractors) over the years and have been completely absent for the last five. In 2009, the company chose the South Carolina site to build its 787 Dreamliner instead of its Everett, Wash., site, where workers are union members.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) has started an organizing campaign in North Charleston that could make it another major battleground for Southern workers seeking union membership.