Thursday, November 20, 2014

The real winner in the last election: The Politics of Money. It's where bipartisan love can always be found.

(Haley Barbour)

OXFORD, Miss. - What a gathering it was two years ago when Terry McAuliffe got together with his buddies Bill Clinton and Haley Barbour in Horn Lake, Miss., to celebrate the plant opening of GreenTech, a then-McAuliffe-led producer of battery-charged automobiles.

The three pols had a high-old time, lots of non-partisan backslapping, guffaws, a few off-color jokes, and general glee at the prospect of flowing cash that GreenTech offered.

McAuliff, the former national Democratic Party chair and now governor of Virginia, loved hanging out with his mentor and benefactor, former President Clinton, and his old sparring pal Barbour, former national Republican Party chair and governor of Mississippi.

After all, Barbour was key to GreenTech’s securing of $5 million in loans from Mississippi taxpayers plus the usual treasure chest of tax exemptions. And who but Clinton lays greater claim to the school of what New York Times Magazine writer Mark Leibovich called “Green Party” politics in his July 2012 article about the gathering?

McAuliffe, Clinton and Barbour are quintessential members of the “Washington Political Class,”  Leibovich wrote, “a vast and self-perpetuating network of friendships and expedient associations that transcend even the fiercest ideological differences. … One quaint maxim of the Political Class is that there is no such thing as Democrats and Republicans in Washington, only the Green Party. Green as in money, not GreenTech, or anything to do with clean energy.”

In other words, they are the very essence of what a growing number of Americans despise, even if people don’t always connect their anger and frustration to media darlings like McAuliffe, Clinton and Barbour.

It’s one reason why record numbers of voters, particularly Democrats, simply stayed home this past election day. What was their choice here in Mississippi? Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, Barbour’s premier benefactor in Washington’s money politics? Challenger Travis Childers, who signed the immigrant-hating, white-supremacist Federation for American Immigration Reform’s pledge of no “amnesty” for hard-working-tax-paying-but-undocumented migrant workers?

Both parties are so beholden to Wall Street and billionaire financiers that Main Street voters would simply rather watch reruns of “Gunsmoke” on election day. At least in Dodge City, Marshal Dillon (look him up, young readers) takes care of business, and the bad guys get their just deserts.

With the Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate in this month’s election, Cochran is in line to resume again the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee with all its promise of more taxpayer-financed pork for Mississippi. Tea Partyers, still smarting over the loss of Chris McDaniel in Mississippi’s Republican primary, hate Cochran’s pork-barreling prowess. They do raise an interesting question:

Why, after all those years of Cochran, the late U.S. Sen. John Stennis, D-Miss., and U.S. Rep. Jamie Whitten, D-Miss., chairing their respective Appropriations committees in Congress, is Mississippi still the nation’s poorest state? More than one of every five Mississippians live in poverty. Roughly the same number never finished high school. One of every four lacks health insurance. Why hasn’t all our pork-barrel done something about those statistics?

Maybe the story of GreenTech sheds some light.

Terry McAuliffe says he no longer has anything to do with the company. He resigned as company chairman five months after that backslapping party with Clinton and Barbour in Horn Lake. Not long after, the federal government launched an investigation into the firm and another outfit, Gulf Coast Funds Management LLC, in connection with the granting of permanent visas to major foreign investors. Production at the Mississippi plant was delayed, and the firm still faces penalties if it hasn’t hired 350 workers and invested $60 million by the end of December.

Barbour’s involvement with GreenTech is reminiscent of his “Port of the Future” deal on the Gulf Coast, where he recruited his friend Thad Cochran to help maneuver a redirection of $570 million in federal funds that had been targeted for Hurricane Katrina victims needing affordable housing. The funds’ new direction? An expansion of the Port of Gulfport that Barbour touted as the “Port of the Future”. The project has foundered ever since amid delays and shrunken promises.

The journalist Michael Kinsley once had this to say about Haley Barbour: “He manages to send the message: This is all a big game—a big wonderful game.”

Well, Haley Barbour and the rest of the Washington Political Class, it’s not a game to us folks out here in the hinterlands.  The economy is still a scary thing on Main Street. Too many people still lack health insurance. The migrant workers who make such great campaign fodder for Democrats like Travis Childers and Republicans like Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant only came here because of bi-partisan trade agreements that cost them their livelihood back home.

 Put Marshal Dillon on the ballot next time, and maybe people will show up.

This column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Jimbo Mathus: Preaching the gospel of rock 'n' roll in the Deep South

A couple of encouraging labor developments took place this week--Volkswagen's announcement that it will allow the United Auto Workers as well as other groups to represent workers in regular meetings with management about workplace issues at its Chattanooga, Tenn., plant, plus a growing national protest by pilots at Memphis-based FedEx over slow-paced labor negotiations. Labor South will keep an eye out on these matters, but in the meantime here's a feature story about a Mississippi "roots" musician who once said he seeks out in his music the "outsiders, the losers, the scrap-heap cast-off people."

(Above: Jimbo Mathus at his Taylor, Miss., home)

TAYLOR, Miss. – I’ve seen Bible-wagging Pentecostal Holiness preachers at revival time who couldn’t match rock ‘n’ roller Jimbo Mathus for fire in the belly.

“Music is the original peacemaker, the original desegregation tool! That’s what set America on its ear! When you get down to the nitty-gritty about race, music is the pioneer. It worked magic before the government could come in. Good golly, Miss Molly, whole lotta shakin’ going on!”

Mathus takes another sip from his can of Busch beer then pulls back his long, blond locks. He grins, flashing that gold tooth Dr. Sanchez got him down in central Yucatan to replace the original he lost working on a barge in the Mississippi River.

The Reverend continues his sermon. “It hadn’t been that long ago that rock ‘n’ roll changed the world. That’s still the thing. All the blues, gospel, honky tonk, everything leads into rock ‘n’ roll. You can still blaze a new trail!”

It might be time for a call to the aisle, but we are in a small trailer and just across the table from each other anyway. Besides, Mathus is preaching to the choir.

The 47-year-old musician, songwriter, and roots music evangelist says life is good these days. Dark Night of the Soul, the latest effort by him and his band, the Tri-State Coalition, on Fat Possum Records, has been called by one reviewer “closer to the bone” than any of his earlier eight albums, a “search for redemption” that also can “rejoice like a Saturday-night-into-Sunday-morning-house-rent party.”

The music ranges from Old Testament anger in Burn the Ships to the dark seduction of White Angel and the love rock-ballad that is Shine like a Diamond. Despite the CD’s title and some of its themes, “I’m actually very happy right now,” the artist says. “I’m happily married. I love what’s going on in my life, the artistic support I’m getting.” Gaining some distance from past darkness helped him write about it. “You don’t feel so close to it.  I’ve seen the ups and downs of life. On purpose. I didn’t want to shield myself from life.”

His landmark 2009 CD Jimmy the Kid has also just been re-released. This is the one that got my attention. Mathus takes you into lonely hotels, honky tonks for fallen angels, on the run from the law among “the sage and prickly pear” out West, and along a dark highway somewhere in America in search of “a little room to rest.” Echoes of Duane Allman, Keith Richards and Webb Pierce are in the air, but the music is still a Jimbo-special, roots-rooted “new trail.”

To many, Mathus is still best-known for being co-founder of one of the top alternative bands of the 1990s, the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Squirrel Nut Zippers, which did hot jazz, gypsy swing, New Orleans marches, and old vaudeville numbers and scored a major hit with the Calypso romp Hell. The band performed on the David Letterman show and at President Clinton’s 1996 inauguration.

Mathus grew up in a music-loving household in Corinth, Miss., that included a nanny who also happened to be daughter of one of blues’ early greats, Charley Patton. “She didn’t talk about him a lot. Blues was the devil’s music. He was a player in bootleg joints, whorehouses, gambling joints. That was nothing she would ever discuss. It was something not to brag about but to hide.

“Along about ’94 it came out she was the child of Charley Patton. At that time, I was of age. She was like family to me. One day I realized, holy-moly, Rosetta is Charley Patton’s daughter! It emboldened me in the blues field to pursue it even harder, to learn the guitar parts, every note.”

Even before he learned of the Charley Patton connection in his household, he was playing rock ‘n’ roll. An early effort was a punk band in junior high school named Johnny Vomit and the Dry Heaves. “We made a helluva racket. I was on a mission. I wanted to upset the applecart. I was not playing by the rules.”

Mathus considers himself a student of philosophy—he majored in philosophy at Mississippi State University—and he still probes the mysteries of Eastern and Middle Eastern as well as Western thought.  The South itself is his greatest study, however. “I had more than my plateful to know where I’m from.

“It’s important to know where you’ve been to map out where you’re going,” he says. “Not everybody cares about it. The majority of people could care less, but to me it’s important to feel a part of a bigger picture.”

Amen, preacher.

This article appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A bluesman's take on Tuesday's election: "I been down so long it looks like up to me."

Just filed my analysis of Tuesday's elections for the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss., which will run the article in next week's edition. Will also post soon afterward in Labor South.

In essence, I look at the low voter turnout--records were set in a number of states--and the disassociation growing numbers of Americans feel with money-driven Washington politics.

Here's an excerpt:

"What was their choice in Mississippi? Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, (Haley) Barbour’s premier benefactor in Washington’s money politics? (Democratic) Challenger Travis Childers, who signed the immigrant-hating, white-supremacist Federation for American Immigration Reform’s pledge of no `amnesty' for hard-working-tax-paying-but-undocumented migrant workers?" 

The sad news is that the country is now jumping from the frying pan into the fire. An emboldened Republican Party, now in control of both houses of Congress, likely will do nothing (positive certainly) about major issues like immigration. Some pundits argue President Obama will take the initiative on this very issue and do what he can without Congress. I'm growing weary of expecting the president to do what he hasn't done in the past. After all, he's also the president who has overseen record numbers of deportations of immigrants.

Neither major party offers Americans much promise, although a handful of politicians here and there do. Like the old blues refrain says, "I been down so long it looks like up to me," and looking "up" may be our only choice right now.

A political friend once told me this about Republicans: "Give them enough rope and they'll hang themselves." Well, now that they've got Congress, they can only blame Obama for the obstruction that they themselves generally cause, and eventually this may ring hollow with the American public. Maybe that's the "up" in Tuesday's election.

Another is: What do Republicans do when they're not saying, "No"? Not much beyond offering more tax breaks to Wall Street and the rich, feeding the military-industrial complex, and spreading the divide between the wealthy and the rest of America even wider. If they ever were to can Obamacare, what plan are they going to offer in its wake?

People now get a chance to see the answer to those questions. That looks like "up" to me.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Labor South roundup: FedEx drivers' court victories, big win for airline employees union, contract negotiations for casino workers in New Orleans, and international solidarity for auto workers in Mississippi

It’s time for another Labor South roundup with reports coming in of significant gains for labor on several fronts in the South. That includes court rulings against FedEx’s contention that its drivers are “independent contractors,” union representation for thousands of airline ticket and gate agents, contract negotiations for casino workers in New Orleans, and an international gathering of labor leaders in Canton, Miss., on behalf of auto workers.

FedEx drivers’ campaign to be recognized as employees

Memphis, Tenn.-based FedEx lost three rounds in California, Oregon and Kansas in the last couple of months in its effort to keep its ground drivers designated as “independent contractors” rather than employees and thus stymie them in efforts to organize into a labor union.

The Kansas Supreme Court, hardly a liberal bastion, agreed last month with earlier opinions in the Ninth Circuit involving cases in California and Oregon that drivers should be considered employees. The cases were appeals of a 2010 court decision that upheld FedEx’s claim. That decision spread across as many as 23 states. A number of appeals were filed based on a wide variety of state laws and standards.

American Airlines gets a union

An estimated 9,000 ticket and gate agents at American Airlines in Texas, Florida and North Carolina won union representation in a September vote that The Guild Reporter called “the biggest union win in the South in decades.”

After a 19-year battle, the Communications Workers union scored a major victory with Dallas-based American Airlines. The vote was made possible by American Airlines’ merger 10 months earlier with US Airways, which already had union representation.

Casino workers negotiating contract in New Orleans

As many as 900 employees at Harrah’s Hotel and Casino are waiting and watching to see the outcome of more than six months of contract negotiations that will add them to the city’s unionized workforce.

A card check last March showed some 70 percent of eligible workers supported union representation. If things go well with the contract discussions, the hospitality union Unite Here will add some 750 housekeeping and food service employees to its ranks. The Teamster’s union local will add about 150 valets, front desk workers, bellmen, and warehouse workers, marking the first time the Teamsters local has entered the hospitality industry.

An estimated 2,000 workers are employed at Harrah’s in New Orleans.

International solidarity with auto workers in Canton, Mississippi

Labor leaders from Brazil, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, South Africa and Spain, representatives from auto unions in those countries and members of the IndustriALL Global Union, last month stood together in a show of solidarity with auto workers seeking union representation at the giant Nissan plant in Canton, Miss.

IndustriALL represents more than 50 million workers in 140 nations, including workers at Nissan and Renault plants around the world.

“For years, workers have weathered an environment of intimidation and implied threats from the company regarding the fundamental, internationally recognized human right to organize a union in the workplace,” a press release from the United Auto Workers said about the event.

Local community leaders and workers have testified to a management-spawned anti-union atmosphere at the plant and Nissan’s strong dependence on temporary workers who work for less wages and fewer benefits.