Tuesday, December 29, 2015

An interview with Labor South's Joseph B. Atkins about his novel "Casey's Last Chance": A tale of desperate people caught in a vise in a corrupt South

Below is an interview of me done by Mayra Calvani of the Examiner (http://www.examiner.com) for its Arts & Entertainment/Books section in its December 15 edition. It deals with my recent novel Casey's Last Chance, a crime story involving an assigned hit on a labor organizer, among other things. A lot of people have told me they enjoyed reading this, so I thought I would share it with Labor South readers.

Interview for The Examiner
(To the right, Joseph B. Atkins at a cafe in Colonia, Uruguay, during a recent visit. The characters Martin Wolfe and Hardy Beecher in Casey's Last Chance first met each other not far away at the Montevideo, Uruguay, racetrack in 1940.)

Joseph B. Atkins grew up working in the tobacco fields and textile mills of his native North Carolina, served as a soldier in Vietnam, studied philosophy in Germany, and worked as a reporter in newspapers across the South and Washington, D.C. A journalism professor at the University of Mississippi, Atkins is author of Covering for the Bosses, a book about the Southern labor movement and the press’ failure to tell its story. His writing has appeared in publications such as Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, The Oxford American, Baltimore Sun, and USA Today. His novella Crossed Roads was a finalist in the Pirate’s Alley Fiction Awards in New Orleans.

Mayra Calvani: Please tell us about Casey’s Last Chance, and what compelled you to write it.

Joseph B. Atkins: This is a crime novel written in the hardboiled tradition established by writers who’ve inspired me. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James Cain, and Cornell Woolrich usually set their novels in the big cities of the North and West. Mine is set in the South, a place just as gritty and noir as Chandler’s L.A. or Hammett’s San Francisco. Several of the novel’s major characters appeared in an earlier, unpublished novel of mine, and I wanted to see what the future held for them. The South is also a character in the book, just as Chicago is in Nelson Algren’s work. I try to understand why this tortured place is the way it is, and why its people behave the way they do. This book does that, just as my earlier nonfiction book, Covering for the Bosses, did.

M.C.: What is your book about?

J.B.A.: It’s 1960 in the South, and the region is about to explode over the issue of civil rights. Casey Eubanks is a small-time hustler in North Carolina on the run after an argument with his girlfriend Orella leaves his cousin Bux dead. A crony sets Casey up with a big operator in Memphis, Max Duren, a former Nazi with a wide financial network. Duren hires Casey to do a hit on labor organizer Ala Gadomska, who’s stirring up trouble at Duren’s garment factory in Mississippi. Things go wrong, and now Casey’s on the run from Duren’s goons as well as the cops. Onto the stage steps reporter Martin Wolfe, who wants Casey to join him and FBI agent Hardy Beecher in a plan to bring Duren down. Casey steals Wolfe’s car and returns home to Orella, where a bloody shootout with a Duren goon convinces him to join Wolfe and Beecher. It’s Casey’s last chance. They take off across the South to execute a plan that may be crazy enough to work or more likely blow up in all their faces.

M.C.:  What themes do you explore in Casey’s Last Chance?

J.B.A.: A reviewer of Covering for the Bosses criticized that book for being an indictment. My plea? Guilty as charged. Casey’s Last Chance is also a kind of indictment of the South, but this writer-as-district attorney issued it with love, if that makes sense. What I’m truly indicting are the oligarchies that have always ruled the South. Each of my main characters is caught in a vise, partly of his or her own making, but partly, too, because of powerful forces at play in their society that helped tighten the grip. It’s no accident my main bad guy, Max Duren, is a former Nazi. He’s found a perfect home in Dixie. Within these broad themes, however, is a much more important one, whether a born loser like Casey Eubanks is beyond redemption. Casey’s Last Chance is a search for an answer.

M.C.:  Why do you write?

J.B.A.: I’ve been writing since the 8th grade, when my English teacher, Mr. Watson, absolutely wowed me with his classroom tales about and by Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London, and so forth. I studied at three universities, soldiered, worked as a house painter, furniture mover, construction worker, warehouse worker, before my belated beginning as a journalist. Eventually I made the very difficult transition from newsroom writer to fiction writer—it’s harder than you think—and the reason I did was I never stopped writing. I always kept a journal, jotting down impressions, the little details you’d otherwise forget. I write because I have to write, and I get in a bad mood if I don’t.

M.C.:  When do you feel the most creative?

J.B.A.: I’m a morning writer who has often written in the evening, but usually a glass of bourbon is nearby evenings and while that makes you feel brilliant at the time, the verdict is often the opposite the next morning. I’m freshest in the morning. If I’m on a writing project, and my head’s really into it, I’m thinking of ideas while I shave, shower, when I sleep. I keep a notepad by the bed to jot them down, then after my morning ritual get them onto paper. I’m going over plot and character while I’m driving to work or home or sweeping the back porch. Ideas are coming to you, too, of course, during the writing process, and one of the joys of writing is when some important revelation emerges out of the ether, and there it is, a crucial new element to your novel!

M.C.:  How picky are you with language?

J.B.A.: I tell my students here at the University of Mississippi that language is your constant companion, your tool, and hopefully your friend, not your enemy. Have a respect as well as a love for it. How you use language tells a lot about you as a person as well as a writer. The hackneyed phrase, the cliché, all the shortcuts become a question of one’s integrity, one’s commitment and sense of honesty, ultimately one’s desire for truth. We all begin by borrowing—my first stories as a 14-year-old were the most pitiful imitations of Edgar Allan Poe and Jack London you can imagine—but even then I was somehow on the search for my true voice. If you keep at it, you eventually find it. It’s there. You just have to do some serious excavation.

M.C.:  When you write, do you sometimes feel as though you were being manipulated from afar?

J.B.A.: Our experiences in life, the people we’ve known, our victories, our failures, all this is the stuff from which we draw as writers. I’ve lived hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles from where I grew up most of my adult life, yet those faces and voices I knew way back when are the ones that haunt me most at the writing desk. This is not always the case, but I reach back a lot. Maybe that’s a kind of manipulation from the ghosts of my past.

M.C.:  What is your worst time as a writer?

J.B.A.: Well, rejection slips are pretty hard to handle, and you never really get used to them no matter how many you find in your mailbox! Then there’s that nagging little devil on your shoulder who whispers in your ear, “Should you really be doing this? Don’t you think there’s better use of your time?” You look around, and it just seems so much easier for others than it is for you. Why am I having to scratch and claw while so-and-so is celebrating his latest book-of-the-month award? Most writers go through long hard years before things start clicking. Nowadays I never send something off unless I know in the very depths of my heart that it’s the very best I can do. If it’s rejected, so be it. It took me a while to reach that place. But you know, even great writers still got rejected late in their careers. Nelson Algren, one of my heroes, couldn’t find a publisher for his last couple of books. He even had a magazine article rejected. This was one of America’s greatest writers!

M.C.:  Your best?

J.B.A.: When it’s early in the morning, or occasionally late at night, and I’m at my desk when that revelation I mentioned earlier manifests itself before your very eyes, some new secret about your character that you never before realized, some new turn in the plot that seems so obvious but was so elusive just five minutes before. Those are moments of pure, unadulterated joy, moments when you jump up from your chair with a loud “Whoop!” You know in those moments that you’re doing exactly what you are meant to be doing.

M.C.:  Is there anything that would stop you from writing?

J.B.A.: I think a writer writes because he or she has to do it.  I’m not talking about the wolf at the door, and somebody’s got to pay the bills. Of course, that can be great motivator! What I mean is that despite all the griping and groaning you’re doing this simply because it’s who you are. I live in Faulkner’s town, and the old man died at 64, having said, I believe, everything he needed to say. He wrote and kept writing until he said it all, and then he died.

M.C.: What’s the happiest moment you’ve lived as an author?

J.B.A.: Getting that letter of acceptance in the mail. Vindication! Back to hell with that doubting devil on your shoulder. Then holding the book in your hand. It’s your baby. It really is. You fought like the dickens to bring it into the world, and now that it exists, you’re going to still fight for it like a mama bear!

M.C.:  Is writing an obsession to you?

J.B.A.: I’ve always had a day job—working as a reporter, teaching at a university, doing the dozen or so blue-collar jobs I did as a young man. I never had the luxury to be without the distraction of having to earn a living by some other means! So I’ve had to find those blocks of time, build a schedule and be disciplined, in pursuing this writing business. I’ll tell you, though, I’m not a happy camper if I’m not writing. I get grumpy, out of sorts, hard to live with. It’s like somebody slipped you decaf, didn’t tell you, and you’ve been drinking cup after cup all day getting increasingly irritated because there’s no damned buzz.

M.C.:  Are the stories you create connected with you in some way?

J.B.A.: Casey’s Last Chance has lots of bits and pieces of Atkins family lore. In fact, I write on the Acknowledgements page that “the rich garden of Atkins family tales and legends provided the seed that became” this novel. Casey himself was partially inspired by the black sheep of my family, a man in and out of trouble his entire life and an embarrassment to his relatives. I’m sure this has my late father turning over in his grave. I can hear him now, saying, “Of all the people in our family, you had to write about that son-of-a-bitch?” Forgive me, Dad.

M.C.:  Ray Bradbury once said, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” Do 
you agree?

J.B.A.:  Hmmm. I think you write to understand reality, to get beneath the veneer and understand what the reality really is and why. The writing exposes it, and, when successful, does away with the pretensions and subterfuges that people use to make reality seem something other than what it is. This way you’re not running away from reality. You’re confronting it, standing up to it, telling it, “Now where are you going to hide?”

M.C.:  Do you have a website or blog where readers can find out more about you and your work?

J.B.A.: I have a blog called Labor South and you can access it as follows: http://www.laborsouth.blogspot.com. I’ve never used it for my fiction, but it will tell you a lot about me and my views on things. It includes a lot of my journalism, articles on everything from writing and music to politics, the South, and the plight of the working man and woman. I’ve got a point of view, and some won’t like it, but it’s who I am.

Information about Casey’s Last Chance:
Genre: crime novel
Author: Joseph B. Atkins
Publisher: Sartoris Literary Group

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The immigrants' tango in Argentina: A model nation in immigration policies faces the possible return of neo-liberalism and new tensions over migrant workers

(To the right, the tango at Confitería Ideal in Buenos Aires)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – We’re in the century-old Confitería Ideal listening to the mother of all tangos, “La Cumparsita”, and I’m thinking about the crime and poverty-ridden barrio world into which the tango was born. Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges describes it perfectly in his short story, “Streetcorner Man”.

“He was admired for the way he handled a knife,” Borges says about the Slasher, a barrio gang leader in his story. “Sharp dresser, too. He always rode up to the whorehouse on a dark horse, his riding gear decked out in silver. … He usually wore a soft hat with a narrow brim … it would sit in a cocky way on his long hair, which he slicked straight back.”

(Jorge Luis Borges in Paris in 1969)

Then one night the Slasher’s rival—whom they called the Butcher—challenged him for his woman. “He called to the musicians to play loud and strong, and he ordered the rest of us to dance. From one end of the hall to the other, the music ran like wildfire. … `Make way, boys, she’s all mine now!’”

The tango was the music of Argentina’s poor creole natives and its immigrants, Italians mostly, who came by the millions to Argentina in the late 1800s. The music was sad, sometimes angry, often fatalistic, reflecting homesickness, resentment against the “patrón”, or despair for the woman who had made their lives hell. They spoke a distinct dialect, lunfardo, the language of some of the greatest tangos.

The immigrants came as a result of the governing elite’s “gobernar es poblar” (“to govern is to populate”) policy at the turn of the last century, a policy to import cheap European labor to work the newly cultivated fields in Argentina’s vast countryside as well as in its urban ports and construction sites, and also to lift the country beyond the creole culture that was seen as a hindrance to progress.

As “wealth … was routed to Buenos Aires and to Europe, it was thus confirmed that tenancy, sharecropping, and land speculation would be the agricultural destiny of Argentina,” Robert D. Crassweller writes in his monumental Perón and the Enigmas of Argentina. As for the city, “many immigrants, in fact, never penetrated beyond the capital.”

Thus, the creole and the immigrant were pitted against one another, not only in competition for work but also Argentina’s soul. The tango, created by the creole and adopted by the immigrant, reflected a world disconcerting to both, a strange, dark, unfamiliar world where the deck seemed stacked against them. Out of their struggle came the nation’s greatest art form and gift to the rest of the world.
“The pervasive sense of sadness (in the tango) is tied to the immigrant as a physical presence of the elite’s destruction of creole Argentina,” writes Donald S. Castro in his 1991 book The Argentine Tango As Social History (1880-1955): The Soul of the People. “Both the immigrant and the creole made the tango their vehicle for expressing their feelings.”

Castro quotes the writer Ernesto Sábato to explain further: “`It was as painful for the immigrant to hear the creole bitterness, as it was for the creole to see his country invaded by strangers.’”

The dance, sensuous beyond all other dances, tells of the importance of women in their lives. Women were greatly outnumbered in those Wild West years of Argentina, and when a man got one on the floor, he held her close, cheek to cheek, and his sharp, lunging steps were like the wave of a stiletto, a warning to other men to stay away.

Unlike in the United States where politicians from presidential candidate Donald Trump to Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant seem to have forgotten their own immigrant ancestry and demagogue the modern-day immigrant as the “other”, a source of endless problems, Argentina has a deep consciousness of its immigrant heritage. By 1914, 58 percent of Argentines were first or second generation immigrants. Seventy percent of Buenos Aires’ population was foreign-born. They were important in Argentina’s rise to one of the world’s sixth richest countries by 1920.

Argentina’s most famous military leaders, politicians and artists—from José de San Martín and Juan Peron to writer Borges and tango crooner Carlos Gardel—were either immigrants or exiles during their lifetimes. “Deep down, (Astor) Piazzolla himself was always something of an uprooted, nostalgic migrant,” María Susana Azzi and Simon Collier write in their biography of the prominent master of so-called “Nuevo Tango”, who spent formative years in New York City.

At a time when Republican politicians in the United States are demanding a ban on Syrian immigrants and a wall between the nation’s southern border and Mexico, Argentina boasts one of the world’s most open policies toward immigration. Laws were passed in 2004 and 2013 guaranteeing equality and workplace protection to such workers as the country’s 100,000 Paraguayan domestic workers. They get maternity leave, paid holidays, and they cannot be forced to work more than 48 hours a week.

Migrants are a global phenomenon. Between 2000 and 2010, their number grew from 150 million to 214 million. Add war and political strife to economic pressures and you’ve got huge portions of the world population in a constant search for a better life. Exacerbating those economic pressures are neo-liberal policies that exploit cheap migrant work through trade agreements like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). These agreements may enrich hedge fund operators on Wall Street and fatten the coffers of the politicians who support them but usually bring nothing but misery on working people.

Argentina was an early victim of neo-liberalism and its insistence on deregulation, privatization, free market globalization, and crushing foreign indebtedness, factors that plunged the nation into bankruptcy and depression in 2001. The economic crisis led to the out-migration of hundreds of thousands of Argentines of European descent in search of a better life abroad. Ironically, the nation continued to lure low-wage, unskilled workers from neighboring countries in South America.

One of the most amazing stories to come out of Argentina’s economic struggles is told in Sin Patrón, a book by the Lavaca Collective (a worker-run collective of journalists in Argentina). It recounts how workers themselves took over approximately 170 once-productive companies that had gone into bankruptcy as a result of business practices that had saddled them with enormous debt while enriching corporate executives.

(Political posters featuring the image of former Argentine leader Juan 
Perón on Buenos Aires' streets during the November elections)

The economy recovered greatly over the course of 12 years (2004-2015) of pro-worker, left-leaning Peronist rule by the late Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina. However, elections in 2015 put wealthy neoliberal Mauricio Macri into the presidency and signaled a possible shift back to the principles that earlier had Argentina on the rack and more recently Greece.

Just as they did at the turn of the last century, native workers in Argentina worry that Macri may turn the immigration issue against them by opening the floodgates to cheap, non-organized foreign workers from Bolivia and other countries. “How do you care for Argentine workers if you open the doors like what was done in the 1990s?” Hernan Pose, a member of the CTA (Central de trabajadores de la Argentina) workers organization, told me as he handed out anti-Macri leaflets in Buenos Aires’ busy Calle Florida this past November.

(Argentine workers Hernan Pose and Rodolfo Olmos on Calle Florida in Buenos Aires)

His colleague and fellow CTA member Rodolfo Olmos nodded. “Yes, it is a big problem.”

So even with its rich immigrant tradition and welcoming policies, Argentina isn’t immune to tensions over migrant workers. Let’s hope its politicians don’t look northward toward that big behemoth beyond the Rio Grande for models in how handle those tensions.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Four reasons for Labor to cheer in the South: UAW wins in Tennessee, West Virginia coal boss found guilty, populist Democrat wins governor's race in Louisiana, and firefighters organize in Laurel, Mississippi - PLUS ADDENDUM: NLRB charges Nissan with violating workers' rights in Mississippi plant

Labor activists and other progressive folks in the South have four new reasons to cheer: a United Auto Workers victory in Chattanooga, the rare criminal conviction of a coal mining boss in connection with the death of miners who worked for him; the victory of a populist Democrat in Louisiana’s gubernatorial race, and a union victory in Laurel, Mississippi.

All four events took place in recent weeks. Whether they signal more changes to come remains uncertain, but we’ll take good news wherever we find it, won’t we?

UAW wins historic vote at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga

Nearly three-fourths of the skilled trades workers—71 percent--at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., voted to join the UAW in a December 3 & 4 election. The victory sent shock waves across the corporate South, where CEO’s like Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn thought he’d found non-union heaven and anti-worker politicians like Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., thought their Valentine’s Day 2014 demagoguery in the UAW’s previous Chattanooga election had nailed the union’s coffin shut in their state.

I keep telling my pessimism-prone labor friends that you’ve got to keep a long view and remember that labor was on its knees once before—the 1920s—just prior to its historic rise in the 1930s to become a major force in American society. I grew up in the segregated South and wondered whether we’d ever get rid of Jim Crow. I later lived in West Germany and remember thinking that the Berlin Wall would never come down. Those are reasons why I’m today often the last optimist in the room!

According to Reuters, the 164 skilled trades workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant represent 11 percent of the total 1,450 hourly workforce. A Volkswagen appeal of last week’s election likely will get no sympathy from the National Labor Relations Board.

The UAW victory marks the first union victory in a foreign-owned plant in what is called “Detroit South”. It comes nearly two years after the union lost a 712-626 vote for bargaining rights at the plant. That vote came even though Volkswagen claimed it was open to union representation at the plant.

However, low and mid-level managers at the Chattanooga plant openly worked against the union in the February 2014 election, and Haslam, Corker and other Tennessee politicians, along with national groups like Grover Norquist’s conservative Americans for Tax Reform, fought vigorously against it. Both Haslam and Corker were caught in public lies regarding their anti-union activity.

In the aftermath of the February 2014 vote, Volkswagen and the UAW began exploring the idea of establishing a European-style works council at the plant.

Last December, Volkswagen certified the UAW for top tier representation in labor policy there, which must have caused a lot of lost sleep for the anti-union, mysteriously funded American Council of Employees. The ACE wanted that top tier representation solely for itself as a means of keeping the UAW out. In actuality, the ACE only exists as a counterweight to the UAW, and it would mostly likely cease to exist the moment the UAW left town.

Coal industry boss Don Blankenship is GUILTY

Former Massey Energy Chief Executive Donald L. Blankenship conspired to violate federal safety standards at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, where 29 workers died in a 2010 explosion. That was the verdict of a jury of 12 that also exonerated Blankenship of three additional felony charges related to the incident.

The misdemeanor conviction can lead up to only one year in prison, and Blankenship was never accused of what the New York Times called “direct responsibility for the deaths,” but the symbolic victory of having the coal industry’s first top executive actually tried and found guilty in connection to miners’ deaths is huge.

Federal prosecutors claimed Blankenship was responsible for 835 mine safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine between 2008 and 2010. Blankenship retired from his position at Massey in 2010.

Populism gets another ride in Louisiana!

Louisiana may have the strongest populist tradition in the South. This is the state that elected Depression-era populist Huey Long governor and U.S. senator before his assassination in 1935. Louisiana voters would go on to elect Huey Long’s populist brother Earl Long governor three times and fellow traveler Edwin Edwards four times as governor.

In another shock to conservatives across the South, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, defeated conservative Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter in the November 21 gubernatorial race. Edwards won by a commanding 12 percent over the scandal-ridden Vitter, becoming the only Democratic governor in the once solidly Democrat Deep South.

Edwards, conservative on some social issues, is a progressive populist on economic issues. His message resonated with voters sick of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s disastrous leadership of the state, a leadership that endangered education and health care while Jindal sought the national limelight as a short-lived presidential candidate.

A legacy of Huey Long is that governors in Louisiana have more power than most governors. Edwards has pledged to expand Medicaid, support public schools, and roll back government give-aways to big corporations in an effort to secure greater tax fairness.

The dreaded (by Republicans, local newspaper editors, and Fox News watchers) spectre of labor unionism rises again in Laurel, Mississippi!

Laurel, Mississippi, site of the recent political battle over workers’ low wages at government subsidy-rich Howard Industries, is again on the labor frontlines as 80 percent of local firefighters have agreed to join a reorganized Local 207 of the Laurel Firefighters Association.

Chartered in 1919 as part of the International Association of Firefighters, the union endeared itself to the community for years not only for its support of its members’ safety and good working conditions but also for its Christmas toy drive for needy children and other community events.

A decline in membership in the early years of the new century led to the local’s near extinction, but new life has been breathed into a reorganized local and its 49 members.

This blog has closely followed another development in Laurel over the past year, the controversy over giant Howard Industries. The producer of electrical transformers has long been the beneficiary of politicians’ largesse—tax breaks, subsidies totaling at least $60 million, a $20 million bond issue from the county.

Yet many of the 4,000-employee company’s predominantly black workforce have complained of low wages for their grueling work and an obstinate management that 16 meetings failed to budge. A union-backed study showed workers there earn just 61 percent what workers at a similar plant in Crystal Springs, Miss., earn.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 1317, represents approximately half the workforce at Howard Industries.

The Laurel City Council voted 5-1 in favor of the workers in July 2015, but pressures from the company, local leadership and local newspaper likely contributed to a reversal of that vote in August.

Recall that Howard Industries was the site of the largest raid against undocumented workers in the history of the United States. In the 2008 raid, the federal government  
arrested hundreds of migrant workers at the plant.

ADDENDUM: NLRB Charges Nissan with workers' rights violations in Canton, Miss.

The National Labor Relations Board has filed charges against Nissan for violating workers' rights at its Canton, Miss., plant by keeping them from wearing clothing with pro-union logos to work.

According to the Associated Press, the company instituted a uniform policy in 2014 at its plants in Mississippi and Tennessee that effectively prevented them from wearing clothing with a pro-union logo or message. The United Auto Workers, which has been organizing at the Canton, Miss., plant for several years, made the complaints that led to the charges.

Pro-union workers at the plant had been wearing T-shirts proclaiming their views. The company's 2014 uniform policy called on workers to wear company-issued shirts and pants. A Nissan spokesman told the Associated Press that the policy was not mandatory.

The NLRB also filed charges against Kelly Services, which supplies Nissan with temporary workers at the Canton plant.

UAW Secretary Gary Casteel told the AP that the NLRB only filed charges in roughly 6 percent of the 20,000 worker complaint cases that it received in 2014.