Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Post-election report on UAW-Nissan election in Mississippi coming, plus farm workers' struggle in North Carolina and Canada negotiators' call for an end to "right to work" laws in the U.S.

Apologies to readers of Labor South. Teaching and other writing duties have kept me away from the blog recently, but I’ll be posting soon an update on some of the key labor activities in the South and beyond.

Expect a report soon on the situation at Nissan’s Canton, Mississippi, plant in the wake of the August election that saw workers vote against joining the United Auto Workers by nearly two-to-one odds. It was a tough election with Nissan and its allies waging a fierce battle against unionization.

In many ways, it was a typical union election in the South, where a phalanx of plant owners and management, politicians, preachers, and radio and newspaper commentators is guaranteed to decry the evils of workers having a joint voice in their working lives.

On the other side of the South in North Carolina, the state General Assembly is waging war against the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, an organization that has scored a string of victories for farm workers over the past number of years. Brent Jackson, a state senator with a long record of fines and court rulings against him for worker abuses on his farm, was prime sponsor of legislation that included provisions specifically targeted against FLOC. That legislation is now law.

Workers sometimes have to look far and wide to find support. NAFTA negotiators in Canada recently pushed the United States to get rid of its “right to work” laws as both nations and Mexico take a fresh look at the trade deal. Of course, those laws’ purpose is to gut unions wherever they are, and the laws exist throughout the South. President Trump has been critical of trade deals like NAFTA, but I’ve got a suspicion that has nothing to do with right to work laws.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Harry Dean Stanton, Hollywood's Zen Loner, celebrated at the festival that bears his name in Lexington, Kentucky

(On the Red Carpet for the premiere of the film Lucky at the Harry Dean Stanton Festival in Lexington, Kentucky, this past weekend.)

LEXINGTON, Ky. – I first noticed him in the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke. He played Tramp, the guitar-picking inmate who crooned “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” as Paul Newman walked out to see his soon-to-die mother for the last time.

It was a film that evoked the bad old days of places like Mississippi’s own Parchman Farm, where a special kind of Southern cruelty ruled.

He was a Southerner himself, son of a Kentucky tobacco farmer and a hairdresser. His mother liked to dangle a black sock in front of her infant son just to scare him. After a tough Depression-era youth, he served as a ship’s cook during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, and he felt lucky none of the Japanese suicide bombers overhead hit their target.

Maybe those experiences added a degree of poignancy to his roles in the 100-plus movies he made and 50-plus television shows.

Maybe what attracted me most to Harry Dean Stanton, who died last month at the age of 91, was that lean, weather-beaten look of the classic underdog. He was a “character actor”, a term he didn’t particularly like, one of those working stiffs of the Big Screen whose faces are known to everyone but not their names.

Stanton’s life and work (I'm writing a biography of him for the University Press of Kentucky) were celebrated this past weekend at the seventh annual Harry Dean Stanton Festival in Lexington, Kentucky, an event that included the premier of his last film, Lucky, and its director, John Carroll Lynch, and co-writer Drago Sumonja. Also on hand was musician and actor John Doe, who joined Stanton in the cast of the 1987 film Slam Dance. Created and organized by Lucy Jones of the Lexington Film League, the festival not only draws Stanton fans from far away but also a good many Stanton family members.

(To the right, Lucky director and noted actor John Carroll Lynch with Labor South author Joe Atkins at The Kentucky Theatre in Lexington, Kentucky)

I’ve always loved character actors. Cool Hand Luke was full of them. Who’ll ever forget Strother Martin as the warden saying, “What we have here is a failure to communicate”? George Kennedy, Dennis Hopper, Joe Don Baker, Ralph Waite and Stanton perfectly portrayed “the great mix of faces and personalities” you might find in a prison, said director Frank Darabont, whose own prison films, The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999, with Stanton in the cast) are classics of the genre.

Countless hours in front of the television or in a movie theater in my youth made me as much a fan of actors like Royal Dano, James Best, Dub Taylor, Cloris Leachman, Thelma Ritter, and R.G. Armstrong as of the big stars I also loved, such as Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, and Robert Mitchum.

Many of the greatest character actors were Southerners. Stanton, Warren Oates and James Best were Kentuckians. Armstrong was from Alabama, Dub Taylor from Virginia. Let me add here Johnny McPhail and his wife Susan McPhail of Oxford, Mississippi, where I live.

Character actors are “not gorgeous enough to be stars,” write Melissa Holbrook Pierson and Luc Sante in their 1999 book O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors. “Their noses have been broken one too many times. … In short, they are real.”

Stanton is unique among them, however. His career began in the mid-1950s with cowboy and other roles that led to regular appearances on TV Westerns like Gunsmoke, Have Gun, Will Travel, Rawhide and Bonanza. He played an Oklahoma hitchhiker in Two-Lane Backstop (1971), a bogus blind preacher in Wise Blood (1979), a member of Billy the Kid’s gang in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), and the crew member in Alien (1979) who is killed by the monster after calling out “Kitty, kitty, kitty” to the crew’s missing cat, Jones.

Stanton finally got his big break to play a starring role in Wim Wenders’ 1984 film Paris, Texas. His character, Travis Henderson, was a silent, lone wanderer in the desert in search of some sort of penance for past sins. “It got more and more hard to say that this is Travis and this is Harry Dean,” Wenders has said of the film. Stanton himself agreed. “I don’t know what happened to Travis. I’d say … it’s me. Still searching for liberation, or enlightenment, for lack of a better way to put it, and realizing that it might happen, it might not.”

Such comments point to another side of the actor, a lifelong bachelor, the one in Hollywood known as “Harry Zen Stanton”. A philosopher of Buddhist-tinged fatalism, Stanton has attained a kind of cult status that may be due as much for his musings about life as for his work as an actor and his musicianship. “In the end, you end up accepting everything in your life—suffering, horror, love, loss, hate—all of it.”

Besides, he said, “It’s all a movie anyway.” Okay, Harry. Then I say what a great movie your life was.

A version of this column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi.