Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Werner Herzog: "Do something about it" if you're mad about GOP attacks on workers, education, the poor

(Werner Herzog at Rhodes College in Memphis in September)

German film director Werner Herzog, famous for films such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Nosferatu, and Lessons of Darkness, told an audience at Rhodes College in Memphis recently that grumbling about President Trump and Republican rule is meaningless unless you’re willing to do something about it.

“The heartland is the best of America, the real core of America,” Herzog said in a wide-ranging talk about film, actors, and current times after a screening of his 2005 film The Wild Blue Yonder. “For the first time, they combined their voices, and no matter who they elected, in this case, Trump, you better take it seriously. … It is very easy to denounce. If there is discontent among you with this president, do something about it. Stand up, vote, rally other people. Things might change.”

Certainly this is the winter of a lot of discontent. And certainly something needs to be done about it.

After losing a bitter election at the giant Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, in August, the United Auto Workers went on to lose another election at Fuyao Glass America in Dayton, Ohio, the culmination of an 18-month struggle. The vote was 886-441.

The Republican-led Congress is weighing a tax bill that will damage workers’ lives on a number of fronts, including changes in worker classification in the gig/platform/sharing sectors. Making workers independent contractors rather than employees has long been a trick by companies such as FedEx, and it’s their way to avoid paying pension and other benefits and to keep those workers from unionizing.

Another Republican proposal is to require students who are Pell Grant recipients to repay their grants if they fail to finish college within six years. At present, such repayments are not required. It is yet another assault on education led by elitist politicians who see education as a benefit for their own, not average working people.

According to a UAW statement this month, the GOP tax plan “will make it easier to ship even more good-paying manufacturing jobs overseas by eliminating taxes on offshore profit. This tax plan blows a hole in the federal deficit and sticks you and your grandchildren with the bill. The GOP plan also unfairly raises taxes on the middle class and retirees.”

More and more people in this country struggle while the Dow Jones industrial average grows by double digit numbers. Nation magazine columnist Eric Alterman reports that 5 million more Americans are “food insecure” at the same time the 400 wealthiest Americans saw their net worth grow to $2.4 trillion. In total, some 41 million Americans aren’t sure about their next meal.

Meanwhile Trump wants to cut $191 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a 25 percent cut.

Is the Democratic Party preparing massive resistance? Well, Will Marshall, a co-founder of the centrist, pro-corporate Democratic Leadership Council that nurtured the likes of former President Clinton, wants the party to adopt what Nation magazine calls a “$20 million program to discover how to talk to working people without alienating Wall Street.”

We wouldn’t want to alienate Wall Street, would we? Not that Wall Street gives a damn.

Not sure this is what Werner Herzog had in mind.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A post-election look at the union loss at Nissan's Mississippi plant, plus farm workers under attack in North Carolina

OXFORD, Miss. – Travis Parks, a 14-year veteran worker at Nissan’s plant in Canton, Mississippi, admits that losing the union election in August was hard.

“Putting a lot of time into it, it was a rough event for me,” says the 43-year-old, who works in the truck system at the plant, “but you have to step back and re-evaluate what went wrong. … I am pretty much taking an optimistic approach to this. I see an opportunity to educate workers who didn’t know what was going on.”

Parks worked hard to get fellow workers to see the benefits of belonging to the United Auto Workers. However, he and other pro-union workers couldn’t counter the anti-union barrage waged against them—the anti-union videos, the one-on-one meetings, the threats of lost jobs and a shut-down plant, the endless stream of anti-union commercials on television.

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.

Parks says the Nissan-Canton management has made a few post-election changes—painting the bathrooms, improving some benefits for temporary workers--but the changes are merely cosmetic. “Small, insignificant things to make it appear that they are concerned.”

A source who works with the national UAW, asking to remain anonymous, says, “there is a natural period of time” after an election loss when people are “being introspective, retrospective.” The UAW still has an office in Canton, but it has reduced its staff there.

In These Times writer Joe Allen says the Nissan-Canton election loss “is nothing less than a knockout punch ending for the foreseeable future any efforts by the UAW to organize the large, predominantly foreign-owned auto assembly plants in the South.” He says the UAW’s loss of militance is partly to blame. “The UAW has become a prison of its modern history … a long track record of making concessions on wages, benefits, and working conditions.” 

What the future holds remains uncertain. Workers are at the mercy of the company, and they have nothing really to say or do about it. It’s a situation facing blue-collar workers across the nation these days.

Many of them voted for Donald Trump to be president. Unlike Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, Trump at least talked about bringing good-paying blue-collar jobs back to America and an end to job-killing trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.  

Trump ended TPP, but he’s done little else to live up to his campaign populism. His tax reform plan is the same old Republican saw that tax cuts to the rich trickle down prosperity to everybody else, the same lie today that it was when Ronald Reagan pushed that bill of goods.

Every demagogue has to have an “other” to blame for the nation’s troubles, and Trump’s was the immigrant. No Mexican-financed wall yet, but he has called for a major increase in jails and prisons for the tens of thousands of immigrants agents at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have been arresting. Some of these facilities are little more than modern-day concentration camps for people whose big crime is to seek work that U.S.-pushed trade deals destroyed in their home countries.

Trump is feuding with establishment Republican leaders like U.S. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. However, don’t kid yourself. Those Republicans are on the same page with Trump when it comes to serving their corporate friends and doing nothing for workers.

In my native North Carolina, the Republican-ruled General Assembly passed a law this year aimed directly at destroying the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, farm workers’ best hope for justice in the fields.

Republican N.C. state Senator Brent Jackson, a farmer fined and cited in court rulings repeatedly for mistreating his workers, pushed through legislation that bans farmworker unions from deducting union dues from workers’ wages. The law even prohibits farmers from agreeing to a union contract as a means to settle lawsuits.

To whom can workers turn for support? The Democratic Party? Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez has undertaken a purge of party leaders who supported pro-union Bernie Sanders during last year’s presidential primaries. In their place are Clintonite corporate lobbyists.

Travis Parks, I admire your optimism at a time like this. I often call myself the last optimist in the room, but I’m worried that maybe now you are.

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