Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Phil Ochs wanted Mississippi to "find another country to be part of." Now it's the very heart of America

(Phil Ochs in the 1960s)

OXFORD, Miss. – Way back in 1964, the year of “Freedom Summer” and the disappearance and death of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, the “singing journalist” Phil Ochs offered this elegy:

 “Here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
  Mississippi, find yourself another country to be part of”

More recently an anonymous writer who calls himself the “Socialist Wizard” composed and published a new version of Ochs’ classic with President Trump taking Mississippi’s place. In the song, the singer asks that the president find “another country to be part of”—another sign perhaps of what writer Peter Applebome has called “the Americanization of Dixie.”

As 2018 draws to a close, and 2019 looms ahead, Mississippi, as extreme as it has always seemed to many Americans, is indeed a microcosm of the nation. In the 2018 election, Mike Espy, a black Mississippian with impressive credentials as a former congressman and U.S. secretary of agriculture, came closer than any Democrat since 1982 to winning, garnering 46 percent of the vote in a racially divided state.

Still, he lost to Trump devotee Cindy Hyde-Smith, who made her president, gun rights and the evils of abortion and illegal immigration the most important election issues to her white supporters in the nation’s poorest state. No matter that Mississippi already has the nation’s most restrictive laws on abortion, or that illegal immigration is at a 12-year low.

Espy, hardly a wild-eyed radical as a former supporter of Republican Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association, campaigned largely on the need to do something about the state’s (and nation’s) deteriorating health care system.

Nationally, the Democrats took over the U.S. House of Representatives in the elections, but they lost ground in the U.S. Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already indicated he’s once again going after Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid along with the complete dismantling of the Affordable Care Act. The pretext for a renewed assault on Social Security and other popular safety net programs? The U.S. budget deficit, of course! Never mind that McConnell and his fellow Republicans deeply worsened that deficit with the gigantic 2017 tax cut they bestowed on the nation’s richest (and most solidly Republican voting) citizens.

With Democrats in charge of the U.S. House, new momentum in the longstanding investigation into Russian meddling in U.S. political affairs can be expected. Looking beyond just the 2016 election and Trump’s White House, let’s hope investigators will give close scrutiny to K Street lobbyists such as former U.S. senator from Mississippi Trent Lott, who gave up his office to join with his buddy and former Democratic U.S. senator from Louisiana, John Breaux, to form a powerful lobbying team in 2008. Lott and Breaux were principal lobbyists for Gazprombank, a subsidiary of Russia’s biggest natural gas supplier, in 2014, according to journalist Craig Unger’s new book House of Trump, House of Putin.   

Unger goes on to write that Haley Barbour’s lobby firm, Barbour Griffith & Rogers, has been the beneficiary of $2 million in payments from the Russian conglomerate Alfa. These are all part of a wide-ranging network of Russia’s big money influence in Washington, D.C.

These days Trump is rattling his saber at General Motors for the firm’s recent announcement that it was shutting down five plants, four of them in the United States, and cutting 14,000 jobs, all in the wake of Trump’s self-ballyhooed deal to replace NAFTA with a  new, worker-friendly trade deal.

Just days before GM’s announcement, Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn was arrested and soon to be fired in connection with allegations he had dipped into company coffers for his own further enrichment and at the same time underreported his earnings at the company.

Yes, this is the same Carlos Ghosn who bitterly fought workers’ efforts to organize at his plants in Mississippi and Tennessee and who was welcomed in Mississippi as a corporate hero for bringing Nissan’s giant plant to Canton.

Phil Ochs, what would you say to this turn of events? Mississippi, no need to find another country to be part of. You’re very much the heart of this one.

A version of this column will appear as my last regular monthly column for the Jackson Free Press, although I hope still to appear in those pages from time to time. My Labor South blog continues, of course, and I hope to be able to devote more time to it and make it stronger than ever. I’ve been writing a regular column for Mississippi newspapers for 35 years, the last six at the Jackson Free Press, but book writing, teaching and other duties have made it difficult to continue. The column has been a great ride, but I’ll be still firing away in this blog and elsewhere! Best wishes to all for a wonderful Christmas and Happy New Year!

Friday, December 7, 2018

Jazz guitarist Calvin Newborn jumped and flew while his pianist brother Phineas Jr. quietly pondered, and both created magic. A Memphis jazz dynasty comes to an end.

The best thing about Beale Street in Memphis some years back was at the King’s Palace where the great jazz guitarist Calvin Newborn played regularly. He was with organist Charlie Wood’s small band at the time, and he was the highlight with his wry smile and long, mellow, perfect riffs.

Long after Calvin left his native Memphis and moved to Florida, I found a copy of his CD New Born at Shangri-La Records on Madison Avenue. For the next few months, I rarely drove in, around, into or out of Calvin’s city without having “The Streetwalker’s Stroll” or “Spirit Trane/Omnifarious” playing on my car’s CD player. Both tunes had an urban vibe that matched the scenery around me, a uniquely Memphis urban vibe that’s never too far from the same rich Delta soil that has forever fed the city musically.

Calvin died this week at the age of 85 at his home in Jacksonville, Florida. With his passing goes a Memphis jazz dynasty that included his father, bandleader Phineas Newborn Sr., and his brother Phineas Jr., whom jazz critic Leonard Feather once called “the greatest living jazz pianist.”

(To the right, Phineas Newborn Jr.)

Even in death, Calvin remained somewhat in the shadow of his more famous brother. Phineas Jr., whose troubled story was beautifully told in Memphis-based writer Stanley Booth’s classic 2000 book Rythm Oil: A Journey Through the Music of the American South, suffered mental problems his entire life—he had his first nervous breakdown before he turned 30—yet produced music of such surpassing beauty and genius that Count Basie and another Memphis jazz great, bandleader Jimmie Lunceford, became two of his biggest champions. Phineas Jr. and Charles Mingus joined to do the soundtrack for John Cassavetes’ 1959 film Shadows.

Among my vinyl treasures is a copy of Phineas Jr.’s album Solo Piano with its cover depicting the pianist as the Sphinx he truly was in life.

Calvin and Phineas grew up in the working class Orange Mound neighborhood in south Memphis, where “on nearly every block, there’s a reputed crack den covered in gang graffiti, or a few stray bullet holes from a recent drive by shooting,” writes Andria Lisle in the liner notes to New Born. “In the summer time, the kids play outside, but not too far from their own doorsteps.”

Their father was a famous bandleader who would hang out with traveling musician friends like Count Basie and Jimmie Lunceford when they came through town. When the boys got old enough, they’d play in their father’s band at Plantation Inn in West Memphis, where whites went to party at night. Then they’d cross the river back into Memphis and go to Mitchell’s on Beale Street, where they’d jam into the early morning.

Phineas Jr. was a year older than Calvin, and the two boys were as different as night and day in many ways. Phineas Jr. was quiet, cerebral, withdrawn, all he wanted to do was sit at the piano and play, play, play. Calvin was like his grandfather, who played electric guitar at the Church of God in Christ and jumped around the altar shouting the glory of God to the hand-clapping, foot-stomping congregation. Memphis writer Robert Gordon tells the story through the eyes of the boys’ mother, Mama Rose, in his recent book Memphis Rent Party.

“That’s why Calvin’s got to move,” she said about her youngest son, who never knew his grandfather. “It was just in ‘em both to move! And it was in their daddy and me, too. I used to dance and play the piano, played organ at church. Just music lovers.”

Calvin was the extrovert all right, full of antics and jumping high on stage. “I was about six feet in the air, playing the guitar” he told Robert Gordon.

Phineas Jr. just sat at his piano, the Sphinx weaving beautiful melodies or bebop magic with his gliding, sliding, jumping fingers, letting those fingers do the acting up.

By the time I got to Memphis and saw Calvin, he had slowed down a bit, no longer jumping six feet high, calm in his chair, watching his fingers glide and slide up and down the neck of his guitar. Still, he’d glance up at the audience from time to time, a little grin on his face, a glint in his eye that told you he was still his own man, and he still might jump if he had a mind to.  

Monday, November 19, 2018

Union buster Carlos Ghosn is gone as Nissan chairman, accused of dipping into company coffers for his own enrichment and understating his earnings at the company

(Carlos Ghosn in 2009)

Japanese authorizes places Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn under arrest today (November 19) for claims that he dipped into the company till to enrich his already handsome earnings and that he has been lowballing the amount of those earnings for years.

The Reuters news agency reports that the Nissan Board will fire Ghosn this week, and his chairmanship and status as CEO of partner firm Renault is in question as French President Emmanuel Macron said the company’s top shareholders, the French government, is monitoring developments closely.

“To have so greatly violated the trust of many, I feel full of disappointment and regret,” Hiroto Saikawa, who took over from Ghosn as Nissan CEO last year, said at a news conference. “”It’s not just disappointment, but a stronger feeling of outrage and, for me, despondency.”

Saikaway had worked closely with Ghosn for years.

Nissan Representative Director Greg Kelly has also been accused of financial misdeeds.

Ghosn's earnings at the company were estimated at $10 million annually in late 2017, and his total worth was estimated at $100 million. Nissan is a $38.4 billion company that received a $363 million incentives package from the nation's poorest state, Mississippi, in 2000 to build a plant there. Those incentives have increased substantially since 2000, according to the United Auto Workers. In 1980, the state of Tennessee gave Nissan $44 million in incentives to build a plant in Smyrna, Tennessee.

Both Nissan and Renault stock values have dropped as the business world reels from the news about one of its most public and highly esteemed figures.

Labor South readers know Carlos Ghosn’s name well as he led Nissan through long years of union battles at the company’s plants in Tennessee and Mississippi, the only non-unionized plants in a corporation that stretches across the globe. Ghosn fought those union efforts tooth and nail although he told the French Parliament in 2016 that Nissan always cooperates with unions.

In 2001, however, he famously (infamously, I should say) warned Nissan workers in Smyrna the day before a union election there that voting “Yes” to a union “is not in your best interests.” They got the message and voted “No”, just as they did at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, in August 2017. That vote came after intense pressure from Nissan management to keep the union out, pressure that included direct violations of international labor standards, according to a 2013 report commissioned by the United Auto Workers.

Ghosn actually rose to fame in the corporate world by slashing so many jobs that he became known in France as “le cost killer”.

Born to Lebanese parents in Brazil and a French citizen as well as a British knight, Ghosn is a comic-book hero in Japan who formerly oversaw the North American operations of the Michelin tire company. Operating out of Greenville, South Carolina, Ghosn’s Michelin successfully prevented the documentary Uprising of ’34 from being shown at the Spartanburg Technical College in 1995. The landmark documentary dealt with the killing of seven striking textile workers in nearby Honea Path, South Carolina, in 1934.

Friday, November 9, 2018

U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy could make history in Mississippi's Nov. 27 runoff but he faces an uphill battle

(To the right, U.S. Senate candidate and former Mississippi Congressman and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy)

OXFORD, Miss. - I covered Mike Espy during his historic winning bid in 1986 to become Mississippi’s first black congressman since Reconstruction, and I covered him in Washington, D.C., during the first two of his three terms in Congress. He was a young fellow still in his thirties then with a practical, moderate brand of politics that enabled him to keep winning in a predominately black-but-still largely white dominated district.

Espy was different from his successor, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, another Democrat but more the firebrand. Knowing he was less able to reach across the aisle than Espy, Thompson helped negotiate the redistricting of Mississippi’s “Delta” district, extending its border farther south to give black voters a sure majority and in the meantime siphon those votes away from neighboring districts and making them more white.

While serving as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Clinton, Espy began a four-year battle against allegations that he had taken gifts from companies he was regulating as secretary. He could have pleaded a deal, but he fought for his innocence and he won. The legal battle cost taxpayers $26 million and $1.3 million out of Espy’s own pocket and from the pockets of his friends. “The political experience was searing for me,” Espy recently told the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi.

After 24-year hiatus from politics, during which time he practiced law, remarried, and rebuilt his life, Espy is back in the fray, running for the seat vacated by U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, a Republican who retired in March after a nearly 40-year career in the Senate. On Tuesday, Espy carried 41 percent of the vote, enough to face Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith in a runoff November 27. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith to fill Cochran’s seat after he retired.

Espy comes out of the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party and is no raging liberal. He won an award from the NRA in 1988, although he now says “I didn’t leave the NRA, the NRA left me” and laments the organization’s turn to the “really right wing.” Labor organizers still bristle at Espy’s silence during the historic catfish workers strike in the Mississippi Delta in 1990. Espy supporters say he was working on behalf of the strikers behind the scene, but critics wonder whether he simply didn’t want to alienate wealthy Delta benefactors.

In 2007, he endorsed Republican Haley Barbour's bid for a second term as Mississippi governor.

However, in this election, he has campaigned vigorously on behalf of better health care for Mississippians and raged against the closing of rural hospitals that came from Bryant’s opposition to Obamacare and refusal to expand Medicaid. Mississippi is in desperate straits these days after years of Republican rule, the poorest state in the nation with the most threadbare of safety nets for its poor and a political leadership that largely could care less.

Democrats took back the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday but lost ground in the U.S. Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is already stirring the pot for another Republican-led assault on Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, and using the growing deficit caused by the Republican-sponsored tax cut to the wealthy as an excuse. The Senate needs Espy, but he faces an uphill battle on November 27.

In the November 6 primary, Republicans split their vote between the establishment candidate, Hyde-Smith, and Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel. President Trump, a Tea Party hero, gave his endorsement to Hyde-Smith, which McDaniel says doomed his candidacy. Still, McDaniel is urging his voters to support Hyde-Smith, saying loyalty to the president is necessary even when it means voting for an “establishment” candidate.

Hyde-Smith, a former Mississippi commissioner of agriculture, has raised some $3 million for her campaign, and Espy’s campaign chest is around $2 million. Expect a lot of frenzied activity in both camps over the next two weeks. After initial resistance, Hyde-Smith has agreed to debate Espy. Either way, the race is historic with the opportunity for Mississippi to have either its first female elected U.S. senator or its first elected black U.S. senator since Reconstruction.

Let’s hope history is made in a way that Mississippi needs it to be made.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Trump replaces a rotten deal--NAFTA--with a new trade deal but is it a good deal?

(Bill Mauldin)

OXFORD, Miss. – When the great World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin returned from Europe in 1945, he saw a dark side to the great citadel of democracy he’d been defending. He found an America riddled with fast-talking shysters, scam artists, religious zealots and big talking politicians who loved to pat the backs of the veteran and working stiff but did little or nothing for them.

“Demagogues have winning ways, especially with the man who has no one else to whom he can turn in his troubles,” Mauldin wrote in the 1947 book Back Home.

Mauldin, creator of the scraggly bearded, foxhole-digging infantrymen Willie and Joe in his Stars and Stripes cartoons, would have a field day with Donald Trump, another demagogue who talks the talk but rarely walks the walk.

On first inspection, Trump seems to have indeed walked the walk with the recent new trade deal that replaces NAFTA with the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Under the agreement, a significant percentage of a newly manufactured automobile—estimates range from 30 to 45 percent—must be made by workers earning no less than $16 an hour.

Furthermore, 75 percent—compared to NAFTA’s 62.5 percent—of the parts in that automobile must be made in the three-nation region.

The new deal also partially eliminates the odious Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) process that allowed a corporation to sue a government if it imposes discriminatory regulations that inhibit that corporation’s profits. ISDS has been scratched between the United States and Canada, but not between the United States and Mexico.

NAFTA was a rotten deal from the minute President Clinton signed it into law in 1994. Within three years, it had cost the United States 100,000 jobs, a toll that would rise to 1 million by 2005, most of them in manufacturing. The U.S. textile industry dissolved as companies packed up and moved to the sweatshops of Mexico and the Far East. At one point, Mississippi, the nation’s poorest state, ranked third among states hardest hit by NAFTA.

Between January and August 1997, nine garment plants here in Mississippi shut down, including Carhartt in Drew, Sunsport Apparel in Lena, Active Sportswear in Kosciusko, Action Apparel in Starkville. In August 1997 nearly 900 workers at MagneTek in Mendenhall learned their plant was moving to Mexico.

The fact that your town—wherever it is—now has a Latino community can be traced at least in part to NAFTA, which tripled U.S. corn exports to Mexico and forced countless farmers there north to support their families.

Only a corporate-schmoozing Democrat like Bill Clinton could have pushed through NAFTA in those days—a Republican president could have never secured the Democratic votes—and he did it by promising protections for U.S. workers, a promise never delivered.

So is Trump a hero for what he calls “the most important trade deal we’ve ever made”? He reminds me of those old Mississippi pols James K. Vardaman and Theodore Bilbo, who pushed for increased funding for schools and hospitals, prison reform, and free textbooks for indigent children yet poisoned their speeches with such vile and odious racism that that’s all we remember.

When Trump came to Southaven this month, he bragged how his Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency “grabs (undocumented immigrants) by the neck, and they throw them the hell out of our country, or they throw them into jail.” Never mind that many of those immigrants are the victims of the same NAFTA deal he claims to despise.

Trump’s new trade deal—which still needs congressional approval--also incudes a huge boost to Big Pharma and agrochemical giants like Monsanto, which will get to keep patents on drugs, seeds, and pesticides a decade or more, driving prices further up, and to Big Oil & Gas by encouraging environmentally destructive fracking practices. Even the wage promise to autoworkers may be a double-edged sword as U.S. autoworkers average $22 an hour. Will there be pressure to bring those wages closer to $16?

Like Mauldin wrote 71 years ago, the man and woman who have no one else to turn to are vulnerable to demagogues. A Democrat sold them down the river back in 1994, and now a Republican claims he’s their savior.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

CoreCivic's private prison in the Mississippi Delta may now be housing hundreds of asylum seekers who've committed no crime

(The Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi)

OXFORD, Miss. – Father Walter J. Ciszek’s only crime was to minister to laborers in a remote Ural Mountains village, but it was 1941 and the American-born priest soon found himself swept into the Soviet Gulag, where he would spend the next two decades.

“I could not overcome the shock occasioned by the total loss of freedom and the sense of complete control held by someone else over my every action, my every liberty, my every need,” Ciszek would later write. “People could disappear into those prisons and never be heard of again.”

The world’s largest gulag today is in the United States, where a quarter of the world’s prison population is behind bars, and Mississippi is at the heart of that gulag with the nation’s fifth highest incarceration rate.   

Although the state has reduced its prison population in recent years, new arrivals from as far away as India and Nepal may reverse that trend, and what’s more, many of these new arrivals have committed no crime.

The epicenter of this new trend appears to be the for-profit, CoreCivic-owned Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in the Delta town of Tutwiler. The U.S. Marshals Service this summer contracted to send 1,350 federal inmates to the 2,672-bed prison, and sources say hundreds of asylum seekers are also being housed there.

Like Father Ciszek, asylum seekers have committed no crime. They came to the United States believing the words on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty and seeking refuge from either gut-wrenching poverty or the violence and corruption of drug cartels and dictatorships in their homeland.

“These are people who spent their last dime to get here, probably being picked up God knows where,” says Lisa Graybill of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. “Asylum seekers don’t know what rights they have.”

I contacted the prison, CoreCivic, and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and none of them is willing to break down the numbers or provide specifics on what is going on inside the prison walls. Many of the detainees or inmates may be undocumented migrants. At least some have come from prisons in other states like South Carolina.

President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy on undocumented migrants has been a boon to the private prison industry, in this writer’s mind an abomination that turns the judicial system into a profit-seeking enterprise.

The month that the U.S. Marshals Service announced its plans for the Tutwiler facility, CoreCivic’s stock rose 3.5 percent. One of the nation’s largest private prison companies, CoreCivic, like the industry as a whole, benefits not only from government largesse but also from the financial backing of major banks like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

CoreCivic, by the way, was a financial contributor to Trump’s inauguration.

Asylum seekers are supposed to be given a court hearing and vetted in a process that shouldn’t take longer than a month. However, CoreCivic and ICE won’t confirm or deny their presence, much less their length of stay, their access to family and legal counsel, the scheduling of hearings.

If the past is prelude to the future, the situation must be scary for anyone behind the walls of the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility.

“The Tutwiler facility has a sordid record,” says Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance.

Indeed, it was the scene of a violent riot in 2004 in which inmates set fire to a portable toilet, clothing and mattresses. Another CoreCivic facility, the Adams County Correctional Center, was the scene of an inmate riot in 2012 with inmates taking guards hostage. One correctional officer died in the incident.

So, you tired, poor, “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and who’ve just arrived at Tutwiler, welcome to Mississippi.

This column appears in the current edition of the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Mississippi.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Labor South Review: "City of Devils", a book about Old Shanghai and its underworld rulers before the Japanese took over in World War II

This is my review of the new book City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai by Paul French. It is running in the current edition of the New Orleans Review of Books, and I thought Labor South readers might enjoy it. 

You can access the magazine at

It was 1972, and I was drinking beer with my sergeant in our little base north of Saigon, quietly listening to his war stories when he caught my attention with one word: “Shanghai”. “You were in Shanghai?” I asked. “Yep,” he said, beaming. “1949.”

I pumped him with questions. After all, Shanghai is one of those cities that evoke mystery, intrigue, the exotic. It’s even a verb, something other exotic cities like Marseilles, Casablanca, Kathmandu, and, yes, New Orleans can’t even claim.

He talked about arriving in the port city just before the Communists took over, the crazy scramble before one world ended and another began.

I thought about my old sergeant as I read Paul French’s latest book, City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai (Picador, 2018). It’s a fascinating look at a city that in the 1930s was a freewheeling, expatriate-filled island of gambling, whoring, and partying while the rest of China, and the world for that matter, teetered toward destruction.

A list of the descriptive names people gave Shanghai gives you an idea—the “Paris of the Orient”, the “the insanity of Sodom incarnate”, “the rim of a volcano”, “the city of fear”, and finally “the city of the dead”.

“The neon-bright city feeds off its host of four hundred million peasants barely surviving in China’s fetid hinterlands and laughs at their degradation,” French writes.

The city wouldn’t laugh for long, however, as the Japanese tightened their net around it, and finally after Pearl Harbor in 1941 marched in and took control. Chiang Kai-shek’s “Free China” forces offered little protection against the Japanese hordes as the city’s denizens were “bombed, shot, strafed, burnt, diseased, frozen, and starved,” an attack that included “the worst aerial bombing of a civilian city in history.”

Still, the core story of City of Devils takes place just before the Japanese arrive, and it centers on two men who ruled the gambling dens and show palaces with their Russian dancing girls, imported Chicago jazz bands, and countless slots and roulette wheels.

“Dapper Joe” Farren, a showman who wowed audiences with his Astaire-like moves on the dance floor, had escaped the Nazi takeover of his native Vienna and the concentration camps that awaited Jews like him. “Lucky Jack” Riley was the volatile, tough-as-nails Navy vet and escaped con from the USA Midwest who had his fingertips acid-burned to erase his former identity.

Farren controlled the nightclubs, including the one that bore his name, while Riley was Shanghai’s “Slots King”, and they ruled from the western part of Shanghai known as the “Badlands”. The two eventually work together, but what two kings ever worked together very long? They will meet separate fates as the flag of the Land of the Rising Sun unfurls over Shanghai.

With this book and his earlier book Midnight in Peking, French does for the wartime Far East what novelist Alan Furst has done for wartime Europe. He recreates a danger-ridden, intrigue-filled world endlessly fascinating at this safe distance, if less so for those who suffered through it. City of Devils joins a worthy literature about Old Shanghai that includes, of course, André Malraux’s Man’s Fate and more recently Tom Bradby’s The Master of Rain.

French’s writing is a hardboiled staccato that races along at breakneck speed like a book-length Walter Winchell column. You want him to slow down sometimes, but you’re along for the ride, and you’re damned sure not going to let go.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Labor South roundup: Rural Mississippi private prison may be getting asylum seekers as it benefits from Trump's migrant crackdown; Coca-Cola strike on Gulf Coast ends with no contract but hope for better negotiations

It’s time for another Labor South roundup: Strange goings-on at a private prison in rural Mississippi, and the Teamsters end their strike at Coca-Cola facilities in Mississippi and Alabama without a contract but hope for better negotiations
Trump inaugural contributor CoreCivic gets nearly 1,400 new federal detainees and maybe hundreds of asylum seekers, too

(This includes updated information from the earlier post. More updates may be coming)

News broke in late June that the Tallahatchie Correctional Facility in the Mississippi Delta town of Tutwiler is getting 1,350 new federal detainees, courtesy of the U.S. Marshals Service. That’s the kind of thing Wall Street loves to hear, and accordingly CoreCivic—formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America---saw a 20 percent increase in the value of its stock between early April and late June.

Shares of its stock rose 3.5 percent on the very day President Trump signed an executive order ending the migrant family separations on the U.S.-Mexico border, according to Michelle Liu with Mississippi Today.

Analysts say Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy toward undocumented migrants crossing the border has been a boon to CoreCivic and other private prison companies.

What makes the Tutwiler story even more intriguing is that a source who has had dealings with the private prison told Labor South this month that as many as 500 of its latest residents may be asylum seekers who have committed no crime but sought asylum in the United States due to war, terrorism or other threatening issues in their home countries.

Earlier media efforts to get CoreCivic and the U.S. Marshalls Service to clarify who would be housed at the facility after the Marshals Service deal have been unsuccessful.

CoreCivic spokesman Rodney King in Nashville, Tennessee, told Labor South this week, however, that the Tutwiler facility houses inmates and detainees from six federal, state and local partners, including South Carolina, Wyoming, U.S. Virgin Islands, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and those who came through the U.S. Marshals Service. "Regarding asylum seekers, CoreCivic does not enforce immigration laws or policies or have any say whatsoever in an individual's deportation or release. Decisions related to asylum status are solely the discretion of our government partners," King said in an August 30 e-mail letter.

The Labor South source says asylum seekers at the Tutwiler facility come from Latin America, Africa and Asia, with many coming from India and Nepal.

The Tallahatchie facility was the scene of a violent riot in 2004 in which inmates set fire to a portable toilet, clothing and mattresses. Another CoreCivic facility in Mississippi, the Adams County Correctional Center, was the scene of an inmate riot in 2012 with inmates taking guards hostage. One correctional officer died in the incident. The next year CoreCivic lost its contract with the state of Mississippi to operate another facility in Wilkinson County.

Coca-Cola workers end their strike with hope for better negotiations

Workers at Coca-Cola Bottling Company facilities in Mississippi and Alabama are hoping the 11-day strike that ended last week will ultimately lead to a better contract with the company even though they went back to work without an agreement.

Some 250 Teamsters with Mobile, Alabama-based Local 991 went back to work after protesting the company’s treatment of new employees—their pay is up to $8 an hour less than what it had been in the past—plus higher insurance costs. “We needed to go back to work,” union steward David Stephens told Real-Time News from Alabama. However, “I think the company realized that they needed us back. Progress is being made in negotiations.”

Picketing during the strike took place at Coca-Cola bottling plants in Mobile and Ocean Springs on Mississippi's Gulf Coast, plus two other sites.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Let's look at U.S. interference in the politics of other countries if we're going to continue this "tsunami of coverage" about Russian involvement in the 2016 election

(The front entrance to the old headquarters of the United Fruit Company in New Orleans)

Back in 1910, New Orleans fruit company boss Samuel Zemurray got sick and tired of Honduran tax levies on his business interests there and sent a gang of mercenaries to overthrow the Honduran government. They did, and his United Fruit Company, today known as Chiquita, became a giant in the region.

Eighteen years later, the U.S. Navy helped the United  Fruit Company overcome a crippling workers’ strike in Colombia by supporting army leaders there in an attack on the strikers that killed as many as 2,000. Famed writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote about this in his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

In 2009, almost exactly a century after the Zemurray-engineered coup d’etat, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her support to the overthrow of Manuel Zelaya, the democratically elected president of Honduras.  Not liking Zelaya’s left-leaning politics, Clinton preferred the military-backed regime that replaced him and has since made Honduras one of the world’s most dangerous, crime-ridden countries.

I wonder what the average Honduran today thinks about U.S. corporate media’s obsessive coverage of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

In 2017, MSNBC, the “liberal” counterpart to right-wing Fox News, ran 1,385 broadcasts on Russia and its political meddling. By comparison, Yemen and its deadly bombing by Saudi Arabia with U.S. military assistance got 82 MSNBC broadcasts.

It’s not unusual today to see terms such as “traitor” and “treason” in USA Today and other corporate media applied to President Trump because of his relationship with the man U.S. media increasingly love to refer to as Russia’s “thug” leader, Vladimir Putin.  As valid as the story of Russian interference may be, is it worth this “tsunami of coverage”, media critic Norman Solomon asks? And why, in this “tsuanami”, are there so many missing elements to the story?

“It’s very rare … to see any mention of the fact that each country, Russia and the US, has several thousand nuclear weapons basically pointed at each other,” Solomon says, “4,000 in each country … at the ready to basically be able to incinerate, not just the two countries, but billions of people on the planet.”

Trump has rankled not only liberals and the Democratic Party but also corporate interests because of his trade policies and also military-industrial interests that would love to see another Cold War, or even hot war, with Russia.

Missing in all this discussion is a sense of history and awareness of the utter hypocrisy of much of the U.S. handwringing about outside interference in a sovereign nation’s politics. Politicians on both sides of the aisle join in this hypocrisy.

Trump loves to wave his saber at Iran, threatening it and raising the specter of yet another war as if the American people weren’t sick to death of war after 17 consecutive years of it.

Why is Iran no longer the close U.S. friend that it was under the pro-Western rule of the Shah of Iran?  Let’s examine.

When Mohammed Mossadegh became Iran’s prime minister in 1951, Iranians cheered at his strong stand against the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company that had soaked Iran’s resources while only paying back as much as 16 percent of its profits.  England’s response was to join with the United States in launching Operation Ajax to oust Mossadegh and install in his place a CIA puppet. They succeeded, and the Shah subsequently consolidated his rule into a dictatorship that lasted until the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

A long list of countries could be added to Honduras, Yemen, Colombia and Iran as examples of U.S. political interference—Guatemala, Libya, Vietnam, Cuba, Chile, the Democratic Republic of Congo, among them.

(To the right, a 1952 poster supporting agrarian reform in Guatemala) 

Let’s look at Guatemala. When Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán tried to redistribute land to benefit the legions of poor in his country in 1952, the United Fruit Company raised a hue and cry in Washington, D.C., which was all the CIA needed to get its tentacles into the country and assist with Guzmán’s overthrow in 1954.

And we have to have a few words about Vietnam. Now there’s a story. Consider the U.S.’s crucial supportive role in Ngo Dinh Diem’s consolidation of power in South Vietnam in the mid-1950s, and then in his overthrow by South Vietnamese generals in 1963. That coup d’etat, intended to find a more suitable leader in the fight against the Communists, resulted in the United States’ irrevocable involvement in Vietnam’s political future and the bloody war that lasted into the 1970s.

I could go on, but this is a column, not a book.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Labor South roundup: Betsy DeVos wants eternal student loan debt for your children and grandchildren; XPO Logistics' toxic anti-worker climate in Memphis and beyond; Labor South editor's two-week journey across the South

Here’s a short roundup of activity across the region and nation that caught Labor South’s attention:

Betsy DeVos wants eternal student loan debt for your children and grandchildren

(To the right, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, an heiress and billionaire's wife who came to office with a Gordian Knot of ties to debt collection agencies and for-profit education service companies, is pushing a new rule that will make it more difficult for student victims of fraudulent loan companies or for-profit colleges to get relief from their debts.

Claiming taxpayers shouldn’t bear the burden of that debt relief, DeVos wants to end an Obama-era program that provided federal assistance to students burdened with debt incurred from bogus colleges and barracuda-like loan operations. The new rule will put more of the burden on students to prove fraud with each case being considered independently and not jointly, as was often the case during the Obama Administration.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a Republican and chair of the Senate Education Committee who once was considered a champion of public education, supports DeVos’ plan.

The Obama-era rule was implemented after the 2015 fall of Corinthian Colleges, which had lured students with bogus claims of job placements after graduation and then saddled them with debt that would take them years to retire.

During her confirmation hearings, DeVos had refused to say she would enforce federal rules protecting citizens from predatory institutions such as the ITT Technical Institutes and Trump University. As reported by The Center for Media and Democracy last year, Trump University had to settle a $25 million lawsuit accusing it of fraudulent activities. The Obama Administration shut down ITT Technical Institutes.

Here in Mississippi, state Attorney General Jim Hood, the lone Democrat among statewide officeholders, has joined with the Mississippi Center for Justice in taking legal action against the Delaware-based student loan company Navient, formerly known as Sallie Mae. Hood claims the company pushed loans that guaranteed failure and targeted low-income students.

Student loan debt totals $1.5 trillion and is steadily increasing. Students who graduated in 2016 averaged $37,172 in debt as they went out searching for jobs and a new life. With Mississippi and other states across the South and beyond refusing to adequately fund state universities and colleges, tuition is rising each year, and so is the individual debt to attend those institutions.

In the past 10 years, the cost of attending the University of Mississippi has risen from $4,932 to $8,190 per year. Students in Mississippi have the fourth highest default rate—at 14.6 percent—in the nation.

Of course, if DeVos gets her way, the legal action sought by Hood and the Mississippi Center for Justice may be moot.  The U.S. Department of Education in February proposed a new policy that would put the federal government in charge of all oversight of student loan collectors and thus block states from their own regulatory oversight. As reported in The Hill, a dozen or more states have passed or considered passing legislation to regulate loan companies more closely.

XPO Logistics in Memphis accused of “anti-worker” behavior

LabourStart, the London-based organization that monitors and promotes workers’ rights around the globe, is waging a campaign to bring pressure on XPO Logistics to change a “toxic corporate culture” that LabourStart says has already claimed the life of at least one victim.

According to LabourStart, Lindo Jo Neal, a worker at XPO Logistics’ Memphis warehouse, “died on the shop floor after management denied her medical aid for 56 minutes” in October 2017. Other women have complained about issues at the company that include gender discrimination, sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, and unsafe working conditions.

XPO Logistics is one of the world’s largest logistics companies, and it has faced accusations both in Europe and the United States of anti-worker and anti-union actions.

LabourStart is working with unions representing workers at XPO across the world as well as the international trade movement to get the company to address the claims against it.

LabourStart is also a publisher and its published books include The Strangers Among Us: Tales from a Global Migrant Worker Movement, a 2016 collection of essays by writers around the world that was edited by Labor South founder, writer and editor Joseph B. Atkins.

Labor South editor back from two weeks of travel across the South

Settling in at my desk now after a two-week journey through the South that included a visit to Lexington, Kentucky, where my wife Suzanne and I enjoyed the annual Harry Dean Stanton Festival. We watched several of Harry Dean’s classic films, heard lots of music from actor and musician friends like Dennis Quaid and Jamie James, and visited and chatted with family and friends like festival organizer Lucy Jones.

As Labor South readers may recall, I’m writing a biography of the iconic actor and musician for the University Press of Kentucky, so we also paid a visit to Harry Dean’s hometown of Irving and nearby West Irving, Kentucky, where he was born. This is where “the bluegrass kisses the mountains,” as they say around Irving, and I could see firsthand his classic Southern small town roots while also meeting cousins and former neighbors.

Then it was on to the Florida panhandle, where I got together with my own family in Pensacola and enjoyed a high-old birthday celebration given me, traded tall tales, enjoyed the beaches, and came back refreshed to wage battle once again with the corporate takeover of our nation.

Coming soon will be Labor South’s somewhat different take on the ongoing investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election, and a review of the U.S.’s own past involvement and sometimes catastrophic interference in the political affairs of other nations.

Friday, July 13, 2018

The final chapter of the Eastland Machine ends in Mississippi, where there's now a new machine with absentee rulers like the Koch brothers

(To the right, a photo of U.S. Sen. James "Big Jim" O. Eastland of Mississippi)

OXFORD, Miss. – A politician friend came up to me at a restaurant the other day, shook his head slowly, and said in hushed tones, “Well, that’s the end of the Eastland Machine.”

He was referring to the passing of Brad Dye, who served as Mississippi lieutenant governor from 1980 to 1992 after stints as state treasurer, other offices, and back in 1954 driver for U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland during his re-election campaign that year.

Like his mentor Eastland, whose long stretch of power included a statewide network of lieutenants, cronies, operatives, and ward heelers that could make or break a upcoming politician’s career, Dye came out of a different era, one with some striking contrasts to the politics of today.

As a much-younger columnist who’d covered the state Legislature in the early 1980s, I once described Dye as “King Brad”, then the state’s most powerful politician who ruled from his perch in the state Senate and decided whether missives from the state House or even the Governor’s Mansion down the street deserved attention.

Guess I’m getting old, but I look back at Dye’s reign with a hint of nostalgia these days. Yes, cut from the Eastland mold, he was a conservative Democrat back when Republicans were what his mentor called a “zero” who offered voters “mighty dern little.” Still, Dye supported Governor William Winter’s landmark education reform package in 1982, the highway expansion program of 1987, and decent funding for the state’s universities.

Dye lost power when Republicans began taking over the state’s reigns in 1991—ironically the same year I called him “King Brad”!--and that transition has proven Eastland’s words to be prophetic as well as true when he said them. Mississippi voters still get “mighty dern little” from Republicans other than an occasion to rail against liberals, minorities and immigrants.

Sure, politicians like Dye early in his career often took their cues from Eastland in Washington, D.C.—back then not a good thing if you were African American--but at least Eastland was a Mississippian with a constant eye on Mississippi. Perhaps that’s why he finally seemed to soften in his last years, befriending civil rights leader Aaron Henry, accepting the reality of civil rights gains, and making his office more responsive to the concerns of blacks in his state.

Today, the state’s Republican rulers take their cues from powerful ideological forces far beyond Mississippi with no non-political interest in the state or its people.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a charter member of the FOD (Friends of Donald) club, sends Mississippi National Guardsmen to the Texas-Mexico border in support of President Trump’s immoral immigration policies. Bryant recently withdrew support for a $70 million three-state plan involving Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama that would have restored Amtrak passenger rail service from New Orleans through the Mississippi Gulf Coast to Mobile, Ala. The states would have split the cost with the federal government.

These days the billionaire Wichita, Kansas, and New York City-based Koch brothers, their Americans for Prosperity organization, and the arch-conservative American Legislative Exchange Council call the shots for Republicans politicians across the country, including Mississippi. The Koch brothers, rich with oil holdings and major producers of gasoline, asphalt, tires, and seatbelts, don’t like public transit, and they recently helped kill a much-needed $5.4 billion mass transit plan in Nashville, Tenn. Trump wants to slash Amtrak funding, something the Koch brothers would applaud.

Oh, well, enough nostalgia. In reality, machine politics still rule in Mississippi. It’s just that this go-round Mississippi’s politicians only take orders. They don’t give them.

This column was published recently in the online edition of the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Mississippi.             

Friday, July 6, 2018

Janus & the Democratic divide, an Obamacare-supporting Democrat overcomes a cash deficit to win the U.S. Senate primary in Mississippi while a Clinton-era moderate seeks a political comeback, plus taking inspiration from Obrador's victory in Mexico

(Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1944, portrait by Leon A. Perskie)

A couple decades ago, I was a widower learning how to date again, and I met a younger woman who seemed to share my leftist views on life. It made for a great, fun relationship for a while. Then I began to notice serious cracks in what I had thought were some solid political agreements—perhaps more a question of priorities than fundamental beliefs.

“You know what?” I told her. “The problem here is I’m a New Deal liberal, and you’re a New Age liberal.”

We broke up long ago, but I’m sure she, like me, rages against Donald Trump, and I’m just as sure she strongly supported Hillary Clinton in the last election. You, Labor South readers, know where I stand on that, banner-waving Bernie Sanders supporter that I was.

Our divide was very similar to the divide within the Democratic Party today.  Some party faithful may not realize it, particularly the still-powerful Clinton wing, but it wasn’t only unions that received a horrible body blow with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 Janus decision. That decision effectively means public employees no longer have to pay union dues even if a union is fighting for them, their wages, their working conditions, their health care, their pensions.

In other words, the Supreme Court declared an open shop on all unionized public employee workplaces. As a result, lawsuits are already being filed by union members seeking refunds for the union dues they’ve paid in a past.

So why should the Democratic Party be worried? For many decades now, organized labor has been the most stalwart supporter—financial and otherwise—of the Democratic Party. After all, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the most pro-union president in the history of the United States, was a Democrat, and most Republicans, with the rare exception, despise unions as much as their corporate CEO friends do.

If the Democratic Party wants to take back Congress, state legislatures, and governors’ mansions across the land, it’s going to need money to do it, and this latest court decision will have the affect of partially drying up a very important reservoir of cash.

This comes at a time when young people and working folks of all stripes are crying out for a Democratic Party that responds to their needs. The Clinton-led Democratic Party loved to knock on labor’s doors with both hands out during election campaigns. After the campaign, however, it paid scant attention to its financial benefactor, turning instead to the big cash corporations that typically put Republicans in power but will support Democrats if they’re friendly to their bottom line interests.

Here in Mississippi, voters overwhelmingly chose U.S. Senate candidate David Baria in last week’s Democratic primary over challenger Howard Sherman, a venture capitalist and former Republican and campaign contributor to sitting U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican. Baria, who will now face Wicker in the November election, is an unapologetic supporter of public education, Obamacare, higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy. As a trial lawyer—what Republicans consider to be devils—he has gone to bat for workers who’ve been injured or discriminated against in the workplace.

And he won despite his opponent’s overwhelming financial advantage—Sherman had a $850,000 campaign chest compared to Baria’s $300,000--an issue Baria will face again in the November election. Even without real opposition in his own party, Wicker has spent $3.2 million and still has $3.4 million to spend.

With the retirement of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., Mississippi will have both of its U.S. Senate seats open in the November election. On the Democratic side, former congressman and Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy is trying a political comeback for that seat.

Espy’s out of the Clinton School, however, and folks may still remember his pregnant silence as a congressman during the historic catfish workers strike in his district back in 1990. The catfish workers won that strike, and some of their leaders still wonder whether Espy was with them or the company that fought the strike. Some folks argue he worked behind the scenes for the strikers. “Hmmmm,” say others. Folks will be listening closely to what he has to stay on the campaign trail this year.

Maybe we can take some encouragement by looking south of the border. Mexico has elected as its president López Obrador, a man of the Left, the first real leftist to lead that nation since Lázaro Cárdenas in the late 1930s. Maybe Obrador will revitalize the ideals of the Mexican Revolution and be a true champion of the people. Donald Trump’s not going to like it, though.

I think people on both sides of the border are looking for politicians who’ll champion their cause, not that of the special interests. It’s a steep uphill fight for those kinds of politicians, but I like some of the signs I’m seeing.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Welcome to the Free Market of Outrage! The Koch brothers are killing public transit, Trump's putting young children in cages, Monsanto's fighting farmers, 17 years of war and the VA still fails veterans

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - I live part time in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, and I can’t tell you how elated I was when the city’s trolleys recently began running again after a four-year absence. The clang-clang of those vintage electric cars is part of the charm of this old city, and I’d been missing that sound ever since a fire on two of them in 2014 took them all offline for extended repairs and some replacements.

They might never have come back if the federal government hadn’t kicked in $2.6 million to help one of the nation’s poorest cities get at least one of its three trolley lines back in action. Only the Main Street line runs today, but the two others are expected in the not-so-distant future.

How did the Koch Brothers allow that $2.6 million federal outlay get past them? Did you know that the right-wing billionaires and their minions in Congress, state Legislatures and governors’ mansions have been working hard to kill public transit projects across the land?

Their most recent success was in killing a $5.4 billion mass transit plan in Nashville, Tenn., that would have added needed public transportation to one of the South’s—and nation’s—most vibrant, growing cities. Koch drones spread across the city making thousands of phone calls, knocking on doors, spreading the Koch gospel about the evils of taxes and government of any kind that doesn’t support billionaires like themselves.

Oh, and by the way, the Koch industrial conglomerate “is a major producer of gasoline and asphalt, and also makes seatbelts, tires and other automotive parts,” reports New York Times writer Hiroko Tabuchi in an article published today (June 19).  However, “it supports spending tax money on highways and roads.”

The Koch brothers want you to get in that car and drive, burn their gasoline and the rubber off their tires, and please use your seatbelt!

It’s just one of many outrages in what seems to be a daily onslaught these days.

Of course, the latest is the Trump policy toward immigrant families crossing the border to the south, separating thousands of young children from their parents as the government cages them all, then only giving the parents an 800 telephone number when they’re released and trying to find their children again. Attorney General Jeff Sessions cites the Bible in his defense of this Nazi-like program, but who’s surprised by that?

Many of Trump’s legions will never be shamed into backing away from their führer, but sooner or later those who’ve not drunk too deeply of the Kool-Aid will feel the pain themselves that Trump’s government is inflicting on others. They’ll see his own untrustworthiness—remember how he actually seemed to be endorsing sweeping immigration reform just last January then did as much as anyone to scuttle any realistic reform?

We live in a corporate world, and what business wants, business gets. When Arkansas last year sought to ban the weed-killing-but-also-crop-damaging herbicide dicamba, Monsanto intervened like gangbusters, decrying this limitation on free enterprise.  Halliburton and other companies in the military industrial complex have successfully kept this nation at war since 2001, yet three Veterans Administration secretaries in the last four years have failed to make VA hospitals and clinics fulfill minimal promises to suffering veterans.

Here in the South, now the model for the rest of the nation--and that’s not a good thing, folks--politicians won’t fund basic services and fight Medicaid and other programs for the poor tooth and nail, yet they continue to shell out big bucks to corporations. Witness Alabama’s recent willingness to shell out $700 million in incentives to Toyota and Mazda to land a factory.

I could go on, but I don’t have all day. People are protesting, however. Just this week in front of the Governor’s Mansion in Jackson, Mississippi, members of the Poor People’s Campaign burned the Confederate and Mississippi state flags (which carries the Confederate emblem) to protest the racism that has become inherent in modern-day capitalism. It’s a brown as well as a black issue, but, you know, really at bottom it’s a green issue.