Friday, February 23, 2018

Mississippi: Rich in the arts, poor in politics. The state celebrates the legacy of its musicians, writers & artists while many of its legislators want to allow guns on college campuses and in football stadiums

(Tommy Igoe in Oxford, Mississippi)

OXFORD, Miss. – Jazz drummer and Birdland Big Band leader Tommy Igoe’s enthusiasm was contagious. The hundreds in the audience at the Gertrude C. Ford Center were clapping, smiling, nodding to each other as the Grammy Award-winning New Yorker explained his music.

“Charlie Parker is our hero up here,” he said, referring to the saxophone-playing jazz giant who along with trumpet-playing bandleader Dizzy Gillespie helped create bebop jazz in the 1940s. “Rebels and renegades. He blew up the false set of rules on improvisation. He had many detractors as well as fans. If you want to blow something up, people are going to hate you.”

As Igoe’s 10-piece band prepared to do Parker’s “Donna Lee”, Igoe added, “the best music should have a little danger to it. We’re keeping it way dangerous.”

What followed was a rousing rendition of Parker’s conversion of the old standard “Back Home Again in Indiana” to a bebop anthem. The band also played Gillespie’s Latin classic “Tin Tin Deo”, Count Basie’s “Deacon”, and even some jazz-infused Steely Dan music.

A few days later the Oxford Film Festival got underway featuring filmmakers and films from around the world as well as closer-to-home films such as “Dear Mr. Bryant”, a plea to Mississippi’s governor for tolerance, “Cowgirl Up” about a Mississippi cowgirl, and “Hand Made”, a short feature about Vaughn woodwork artist Greg Harkins.

I wandered through it all with a recurring thought about the sharp contrast between artistic Mississippi and political Mississippi. At the same time Mississippi is hosting and contributing to great music and film many of its political leaders are voting “Yes” to a bill that would allow citizens to carry guns on college campuses. SEC officials are already decrying the prospect of gun-wielding fans in crowded stadiums watching hotly contested football games.

A few days before Tommy Igoe’s band wowed his Oxford audience, news surfaced that the Department of Human Services in the nation’s poorest state had to return $13 million in federal funds aimed at providing childcare for poor families. Mississippi, which along with local governments was able to hand Continental Tire a $650 million incentives package to build a plant in the state, couldn’t come up with the matching funds needed to get the $13 million for poor children.

This is a state justly proud of its contributions to the nation’s musical, literary and artistic heritage. A likeness of Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner was on the cover of the Oxford Film Festival program this year. Very fitting as one of the best-known Big Screen renditions of a Faulkner story, “Intruder in the Dust”, was filmed in Oxford. In fact, the 1949 film, starring David Brian and Claude Jarman Jr., premiered in Oxford.

(To the right, William Faulkner, photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1954)

Country musician Marty Stuart recently announced he’s going to develop a country music museum and performance center in his Philadelphia, Mississippi, hometown. The museum will include Stuart’s own personal collection of 20,000 artifacts such as Patsy Cline’s boots, Johnny Cash’s black suit, and handwritten lyrics by Hank Williams.

“Mississippi is such a wellspring for so many different musical traditions for our country and for the world,” Smithsonian musical curator John Troutman told the Associated Press. He is an advisor for the Stuart project.

(Lester Young in 1944, LIFE magazine)

Add a country music museum to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, B.B. King Museum in Indianola, Grammy Museum in Cleveland, and, of course, Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, and your next question is: Why not a jazz museum? Better known for its blues, Mississippi was also home to the great jazz bassist Milt Hinton (Vicksburg), pianist Mose Allison (Tippo), tenor sax genius Lester Young (Woodville), and modern-day jazz artists like singer-songwriter Cassandra Wilson (Jackson) and pianist Mulgrew Miller (Greenwood).

Yes, Mississippi loves and is rightly proud of its arts. Still, even with all that great jazz, country music, literature and let’s not forget painting and sculpture—from  Theora Hamblett (Oxford) and Walter Anderson (Ocean Springs) to Wyatt Waters (Clinton), many people first think of the blues when they think of Mississippi. The blues. Maybe the state’s politics have something to do with that.

This column was first published in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Labor South roundup: Union membership grows in the South; another effort to undermine public employee unions; a crusading newspaper in West Virginia files for bankruptcy; and the CWA fights for call workers in Mississippi

(The Battle of Blair Mountain, West Virginia, in 1921, one of the first major confrontations of the 20th century between Southern workers and company owners)

It’s time for another Labor South roundup, and this time we see union membership growing in the South despite two big losses in 2017, another case before the U.S. Supreme Court to undermine public employee unions, the bankruptcy of a crusading newspaper in West Virginia, and a fight by the Communications Workers of America for call center employees in Mississippi and beyond.

Dixie holds its own on the labor front despite two major hits in 2017

Facing South, the online magazine of the North Carolina-based Institute for Southern Studies, reports that union membership in the South rose by 130,000 to 2.3 million workers in 2017, increasing the percentage of workers in unions from 4.9 percent to 5 percent. While still less than half the 10.7 percent national rate, the South is at least moving forward rather than backward like membership in other parts of the country.

The numbers above don’t include the more than half a million Southern workers who enjoy the benefits of a unionized workplace but haven’t joined the union thanks to the so-called “right to work” laws in place across the region.

The region suffered two major setbacks in 2017: the lopsided vote against unionization at Boeing’s North Charleston, South Carolina, plant in February—nearly three-fourths of voting workers cast their ballots against the union; and the August vote against unionization that took place at Nissan’s plant in Canton, Mississippi. In both cases, however, state political and business leaders joined in a phalanx of opposition, spreading fear and intimidation via personal meetings with workers and anti-union ads on television.

“While these stinging defeats garnered national and international attention—and new speculation about the fate of labor in the South—the latest government data shows unions in the South were able to maintain their numbers, in part due to support from younger workers,” Facing South’s Chris Kromm wrote in his article.

Kromm cites a study that shows 76 percent of the union membership gains in 2017 came from workers under the age of 35.  A good sign for the future!

Another effort to weaken and even destroy public employee unions

The U.S. Supreme Court later this month will hear the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, a blatant effort by the state of Illinois to impose a so-called “right to work” rule on public employees, challenging unions’ right to collect dues from nonmembers for collective bargaining.

A similar effort was made two years ago in the Friedrichs. v. California Teachers Association case. The death of conservative justice Antonin Scalia before a ruling left the high court with a 4-4 tie on that case.

The Catholic Bishops of the United States issued an amicus brief last month supporting the AFSCME. Catholic bishops “have long and consistently supported the right of workers to organize for purposes of collective bargaining,” the group’s brief says. “Because this right is substantially weakened by so-called `right-to-work’ laws, many bishops—in their dioceses, through their state conferences, and through their national conference—have opposed or cast doubt on such laws, and no U.S. bishop has expressed support for them.”

The legendary labor priest, Monsignor George Higgins, once had this to say about those who claim “freedom of speech” as a justification for avoiding paying union dues: such a claim is “too absolute and extreme … the requirement of financial support for the union (is) a legitimate limitation on such a broad freedom.”

Also joining the fight for the union is the American Association of University Professors. “Public employees and supporters of public services and higher education from coast to coast will join hands in solidarity actions against the attacks on working people,” AAUP General Counsel Risa Lieberwitz and Senior Staff Counsel Aaron Nisenson said in a statement.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear the case February 26 with a decision expected by the end of the Court’s term in June.

A crusading West Virginia newspaper files for bankruptcy

I’ve long been a distant admirer of the Charleston Gazette in Charleston, West Virginia, and particularly its reporter, Ken Ward Jr., who covers the coal industry.

Eight months after winning a Pulitzer for its hard-hitting reportage, the newspaper has filed for bankruptcy. Declining circulation and a costly, federally challenged purchase of a competing newspaper in the city were factors leading to the filing.

A sale by the owning Chilton family to a buyer could extend the life of the paper, but many worry whether it will lose the cutting edge that allowed it to expose “corruption, greed and incompetence” for decades, New York Times writer Niraj Chokshi wrote recently.

In 2011, the newspaper called for the federal government to restore the designation of Blair Mountain in West Virginia as a historic site to protect it from those wanting to strip mine it. Blair Mountain was the site of a bloody confrontation between striking miners and machine gun-wielding thugs and deputies in 1921, an event that became in the words of a Charleston Gazette editorial “America’s biggest armed insurrection since the Civil War.”

The site got the federal designation in 2009 but then lost that designation in a delisting in 2011. A federal judge then in 2016 ruled against the delisting. The U.S. Department of the Interior appealed that ruling but later dropped its appeal.

In September 2002, reporter Ward put the lie to President Bush’s pat on the back to the “Quecreek Nine” after their rescue from a Pennsylvania coal mine. “His administration has done all it can to dismantle the safeguards meant to prevent coal miners from dying on the job,” Ward wrote in the magazine In These Times. “Since taking office in January 2001, Bush has proposed mine safety budget cuts, halted regulatory improvements and reduced enforcement efforts.”

CWA challenges General Dynamics’ treatment of its call workers in Mississippi and elsewhere

The Communications Workers of America wants the Wage and House Division of the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate alleged wage violations by General Dynamics Information Technology Inc.

The union says the company pays its call agents “at a lower prevailing wage than their job duties merit.” The workers assist callers on enrollment in and questions about Medicare, Medicaid and other government services.

Approximately 2,000 workers at the call center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, could see their wages rise from $3,600 to nearly $6,600 annually if the federal government required the company to classify and pay them properly, the union says. The company challenges these claims and even CWA’s right to make them since the workers aren’t members of the union.