Monday, April 16, 2018

Former SNCC leader Bob Zellner and labor organizers Richard Bensinger and Rose Turner talk about "The Future of Labor" at University of Mississippi campus: Grassroots organizing can overcome both fear and "right to work" laws

(From left to right, Richard Bensinger, Rose Turner and Bob Zellner)

Civil Rights Movement SNCC leader and social activist Bob Zellner joined veteran labor organizers Richard Bensinger and Rose Turner last Friday for a panel discussion of “The Future of Labor” at the University of Mississippi’s Overby Center. A central point in their discussion was that grassroots organizing can overcome "right to work" laws as well as anti-labor forces' greatest weapon: fear.

Sponsored by the campus Radical South organization, which seeks through panel discussions and other events in April to provide an alternative view of the South from that of conservative politicians like Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, the panel offered a lively discussion on the status of labor today in the South and across the nation.

Bensinger, a top national labor organizer who helped coordinate the United Auto Workers’ recent campaign at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, and other auto campaigns in the South, said “right to work” laws across the region aren’t a good thing but also shouldn’t “stand in the way” of a successful campaign. Bensinger co-founded the Institute for Employee Choice, establishing organizing principles for both employers and unions to follow during union campaigns. He advises unions on organizing and experimental organizing strategies in the service sector.

Turner, who led the successful and historic catfish workers strike in the Mississippi Delta in 1990 and has continued to work with catfish and nursing home workers in the region ever since, said organizers “have to organize” and get down to the grassroots level with workers. Turner currently serves as organizing director and executive assistant to the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1529, based in Memphis.

Zellner, who fought side by side with Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael and other civil rights leaders during what he calls “The Second Emancipation” of the 1960s, said fear was the great weapon anti-civil rights forces used back then and it is the same weapon anti-labor forces use today. Zellner helped organize the Freedom Rides of 1961 and was the first white Southerner to serve as field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  He continues to be active in the Poor People’s Campaign and the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina with the Rev William Barber.

Fear can be defeated at the workplace just like it was in the South back in the 1960s, the panelists agreed.

Labor South’s Joe Atkins moderated the panel discussion, which included topics ranging from the current teacher strikes and student protests against gun violence to how corporate money has compromised groups such as the NAACP in their support of labor campaigns such as the one at the Nissan plant in Canton.

(To the right, at Ajax restaurant in Oxford, from left to right, Joe Atkins, Bob Zellner, pro-UAW workers from the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, Richard Bensinger and his activist wife Virginia Diamond)
The panelists’ visit to Oxford, Mississippi, featured dinner and lunch the next day on the city’s famous Square as well as opportunities to sing labor songs such as “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” and “Union Maids” with fire-breathing, labor organizing, Truman Scholar-winning University of Mississippi student Jaz Brisack. Also joining the group for lunch were several Nissan workers who had campaigned for UAW membership at the Canton plant.

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