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.