Tuesday, December 17, 2019

They were strangers in a strange land seeking safety and a better life for their newborn child

(14th Century Italian artist Giotto's depiction of the Holy Family in flight)

Following is a column I've run before during this time of year. The issue it addresses remains with us today.

They were descendants of immigrants who themselves became immigrants.

Soon after the baby arrived, a dream came to the father that the little family would have to leave their homeland if they were to survive. Even the life of an innocent child was in danger in their homeland.

So the three of them—father, mother and child—left their tiny village and embarked on a treacherous journey through the desert wilderness. They were very poor and had little more than the clothes on their backs.

They traveled by day and by night, ever fearful they might be captured or attacked, until they finally crossed the border. They brought no documentation with them, only their humility and the father’s willingness to work hard to support his family.

He was a trained craftsman, good with his hands, and his work was valued even if he was paid so little he could never hope to rise out of his poverty. With his teenage wife tending to their baby, he went out among the people to earn bread and shelter for them.

He heard the whisperings among those in this new land. They called him and his family foreigners, outsiders, and even illegal aliens, as if they had come from the moon and their very existence was something less than human, a violation of not only the law of the land but also God’s law.

“They’re just here to take our jobs, to feed, house, and clothe themselves at our expense,” he heard one of them say.

“They don’t even take the time to learn our language,” said another.

“Why are they even here? Is their own country not good enough for them? Perhaps they’re spies,” said yet another.

“The way people like these spawn they’ll soon be everywhere, expecting their new offspring to be treated equally just because they were born here, like so many little anchors for their illegal parents. Anchor babies, that’s what they’ll be.”

Some of these whisperings came from the very people who benefited from his labors. They would say these things as soon as they walked away from the worksite and rejoined their neighbors and friends. Local leaders heard the comments, too, and saw an advantage in such fears, prejudice, and suspicions. So they began to talk among the crowds and, being leaders, talked loudest of all, loud enough for everyone to hear.

Even some of the priests joined the chorus, invoking God’s judgment from their pulpits, condemning the strangers for breaking the law and taking advantage of people’s hospitality.

The father and mother, already homesick, longed for their faraway families and friends. They knew many did not welcome them in this strange land, but they also feared for their child’s life if they returned home. Did their little child have any idea of all the troubles that surrounded them?

The father remembered how his ancestors had been immigrants to this very land many generations before and had prospered here, but then a new leader had turned them into slaves and they had left. Now he and his wife and child had returned because their own land had become hostile. When would it all end? Where was there a refuge?

Eventually the father, whose namesake had been a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams, had yet another dream, and this one told him the time had come to return home. So he and his wife packed their belongings, wrapped up their child to keep it warm, and journeyed back to their homeland. They had to be careful. Dangers still lurked, but at least they were home.

And back in the strange land where they had sought refuge, some indeed missed them. “He did good work,” one said. “You know, they never really bothered anyone,” another said.

But these voices were quickly drowned out by the leaders and their priests who cried “Good riddance!” and then looked for others to condemn.

Friday, December 6, 2019

U.S. political leaders, as hypocritical as Shakespeare's Richard III, talk freedom and democracy but demand corporate neoliberal rule in Latin America

(To the left below, Shakespeare's Richard III as depicted by the 19th century artist Sir John Gilbert)

Ah, what a glorious hypocrite was the murderous King Richard III in Shakespeare’s 1591 play.

                        “Madam, so thrive I in my enterprise
                          And dangerous success of bloody wars
                          As I intend more good to you and yours
                         Than ever you and yours by me were harm’d!”

These were the tyrant’s words to Queen Elizabeth after he’d had her two young sons murdered along with a host of other victims of his relentless ambition to grab and keep the throne. With his hands drenched in blood, he even dares ask the queen if he can have her daughter in marriage! Here is her response:

               “No doubt the murderous knife was dull and blunt
                Till it was whetted on thy stone-hard heart,
                To revel in the entrails of my lambs.”

 What drives me to quote Shakespeare in this blog are the similarities of Richard’s hypocrisy and that of the United States in its relationship to Latin America. It’s a hypocrisy that mainstream U.S. media share--from the New York Times and the Washington Post to the major TV networks.

What country boasts more about freedom and democracy than the United States, and what country has worked harder to destroy both in the nations to its south? Memories of the CIA-backed overthrow of the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, on September 11, 1973, came fresh to my mind when I heard of the recent coup in Bolivia that toppled the duly elected presidency of Evo Morales. President Trump, of course, immediately recognized the new military-and-police-backed regime that has already hammered down hard on protests and dissenters.

Of all the presidential candidates in the Democratic Party, only Bernie Sanders has called the overthrow what it was, a “coup”. Even anti-regime-change candidate Tulsi Gabbard has been reluctant to weigh in on developments in Bolivia. “I think Morales did a very good job in alleviating poverty and giving the indigenous people of Bolivia a voice that they never had before,” Sanders said at the Spanish language network Univision’s Democratic forum last month. “But at the end of the day, it was the military who intervened … . When the military intervenes … that’s called a coup.”

The near silence in the mainstream media is telling. Note how their coverage of protests around the world mainly focuses on the increasingly violent protests in Hong Kong against the Chinese government rather than the widespread protests in Haiti against the corruption of U.S.-backed President Jovenel Moïse, against billionaire Chilean leader Sebastian Piñera’s punitive hike in subway fairs, and against Equador President Lenin Moreno’s slashing of fuel subsidies.

Those protests have led to 35 deaths in Haiti and 19 in Chile. In Hong Kong one person has died during the protests. Mainstream media coverage reflects and upholds U.S. official policy. The Trump Administration, like its predecessors, wants governments in Latin America that are open to U.S. business, and it matters not if those governments are military juntas or dictatorships. Anything that makes China look bad is good for U.S. policy. Trump is waging his trade war with China because he wants the Communist government there to be just as corporatized as the U.S. government is.

“When official enemies can be presented as evil and allies as sympathetic victims, corporate media will be very interested in a story,” writes Alan MacLeod in EXTRA!, the newsletter of the FAIR media watch group. “In contrast, they will show far less enthusiasm for a story when the `wrong’ people are the villains or the victims.”

Many suspect U.S. agents to be encouraging the protests in Hong Kong that continue and grow even more violent despite China and the Hong Kong governments concession to protesters’ original demand that a new extradition law be dumped. From his exile in Mexico, Morales has called the coup in his country U.S.-backed.

One doesn’t have to look hard to see evidence of U.S. meddling in the affairs of Latin American countries—another hypocrisy given all the hand-wringing about alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election. President Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, backed the brutal regime change in Honduras that has led the killing of some 30 trade unionists there since 2009. Fears grow that Trump will move beyond economic sanctions against Venezuela and eventually take military action to remove President Nicolás Maduro from power. After all, his former National Security Advisor John Bolton told Fox News in early 2019 that “It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.”

Argentina and its new Peronist, anti-neoliberal leaders Alberto Fernandez and Christina Kirchner better keep a round-the-clock watch because the White House and the corporatized foreign policy establishment in Washington, D.C., are not too happy about the departure of their boy, Mauricio Macri, from leadership in that country.

“This is the winter of our discontent,” Richard says at the beginning of Shakespeare’s play. “I am determined to prove a villain, and hate the idle pleasures of these days. Plots I have laid, inductions, dangerous … I am subtle, false, and treacherous.”

Such a confession! Of course, Richard is alone when he says these words, and no one is listening except those of us watching the play from our safe distance.   

Thursday, November 7, 2019

UPDATE (11-11-19) - Coup in Bolivia as Latin Americans rise in protest against the neoliberal policies pushed by the U.S., the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank

A coup in Bolivia has forced President Evo Morales to step down, fulfilling predictions in a Labor South post last week and in an earlier post that neoliberal forces will not tolerate a social uprising against global capital without intervention.

Amid intense and often violent protests and strong pressure from his nation's military, Morales agreed this weekend to step down rather than see Bolivia plunge even deeper into crisis. He had just won another term in office in a contested election. A new election is expected. The coup has been condemned by leaders in Argentina and other Latin American nations as well as by British labor leader Jeremy Corbyn and others. Many see the coup as a blow to democracy and believe it was U.S.-backed, which wouldn't be the first time the Great Yankee to the north has interfered directly in the politics of nations to its south. Below is last week's post:

I teach a course at the University of Mississippi on “Documentary and Social Issues”, and today we finished watching Barbara Kopple’s 1976 classic Harlan County U.S.A, the tale of the long and bloody struggle of unionized Kentucky coal miners to get company owners to give them a fair contract that ensures fair wages and good safety conditions.

The lesson in the film is that the fight goes on even after a battle victory because the other side is fighting a war, and it will never have a change of heart and deal fairly without intense pressure from working people.

The same can be said in regard to the recent strikes by the United Auto Workers and school teachers in Chicago that forced both corporate and government leaders to the bargaining table. What came out of those bargaining sessions wasn’t completely satisfactory to all the strikers but the protests—and that’s essentially what a strike is--did force a resolution and compromise—if only for the time being. As those Harlan County miners from back in the 1970s would tell you, keep vigilant. The other side will always be looking for a sign of weakness.

It’s a lesson well heeded today, too, in Latin America, where protests are rising against the neoliberal policies of the U.S. government, Wall Street, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank that have forced governments to strip away social programs and worker rights as part of the “austerity” needed to repay the giant loans owed these institutions. In other words, adopt a Social Darwinist capitalism or else.

People have had enough of it. They’ve taken to the streets in Chile to protest the regime of billionaire Sebastian Piñera and a recent hike in subway fares that is most punitive to workers, the straw that broke the camel’s back. The slashing of fuel subsidies in President Lenin Moreno’s Equador also has led to huge protests that have rocked the nation. Haitians are in the streets as well to protest political corruption in that country. Bolivian voters recently put anti-neoliberal Evo Morales back in office for another term, a protest in itself at the ballot box. Morales has dramatically reduced poverty in his country and become a symbol of hope particularly for the nation's indigenous groups.

And, following up on an earlier Labor South post, Peronist Alberto Fernandez and his running mate and former president Christina Kirchner defeated neoliberal Mauricio Macri in that country's recent election, a slap in the face to Macri’s own austerity policies and utter allegiance to the financial interests further north that have long kept his nation in bondage.

Latin America is swinging left again, thank goodness, but it must remain vigilant. The eyes of the Big Yankee regime to the north are watching. The sordid history of the United States’ policies in Latin America stands ready to be repeated. A nation itself founded in revolution against the foreign power that controlled it has become the most powerful defender of such control in its relations to countries to its south.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Bernie Sanders' plan to bring back real journalism. We're sure not getting much of it in the mainstream corporate media

(Muckraking turn-of-the-century reporter Ida Tarbell)

I’m an old reporter who began his career in the 1970s banging away at a typewriter, pasting the sheets of my copy together, and handing it over to a white-haired copy editor whose red ink marker never missed a comma splice or misspelled word. Even before I could articulate it, I felt an allegiance to the working stiff, the little guy who got pushed around, not the fat cats who hung out with my publisher at the country club. In other words, I was a typical reporter.

I made mistakes. I once wrote an obituary for someone who hadn’t died. A frail, wizened man came in the next day to clear up the confusion. It was his similarly named brother who had died, not him. The old fella was nice about it--and I don't know if it was my or the funeral home's mistake--but my editor's eyes were shooting poisoned darts at me from the other end of the newsroom.

Somehow I survived that fiasco to go on to a career that brought me to Washington, D.C., as a congressional correspondent, my national news service’s chief reporter covering the entire U.S. South, and later my three-decades career teaching journalism at a major Southern university.

So why is it today I can hardly read a newspaper or watch the news on TV without wincing? What has become of my craft? Sure, Fox News has always been a propaganda machine for the GOP and now Donald Trump. That’s what you expect. I used to go to MSNBC for fresh air.  Rachel Maddow seemed to bring a steely eye to the issues of the day. No more. I can no longer watch her or MSNBC. Eight million “Russiagate” stories killed that for me. If Russians were behind exposing the Democratic Party’s insider efforts to skewer Bernie Sanders’ campaign chances in favor of Hillary Clinton four years ago, then good for the Russians! I’m glad somebody exposed that rotten deal. Besides, Rachel, what about Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s destructive U.S.-aided war against that nation? What about the continued corporatization of American life and politics, Rachel? What about the saddling of an entire generation of Americans with lifelong student debt to feed Wall Street’s bottomless greed? There are other issues, Rachel!

Now we have U.S. House Democrats pursuing the impeachment of President Trump for using his office to try to get the Ukrainians to investigate Joe Biden’s son Hunter and his involvement with the Burisma Group gas company in that nation. I don’t like Trump. I’d like to see him impeached for a variety of reasons, but I’d also like to know more about what the hell Hunter Biden did to get himself into a top dog position with a Ukrainian gas company. What’s the real deal  with that, and how was the Biden name going to help that company? What favors could it expect from Washington? What I hear on most reports—print or broadcast—is a quick dismissal of any corruption evidence without really checking whether there is or not.

Thank goodness for alternative media and feisty (if I do say so myself) little online publications like Labor South that challenge the existential malaise that has the rest of U.S. media in a credibility tailspin.

Good ol’ Bernie Sanders (to the left). The Democratic Party and corporate media may not like you, but you’ve got some darned good ideas, including ideas about how to reform media. He laid out a few in an op-ed piece in the New York Times back in August. Let’s review them. A Sanders Administration would do the following:

-       - Make future media mergers more difficult and impose a moratorium on them until their effects are clearly understood.
-       - Require major media corporations to disclose whether mergers will cause significant layoffs.
-       - Give employees the opportunity to purchase media outlets through employee stock ownership plans.
-       - Get a new FCC board that’s not bought-and-paid-for by the industry.
-       - Limit the number of stations broadcast giants can own in each market and nationwide.
-       - Work to strengthen labor rights and union rights at media organizations.
-       - Enforce antitrust laws to prevent “hedge fund vultures” and corporate conglomerates from cannibalizing news organizations.
-       - Increase funding for programs that support local public media news operations.

At my university, I teach media history, and we just finished the chapter on the “muckrakers” at the beginning of the 20th century, folks like Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, Ray Stannard Baker. More than a century ago, they were taking on the corporate moguls, city machines, racist landowners, and, above all, the system, and they changed America for the better. They’re all smiling at you from heaven, Bernie.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Argentines rise up against neoliberal rule as the Ugly American in the White House weighs his options

(A tango in Buenos Aires' famed Cafe Tortoni)

Your Labor South correspondent hasn’t filed in a while because of deadline pressure for my book on the late actor Harry Dean Stanton. Postings should get back to normal once the manuscript is off to the publisher sometime in October. Meanwhile here is a development in the Global South worthy of our attention.

Argentines rise up again Macri’s neoliberal rule, but Trump is watching

After neoliberal Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s resounding defeat in the August presidential primary, know that the eyes of the “Ugly American” in the White House are watching as that nation prepares for the final October 27 election (with a possible November 24 runoff) to see if the Peronist candidate Alberto Fernandez and his running mate and former president Cristina Kirchner will do as expected and toss Macri out on his ear.

Labor South has had a strong interest in Argentine politics since your correspondent was there during Macri’s election in 2015. Macri’s victory that year ended 12 years of Kirchnerismo, a pro-worker, neo-Peronist movement that saw the nation finally begin to stand on its own feet and not under the shadow of the International Monetary Fund, Wall Street, and the world network of what Bernie Sanders calls “hedge fund vultures”.

The neoliberal world heralded Macri back in 2015. The Economist in Great Britain, for example, called his election “the beginning of saner economic policies” but then added a cautionary “perhaps”.

What happened under the wealthy former businessman subsequent rule, however, was a reversal of the decline in poverty that Kirchnerismo (under the late Néstor Kirchner and then his wife Cristina) had overseen. Two million Argentines joined the poverty rolls. Poverty has risen from 29 percent to 35 percent of the population, The Guardian reported last month. According to the Pope Francis-linked Movement of Excluded Workers (MTE), six million Argentines now roam streets and alleys and rummage through trash cans to keep from starving.

Furthermore, Macri, true to neoliberal tradition, has plunged his nation back into deep debt, twice what it was before he took office. He sought a $57.1 billion IMF loan just last year. Inflation is at 54 percent, and, of course, the only solution to any economic woe that the IMF, World Bank, and other neoliberal institutions ever offer is “austerity” and more austerity. Translation: cut back drastically on social programs, retirement plans, wages, and, of course, UNIONS.

Fernandez, a Peronist but generally moderate in his politics, smartly agreed to align with Cristina Kirchner (of course, she brilliantly orchestrated that alliance) for the August primary, defying the Macri forces that have tried desperately to put her behind bars in classic Latin American political tradition. Together they head the Frente de Todos ticket, and pulling together the poor and the strapped middle class to hand Macri a striking 15-point primary defeat.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump and his minions are weighing their options.  The Obamas may have tangoed with the Macris, but Trump would love to waltz them across the finish line in December if he can. He’s already rattling sabers at Venezuela (as well as Iran and China), and the last thing he wants is another left-leaning country to the south putting his corporate friends’ profiteering at risk.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Why hasn't billionaire Koch Foods Inc. CEO Joe Grendys been arrested in the recent ICE poultry plant raids in Mississippi?

Why hasn’t Koch Foods Inc. CEO Joe Grendys been placed under arrest? Apparently agents at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency much prefer going after low-wage immigrant workers at poultry plants than fat-cat billionaires whose economic welfare is protected by their friends among the nation’s political elite.

Over the years workers at Koch Foods Inc. in Morton, Mississippi, and other poultry plants across the country have had to deal with harassment, sexual discrimination, refusal to allow bathroom breaks, charges for normal workday activities, and politicians from Donald Trump on down who’ve worked to reduce workplace safety controls and punish those who complain.

The massive raids and arrests of 680 Latino poultry workers conducted by some 600 ICE agents in Mississippi this month fit perfectly into a pattern that has existed for some time.

Just last year the Chicago-area-based Koch Foods, a $3.2 billion company, agreed to pay Latino workers $3.5 million as settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for racial and national origin discrimination and sexual harassment at its Mississippi operations. The settlement came after claims that supervisors would touch and make sexual comments to female employees and even strike workers physically. Those who complained were fired.

ICE raids also followed complaints by workers of workplace conditions at plants in Salem, Ohio, and Morristown, Tennessee. Labor reporter Mike Elk wrote an ICE raid came one week after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Fresh Mark $200,000 for safety violations at the Salem, Ohio, plant.

The recent raids in Mississippi came one the first day of school, thus separating parents from their children—a situation not unknown in the ongoing anti-immigrant-demagoguery of the Trump Administration. Friends and relatives begged the ICE against to “Let them go!” as they carried them off to unknown fates and possibly the concentration-like camps the federal government has allowed in its arrangements with the private prison industry.

Those cries for mercy may have been an embarrassing enough to force ICE later to release temporarily 300 of those arrested.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican and stalwart Trump supporter, praised the raids.

As far back as 2005, workers at the Koch Foods poultry plant in Morristown, Tennessee, were complaining of the dehumanizing conditions at the plant. When one female worker asked a supervisor for permission to go to the bathroom, “the supervisor took off his hard hat and told her, `You can go to the bathroom in this,’” a worker told New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse.

Mississippians across the state have rallied on behalf of the arrested workers, collecting food and other items for families suddenly left without breadwinners and means to survive.

ICE is good at rounding up poor Mexican poultry workers but apparently maintains a hands-off policy on people like Koch Foods CEO Joe Grendys, a billionaire on the Forbes list of richest Americans. A raid at Koch Foods’ Fairfield, Ohio, plant in 2007 led to 161 arrests of undocumented workers, leading to a $536,046 fine for violation of immigration laws. The company maintains that it uses the federal E-Verify database to make sure its employees have proper documentation.

The nation’s political elite in the White House and Congress have no interest in arresting potential financial supporters like Joe Grendys. In fact, they see it as their mission to make life easier for him. Koch Foods is not related to the billionaire Koch brothers, although they seem to share the same attitudes about workers and worker rights.

“Laws are passed to manipulate labor, not help immigrants,” Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance Executive Director Bill Chandler told YES Magazine writer Adam Lynch recently.

(immigrant rights advocate Bill Chandler)

Back in 2017, the Republican-led U.S. Senate, backed by President Trump, voted to eliminate a mandate to disclose injuries and even fatalities that occur at the worksite in poultry plants, which are among the most dangerous worksites in the United States. Three years earlier, the U.S. Department of Agriculture came up with plans to allow poultry plants to increase the speed of processing birds from 140 to 175 per minute. A coalition led by U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., led the fight against the new rules. In February of this year the USDA proceeded with allowing the greater speeds.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Sharing a pint in London's pubs and watching a tyrant's tale at one of its theatres while the Trump-like Boris Johnson takes over as England's new prime minister

(Yours truly at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London)

LONDON – I complimented my Netherlands-stationed son Michael, who booked our hotel. It was in the perfect location. Southwark/Bankside, just south of the Thames, a red light district during the Roman Empire’s occupation of the area, called “Stew’s Bank” during Elizabethan times for the brothels then known as “stewhouses”. They stood alongside the bear-pits and bull-pits that were there. Also there were theatres like the Globe and the Rose, which hardly had a better reputation, but on their stages the plays of William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson were performed.

As I enjoyed a pint with my fish and chips at the White Hart pub, the wild-haired blond Boris Johnson was in another part of the city taking office as Britain’s new prime minister, promising that Brexit will be real in October and inspiring the same kind of sharp divisions that American citizens feel about Donald Trump.

(To the right, Boris Johnson)

Like Trump, Johnson presents himself as a straight-talker and thus kind of a working class hero, but, again like Trump, he’s not. A former London mayor and once-star journalist who was fired by a major newspaper in London for telling lies in his stories, Johnson is brash, boorish, and brazen—sound familiar?—but his pro-Brexit stand understandably appeals to Britons tired of the European Union’s neo-liberal rule with its pro-corporate austerity policies and tone-deafness to the real concerns people have about poorly controlled immigration and the terrorist acts that have become associated with it.

Still, Johnson is part of the long-ruling Oxford-Cambridge-and-Eton-educated British elite, and for all his brashness, he “is not just a product of that system but an advocate for it,” writes journalist Gary Younge in The Guardian Weekly. “When we see him call for a massive tax cut for the rich, we see a candidate who has had much and wants more.” Sam Knight of the New Yorker says much the same. Johnson “seems to subvert the existing order but (his) persona—quintessentially English, amateur, clownlike—serves only to reinforce it. … He makes people in power, including himself, appear ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean he would dream of handing power to anybody else. He is a fully signed-up member of the tribe.”

During my recent visit to London, I asked an Englishman at a pub in Soho what he thought of Johnson. “No comment,” he snapped back with a wry smile. “What do you think of Trump?”

As Younge further elaborates, British is very much the class-based society it claimed it no longer was after World War II. Only 7 percent of the British population as a whole went to private schools, but nearly 40 percent of the nation’s elite did. The stretch between the wealthy and everyone else grows wider every day, not that this much concerns media elites, who went to the same schools as the politicians and business leaders they cover.

Although I lived in Germany for several years during the 1970s and have since traveled widely over the European continent as well as in Ireland and Scotland, I never visited London until this recent trip. The Queen, Buckingham Palace, tales of Charles and Diana and Harry and Meghan, the Changing of the Guard, and all that have never interested me. A failed philosopher, I was always drawn to the French and German existentialists, never to the dry-and-dusty analytic tradition that dominated British philosophy.

Still, I love literature and writers, and the city of Shakespeare and Dickens finally seduced me. Only a week there, and I agree with Samuel Johnson’s 18th century declaration that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”

 (To the right, Michael at Charles Dickens' desk, on which he wrote Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities)

 Michael and I roamed the latest version of Shakespeare’s Globe and the site where the old Rose theatre stood 400 years ago. We went to the 130-year-old Garrick Theatre in West End and saw actor John Malkovich perform as corrupt Hollywood tyrant Barney Fein in David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat. We went to Dickens’ house on Doughty Street in Bloomsbury, where he wrote Oliver Twist, that great novel about a poor orphan caught in the malicious web of Industrial Revolution grime and greed.

(Magic Betty and the Coach and Horses pub in Soho)

We spent a lot of times in London’s great pubs, including the Coach and Horses in Soho, one of many in the area where the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas drank and drank and drank. As the sky grew dark, the wonderful Magic Betty emerged in the pub full of spangles and smiles, sat at the piano, and banged away with “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and a hundred other songs in London’s great old Music Hall tradition.

That’s the London I came to see and saw--the great working class city that lies beyond the pomp and circumstance of Buckingham Palace, the city where Marx spent much of his life, where Churchill directed the war effort against the Nazis. There was a lot I didn’t see, of course. Seeing labor troubadour Billy Bragg would have nicely added to the experience, but maybe next time!

Friday, July 5, 2019

Death at Howard Industries of Laurel, Mississippi, a company showered by media love and political largesse despite its horrible record

(A 1912 cartoon by Art Young for The Masses)

Controversy still hangs over Howard Industries in Laurel, Mississippi, as the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration continues its investigation into the March 15 death of a 36-year veteran worker at the company.

Sixty-three-year-old Larry Moffett died as a result of what the company called a “crush incident” when a heavy piece of equipment fell on him. Details are sketchy beyond that point, but Moffett was a tank regulator and leak tester and only two years away from retirement.

In a subsequent blog post on the incident, the Grossman Law Offices in Dallas, Texas, noted that OSHA investigations give “people a false sense of hope” and can take up to 18 months and, if the agency finds fault with the company, it usually issues “paltry fines that hardly put a dent in the company’s bottom line, and then move(s) on.” Furthermore, “what does this do to help families facing medical bills, burial costs, lost wages, and the immense pain caused by the loss of a loved one? Not much.”

A billion-dollar maker of primarily electrical transformers that employs up to 4,000 workers, Howard Industries in Laurel has been showered with taxpayer-funded government subsidies and local media adoration as well as state media indifference for years even though its record makes it arguably one of the state’s worst companies.

The death of a Howard Industries worker at its nearby Ellisville, Mississippi, facility in January 2011 led to 17 OSHA safety violation citations. “Two serious violations related to the fatality include not requiring employees to use work safety practices dealing with live electrical circuits, and failing to use locks and tags when de-energizing test equipment,” an OSHA press release said in July 2011.

Workers had to be evacuated from the plant in March 2018 after two transformers caught on fire. OSHA fined the company $200,000 for 54 violations of work safety rules in 2008, the same year the plant was the site of the nation’s largest raid on undocumented workers at the work place in history. Three years later it pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate immigration laws and received a $2.5 million fine.

Thanks to the diligence of the Mississippi Immigration Rights Alliance, Howard Industries was shamed into releasing 283 paychecks to migrant workers that it had held back.

In 2012 the company agreed to a $1.3 million settlement of a discrimination lawsuit by four black women who said they were refused jobs because of the company’s preference for Latino workers.

Despite this dismal history, Howard Industries has benefited from local tax exemptions for years, a $31 million state subsidy in 2002, plus a $20 million bond issue from the county. Its horrible record for low wages among its majority African American workforce brought in the NAACP back in 2015 and led the Laurel City Council to support the NAACP’s plea that Howard Industries raise its wages and to threaten the company’s local tax exemption. Half the workforce belonged to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers but they still made between $3.55 and $6 an hour less than their counterparts in other nearby plants. The council eventually changed its mind and backed off amid a blistering attack by the local newspaper and likely behind-the-scenes pressure on council members.

Howard Industries also has a record of rewarding friendly politicians. It once rewarded state legislators with free laptop computers.
The Laurel Leader-Call is an embarrassment of a newspaper that heaps such praise on Howard Industries it could hardly be expected ever to do any real investigation of the company. “We were fierce defenders of HI when out-of-towners embarked upon a crusade to get its employees to unionize,” the newspaper editorialized some months ago, “and we smacked around some past councilmen editorially when they tried to pull HI’s tax exemption because of a handful of disgruntled employees.”

Ah, kowtowing, subservient, butt-kissing journalism remains strong in Laurel, Mississippi!

Friday, June 21, 2019

UAW loses in Chattanooga due to a political-corporate phalanx of opposition aided and abetted by UAW scandal and loss of will

(To the right, Marty Fishgold in Pittsburgh in 2009)

My late friend Marty Fishgold was an old-time union man who brooked no nonsense in his fight for the working stiff. A Brooklyn native and descendant of Russian socialist immigrants who’d escaped the Czar’s pogroms for a new life in the USA, Marty could be as tough on union bosses as he was on corporate bosses.

It’s these guys at the top with their big houses and their big cars, he’d warn me as we talked into the wee hours on the struggles of the labor movement. A former president of the International Labor Communications Association and longtime editor of The Unionist in New York City, Marty wasn’t talking about CEOs. He was talking about union leaders.

I thought about Marty when I heard the news that workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, narrowly voted down an opportunity to join the United Auto Workers at the June 12-14 election. The vote was 833 no and 776 yes. Just 29 more yes votes would have swung the election the other way, a closer margin than even the 712-626 vote at the plant in 2014.

Why did I think of Marty? Maybe this April 2 headline in the Detroit News had something to do with it:

`I wasn’t perfect,’ guilty UAW exec Jewell tells judge

In that story, former UAW vice president Norwood Jewell pleaded guilty to labor conspiracy in an investigation that tagged him as enjoying wine and cigar parties costing up to $30,000, $7,000 steakhouse meals, and other luxury life benefits on the tab of executives at Fiat Chrysler. In exchange, the executives wanted Jewell’s cooperation in getting his union to agree to contract concessions for Fiat Chrysler workers. Jewell is one of several UAW officials targeted in the federal investigation.

“I wasn’t perfect. I was getting stuff from Chrysler and I can’t do that,” Jewell admitted in the courtroom.

“I have to wonder if crap like this may have swung enough votes away from the UAW in Chattanooga to give VW/Republicans the win,” my good buddy and stalwart labor news source Lew Smith pondered in an email to me. A former seafarer, Smith is a lifelong union man.

Just how much the UAW scandal affected voting workers is uncertain, just as the effect of VW’s own scandal regarding diesel emissions—former VW boss Martin Winterkorn faces related fraud charges—is unclear. What is certain, however, is that it gave the entire phalanx of government officials, including Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, outside anti-union groups, and VW supervisors plenty of ammunition with which to attack the UAW in the days leading up to the election.

What has been interesting in the unfolding story of union organizing activity at VW in Chattanooga is the position of the German-based company itself. Organized in 43 of its 45 plants, VW has always boasted an open mind toward labor and pledged neutrality. Behind the scenes, however, its supervisors at the plant did their best to scare workers and talk trash about the union. The company refused to sit down at the bargaining table after the pro-union vote by skilled trades workers at the plant back in 2015, a source of subsequent litigation.

My suspicion is that the seeming VW turnaround on neutrality had at least something to do with pressure from Lee and other top Tennessee officials. The Republican leadership in that state, much like everywhere else in the South and beyond, see unions as the devil incarnate, the ultimate challenge to their oligarchical control not only the Southern economy but also Southern politics. Once Southern workers develop a union culture, what would that portend for the corporate subservient political leadership across the entire region?

I wrote about this kind of thing in my book Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press back in 2008. In 1984 the Japanese firm Mazda wanted to locate a plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, something you’d think would have local officials dancing in the aisles. What happened, however, is they stepped in the shadows and let the area’s largest employer, textile baron Eugene Stone, inform Mazda officials that their company was not welcome. Mazda’s coming would only force an increase in wages overall in the area, putting pressure on Stone and other local employers, and up the chances of an invasion by the UAW. When Mazda decided to locate the plant instead in Flat Rock, Michigan, the local Greenville News ran a story with the headline “Saved from Mazda”!

Beyond all this, however, is the UAW’s own culpability in the loss in Chattanooga. Perhaps exhausted after the 12-year-long losing struggle at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, in 2017, the union waged a limited campaign at the Volkswagen plant, depending heavily on radio and television ads to counter the barrage of anti-union ads bombarding viewers. Missing was the national and international campaign it waged on behalf the Nissan workers in Canton. Also missing was the kind of retail, gut-level campaign that worked successfully for the United Food and Commercial Workers at the Smithfield Food plant in North Carolina in 2008 and helped overcome the fierce efforts by anti-union forces to divide black, Latino, and white workers.

That election in North Carolina showed that Southern workers will join unions. Heck, the rise of the UAW back in the 1930s actually began with a strike at GM’s Lakewood Plant in Atlanta, Georgia, not in Flint, Michigan.

(Sit-down auto worker strikers in Flint, Michigan, in 1937) 

The UAW today is just a shadow of what it was under the long leadership of Walter Reuther, whose own rise as a labor leader paralleled that of the UAW.  When the union agreed some years back to a two-tiered wage system that divided veteran workers and new hires, it lost some of its soul.  It’s still today struggling to find its soul again.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Hoping against hope that Walter Reuther's spirit would win the day when VW workers in Chattanooga voted recently on whether to join a union. West Virginia names a bridge after labor troubadour Hazel Dickens then its Senate votes to ban teacher strikes

UPDATE JUNE 17, 2019: As many of you know by now, Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga voted down the union by a narrow margin in their recent election. A Labor South analysis of that election will come later this week. Below is my pre-vote column.

Here’s another Labor South roundup as a major union vote looms in Chattanooga and West Virginia names a bridge after labor troubadour Hazel Dickens then its state Senate votes to outlaw teacher strikes.

Chattanooga needs Walter Reuther

(To the right, Walter Reuther)

Walter Reuther will be watching from heaven next week as workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, cast their ballots to determine if they will be represented by the United Auto Workers.

“I’m hanging on the last leaf on the last twig!” Reuther, the founding soul of the UAW, once told auto workers as he sat down with recalcitrant Ford Company officials to push for a pension clause in a new contract.

The same might be said for the UAW in the South as they watch the election results on June 12-14. They lost the last election five years ago, although they later did win a smaller victory with skilled trades workers at the plant. Back in those days, Volkswagen tried to appear open-minded about unionization—43 of its 45 plants are already unionized—but this go-round its anti-union mindset heart of hearts—something it shares with practically ever other corporation--has been obvious.

To vote union, workers not only have to battle pressures within the company but also from their governor and other political leaders as well as chambers of commerce, preachers, publishers, and the outside labor baiters that always ride into town crying how the union only wants their dues.

By the way, Reuther won the day at that long-ago bargaining table and got the pension clause inserted in the contract. Ford agreed to fund the cost of the workers’ pensions fully.

A bridge for Hazel Dickens and a slap for school teachers

(Hazel Dickens)

The state of West Virginia recently approved the naming of a bridge after labor songster Hazel Dickens, whose wrenching tunes about the plight of mine workers contributed greatly to the proud legacy of labor songs that dates back to Joe Hill.

Hold your applause for West Virginia, however. Its Republican-led Senate then turned around and voted to ban future strikes by the state’s school teachers. That action certainly was prompted by the bad taste left in the mouths of corporate-bought-and-paid-for politicians by last year’s successful strike by teachers for better wages and health benefits.

 The vote to rename what was known as the Montcalm Bridge over the Bluestone River on County Route 11 in Mercer County came in March, and a dedication ceremony took place earlier this month. Hazel Dickens was born in Montcalm in 1925. She died in 2011.

Dickens appeared in the film Matewan (1987) about the deadly 1920 coal miners’ strike in that West Virginia town and also in Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary Harlan County USA.  Here’s her stirring rendition of one of her greatest songs, Black Lung, at the Highlander Center in New Market, Tennessee:

Dickens belongs in that great hall of legendary labor folksingers that includes Joe Hill, Utah Phillips, Florence Reece, Woody Guthrie, Ralph Chaplin, Sarah Ogan Gunning, Phil Ochs, and Pete Seeger. Billy Bragg, Anne Feeney, and others are continuing that tradition today.

The West Virginia Senate’s action to ban teachers strikes is ironic given that public sector strikes in the state are already illegal—that didn’t stop those heroic teachers last year, however! The state House may take up the bill later this month. What it could potentially do is further punish striking teachers by withholding pay and/or allowing the firing of striking teachers.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Remembering "Route 66", the landmark early '60s television series about two searchers who traveled America's "flyover" in a Corvette, doing blue-collar jobs, and found a rising counterculture

(To the right, George Maharis as Buzz and Martin Milner as Tod in Route 66)

I was just 12 years old when the idea of a Route 66 first entered my impressionable mind. It was the fall of 1960, and I was sitting on the floor in front of our television as Nelson Riddle’s jazzy moving-down-the-road theme first filled the room and the screen filled with Tod and Buzz making their across America in Tod’s Corvette.

Nothing, to me, was better than the CBS series Route 66, and I was a happy soul the other day when my complete DVD set of all four seasons by the Shout! Factory arrived. This was “the iconic television series of the 1960s,” writes Nat Segaloff in his biography of screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, whose hip, existential, Zen-like scripts made the show television’s own crossroads between 1950s Beat and late ‘60s Hip.

This was a series that put Yale-educated Tod Stiles, played by Martin Milner, and Hell’s Kitchen survivor Buzz Murdock, played by George Maharis, on the road every week “looking not for adventure but … for meaning,” journalist Michael Ventura has written. “Route 66 was not a television show, it was a promise. A weekly training film. A way out and through and over.”

Tod and Buzz traveled America, that vast, story-rich landscape many New Yorkers and Angelenos dismiss as the “flyover”. They went down the same road Woody Guthrie hitchhiked with his guitar, the same road John Steinbeck’s Okies in The Grapes of Wrath traveled in the Great Depression, the same road yours truly hitchhiked in 1969 and wrote about in a 2009 short story Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine liked enough to submit for an Edgar Award.

This was a working class show. Every week Tod and Buzz would roll their sleeves up to do a job on an oil rig or in a chicken farm or on a shrimp boat. A favorite character actor would usually join them—Keenan Wynn, Janice Rule, Susan Oliver, Robert Duvall, Whit Bissell, Martin Balsam, Nina Foch, Mike Yellin, Lois Nettleton. Occasionally a Sam Peckinpah or Robert Altman would direct. Silliphant’s magic pen, also seen in the earlier landmark TV series Naked City, made sure that plot didn't overrule character and also that the show always had something to say.

The pilot for the series took place way off Route 66 in Mississippi, where a local boss played by Everett Sloan rules his town like a little Mussolini. Another early segment puts Tod and Buzz on a shrimp boat at Grand Isle, Louisiana, where Charlotte Duval, played by Janice Rule, proves herself in a man’s world by saving her suitor’s boat during a hurricane.

Back in those days, the network execs gave Silliphant and producer Bert Leonard total control, a kind of artist’s paradise. Silliphant hit the highway ahead of cast and crew for the on location filming, staying in hotels and motels along “the mother road,” checking out the local hangouts and talking with folks about local stories and legends.

When the gig finally was up—Maharis left halfway through the third season, replaced by Glenn Corbett, and the show never quite recovered—and the last segment aired on March 13, 1964, the execs decided they’d allowed all the artistic license they could stand. “Before long, network executives whose hands-on experience had been limited to changing the channel were demanding to approve not just finished teleplays but story ideas, casting, locations, production crew, and even the costumes and wallpaper,” Segaloff writes. “Focus groups replaced intuition and experience.”

Hardly any life after life followed the end of the road for Route 66. Original negatives were hard to find. Lawyers and corporations tied up opportunities to show it to a new generation. When Shout! Factory came out with the DVD collection in 2012, the media paid little or no attention. “Route 66 represents something of an evolutionary dead end for the TV drama,” writes Todd VanDerWerff. “It was an attempt to blend the closed-off, social-issues-based storytelling of the best anthology series with the recurring characters of a more traditional drama series. It’s an approach that still works in other countries—Doctor Who springs to mind—but has more or less died out in the U.S.”

The show’s fate has been similar to the road that gave it its name. Route 66 was named one of the nation’s most endangered historic places in 2018, a victim both of development and neglect.

What television viewers saw in Route 66 was an “embrace of an American counterculture that was slowly moving into the mainstream eye,” VanDerWerff writes. “Characters on Route 66 did drugs or agitated for political positions that would have been seen as far left even a decade prior.” In other words, Route 66 was shaking things up years before the Sixties became the Sixties. Maybe that’s one reason my 12-year-old self liked it so much.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Highlander officials believe the fascist Iron Guard symbol found outside their burning main building was a declaration of war, yet law authorities won't even yet say whether the fire was an act of arson

Authorities say they are still trying to determine whether arson was the cause of the March 29 fire that destroyed the main office building and a number of historical documents at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee, yet the grid-like symbol of Romania’s 1930s fascist Iron Guard was found spray painted on pavement outside the building.

Highlander officials believe the fire is a sign of war on people and institutions that promote social justice in the South and beyond.  The FBI, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and local authorities are investigating. No one was injured in the fire.

For all of its 87-year history, Highlander has had to fight for its existence as a beacon of light against the darkness of fascism in the U.S. South—whether it was the threats of Klansmen, the front-page attacks of Tennessee newspapers, the Tennessee government, or the congressional investigations of U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland of Mississippi.

(Myles Horton)

Founded in 1932 on two hundred acres of land in Monteagle in east Tennessee, Highlander began as a dream made possible by wealthy-but-progressive Memphis belle Lilian Johnson. She leased the land to two visionaries named Myles Horton, a son of sharecroppers who had studied theology at Union Theological Seminary, and Don West, a poet on a motorcycle and somewhat dashing legend of the Southern underground.

Inspired by a Christian vision similar to that of Dorothy Day, they created a labor school and training ground to help poor Southerners gain more control over their lives and achieve social justice in a land ruled by an oligarchy that has changed faces but which still exists in the region today.

Over the years, activists such as Rosa Parks and Christian socialist James Dombrowski spent time as staffers there, while Martin Luther King Jr. and others came to give lectures and hold seminars.

From the very outset Highlander was attacked. Fiery evangelist Billy Sunday called it a “cancer” that was “trying to create a world revolution for the benefit of red Russia and communist ideals.” The Nashville Tennessean newspaper ran a six-day series on it in 1939 that labeled it a school that “spreads Communist doctrines” in Tennessee. In 1960 the state shut it down on some unrelated charges related to the sale of alcohol and mistakes in filing its charter. It reopened as a newly christened research center in New Market, Tennessee, north of Knoxville two years later.

Highlander continues to be a force for social activism and organizing efforts on issues ranging from immigration to racial justice and media justice.

(To the right, Corneliu Zelia Codreanu)

The Iron Guard symbol found outside Highlander’s burning main building raises serious questions about the extent of neo-Nazi, fascist radicalism that might exist in the Southern netherworld.  The roots of the Iron Guard go back to Moldavia in the early decades of the 20th century and Christian zealot Corneliu Zelia Codreanu, whose prison vision of the Archangel Michael inspired his creation of the Legion of the Archangel Michael and other variations of the Iron Guard. A fanatical, murderous group devoted to their image of a vengeful God and to Romanian nationalism, they would carry small bags of Romanian soil around their necks and perform rituals of tasting each other’s blood and vowing a mutual allegiance to death if necessary while dancing and singing ritual songs together. From the mid-1920s to the late 1930s they conducted a series of political assassinations and terrorist attacks.

Their grid-like motto, which resembles the iron bars of a jail cell, was also found on the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville 18 months ago, and more recently on a gun that was used in the attack on mosques in New Zealand.