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.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The UAW tries again at VW in Chattanooga, Mississippi's waterboys for ALEC, and old socialist Milwaukee to host Democrats

It’s time for another Labor South roundup, and this go-round we find the United Auto Workers gearing up for another election at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This comes at the same time former VW boss Martin Winterkorn faces charges for fraud, much like former Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn is facing other charges of his own. Meanwhile Mississippi legislators lead the nation as waterboys for ALEC, while the top GOP gubernatorial candidate in that state warns against the threat of Hollywood elitists. This and a peek at old socialist Milwaukee!

Another Union Battle Looming at Volkswagen in Chattanooga

(To the right, the UAW's Walter Reuther--third from right, forefront--at the Battle of the Overpass in 1937--just before Ford goons began swinging their fists at him and other organizers)

 UPDATE - May 5, 2019: No date has been scheduled as of yet for the next vote for union representation at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. However, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has already weighed in in a speech to plant workers last week that was a thinly veiled attack on the union. Par for the course in Tennessee politics. Volkswagen shut down its assembly lines so workers could hear it.)

Five years after losing a tight election at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennesee, the United Auto Workers is prepping for another vote very soon and the opposition is already gathering forces.

UAW officials say they hope this election will not be marred by the outside interference that contributed to their narrow 712-626 loss on Valentine’s Day in 2014. After pledging to stay away from that fray, then-U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam came in with fists flying against the union. Haslam even threatened a promised $300 million state subsidy to help Volkswagen expand the plant if it went union.

The last election featured "a lot of outside interference," UAW Local 42 President Steve Cochran told Mike Pare of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "We hope that doesn't happen like the last time."

Will anti-union forces stay out of this battle? Of course not. The UAW needs a reality check if it even hopes for such a thing. In fact, the National Right to Work Foundation is already up in arms and trying to call attention to recent troubles at the union involving officials misusing union funds. Corker and Haslam will come off the farm to wave a bloody flag, bet on it, and so will old right-wing troglodytes like Grover Norquist.

Volkswagen, with 43 of its 45 plants around the world already unionized, will be fighting the union as well. It challenged a pro-union vote by skilled trades workers at the Chattanooga plant back in 2015, and its public pledges to remain neutral this time around ring hollow. No small irony that former VW boss Martin Winterkorn now faces serious fraud charges over the company’s diesel emissions scandal. If that goes south for him, he’ll find himself in the same kind of pickle that former Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn is in. Ghosn has been in and out of jail in Japan in recent months due to charges that he misused the company’s cash.

What the UAW and pro-union workers at the plant need to do is be battle-ready and smart. Win the game at getting their message to the public, be more creative in their public relations, their catchy phrases, as well as in their appeals to the workers. Be the cause of social justice that the UAW was back in the 1930s, the UAW of Walter Reuther, not the diminished, vision-lacking UAW of more recent years.

The Waterboys of the Mississippi Legislature

More bills written by outside sources get filed in the Mississippi Legislature than in any other state, according to a recent report by USA Today.

Whether the issue is abortion, gun laws, or reduced regulation, legislators in this state carry more water for corporations and other outside groups than their counterparts elsewhere. The Republican-led legislature is a brooding hotbed of conservatism, fertile ground indeed for the arch-conservative Koch brothers and groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Rest assured, with the Koch brothers and ALEC giving marching orders, Mississippi will remain the nation’s poorest state and one with ever-shrinking services to its legions of poor. Politicians like Republican gubernatorial candidate and current state Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves can be expected to do their part. On the campaign trail recently, Reeves touted his low-tax, low-services, pro-school voucher, anti-public education agenda by decrying the growing influence of “the elitist not only in Hollywood on the West Coast but also on the East Coast” who want to destroy Mississippi and its values. Ross Barnett would be proud.

Good news in Milwaukee, let’s hope

(Jerry Lee Lewis in the 1950s)

One bright spot on the horizon has been the selection of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as the site of the 2020 Democratic Party National Convention. No city in the country has a stronger leftist tradition than Milwaukee, which elected three socialist mayors between 1910 and 1960. Under their leadership the city became famous for its commitment to social equality and also fiscal soundness.

However, given the ongoing battles within the Democratic Party for its soul, the effort by neoliberal Clintonites to crush the progressive spirit embodied by Bernie Sanders, let’s hope we don’t end up singing that old Jerry Lee Lewis ditty “What Made Milwaukee Famous Made a Fool Out of Me”!

Friday, April 12, 2019

Jazz musician Miles Davis' descent from "Blue In Green" mastery to funk junk, and the existential dilemma facing Democrats

(Miles Davis, center, with saxophonist Charlie Parker, second from left, in 1947)

Jazz musician Miles Davis’ Blue In Green, one of the five tunes on Davis’ classic 1959 album Kind of Blue, is one of the great noir anthems, a lonely walk in the dark that is also a cry, a broken heart maybe in a city full of shadows, but a heart still capable of love. I’ve listened to it countless times—whether Miles’ own version or one of pianist Bill Evans’ solo versions—and it never fails me. It always puts me there on that rain-swept street, alone, introspective, maybe trouble ahead, but still walking.

If you like jazz or noir, you can hardly beat the best of Miles Davis’ trumpet back in the 1950s, those spare, long-held single notes, no grandstanding here, no self-indulgent riffs up and down the keys. Like all great artists, he wasn’t trying to impress you. He wanted to tell you a story.

Here listen for yourself:

With his Brooks Brothers suits, his quiet assurance on stage, his masterful control of the music and guidance of his fellow band members, Davis was the quintessence of cool. Saxophonist John Coltrane once apologized to an irritated Davis for an endless riff by explaining he simply had a hard time stopping once he really got into the music. Davis sniffed, “How about taking the mouthpiece out of your mouth?”

As cool as Miles was, however, he lost it as the decades passed. The dark suits changed to garish outfits that would’ve embarrassed Elvis. On stage, he would turn his back on the audience, as if he had contempt for it. In interviews he was surly and arrogant. And his music descended into a mindless jazz funk that turned him from innovator into imitator. Now Miles was trying to be cool. He had plenty of fans, but maybe too many of them were white, and he wanted more black people listening to him. Funk and rock were the rage. James Brown had gone from soul greatness to a repetitious funk-and-grunt. Let’s jazz the funk up. The new Miles may have packed stadiums, but something was lost. His art. He forgot all the black fans he’d had back when he wasn’t trying to sell a product to a niche crowd, back when he was simply telling a story you only had to be human to understand.

(To the right, Miles Davis in the 1980s)

People need stories. Maybe they need them as desperately today as they’ve ever needed them. A wealthy demagogue sits in the White House in the wee hours every night tweeting little stories to the world how brown hordes are at the nation’s border threatening its future. Meanwhile he’s put his minions in power across government to do his bidding in destroying public education, diminishing workers’ rights, ignoring the damage being done to the environment, rattling sabers at poor countries that don’t bow to his corporate friends’ greed. His troops in Congress will do all they can to make sure he—and they--stay in power as long as they can.

Meanwhile, his Democratic opposition is still lost in the existential dilemma that the 2016 presidential election exposed. Is their party the party of the Clintons—who tip their hat to the identity politics that qualify as “liberal” in the corporate media’s view but who are as Wall Street bought-and-paid-for as most Republicans—or the party of upstarts like Bernie Sanders, who want to reach beyond the divisions of identity politics to a politics that recognizes class, not race, as this nation’s biggest issue, what it really has always been?

Look at reparations—an issue that rightly or wrongly most Americans see as simply calling for the descendants of non-slaveholders to hand checks to the descendants of slaves. “Liberal” Democratic presidential candidates like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, both of whom are African American but also safely corporate, embrace it. So do Elizabeth Warren and others. Democrats better rename it and redefine it if they want to win in 2020.

Why can’t Democrats be more like the Miles Davis of the 1950s? Embrace a politics, like he embraced a music, that tells a story, one that resonates with people regardless of their “identity”, that connects with their struggles, their fears, the concerns they have that are real, a story that also gives them hope. You know when I finish yet another encounter with Blue In Green, I’m not angry or depressed. I’m impressed. That’s a kind of hope in itself.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Mueller report upends Rachel Maddow and a Democratic Party establishment that paved the way for a demagogue's victory

(Hillary Clinton)

Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks, made it clear to New Yorker writer Raffi Khachadourian back in 2017 what he thought of claims his organization was manipulated in a “coordinated propaganda effort” to defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential elections.

Assange “has turned the official assessment—at best, a declaration that he had been used--into a symbol of American failure, establishment mendacity, Democratic hysteria, neo-McCarthyism, and fake news,” Khachadourian wrote.

It was through WikiLeaks that the world learned the Democratic Party leadership had worked to scuttle Bernie Sanders’ candidacy to clear the way for Clinton’s nomination and path to defeat Republican Donald Trump. We all know what happened. Trump won, and the Clinton establishment, desperate for a scapegoat, blamed the Russians, raising the specter of collusion with the Trump campaign.

After two long years, the Mueller Report, named after special counsel Robert Mueller, is out and puts to rest claims that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians in defeating Hillary Clinton. The Russians may have interfered in the campaign but not in direct cahoots with Trump.

Journalists like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow may never recover. Once respected for her insightful commentary, Maddow invested herself nearly totally in the collusion conspiracy theory and hammered away on it night after night for more than two years. She compromised her journalistic integrity, ignoring other important issues to obsess about this one. Once a fan, I stopped watching her long ago.

The Democratic Party establishment deserves much of the blame for the disaster of the Trump Administration, pushing a deeply flawed candidate, undermining a much better one, and paving the road for the victory of a demagogue. Even today, it doesn’t accept its complicity in this tragedy, and that’s why its continued disconnect with reality even after the Mueller Report dashed its conspiracy hopes.

As Khatchadourian wrote, Assange saw Clinton as “corrupt, pathetically driven by personal ambition, a neoliberal interventionist destined to take the United States into war—the epitome of a political establishment that deserved to be permanently ousted.”

He was right.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Embattled Trump rattling sabers at Venezuela in a classic demagogic distraction while Venezuelans are saying "Yankee Go Home!"

(Photo from Frogsprog, 2007)

President Trump is feeling pressure. Plans for his wall across the U.S.-Mexican border are stalling. His former lawyer told members of Congress and the nation that he is a racist and a cheat. His party lost the U.S. House in the last election, and a growing number of Republicans are bucking his rule. His poll numbers are down.

So what’s a demagogue to do to get back on the public’s good side? Let’s rattle some sabers and talk about war, of course! Why not Venezuela? It’s what George W. Bush did with the invasion of Iraq back in 2003, what Reagan did in Grenada in 1983, and what other presidents have done before them.

Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently warned that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s “days (are) numbered.” With other warmongers like John Bolton and Elliott Abrams close to the President’s ear, Trump has to be wondering how he can best pull this off despite the American public’s weariness of war after nearly two decades of it in Iraq and Afghanistan. We live in a nation that’s permanently at war. Why not a third one?

Here’s what National Security Advisor Bolton told Fox News in January: “We’re in conversations with major American companies now. … It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.”

Bolton said the Trump Administration is closely watching not only Venezuela but also its fellow “troika of tyranny” members Cuba and Nicaragua.

The horrible economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is partly of Maduro’s making, he and his mentor, the late Hugo Chavez. For an  example, they failed to diversify Venezuela’s oil-centered economy, and when oil prices dropped so did the nation’s economic well-being. However, Chavez was indeed “the poor people’s president,” as the National Catholic Reporter’s Bart Jones called him back in 2013. He was bound and determined to refocus Venezuela’s energies back on its legions of poor, and in doing so, he “offended people in high places and was a threat to the established order,” Jones wrote.

That “established order” included the United States and Wall Street with their long history of exploiting Latin America’s resources and upholding murderous right-wing dictatorships so long as they didn’t challenge the power of the U.S. oil industry or corporations like the United Fruit Company, later called Chiquita. Chavez nationalized banks, declaring the banking industry as a “public service” and he passed legislation declaring that 5 percent of their profits go toward community building. He won election after election, and so did his successor in 2016.

U.S. tentacles are all over Latin America these days, helping to turn left-leaning governments in Honduras, Brazil, Argentina and elsewhere to the right, and they’re closing in on Venezuela. The Trump Administration even has its own puppet in line to take over once Maduro is gone, National Assembly head and self-declared president Juan Guaido. U.S. troops indeed have been sent to the Caribbean in anticipation of another coup in Venezuela such as the one the United States helped orchestrate against Chavez in 2002. After Chavez’s kidnapping in that coup, his thousands of supporters filled the streets of Caracas and demanded his return. The anti-Chavez media “showed Hollywood movies” instead of reporting on the demonstrations, reporter Bart Jones said.

U.S. media haven’t been much different in their treatment of Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” (after Venezuelan-born independence hero Simón Bolívar), Maduro and Venezuela.  Even the liberal New Yorker headlined Jon Lee Anderson’s 2013 piece on Chavez, “Slumlord”. There’s little on television or in the print media in the United States that has detailed the devastating effects of U.S. sanctions on the Venezuelan economy and people.

Still some writers have written effectively on this and related issues. Writer Michael Fox described the sad and tragic tradition of U.S. presidential meddling and Trump’s potential complicity in it in a recent piece for Salon and The Progressive Populist.

Back in September 2018, Labor South described at some length the sordid history of U.S. interference in the affairs of other nations, particularly Latin America. It looks like Trump would like to repeat that history, but this time Americans may be so weary of war that they’ll joined countless generations of Latin Americans who’ve loudly cried “Yankee Go Home”, and maybe the American Yankee this time will.

Friday, March 1, 2019

The neo-liberals want to remove Eva Peron's image from the Buenos Aires skyline, but her image and legacy can never be removed from the hearts of workers and the poor

(To the right, Eva Perón, in 1952, greeting her followers but in such ill health her husband Juan  Perón has to brace her)

Eva Duarte Perón, also known as Evita, still hovers over the city skyline of Buenos Aires as well as in the minds of millions of the porteños who live there. The former actress, born out of wedlock in a poor, remote village, who became the First Lady of Argentina during the reign of Juan Perón from 1946 to 1955, was “more Peronist than Perón himself,” as writer Joseph A. Page once said.

Well, Darío Lopérfido, longtime cultural arbiter, artistic director at the Teatro Colón and the nation’s former Secretary of Culture and Communications, has called for the removal of Evita’s image from the high-rise Edificio del Ministerio de Obras Públicas (Ministry of Public Works building) in the heart of Buenos Aires.

(Eva's image on the Edificio del Ministerio de Obras Públicas in Buenos Aires. A photograph I took during a visit in 2015)

“It is a fascist symbol,” Lopérfido proclaimed in television interviews and elsewhere. “It is comparable to Stalinism. Peronism is a political travesty.”

Certainly Lopérfido’s campaign brings a smile to the face of Mauricio Macri, Argentine’s neo-liberal, Big Business-loving, union-baiting leader since 2015, a darling of Trump-world regime-changers whose minions have done their best to put his predecessor, Peronist Christina Fernández de Kirchner in prison. This is classic Latin American right-wing politics—win election and then get your rival behind bars, kind of like what presidential candidate Donald Trump wanted to do to Hillary Clinton once elected.

Eva Perón remains an unforgettable presence in Argentine history and one of the most dynamic women on the world political stage in her time, and perhaps any time. From her humble origins, she rose to be a major power behind the throne of her husband, an affable-but-politically unreliable colonel who had studied and served in Mussolini’s fascist Italy but rose to power in Argentina as a pro-union hero of the working class. Evita loved her husband desperately but made sure he kept his commitments to the workers, the “descamisados” (shirtless ones) who had rarely had much of a voice in Argentine politics with its ruling oligarchy of wealthy industrialists and cattle barons.

“I love the descamisados, the women, the workers of my people too much,” she wrote in her book and deathbed testimonial Mi Mensaje (My Message), “and, by extension, I love all the world’s exploited people, condemned to death by imperialisms and the privileges of land ownership, too much. The suffering of the poor, the humble, the great pain of so much of humanity without sun and without sky hurts me too much to keep quiet.”

She put action to her words. She established a foundation that helped build 12 hospitals, a thousand schools, medical centers, clinics, transit homes for the homeless, homes for abandoned children, homes for the elderly. She helped secure the vote for the women of Argentina. Days on end, she personally met with endless lines of the poor who came to her with their cries and pleas. They called her “The Workers Plentipotentiary”,  “The Lady of Hope”, and, though childless herself, the “Mother of the Innocents”.

Beautiful but frail in health, she was destined for a short life, but she never gave up her fight and her ferocious war against the “oligarchy”, a term that became a curse word in her mouth, and she could indeed be ferocious and authoritarian in her attacks on her enemies. She died of cancer in 1952 at the age of 33. Her body was later stolen and not return to her husband until many years later.

Peronism remains a strong political force in Argentina today, and its pro-working class ideals owe more to Evita’s legacy than that of her husband.

Still, her enemies, both in Argentina and beyond, would love to destroy her memory. It’s an old story. 

Argentina’s most famous writer, the aristocratic, conservative, virulently anti-Peronist Jorge Luis Borges, called Evita a “common prostitute,” echoing the widespread mantra of the anti-Peronists that the literati all too readily embraced. “She was the macho’s ideal victim-woman—don’t those red lips still speak to the Argentine macho of her reputed skill in fellatio?” V.S. Naipaul once wrote from his Olympian heights in the world of distinguished writers.

She was the woman “who tamed El Presidente with sexual skills learned on her knees in a hundred waterfront bars,” reads the back cover of Paul L. Montgomery’s 1979 biography Eva, Evita: The Life of Eva Perón. Even Mike Wallace, the USA’s premier investigative TV reporter-celebrity, skewered her as having “the ruthlessness of a demagogue” in an ill-informed, distorted broadcast decades ago that surely won a stamp of approval from the CIA and Republican establishment in Washington, D.C. The 1996 film Evita starring Madonna bought into this image of Eva Perón.

If the real-life image of Evita does indeed come down from the Edificio del Ministerio de Obras Públicas, the neo-liberals undoubtedly will uncork their champagne and celebrate, but the poor and the working class of Argentina will know she lives on in their hearts. That’s something beyond the power of the oligarchy’s cranes and bulldozers.