Wednesday, February 20, 2019

"Mother Jones" magazine picks up on "Labor South" story about asylum seekers being held in a remote Mississippi prison

You read it first in Labor South! In separate posts in August and September of 2018, Labor South reported on the hundreds of asylum seekers from other countries being held in the remote Tallahatchie Correctional Facility in the Mississippi Delta town of Tutwiler.

In its latest edition, Mother Jones magazine published a lengthy article by Noah Lanard about the prison and the asylum seekers being held there. Here is the link:

Of course, you read about this in Labor South and also in my column in the Jackson Free Press last September if you are a subscriber to that publication. Here is that link:

It is gratifying to know that national attention is now being given the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s actions toward people seeking refuge in this nation of immigrants. It would have been nice, however, for Mother Jones to have acknowledged who got the story first.

Friday, February 8, 2019

France's Yellow Vest protesters shake the neo-liberal world of the "New Republic" magazine as well as Emmanuel Macron - Would a Zapata help the cause?

(The Gilets Jaunes in Paris)

It was an evening sometime in the summer or early fall of 1973, and my brother John and I were sitting in a café in the Left Bank of Paris near Sorbonne University. Drinking our beers, perhaps an aperitif or two, we were enjoying ourselves by our window table when all of a sudden total chaos broke out in the streets outside.

Hundreds of students carrying placards and crudely written signs, shouting, their faces alive with emotion, rushed past us. Many of them looked back as they ran, and we soon saw why. Hot on their trail were equally hundreds of uniformed police waving their black sticks with intent to use them.

My brother and I weren’t sure how to react so we watched as the crowds disappeared into the narrow streets and alleys of the Latin Quarter. It was just a few years after the major protests of 1968, and I remember seeing huge signs in the streets announcing news of the latest arrests of members of the revolutionary Baader-Meinhof gang, the popular name of Germany’s Red Army Faction led by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. Both were in jail by that time, but key faction members were still on the loose planting bombs, kidnapping politicians and generally wreaking havoc.

I’ve been thinking about that visit to Paris during the recent protests by the gilets jaunes—Yellow Vests—in the streets of Paris and elsewhere across France, a movement of the French working class in defiance of the country’s neo-liberal president Emmanuel Macron and his policies of giant tax breaks to the rich and corporations while hiking taxes on workers and cutting public services.

With even major labor leaders looking askance at their protests, the Yellow Vests don’t have a clearly identifiable leader. Theirs is a spontaneous protest prompted in part by Macron’s hike on fuel, which has caused a divide with environmentalists. To the protesters, that hike was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back because it made their already struggling lives even more of a struggle. French workers usually live outside the cities and have to commute. After cutting their public transportation, Macron wanted to raise their already expensive fuel prices.

The protests were so vehement that Macron had to back off his fuel tax plan, but people remained in the streets because their issues went far beyond the cost of keeping the tanks in their vehicles full. Called the “yellow vests” because of the piece of safety clothing French drivers are required to keep in their cars, these French workers are actually part of a much larger and hopefully growing protest against the neo-liberal corporate takeover of this world that major political parties of all stripes in most countries have come to accept.

The U.S. media haven’t paid much attention what’s going on in the streets of Paris. Leftist media have done some admirable work, but what you’re more likely to encounter are articles such as Alexander Hurst’s “The Ugly, Illiberal, Anti-Semitic Heart of the Yellow Vest Movement” that appeared last month in New Republic magazine, a publication that has veered left and right over its long history and as this article indicates seems content to side with the self-satisfied liberal elite who call themselves socially liberal but are anything but on anything else.

Hurst’s article wages war on casseurs (“smashers”) who have joined the Yellow Vests at times and contributed violence to confrontations with the police—sort of like identifying all leftist critics of capitalism with the Baader-Meinhof gang in the 1970s!

Macron won election in France due largely to the failure of major parties to field candidates who could truly address the concerns of the French people. The same phenomenon happened in the United States, and that’s why we have Donald Trump as president. Demagogues and self-proclaimed saviors thrive in a political vacuum. The same phenomenon occurred more than a century ago in the United States and led to the creation of the People’s Party, also known as the Populists, the largest and most significant third party movement in the history of our nation.

(To the right, Emiliano Zapata in 1912)

The other night on Turner Classic Movies I watched the 1952 film “Viva Zapata!”, the story of the great turn-of-the-last-century Mexican peasant-turned-revolutionary whose legacy as a leader and champion of the people lives on today. Directed by Elia Kazan with a script by John Steinbeck and starring Marlon Brando as Emiliano Zapata, the film showed how revolutionaries like Zapata in the south of Mexico and Pancho Villa to the north filled a vacuum in that country. After their revolution produced results, the weak-kneed Francisco Madero took over the country, thinking he could accommodate the crying needs of the people while still dealing with bullying militarists like Victoriano Huerta. He paid for that mistake with his life, and so did Zapata and Villa.

Do the Gilets Jaunes need a strong leader, a Zapata, to keep their movement alive and well? France has a long and inspiring history of social movements that sprang up from the people—beginning in modern history with the French Revolution and including other inspiring moments in history such as the Paris Communards of 1871. True leaders who never lose sight of the cause, such as Zapata, are rare.

In the film “Viva Zapata!” one of the generals makes a remark about the revolution breaking out in his country. “Ideas are harder to kill than snakes. How do you kill an idea?” Brando’s Zapata points to another truth about people’s movements. “A strong people is the only lasting strength.”

Friday, February 1, 2019

Rising union membership in the South, a UCW-CWA local at Ole Miss, and remembering Brecht and Weill's "Mahagonny"

(A Green Moon Over Alabama, a book of poetry by Bertolt Brecht, published in the German Democratic Republic in 1975)

Back in the late 1990s I traveled to Jena in what had shortly before that time been Communist East Germany. In a small bookstore in that centuries-old university town I found a copy of poems by Bertolt Brecht, the great playwright and committed Communist whose collaboration with composer Kurt Weill produced such works as The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, the latter first published 90 years ago this year and a biting indictment of capitalist greed, hedonism, and corruption that enraged the Nazis back in 1930s Germany.

The most famous song in Mahagonny is the “Alabama Song”, where Jenny, originally played by the great Lotte Lenja, and a group of fellow prostitutes say goodbye to good old Alabama in order to travel to the mythical city of Mahagonny where they’ll find plenty of whiskey, boys, money, and fun.

(To the right, Lotte Lenja)

“Oh moon of Alabama
We now must say good-bye
We’ve lost our good old mamma
And must have dollars
Oh, you know why.”

Here’s Lotte Lenya’s version back in 1958:

On the cover of the book of poetry is a depiction of a Southern-style, cigar-chomping political boss surrounded by whores and their drunken clients under ramshackle roofs. A little bit of the South in Old Communist Germany!

I pulled out that volume recently after seeing the latest numbers on union membership in the U.S. South and country as a whole. Membership dropped a bit nationwide from 10.7 percent of the workforce in 2017 to 10.5 percent last year, just half of what it was back in the 1980s.

The good news is that membership rose in parts of the South with Alabama adding more union members—44,000—than any other state! Union membership as a share of the workforce also rose in Florida, Louisiana, and Georgia while holding steady in the region as a whole, according to CBS and the Institute for Southern Studies' Facing South.

We’re doing our part here in little Oxford, Mississippi, where the United Campus Workers Local 3565 of the Communications Workers of America recently organized as a non-collective bargaining “organizing local” formed to represent and defend the rights of all campus workers—from faculty to custodians. Yours truly was one of the original 50 members needed to secure union status.

The union has already been active on a number of fronts, including its members supporting a successful effort to get non-tenure-track adjunct faculty representation on the campus Faculty Senate. It is looking at a wide range of future issues to address—from the availability of child care for campus workers to the gender gap in wages to a possible Living Wage Campaign.

(To the right, former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam)

United Campus Workers is growing across the South with locals at universities in Tennessee and Georgia. It was successful in preventing Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam from a massive privatization effort on the campuses of the University of Tennessee (as well as across state government) in the fall of 2017. Haslam, a billionaire, and a corporate-dominated group wanted to outsource every state facility service job on those campuses, more than 3,500 jobs in the university system. After pressure from UCW, the state’s university system opted out of the plan.

(Bertolt Brecht, from a photo on the back cover of A Green Moon Over Alabama)

The latest statistics on union membership in Alabama and the South probably would bring a smile to the face of Bertolt Brecht, a cigar chomper himself. In that book of his poetry I have is another little song called “Streiklied” (“Strike Song”) in which he urges workers to take the risk to take a stand for their rights. I’m not a commie—my priest wouldn’t put up with it!--but I like the old poet’s spirit.

“Heraus auf die Strasse! Kampfe!” (“Come out into the street! Fight!”
Um zu warten, ist es zu spaet!” (“To wait is too late!”)
Hilf dir selbst, indem du uns hilft; uebe” (“Help yourselves, and you help us; Exercise your”)
Solidaritaet!” (“Solidarity!”)