Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Looking to Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" for hope in 2021

 (Charles Dickens at his desk)

This is a rerun of my Christmas 2017 post
, a column that looked to Charles Dickens to give us some hope for better things to come. What it says pretty much still rings true today, but let's take hope from Dickens' tale that 2020 will have opened some eyes and hearts, and indeed better things will come in 2021.


OXFORD, Miss. – I settled comfortably into my favorite chair one recent night and popped in a DVD of the best Christmas movie ever, the 1951 version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.


No one ever portrayed a better Ebenezer Scrooge than Scottish actor Alastair Sim, who plays to perfection the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” whose ghost-and-spirit-inspired conversion later in the story will have him declaring, “I’m not the man I was!”


“I have endeavored in this ghostly little book to raise the ghost of an idea,” Dickens once wrote about his 1843 tale. “May it haunt (readers’) pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it by.”


I’ve seen the film a dozen times, yet I keep discovering new things in it. “You were a good man of business,” Scrooge tells the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley. “Business!” cries out Marley, rattling the heavy chains his life of greed and lack of compassion for the poor earned him in eternity. “Mankind was my business! Their common welfare was my business!”


Dickens scholar Norrie Epstein says the writer “never failed to weep” whenever he read his story out loud.  I’m afraid he’d be sobbing uncontrollably today if he saw how his “ghost of an idea” has fallen on deaf ears.


Here in Mississippi, nearly one out of every three children live in poverty worse than that of Tiny Tim, whose father Bob Cratchit is so poorly paid by Scrooge than he can’t get Tim the medical treatment he needs to save his life.


In fact, Tiny Tim might consider himself fortunate even to be alive if he were in Mississippi, which has the highest infant mortality rate in the nation. Mississippians are more likely to die prematurely than people from any other state. The fact is Mississippians, young or old, typically don’t live as long as people from other states.


When Bob Cratchit begs to take Christmas day off, Scrooge grumbles, “a poor excuse to pick a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December.” Who knows how the old miser (before his conversion) would’ve reacted if Bob had slipped and hurt himself after coming back to work on December 26?


Probably much like Mississippi’s Republican leadership. With their gutting of the state’s Workers’ Compensation protections back in 2012, then-Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and his fellow Scrooges in the state Legislature made sure workers here are the nation’s least compensated for work-related injuries and thus the least protected. They are among the country’s most at-risk workers. A Mississippi worker is twice as likely to be killed on the job as the typical U.S. worker.


In fact, no one really knows how bad workers have it here in Mississippi because this is one of the nine states that refuse to collect reliable data on serious workplace injuries. Yet hear Gov. Bryant’s response to the 2012 Workers’ Compensation gutting—which added a host of hurdles for workers to jump before they can qualify for compensation: Mississippi has “the most job-friendly environment in America.” Friendly for whom? You know.


Here’s another way to say it: employers in Mississippi don’t have to worry about the “humbug” of being responsible for the safety of their workers.


Like Dickens himself, I confess to shedding a tear or two every time I get toward the end of “A Christmas Carol”. After Jacob Marley scares the wits out of the skinflint and then the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future do their work on him, Scrooge is a changed man. No more is he the soulless moneylender who tells a Christmas donation seeker that the poor might be better off dead. That way they could help “decrease the surplus population.”


At the end, Scrooge is indeed a new man, one whom people would come to say, “no man could keep Christmas as well as Ebenezer Scrooge.”


Dickens offers us hope at the end of his tale. Indeed, isn’t hope the very heart of the Christmas story? Maybe there’s hope even in poor ol’ Mississippi, hope that political leaders one day will see in those less fortunate a common humanity—not simply shirkers or ne’er-do-wells—and thus realize “their common welfare” is the business of us all.


Saturday, December 5, 2020

To borrow an old political cliché, the time has come to throw the (cry) baby (Trump) out with the bathwater


For all his faux-populism and talk of making America great again, Donald Trump never did much of anything for working people during his four years in office. Their votes secured his victory in 2016 when he at least talked the talk about bringing back jobs. The spoiled rich man’s son never meant to walk the walk, however.


When the pandemic hit, one of Trump’s first actions was to make sure poultry and meatpacking plants stayed open, regardless of what safety conditions their cheapskate owners likely didn’t put in place.


“It is nothing short of outrageous for the president to use this power to protect an industry notorious for mistreating workers and putting profits above safety,” The Southern Poverty Law Center said a statement late last April. “The industry has already proven unwilling to protect the people working in these plants in the face of this pandemic, a failure that has resulted in community spread, illnesses and deaths.”


And who works at these plants? Immigrants, Latinos, black people, poor whites, that’s who. Not exactly a group Trump has ever given much attention.


With the closing of polls in the November election, Trump’s Labor Department froze the wages of farmworkers. The ruling against frontline, essential workers came at the same time the Trump Administration predicted a sharp increase in the profits of agribusiness.


In addition, growers are hoping the conservative U.S. Supreme Court next year will dump the so-called “access rule” that allows union organizers to talk with workers on the grower’s property mornings before work begins. The Agriculture Labor Relations Act of 1975 made such access legal and protected under federal law.


Trump has waged war against unions even within the federal government, working to undermine the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and its efforts on behalf of the 250,000 members who work with the Veterans Administration. He has issued orders limiting union rights and access to workers, and created what In These Times magazine called “an atmosphere of fear and retaliation” while miring contract negotiations into an impasse.


Workers have little recourse under Trump’s National Labor Relations Board, which has become what Michelle Chen of Nation magazine called “a watchdog for the national Chamber of Commerce and Trump’s buddies.” Led by anti-labor, pro-big business appointees, the board has dumped Obama-era rulings and decisions that favored workers while consistently sided with management in making organizing more difficult. At the same time, the NLRB workforce itself has undergone a 20 percent reduction in the past three years.


All of these actions bring to mind something I read recently in author Al Price’s compelling memoir Gravel and Grit. Recalling the virulent opposition to a unionization effort and strike at a textile plant in his hometown of Water Valley, Mississippi, in 1952, Price wrote, “Why would others want to keep you down economically? Afraid you might get ahead of them? Is greed and selfishness that ingrained in our culture and psyche?”


Well, it is for some people, and one of them sits in the White House.


The big crybaby in the White House still clings to his delusion that he actually won the election and that only massive fraud can prevent him from serving a second term as president. However, as far as workers are concerned, this is one time, if ever there was a time, that the old political  cliché of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” is a most appropriate thing to do.


Saturday, November 14, 2020

Hollywood working stiff Harry Dean Stanton finally gets a biography, "Harry Dean Stanton: Hollywood's Zen Rebel"


(Artist Zack Wallenfang's wonderful drawing of Harry Dean Stanton, the frontispiece to my new book on the actor)

My book Harry Dean Stanton: Hollywood’s Zen Rebel had its official birthday (publishing date) this past Thursday, the culmination of a four-year journey that took yours truly from one end of Hollywood to the other, into the Kentucky hills and the beautiful city of Lexington, deep into the Big Apple’s Greenwich Village, and down to New Orleans’ World War II museum.


Along the way I met and got to know many fascinating folks, both famous and regular folks like myself. Harry Dean relatives like Jim Huggins Jr. , Sara Stanton, Ralph Stanton Jr., and his half-brother Stanley McKnight Jr. opened their hearts to me, as did Harry Dean buddies like musician Jamie James and actors Ed Begley Jr., Dabney Coleman, and Dennis Quaid. Famous directors Wim Wenders, Bertrand Tavernier, Alex Cox, and Monte Hellman gave me their time and their great insight into their work with arguably Hollywood’s most famous character actor.

Harry Dean hated the term “character actor” but that was what initially pulled me toward him as a subject. As a lifelong film buff, I was always drawn to those familiar-but-nameless faces in the supporting cast.


(To the right, the late Mike Gotovac, longtime bartender at Dan Tana's, Harry Dean's favorite watering hole in West Hollywood)


Unless their names were Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, or Gloria Grahame, I didn’t really care that much about the stars on the marquee. I was more interested in Neville Brand, Royal Dano, Strother Martin, Michael J. Pollard, Dub Taylor, Denver Pyle, James Best, Cloris Leachman, Elisha Cook Jr., Fay Spain, R. G. Armstrong, Mike Mazurki, Claude Akins, Roberta Shore, Jack Elam, Noah Beery Jr., Albert Salmi, Patricia Blair, Estelle Parsons, L.Q. Jones, and Harry Dean Stanton, that long list of  “supporting characters (who) provide the backbone to any film, great, or otherwise,” as writers Cynthia and Sara Brideson describe them in their book about character actors, Also Starring.


They are “the spark plug that drives the engine, underpaid, overworked, under-appreciated, overlooked, scarcer than hen’s teeth, a national treasure,” as L.Q. Jones himself wrote in his foreword to Justin Humphreys’ Names You Never Remember With Faces You Never Forget.


(Harry Dean with singer-actress Michelle Phillips at the 2014 annual Harry Dean Stanton Festival in Lexington, Kentucky) 


As Labor South proves in great detail, this writer has always been attuned to the lives and stories of working stiffs, and character actors are the working stiffs of the Big and Small Screen. Harry Dean did get his name in the marquee in the early 1980s with Paris, Texas, and Repo Man, both classics today. He settled back into the supporting cast after those films, but many knew his name now, and many went to see a movie for the simple reason that he was in it.


With "his lean face and hungry eyes," film critic Roger Ebert once wrote, "Stanton has long inhabited the darker corners of American noir ... . He creates a sad poetry."


And Ebert also had this to say: "no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh (also a character actor) in a supporting role can be altogether bad."


Quite a testament to a Hollywood working stiff.

Published by the University Press of Kentucky (@kentuckypress), Harry Dean Stanton: Hollywood’s Zen Rebel is in your local bookstores and available for purchase at the usual online sites. Hope you check it out. If you do, let me know what you think.





Saturday, October 24, 2020

Edward Snowden gets permanent residency in Russia as a federal court declares the NSA surveillance program he exposed illegal and Trump floats the idea of a pardon


(To the right, Edward Snowden)


North Carolina native Edward Snowden can stay in Russia the rest of his life if he wants, the Russian government has decided. The decision this week to grant the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor permanent residency comes just weeks after a federal court ruled the NSA’s massive surveillance program, which Snowden exposed, was illegal and possibly unconstitutional.


It also comes a few months after President Trump floated the idea he may consider pardoning Snowden for his alleged violation of the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act in leaking those documents.


Snowden was the key topic of an interview Jonathan Michels of the Durham, North Carolina-based Southern Discomfort Podcast conducted of yours truly of Labor South earlier this month.


Here are a couple links to that podcast (you may have to copy and paste if the link doesn’t connect you, as is sometimes the case with blogging):


Podbean: https://southerndiscomfortpodcast.podbean.com/e/episode-4-snowden-surveillance-and-the-south-with-joesph-atkins/


iTunes: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/southern-discomfort-podcast/id1530582992#episodeGuid=southerndiscomfortpodcast.podbean.com%2F5b09d909-2a54-3a98-8523-122f96b45d55


Soundcloud: https://m.soundcloud.com/southerndiscomfortpodcast/episode-4-snowden-surveillance-and-the-south-with-joseph-atkins


Snowden’s exposure of the NSA’s unbelievably vast surveillance of practically any American it chose shook the nation’s intelligence community to its very foundation along with leading to the Pulitzer Prize for The Guardian and the Washington Post.  Many in that community and beyond still want his head, including Trump’s Attorney General William Barr, whose response to the president’s pardon idea was this: Snowden “was a traitor and the information he provided our adversaries greatly hurt the safety of the American people. He was peddling it around like a commercial merchant. We can’t tolerate that.”


Well, according to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, what Snowden was “peddling” was the illegally accumulated metadata that the nation’s largest snoop agency had collected, and which the American people needed it know that their privacy was in serious danger as well as the Constitution that hopefully protects them.


Snowden’s Russian attorney, Anatoly Kucherena, has this view. “He was acting not only in the interests of the American citizens, but in the interest of all the humankind,” Kucherena told the RIA news agency.


Trump’s floating of a possible pardon says more about the president’s own dislike of the nation’s intelligence community as a whole than it does any conviction he might have about the case. For Trump, this is a poke in the eye to all those federal snoops who helped keep Russiagate on life support all those months.


Soon after Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA back in 2013, Trump himself was calling for his head. Snowden is “a spy who should be executed,” he said. In August of this year, the president had this to say to the New York Post: “There are a lot of people that think that he is not being treated fairly,” Trump said. “I’m going to start looking at it.”


Hmmm. He’d better hurry. Trump faces re-election in a couple weeks, and Labor South’s prediction is that he’s going to lose, possibly big. All those thousands of early voters standing in lines for hours to cast their ballots don’t look like Trumpsters to Labor South. Could be wrong, but here’s betting they want to throw the bum out!


In his podcast interview with yours truly, Jonathan Michels asked about my book The Mission: Journalism, Ethics and the World (Iowa State University Press, 2002) and specifically Chapter Four in that book, “A Sinister Zone of Silence”, in which I discuss at length the spy and surveillance agencies that flourished in authoritarian societies such as Nazi Germany, Communist East Germany, Junta-ruled Argentina, and Mississippi before and during the Civil Rights Movement.


East Germany’s Stasi collected 6.5 million files—enough to fill 120 miles of shelves—on its 16 million citizens, utilizing the testimonies of 160,000 informers. Hungary’s counterpart collected information from 140,000 informants. Here in Mississippi, the state’s Sovereignty Commission, a taxpayer-funded agency that spied on suspected pro-civil rights citizens, collected 132,000 pages of information on everything from subjects’ integrationist ideas and activities to their sex lives. In fact, sex was a fascination for all these agencies, a delicious source of potentially embarrassing and ruinous little tidbits that could be used for threats and discrediting.


Even former NSA top official Bill Binney has decried the ever-expanding network of  security measures that has developed since 9-11. A senior technical director who helped develop the mass surveillance program, Binney told media outlets in 2014 how the NSA shared its information with federal, state, and local governments and their agencies. “We are now in a police state,” he said.


The scholar Samuel P. Huntington once described government’s penchant for secrecy. “Power remains strong when it is in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate.”


It’s interesting how little attention major mainstream media give Snowden or WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s ongoing extradition case in England these days, given the importance of these cases to journalism as a whole. Corporate-owned mainstream media like to talk about the First Amendment and their watchdog role, but too often they’re more like government lapdogs because they share the government’s desire for maintaining the status quo.


Monday, September 21, 2020

Nurses at Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, vote "UNION"


(A World War I poster)


Nurses at Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, voted overwhelmingly in favor of joining a union in their September 16 election. By more than a 2-to-1 margin, the nurses said yes to joining the National Nurses United (NNU) in the largest union victory at a Southern hospital since 1975.


The campaign was cited in an August 21 post on Labor South. The Mission Hospital had once been a proud non-profit operation beloved by the local community until its takeover in 2019 by for-profit HCA Healthcare, one of the nation’s largest hospital corporations.


Nurses complained as services declined, staff were let go, and quality of care became secondary to profits. When the hospital’s new corporate owners continued to turn a deaf ear to those complaints, four nurses began an organizing campaign that prompted a fierce reaction by HCA. HCA hired union busters at $400-an-hour to kill the effort, but they were unsuccessful in breaking the spirit of the determined nurses.


“Asheville nurses have set an example that will motivate and drive forward the many struggles breaking out in this period” of global pandemic,  said the North Carolina-based Southern Workers Assembly in a statement. The SWA was one of several organization supporting the unionization effort. “This victory will strengthen our movement to organize workers in NC and the South, as well as the movement to win Medicare for All, which NNU has been leading nationally.”


The Southern Workers Assembly also asked Labor South for a comment on the victory, and this was my response:


“This is a great union victory for the South and for the nation, for working people who want and deserve to have a voice in assuring the fairness, safety, and quality of their work places and working lives. Here you had a big national corporation come in from out of town to take over a beloved local hospital and turn it into a profit-making machine that placed the bottom line over regard for patients and staff. Four nurses stood up against this Goliath and inspired others to do so, and they won. Such victories provide inspiration for workers everywhere.”


Yours truly discussed this campaign during a September 4 interview on the podcast Keeping Democracy Alive with Burt Cohen. A key theme of that interview was that Southern workers defy the stereotype that they can’t be organized. They can. The South remains the nation’s least organized region because of the phalanx of opposition unions have faced, a phalanx that includes the South’s business and political leaders, churches, and media.  To win requires commitment and determination.


The struggle is greater, the stakes are higher, and the victories sweeter.


The Southern Workers Assembly, an organization of unions and various activist groups, and the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE) are already targeting another ongoing campaign, that of sanitation workers in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Those workers shut down work on August 19 as they demanded hazard pay in the midst of the pandemic.


For more than two decades, the UE has been devising different strategies for organizing workers in North Carolina and Virginia.



Friday, August 21, 2020

Organizing in the South is on the rise - campus workers in Tenn., Miss., and Ga., meatpacking workers in the Carolinas and Georgia, poultry workers in Arkansas, and nurses in North Carolina

(A CIO recruiting poster from the 1930s)

Double-digit unemployment, widespread protests in the street, homeless camps spreading across the nation’s cities, governmental ineptitude embodied in Republican intransigence and a compromised Democratic Party, and a clueless president. Such were the early days of the Great Depression, but sadly it’s also reality in America today.

Change came out of all those troubles back in the 1930s. Franklin D. Roosevelt replaced inept Herbert Hoover in the White House and found himself pushed ever farther to the left by the failure of his first New Deal, the rise of populist Huey Long in Louisiana, and the growth of labor unions in what became the greatest social justice movement of that day. FDR came back with a second New Deal in 1935 that created the Works Progress Administration and Social Security. The Wagner Act that same year made unions a guaranteed right.

Much like the situation in the 1930s, nowhere are the political and economic failures of modern-day American capitalism greater than in the U.S. South, where a monolith of Republican governors and legislatures have proven themselves completely incapable of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and the accompanying economic collapse. In Mississippi, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves apes his hero, Donald Trump, in insisting on school openings even as coronavirus cases rise exponentially across the state. He even boasted recently of allowing college football to continue despite other college conferences shutting it down.

Back in the 1930s, Southern political leaders, all of them Democrats then, did their best to keep FDR’s social directives at bay when they affected their most prized constituents’ billfolds. They made sure new labor laws asserting union rights didn’t apply to farm workers. They kept civil rights legislation off the books and black Americans the nation’s lowest paid. They worked with textile and other industries to keep the South the nation’s least unionized, and they made sure that the region stayed what Roosevelt called “the nation’s number one economic problem.”

It still is.

The good news is that signs of a rising labor consciousness in the South are showing up across the region, a topic of discussion at a panel titled “Perspectives on Union Organizing Today” held August 4 by the United Campus Workers (UCW)/Communications Workers of America (CWA), Local 3565 via Zoom out of Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

United Campus Workers win in Tennessee, organize in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas

I am a member of UCW Local 3565 and served as a panelist, and participants were happy when I told them I was going to talk about labor successes in the South, a topic never discussed in history courses, whether in high school or college, and rarely from a political podium.

The UCW itself is part of the “success story” with its work in successfully preventing Tennessee’s Republican governor from privatizing most jobs in the state’s universities in 2017. The union has since seen its membership grow across the region, including not only Mississippi but also Louisiana and Georgia.

Operating under government-sanctioned restrictions on public unions, the UCW is a non-traditional union in that it doesn’t have collective bargaining rights on campuses. However, this allowed it to establish itself without campus-wide elections. “Non-traditional” has been a modus operandi in the growth of labor consciousness across the region.

The Southern Workers Assembly fights for striking workers in the meatpacking industry in the Carolinas and beyond 

The Southern Workers Assembly has gained momentum as an activist group working with workers in the meatpacking industry, many of them African American and Latino, and the result has been more than 230 strikes and other job actions in the meatpacking industry in the Carolinas and elsewhere in the six months since the pandemic began. According to a recent SWA report, “rural communities that have a meatpacking plant have a COVID-19 infection rate that is 5x higher than those without.” The SWA has sponsored a Safe Jobs Save Lives campaign, and it has aligned itself with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Venceremos in Arkansas pushes for the rights of poultry workers

Venceremos in Arkansas is another non-traditional labor organization that champions the rights of the hard-hit workers in northwest Arkansas’ poultry plants. In April Venceremos (“We conquer”), a workers’ justice organization, led a march to the front door of Tyson corporation’s poultry plant in Springdale, Arkansas, to demand better working and safety conditions as well as hazard pay during the pandemic. By June, after getting the Arkansas government’s stamp of approval of its safety conditions, the company reported that 250 of its workers at the plant had tested positive for COVID-19. Soon some 13 percent of the industry’s workers in northwest Arkansas tested positive. The fight is still on with Venceremos leading the charge for workers’ rights.

 Following the led of FLOC in North Carolina and the CWA in Florida

These organizations bring to mind the successes of older labor rights groups like the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in North Carolina and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, both of which forced companies to the bargaining table even though their membership is made up largely of immigrant workers.

Nurses organize in western North Carolina

Nurses in Asheville, North Carolina, have waged a valiant organizing campaign at HCA Health Care’s Mission Hospital in Asheville, once a proud and locally beloved nonprofit hospital before it was purchased by the nation’s largest hospital corporation in 2019. After many unheard complaints about the decline of service at the facility, four nurses led an effort that now promises to be one of the largest organizing campaigns in the state’s history. They’ve had to fight $400-per-hour union busters, the courts, and the state’s long anti-union history, but they’re poised for victory as an election is underway and ballots to be counted on September 16.

The struggle continues in all of these efforts across the South, but the workers who are part of that struggle put the lie to the old trope that you can’t organize the South. They’re doing it, and they’re gaining ground at a time when the nation as a whole is waking up to the bill of goods its political and business leaders have been selling it for way too long.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

From Justinian's day through the "Black Death" of 14th century Europe, Shakespeare's locked-down London, "Yellow Jack" in Memphis, and today, pandemics and epidemics have been part of our human history, one that hits the poor the hardest as the princes of the world escape to their castles

(To the right, artist Fritz Eichenberg's wood engraving for Poe's The Masque of the Red Death)

Fun-loving Prince Prospero wanted to have a party. Sure, the Red Death had killed half the population of his princedom, and the pestilence threatened to kill the other half with a horrid grip that forced streams of blood through their very pores. Leave the peasants to deal with it, the prince said as he invited a thousand of his fellow nobles to a masked ball at his castle.

Thus begins The Masque of the Red Death that writer Edgar Allan Poe published in 1842, a scant 11 years after a cholera epidemic had devastated Baltimore, the city where he himself would die in 1849, and much of the rest of the world. As the story unfolds, Prince Prospero learns that even he and the landed gentry at his party could not escape the pestilence. Among the masqueraders was a “tall and gaunt” figure “shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave.” And so it was. The Red Death had come to the prince’s ball, and soon the prince and all his friends would lay at its feet, as dead as all those peasants beyond the moat of his castle.

(Edgar Allan Poe)

As the world today wrestles with the Covid-19 pandemic that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and sickened millions more, a look through human history and accompanying body of literature reveals that such events, whether pandemics or epidemics, have always been part of the human experience.

Here in the U.S. South, one of the most horrific examples—detailed in an earlier Labor South post--took place in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1878. A yellow fever epidemic, known as “Yellow Jack” and spread by mosquitoes that had traveled up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and which likely was brought to the Americas by the African slave trade, nearly destroyed the city of Memphis. Among the 20,000 left after a mass evacuation, 17,000 got sick and 5,000 died. A disease that produced “black vomit” as it destroyed internal organs, Yellow Jack left a city of “rotten wood pavements … dead animals, putrifying human bodies and the half-buried dead,” in the words of one physician who had been in the city.

The high-living Prosperos among the wealthy cotton moguls who ruled Memphis may have loved their mint juleps at the Peabody Hotel, but they had provided scant services for the city, allowing sewage to run through the streets and garbage to go uncollected. When the pestilence came, they blamed the poor Irish workers who populated the crude shanties along the river. Those Irish would be among the first to die.

History records pandemics in ancient Rome and Constantinople, where the Emperor Justinian himself in 542 A.D. became a victim of the bubonic plague—spread by rat fleas. It didn’t kill him, but it did countless of his subjects.  The plague would return many times to Europe and Asia. Called the “Black Death”, it wiped out one third of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1351.

As described recently in a New Yorker piece by Elizabeth Kolbert, war and protest and even revolution have often contributed to or resulted from the spread and devastation of epidemics. People took to the streets of St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1831, to protest the government handling of the cholera epidemic there. Toward the end of the century, riots after another cholera outbreak would spread from St. Petersburg to the Ukraine, planting a seed in the revolution that was to come.

Spanish explorers brought smallpox to the New World in the early16th century, devastating the indigenous population and helping to inspire the toppling of statues of Christopher Columbus today.

The literature of pandemics is rich and informative. On April 23, 1564, Willliam Shakespeare was born into an English town that would lose a fifth of its population to the bubonic plague before his first birthday. The plague would leave and then return many times over the course of his life, closing down his Globe Theatre and other London theatres, too, as all but the city-bound poor fled. Shakespeare wrote Macbeth during his own quarantine, and the play’s description of a “poor country, almost afraid to know itself … our grave” may have referred to Macbeth’s Scotland but is imbued with the writer’s experience of the plague.

In fact, the plague contributed to Romeo and Juliet’s suicide. Fear of it prevented the message getting to Romeo that the potion Juliet took did not poison her but only put her to sleep. And we all know how that ended.

(Ben Jonson, portrait by Abraham van Blyenberch)

Shakespeare’s contemporary, Ben Jonson, sets his play The Alchemist in plague-ridden London around 1610 where “the sickness hot, a master quit, for fear, his house in town, and left one servant there.” Yep, the master’s left town. Let the servant deal with the plague.

The history of pandemics and epidemics—including the deadly 1918 flu pandemic--reveals certain threads that weave their way through the entire record of human existence. Often first to die are the poor, as the landed gentry escape to safer confines. Political failure to provide the people with the necessary means to combat the pestilence stretches across the centuries. And, yes, the Prince Prosperos of the world are still among us.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Is race this nation's biggest problem? NO, but that's what our Corporate Rulers want us to believe. What is our biggest problem? They are.

(To the right, Norman Mailer in 2006)

The late novelist and journalist Norman Mailer, somewhere in his large body of work, once said something about modern-day journalism that was never truer than today. The media, he said, help “keep America slightly crazy.”

Maybe America has never been crazier than today after four months of quarantine as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Bereft of leadership with little hope for relief, facing a November presidential election that will pit a narcissist demagogue against a sleepy-eyed neoliberal chameleon, they remain largely hunkered down in their homes, many of them jobless, watching their televisions as anti-racism protesters go beyond condemning Confederate statues to tearing down or calling for the removal of statues of Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln.

They hear report after report about peaceful protests against police brutality and racism, but then there’s the burning and looting, the government-tolerated encampment in Seattle known as CHAZ or CHOP that considered itself during its brief and violent existence a patch of cityscape decidedly not part of the United States of America.

Meanwhile, the economy flounders and sinks into another Great Depression. Workers are ordered back to the assembly line regardless of the lack of safety conditions. Millions have lost their health insurance and have no means of paying the doctor if they get sick. Ballyhooed government assistance, they learn, has gone to friends of politicians and favored corporations rather than those who lost their jobs or their small businesses.

On the New York Times Best Sellers list is a book called White Fragility by a corporate consultant named Robin DiAngelo, who travels around the country and for big bucks tells white people they’re essentially hopelessly racist and their only hope is to listen to black people with a nodding acknowledgement of their own sinful natures. They can’t argue. They can’t even remain silent. They can only acknowledge and passively submit to the greater wisdom of DiAngelo and her ilk.

Even the arts provide no guaranteed refuge for truth and reason. The most-touted Broadway play in recent years has been Hamilton, which turned a pro-monarchy elitist into some kind of common folk hero, a book and a play based on a lie.

Mailer knew why the media keep America crazy. They tell half-stories with little context or well-grounded perspective. They react in ways that reflect a long-held American style of anti-intellectualism. Truth can be so inconvenient. They wet their fingers to see which way the wind is blowing and act accordingly.  And today, even more than in Mailer’s day, they’re corporate-owned, so they see life and America through corporate lens.

Corporate America does not want Americans to see the horrific legacy of decades of corporate hegemony in this country that the pandemic has exposed—the shameful divide between the wealthy and everyone else, the patchwork private health care system that has failed as miserably as politicians in stemming the spread of COVID-19, the raw exploitation of migrants, prisoners, and the working class of all races in the relentless search for cheap labor and profits, a Wall Street that no longer reflects the nation’s economy but only the growing wealth of non-producing hedge fund operators.

So what does Corporate America do? It does what it has always done. Divide us and take our eyes off the thousand-pound gorilla in the room. It tells us white Americans are hopelessly racist, that we have made little or no real progress in race in our nation, and our only solution is a lifelong wrestling match with our individual souls while Corporate America continues to run things. Are there race problems in this country? Yes, of course. Has the militarization of the police contributed to the hiring of thugs in uniforms who take special pleasure out of beating up and killing blacks? Yes. Is race America’s biggest problem? NO, for all the reasons above, but we’re simply too crazy these days to see it.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

In the pandemic and beyond, workers' greatest hope is when they stand together, and they can't depend on a political party to stand with them

(To the right, Barack Obama at the 2005 AFL-CIO national convention in Chicago)

I remember being very impressed with the young senator from Illinois as he spoke at the 2005 AFL-CIO national convention in Chicago about the dignity of the worker and the bold history of the labor movement in this country.

“They could have accepted their lot in life or waited for someone else to save them,” Barack Obama told the crowd of thousands. “Through their actions they risked life and living. They chose to act. In time, they won. … It started with hope, and it ended with the fulfillment of a long-held ideal. A humble band of laborers against an industrial giant – an unlikely triumph against the greatest odds – a story as American as any.”

A few years later, as Obama became president, he saw those promises and dreams plunge into the abyss of the Great Recession as countless workers lost their homes and their livelihood. So what did the nation’s first African American president do? He assembled an all-star Wall Street insider group of advisers—Larry Summers, Timothy Geithner, Rahm Emanuel--to help him guide American Business back to safe harbor. Banks were too big to fail, and corporate bailouts were the order of the day.

As for those laborers whose praises Obama sang in Chicago, they got no bailouts and they struggled as best they could to survive.

Working class people in America today really have no safe harbor, even in a pandemic that has real unemployment hovering around 20 percent, the highest since the Great Depression. The Republican Party, as always, looks at them with deep suspicion that they’re all either freeloaders or potential freeloaders who want an easy ride on the back of the billionaire class that funds the GOP and the journalists and preachers who use their podiums to teach obedience.

In the White House is a renegade Republican who talked the talk to working people on the campaign trail but who never walked the walk. He serves the bosses, not the people who work under them. He orders meatpackers and poultry workers back to work but says nothing to the owners to make sure the workplace is safe. He has even promised owners protection from liability. Like your typical cookie cutter Republican, he is contemptuous of government oversight and safety regulations.

During the administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, workers could turn to the Democratic Party as a loyal ally. However, the party largely abandoned the working class after the 1960s and became the party of identity politics where one’s race, gender, and sexual orientation, not class, are paramount to one’s identity.

Obama and his vice president, Joe Biden, who now will lead the party in this year’s presidential election (among his likely advisers is Obama’s old hand Larry Summers), liked to boast their credentials as men of the people, but they led a party too beholden to its corporate donors and too bereft of a true uniting vision to speak to regular folks any more. That’s why many of those folks, out of desperation, turned to the empty promises of the demagogue who now occupies the White House. At least he offered them the illusion of a promise, certainly more than what Bill and Hillary Clinton ever offered.

Bernie Sanders was a ray of hope to working people, but he has largely joined the party machinery since his abdication. Perhaps he tired of being an outsider in the millionaires club that the U.S. Senate still is.

The current pandemic has exposed the ugliness of the American economy, where workers depend on the management class for their health insurance, which those workers lose when they lose their jobs.  Income inequality is at a 50-year high in the United States, which Donald Trump loved to boast as the world’s greatest economy before the coronavirus landed on our shores.

This is a nation where the prison system has become the world’s largest gulag, and struggling minorities and immigrants sit in its barbaric cells for months, even years, before they can receive a semblance of justice. Watch as those prisoners become an increasingly popular source of cheap labor. That’s what happened when sanitation workers in New Orleans went on strike earlier this month to protest their $10.25-an-hour average wages and unsafe working conditions during the pandemic. They were fired and replaced by prison inmates making $1.33 an hour.

Still more and more workers are rising up. Teamsters are once again revolting against the Hoffa dynasty that has compromised the union’s mission as a voice for laboring people. Smithfield Foods workers have protested the lack of safety measures in their jobs.

“At the edge of despair, in the shadow of hopelessness, ordinary people make the extraordinary decision that if we stand together, we rise together,” Obama told the crowd that day in Chicago in 2005. “And we do.”

He was right. Obama was always good at speeches. He told the truth, a lived truth and the only hope for American workers, and they don’t need a politician to tell them that it is true.

Friday, April 10, 2020

No Evil Foods in Asheville, North Carolina, may make good El Zapatista but Emiliano would be very unhappy with the way it treats its workers

(Emiliano Zapata would not be happy with No Evil Foods)

No Evil Foods on the outskirts of Asheville, North Carolina, takes pride in being a very cool and hip company.  On its web site, it proclaims the following: “No Evil Foods makes meat from nothin’ but plants. We are makers driven to help hungry mouths everywhere recognize the connection between food, kindness to self and others, and environmental impact.”

This is a company with a leftist schtick. Among its vegan meat products are Comrade Cluck and the chorizo-like El Zapatista. Its owners like to call themselves “revolutionary leaders”.

Well, comrades, Emiliano would not be very happy with No Evil Foods if he were around today. With the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic threatening its dozens of employees much like it’s threatening all of us, No Evil Foods has insisted that, as a food operation, it is an essential service to its paying customers, and its workers must continue producing. This came despite a “Shelter in Place” order from the city of Asheville. When workers complained about safety conditions, they got an ultimatum.

“We could continue working for No Evil Foods and get a `temporary’ $1.50 raise after 90 days of perfect attendance, we could quit with the option to possibly return at a later date, or we could quit with a severance package of 3-weeks pay (after signing a gag order) with no option to ever return,” a worker at the company wrote Labor South in a lengthy, detailed letter recently. Labor South has decided to protect the worker’s anonymity.

A group of workers at the company issued a statement that was published in local media. “No Evil Foods has publicly created an image of being an ally to socialists, leftists, and workers around the country,” the statement said. With the outbreak of the virus, “we were told to wash our hands more. We were reassured that common areas would be sanitized more frequently. But as the number of infections continued rising, so did our concerns. With +60 of us working together between two shifts in a confined production area, we knew that proper handwashing and increased sanitizing of surfaces wouldn’t be enough.”

This is the same company that fought tooth and nail against a unionization effort by its employees back in February. It hired one of those union-busting law & consultant firms that companies and corporations pay big bucks to procure in the South, Constangy, Brooks, Smith and Prophete, a firm that sends its 200 lawyers across the South and beyond at an estimated cost of $2,500 per day to destroy union drives. Required employee meetings decrying the union, fear-mongering posters, and the usual litany of threats and other propaganda succeeded in defeating the union by a vote of 43 no’s to 15 yes’s.

On its Facebook page, No Evil Foods insists that “the safety of our team members, our customers, and our products is our #1 priority, and we take very seriously our shared responsibility to the country to maintain the food supply in this time of uncertainty. Our team is working hard to make sure everyone continues to have access to healthy, plant-based foods. Here’s what that means for how we do business: Starting March 16th, all employees who can perform their work from home are doing so. To ensure the safety of employees whose jobs require they be on site, we’ve amped up our already rigorous sanitation practices and capped production rooms to 10 individuals to maintain appropriate social distance, whenever possible.”

Still, as worker protests grew against how managers at No  Evil Foods “do business”, and media attention grew along with it, the company decided last week to offer its workforce “hazard pay”, a $2.25 raise. The action came just as workers were organizing a petition to demand hazard pay instead of the company’s earlier offer of a $1.50 raise with 90 days perfect attendance. “Word got back to management that this petition had a majority of signatures on it and was about to be turned in, so management jumped ahead of the game and ‘randomly’ decided that we should have hazard pay,” said the No Evil Foods worker in a second letter to Labor South.

Labor South telephoned No Evil Foods for comments on this story, and a return call was promised but never received.

Workers, however, consider the hazard pay offer a victory. “It was a pretty big win for all of us and it showed that if we have solidarity and a collective voice, we can get the things we want. We’re all thinking our next move might be to pass around another petition and try to make that pay increase permanent!”

Now, that’s something that would make old Emiliano happy.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Labor South in the coronavirus pandemic

Labor South readers:

We're all dealing with a terrible crisis right now, and I know you're hanging in there as best you can. Labor South will be posting soon a story out of North Carolina about a supposedly super
hip company that actually brandishes its left-wing credentials at the same time it fought tooth-and-nail against a unionization effort earlier this year and now is resisting its workers' demands for better and more safe working conditions amid the coronavirus pandemic. All of this against a backdrop of a Republican leadership in the South and nation that is undergoing an existential crisis as it wrestles with the notion that the people actually and desperately need a responsive and caring government now, not right-wing ideology, neo-liberal mantras, and Wall Street obeisance.  Still putting together the pieces of this story, and it will be posted soon. Stay healthy!

Friday, March 6, 2020

Bernie Sanders stands alone now, save for his grassroots army, and facing him are the politically elite of the Democratic Party, both black and white, Wall Street, and the corporate media

(Political cartoonist Thomas Nast's 1871 depiction of New York City's Boss Tweed, an inspiration for today's elite political class)

Back at the beginning of the 20th century, muckraking journalist Charles Edward Russell noticed how U.S. senators, as a political class, all seemed to look alike.

“Well-fed and portly gentlemen, almost nobody in that chamber had any other reason to be there than his skill in valeting for some powerful interest,” Russell observed. “We had no Senate; we had only a chamber of butlers for industrialists and financiers.”

Another muckraking writer, David Graham Phillips, taking his cue from Russell, would go on to publish a damning series of articles in Cosmopolitan called “The Treason of the Senate” in which he called the Senate “an eager, resourceful, indefatigable agent of interest as hostile to the American people as any invading army could be, and vastly more dangerous: interests that manipulate the property produced by all, so that it heaps up riches for the few; interests whose growth and power can only man the degradation of the people.”

Applied today, Russell and Phillips’ indictment could be expanded to much of the political class in Washington, D.C., whose sycophantic loyalty to their billionaire donors, Wall Street and the mega-corporations that actually run America, is fully endorsed by a fawning corporate media.

This is what Bernie Sanders is up against in the race for the Democratic 2020 presidential nomination, folks.

He’s all alone now, save for the millions of mostly young ground troops who are trying to make his message heard beyond the megaphones of CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the rest of the elite establishment media. “Running Bernie Sanders Against Trump Would Be an Act of Insanity”, “Bernie Can’t Win”, and “Bernie Sanders’ Agenda Makes Him the Definition of Unelectable” are the messages screaming through those megaphones.

He came into the South with the strong tailwind given him by his victories in New Hampshire and Nevada and shared victory in Iowa. Then in marched South Carolina’s black political boss James Clyburn, a 27-year-veteran congressman, House Majority Whip, and the be-all, end-all of black politics in his state.

Clyburn gave Biden a rousing endorsement that not only won the candidate the South Carolina primary but helped catapult him to Super Tuesday victories across the South, where huge black populations loom large in Democratic primaries.

Clyburn may be black, but he’s also establishment. Otherwise, why would he endorse a candidate whose record includes working with erstwhile segregationist South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond to make the nation’s criminal justice system more punitive, who opposed busing in the fight against school segregation, who called for cuts in Social Security on the Senate floor, who crawled in bed with Big Pharma, the credit card industry, and the banks rather than stand up to them on behalf of the people, a candidate who even eulogized Thurmond as a “brave man” whose legacy is a “gift to us all”?

Biden came out of Super Tuesday re-invigorated after his poor beginning in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, and the rest of the centrist political establishment rushed to stand beside him, Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and O’Rourke. Black congressman Bennie Thompson in Mississippi, as establishment now as Clyburn, also joined the growing ranks of the elite in the Biden camp.

Sanders’ alleged fellow progressive, Elizabeth Warren, also dropped out of the race, but instead of throwing her support to Sanders she went on national television to criticize him and his supporters.

Sanders went on national television, too, before the discredited Rachel Maddow, who spent much of their time together pummeling him with questions about why young voters didn’t turn in larger numbers to support him. Sanders pointed to the traditionally low turnout among such voters, but what he should have done is point to an investigative study this past week by the crusading Facing South web magazine in North Carolina that much better explained that turnout.

“Republican-led legislatures in the South have continued to erect barriers to voting that disproportionately affect youth,” Facing South’s Benjamin Barber reported. “They include strict voter identification laws and registration restrictions, as well as closures of campus polling places.”

Citing statistics from the Campus Vote Project, Barber reported seven of 17 states passing laws requiring voter IDs in recent years will not accept student IDs. This includes South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. “In Tennessee, a faculty ID is an acceptable form of voters identification but a student ID is not. And in Texas, student IDs from public universities are not accepted for voting while gun licenses are.”

The corruption in U.S. politics is so endemic it’s hard even for the experts to see it for what it really is. What it really is, folks, is a special American brand of fascism that is creeping across this land. It knows no party and no allegiance other than to the almighty American dollar that is its god.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Bernie Sanders' challenge to the DNC and MSNBC and CNN establishment evokes the Populist uprising of the 1890s

(Bernie Sanders campaigning for unionization of the Nissan plant in Mississippi back in 2017)

Bernie Sanders’ challenge to the Democratic Party establishment evokes memories of the Populist uprising against the nation’s two-party system more than a century ago, as does the Democratic Party’s current maneuverings to destroy Bernie’s challenge.

Back in the 1890s, the People’s Party, better known as the Populists, gave the leaders of the nation’s two major political parties the scare of their lives, mounting the biggest third-party challenge in U.S. history. It was indeed a people’s party, challenging the corporate hegemony that had taken over the nation and giving a long-overdue voice to the farmers, factory workers - both black and white - and small business folks that both the Democratic and Republican parties had too long ignored. In many ways, the establishment parties had become what Louisiana’s Huey Long would decades later deride as the “high popalorum” and “low popahirum” of American politics, what Alabama Gov. George Wallace meant three decades later when he said there’s “not a dime’s worth of difference” in the two major parties.

As flawed as Long and Wallace may have been, they were on to something.

(To the right, Huey Long of Louisiana)

Post-Civil War greed and the piles of money coming out of industrialization had so corrupted American politics by the end of the 19th century that average working folks had nowhere to turn other than a third party. In the South, ruling “Bourbon Democrats” appealed “to Southerners when they recalled nostalgic antebellum days and identified themselves with the romantic cult of the Confederacy,” but in their hearts they “were preeminently commercial-minded men who purposely aligned themselves with the Republican-industrial North in order to exploit the manpower and resources of their section,” historian Monroe Billington has written.

(1892 Populist poster)

Well-heeled leaders of the Democratic Party finally managed to pull the rug out from under the Populists, pushing “fusion” and co-opting their key issues and maneuvering and manipulating them eventually out of existence, leaving a legacy of disillusionment that took decades to repair. The Populists “blamed themselves for ever consenting to an unholy alliance with the enemy,” Billington wrote.

The modern-day Democratic Party faces a similar challenge in the populist uprising that Bernie Sanders represents, and its leaders have and will continue to fight tooth and nail to make sure he doesn’t become its titular head and certainly not president of the United States. Working hand-in-hand with the Democratic National Committee are their compatriots MSNBC, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other media stalwarts that style themselves as the official opposition to Trump/Fox News rule.

“People all over this country worked their way through school, sent their kids to school, paid off student loans,” James Carville recently ranted to MSNBC about Sanders’ call for free college tuition and student debt retirement. “They don’t want to hear this shit.”

Carville, of course, was a key architect of Clintonian politics in the 1990s, the centrist, neo-liberal, pro-corporate core philosophy of the Democratic National Committee today.

In response to Carville’s rant, writer Ed Burmila in the New Republic correctly pointed out that the 1970s world Carville invoked has little to do with today’s world, in which college expenses equal nearly 52 percent of a man’s median annual income and a whopping 81 percent of a woman’s. Today an entire generation of college graduates potentially face lifelong debt from their student loans.

MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews, himself a relic of “the good ol’ days” when he was an aide to former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill, told viewers recently he remembers the Cold War of the 1950s when critics of socialist regimes might be taken to a public park and shot, loosely implying that might be his fate under a Bernie Sanders regime. Give me a damn break!

The Democratic Party establishment, as tied to Wall Street as its Republican counterpart, is scared to death of Bernie Sanders. This was evident four years ago when its operatives leaked debate questions to favored candidate Hillary Clinton to give her an advantage over challenger Sanders. That same establishment spent nearly the next three years constructing “Russiagate” to claim it was Russian collusion that elected Trump, not Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign, Russian collusion that exposed the corruption within official Democratic ranks. In the process, “journalists” like Rachel Maddow completely lost credit by buying into the Russiagate conspiracy hook, line, and sinker.

More recently, the Iowa caucus exposed more DNC and Clintonian shenanigans as the Iowa Democratic Party decided to use an app designed by Clinton operatives to tally the vote, ultimately screwing up the count long enough to make sure Bernie Sanders didn’t come out of Iowa with any kind of momentum that might help him in the New Hampshire primary. Well, he won the New Hampshire primary despite their best efforts and now is the leader in the still-wide field of Democratic candidates.

Next to enter the stage was billionaire and former Republican Mike Bloomberg buying his way into second place behind Bernie with untold millions of dollars in television and social media ads that paint him as kind of a Lone Ranger there to save the party from a socialist takeover (which is his real goal, even more than defeating Donald Trump). However, Bloomberg’s disastrous performance in the debate before the Nevada caucus proved that even tons of money can’t hide the host of skeletons in his closet.

To get truth about this campaign one has to go to social media and YouTube programs like “The Hill” and hear former MSNBC commentator Krystal Ball tell it like it truly is. Another is Kyle Kulinski. Still another is Jimmy Dore. Here you get the cogent analysis that’s missing in traditional media. They’re young, sharp, and hungry for truth, and they speak to the same generation that has become the core of Bernie Sanders’ movement. They’re the future, not James Carville, Chris Matthews, and the other troglodytes who believe they still have something to say to the American people.