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.