Saturday, July 20, 2024

Teamsters president preaches but not to the choir at the Republican national convention. Meanwhile Democrats pray for a miracle.

 Don’t preach to the choir, the old saying goes. You preach to the sinners in hopes to save their souls.


It’s the kind of message I used to hear in my youth from my Uncle Eb at the Macedonian Pentecostal Holiness Church in rural central North Carolina. Uncle Eb was a fiery presence behind his wooden pulpit, his blazing eyes, hooked nose, and gravelly voice. “You not too young to go to hell,” he once warned my brother John and me when we declined joining everyone else kneeling at the front aisle at the end of one of his sermons.

(Teamsters President Sean O'Brien)


Teamsters union president Sean O’Brien was definitely not preaching to the choir when he made his pro-union speech at the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee this past Monday night.


“I see American workers being taken for granted, workers being sold out to big banks, big tech corporations, the elite,” O’Brien said in his amazing stem-winder. America needs a “long-term investment in the American worker.”


O’Brien took a lot of heat for accepting Republican nominee Donald Trump’s invitation to speak at the Republican convention. His union even donated $45,000 to the Republican cause. United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain blasted Trump as a “scab” who’d “be a company man trying to squeeze the American worker” if he ever worked in a plant.


(Donald Trump)


Unlike most unions with their unwavering support for the national Democratic Party, the Teamsters have flirted before with the Republican Party. It’s a serious flirtation when you consider the Teamsters is the nation’s largest private-sector union with 1.4 million members.


O’Brien’s speech wasn’t the only stereotype-defying element in the Republican National Convention. Trump’s choice of U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance as his vice president running mate was another. Vance has built his career—if not always his vote--on support for the common man, the blue-collar worker, against the corporate elite in this country. He’s also taken a strong stand against U.S. involvement in the war in Ukraine, much to the chagrin of the party’s most rabid warmongers, such as U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina.

(J.D. Vance)


What’s happening here? Is the Trump-led Republican Party trying to become the “Big Tent” party the Democrats have always claimed to be? Indeed, this week’s convention featured a row of black politicians and a major black influencer as well as a “common man” hero in wrestler Hulk Hogan.


 When the Democrats convene for their own convention in Chicago August 19, they’ll likely enter the arena a deeply divided party, uncertain who their leader will be now that incumbent President Joe Biden has bowed out. Will it be Vice President Kamala Harris, or some other choice who may somehow salvage the party’s sinking chances in November?


Of course, the Democrats will have loyalists on board such as the UAW’s Shawn Fain, an early endorser of Biden despite Biden’s dismal failure in late 2022 to support a railroad workers strike to secure better working conditions and decent sick leave policies.


 The recent--and now successful--push to get rid of Joe Biden in the wake of his disastrous debate performance against Trump has exposed the traditional “Big Tent” party to be essentially run by “Big Donors” from Hollywood and Wall Street. They may claim to be Diversity-Equity-Inclusion liberals but in essence they are just as disdainful of unions as a Walton or as many of those in that Milwaukee convention hall listening to O’Brien rail against billionaires.


(Franklin D. Roosevelt with Labor Secretary Frances Perkins)

Decades ago Bill and Hillary Clinton gutted the “Big Tent” soul of what was left of FDR’s old Democratic Party, deregulating the financial markets, repealing the Glass-Steagal Act that restricted monopolizing mergers. Bill's later successor, Barack Obama, would give a rousing pro-union speech at the 2005 AFL-CIO convention in Chicago—I was there and applauded it!—but he filled his cabinet with Wall Streeters once he got elected president.


Many workers—and likely a lot of Teamsters—are turning toward Trump and the Republicans because they feel abandoned by the modern-day Democratic Party with its obsessive focus on identity politics and general refusal to even use the term “working class”. They’re sadly bound to be disappointed, however, because Trump may sound populist and working class, but in his heart of hearts he’s a corporate billionaire who peopled his first administration with bankers and industrialists.


Working class people in America need a party of their own, a labor party, that is truly going to serve them, not just pay lip service during campaigns. They had such a party 120 years ago in the so-called People’s Party, better known as the Populists. The Democratic Party of that day, however, appropriated many of their issues, and the Populists gradually faded from the scene after becoming the largest third party movement in the country’s history.


Quo vadis, today’s America? I wish I had an answer.


Friday, June 28, 2024

A doddering old president and bulldog former president debate the nation's future while Democrats worry about their party's future

The whole world was watching—literally—as U.S. President Joe Biden stumbled and mumbled his way through a 90-minute debate with former president Donald Trump last night. For much of his presidency, Biden has been protected by a coterie of loyalists--and their media sycophants--who’ve insisted he is in full control of his faculties and his job as the most powerful man in the world.


Don’t believe your lying eyes, they told the world. Last night the world saw who was lying.


Democrats today (and Washington’s Deep State) are in either shell shock or panic mode as they look down through the remaining months before the election and wonder if their man can ever restore Americans’ confidence that he can lead them another four years. If he’s as doddering today as he appeared to be at the CNN debate last night, how will he be when he’s 86 years old and still in charge of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal?


Speculation is already circling among Democrats as to who would or could replace Biden as the head of the Democratic ticket. Vice President Kamala Harris? She’s even more unpopular than Biden. And if the party wants someone else, it cannot tell Kamala there’s a glass ceiling after all! Still, all the speculation is a waste of time. The presidency has been Joe Biden’s lifelong dream, and he’s not going to simply slip off into the night now that it is in his grip. Joe Biden’s ego may be the one remaining strength of his mental capacities.


For his part, Donald Trump probably bristled at the debate rules that prevented him from roughshodding Biden like he did Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and fellow Republicans during the 2016 presidential race. Yet, ironically, those rules actually helped him, keeping him on target, making him even look, dare I say, almost normal in his relative restraint. Of course, a plethora of lies poured from his mouth, but he at least held back from taking full mocking advantage of Biden’s disintegration.


Biden’s handlers over the past week obviously pumped him full of statistics. He seemed programmed as he recited them even if some of them were patently false. Biden told lies, too, lies that CNN commentators totally ignored. Russia, for example, has shown absolutely no inclination to take over all of Ukraine, much less Poland and other Eastern European countries, as Biden claimed again and again.


Biden was best when he pointed to Trump’s utter allegiance to the nation’s top 1 percent—the tax cuts to the wealthy, the suppression of organized labor and worker rights, the judges and justices he appointed to reward the rich and punish everyone else. However, viewers were watching Biden’s facial and body movements, listening to the raspy, uncertain voice, not really listening to the words.


The Democratic National Committee has become an extremely insular organization ever since Bill and Hillary Clinton excised the party’s soul and replaced it with unprincipled (and largely unsuccessful) formulas and algorithms to raise lots of money (Wall Street) and hopefully win elections. Just as the DNC worked to undermine Bernie Sanders’ candidacy eight years ago, it made sure this campaign that Biden was unchallenged in the primaries.


They got their man. Now what are they doing to do with him?


And how is the nation going to fare over the next four years? That’s the real concern that emerged from last night’s debate.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

A pro-union worker school in North Carolina attracts 200, and 27,000 teachers and school workers get a union in Fairfax County, Virginia, while a judge, cops, and even some union leaders push against student anti-genocide protests

(Ella May Wiggins, a martyr of the Southern labor movement who was murdered during textile mill protests in North Carolina in 1929)

Some 200 pro-labor activists and workers attend a Southern Worker School in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a majority of voters of a 27,000-member teacher core in Fairfax County, Virginia, vote to join a union. Meanwhile, police and the courts crack down on protesters across the country, and Ford and Stellantis violate the spirit of recent union agreements by laying off hundreds of workers.


In this latest Labor South round-up, the lines are clearly being drawn between the American people and the political-financial forces that continue to try to dominate their lives.


A push to get workers into key industries across the South so they can organize and push pro-union ideas


An historic gathering of some 200 pro-union rank-and-filers took place in Charlotte, North Carolina, May 17 through 19, the largest worker school ever organized by the Southern Workers Assembly. A key topic of discussion was the SWA recently launched program to recruit pro-labor workers to enter key industries in the Southern economy.


The worker school “felt like a new beginning of the labor movement to me,” International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1414, Savannah, Georgia, Vice President Jamie Muhammad told the SWA, “a room filled with people organizing to achieve justice in the workplace, from all walks of life.”


Delegates came from across the South representing a wide array of unions, including locals with the United Campus Workers, United Auto Workers, Union of Southern Service Workers, National Nurses United, Carolina Amazonians United for Solidarity & Empowerment, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.


Inspired by the recent union victory by the UAW at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the Daimler Truck Company agreement in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia providing workers a 25 percent raise, and earlier UAW victories at General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis, the worker school participants acknowledged the tough labor battleground the South has always been. Clear indication of this was the UAW’s recent failure in a union election at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama.


“The Southern auto industry will not be organized one election at a time, nor will the hospital industry or logistics or any industry,” SWA Coordinating Committee member Ed Bruno told participants. “The UAW founding in the 1930s was based on sit-down strikes that were multi-corporation, multi-location efforts to organize the entire auto industry. That’s the way the modern labor movement was formed. And that’s the way the South will be organized.”


Teachers and school workers overwhelmingly vote union in densely populated Fairfax County, Virginia, a historic vote largely ignored by mainstream media


A stunning union victory for the 27,000 teachers and school staff took place this week in Fairfax County, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. The vote by teachers was 97 percent to unionize, while the vote by support staff was 81 percent pro-union.


“I think people are realizing that they are not respected and want to be able to have the American dream,” Fairfax Education Association President Leslie Houston told the labor report Payday, one of the few news organizations to cover the election.


 Claiming the victory is Virginia Education Unions, a coalition of locals with the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association. Fairfax County is the fifth richest county in the nation, but also one where many public employees struggle to afford a living and are forced to have second jobs.


A shift toward the Democratic Party in Virginia in recent years allowed the 2020 passage of a law giving municipalities the right to allow collective bargaining agreements for public employees, something heretofore outlawed. This week’s union victory marked the culmination of a 47-year campaign for pro-union forces in Fairfax County’s schools.


Unions join student protesters opposing Israel’s genocidal attacks on Gaza’s Palestinian citizens, and the courts and the police and some union bosses don’t like it


At the above-mentioned Southern Workers Assembly Worker School in Charlotte, participants expressed solidarity with university students across the country who are protesting the United States’ complicity in the ongoing genocide in Gaza being waged by the Israeli military. They also condemned the anti-First Amendment crackdown on those protests by university leaders and local police.


A particular bone of contention has been at the University of California, where a strike by United Auto Workers academic workers recently broadened to include as many as 30,000 of the 48,000 UAW members in California’s institutes of higher learning.


The expansion of the strike led Orange County Superior Court Judge Randall J. Sherman to issue a strike-breaking order forcing workers to return to work at least until June 27 when final exams are taking place. The UAW leadership told workers to obey the judge’s order.


A violent attack by Zionist extremists on protesters prompted the strike on May 20.  Police did little to nothing to protect protesters from the extremists.


“The strikebreaking intervention by the courts … demonstrates that the defense of democratic rights will be not be protected by any government agency but only through a movement of the working class,” writes Dan Conway of the World Socialist Web Site. “The fight for this requires a struggle against the UAW bureaucracy.”


The WSWS contends the UAW bureaucracy has tried to contain the strike from the very beginning, something in line with UAW President Shawn Fain’s leadership and endorsement of President Joe Biden in his re-election campaign despite Biden’s pro-Zionist policies. Even victories Fain has claimed for the UAW, such as at Ford and Stellantis, are marred given the layoffs and mass firings, many or most of them supplemental or temporary employees, at those companies, the WSWS has argued.


Monday, May 20, 2024

Here's why the UAW lost the battle at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama: a lack of long-term commitment and grassroots, shoulder-to-shoulder organizing

(A textile strike in the U.S. South in 1934)

The United Auto Workers led a largely digital, minimal-staff campaign at the 5,000-plus worker Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, and it failed. Despite predictions by the union that it had 70 percent-plus support, workers voted 56-44 percent against unionization this past week.


You’d think the UAW would have learned its lesson after multiple failed campaigns at Nissan in Tennessee and Mississippi and two failed elections at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee, before its historic, landslide victory there in April.


As a veteran labor writer who has covered and studied the Southern labor movement for decades, I’ve seen what Crystal Lee “Norma Rae” Sutton learned in my native North Carolina during the 1970s. Winning in the South takes a long-term commitment and grassroots person-to-person organizing.


Sutton, who died in 2009, and her fellow workers in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, fought a decade-long war with the giant J.P. Stevens textile company before winning their union. It took the auto workers in Chattanooga three major votes and 10 years to gain their win in April. They went from losing their first vote 626-712 in 2014 and second vote 776-833 in 2019 to win this time by an unofficial count of 2628 to 985, a 73 percent margin.


Now their fight will turn to the bargaining table to get a union contract with Volkswagen, something that took Sutton and her fellow workers six years after their union victory to get with notoriously anti-union J.P. Stevens.


The UAW, which has pledged $40 million to unionize auto plants in the South, is also eyeing other non-union, foreign-owned auto plants in the South, such as Hyundai in Alabama, Toyota in Mississippi, and Nissan in Tennessee and Mississippi.


Some observers believe UAW will secure a contract with Volkswagen without too much resistance because of the overwhelming pro-union vote at the plant. However, anti-union forces beyond the company, such as former U.S. Senator and Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, can never be underestimated. They will do anything they can to stall any more union progress.


Those forces were much in play at the Mercedes-Benz plant, where management held required attendance anti-union meetings with workers despite the fact that such meetings violate the German company’s own stated principles of non-interference during organizing efforts. Last week’s vote was the first union election at the plant.


(the bloody Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia in 1921 as coal miners fight for their union)

Prior to the vote in Chattanooga, the governors of six Southern states, including Alabama, issued an ominous warning against bringing unions to the South. Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee told workers they “risk their futures” if they vote union. A so-called “labor” online site called the pushed anti-UAW propaganda even as it presented itself as a valid source of labor information.


What helped the UAW in Chattanooga were energetic young and relatively new workers who didn’t inherit the old fears and prejudices that have hampered other campaigns in the South. They and other workers were also inspired by the success of the UAW’s Stand Up Strike campaign in 2023 with union victories at General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis. Soon after the vote in Chattanooga, the UAW scored another victory with the Daimler Truck company in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia, securing an agreement that included 25 percent raises for workers and an end to wage tiers.


Volkswagen, unionized everywhere else in the world except in the United States, generally complied with rules from its German base to keep hands-off in the union effort, including forbidding anti-union one-on-one sessions and required attendance at anti-union films. Still, workers turned toward the union in April after Volkswagen failed to keep many of the promises it made after the earlier elections.


Although Mercedes is also a German-based firm, it apparently had no such qualms about allowing anti-union measures to take place at its plant. Like Volkswagen, it also made many promises, and even hired a new plant manager, but now workers will have to see if those promises are kept.


Another factor in the election was former University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban’s turn-around in his support for unionization. After initially signaling a support for the union, he then told UAW’s ally, the More Perfect Union organization, to discontinue an ad featuring his endorsement. The Payday Report labor service says the University of Alabama convinced YouTube to take down the ad. Saban is a bona fide hero in Alabama.


However, for this writer, the key factor in UAW’s loss at Mercedes-Benz was a combination of its own arrogance after the victories in Chattanooga and in 2023 and a lack of a sense of history in the Southern labor movement.


(A call to strike by the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in Arkansas in the 1930s)


Winning the South has been a dream of organized labor for more than a century. The historic labor battles in the coal mines of Kentucky and West Virginia and in the textile mills of the Carolinas in the 1920s and 1930s are the stuff of legend. However, those often bloody-and-deadly battles included many heartbreaking defeats, just as did the Congress of Industrial Union’s “Operation Dixie” campaign in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Even in victory, Crystal Lee “Norma Rae” Sutton and her fellow workers had to fight 17 years to get both a union and contract.


Today’s struggle is no less monumental. “Workers in Michigan are pitted against workers in Alabama, workers in the United States are pitted against workers in Mexico,” UAW President Shawn Fain wrote recently in In These Times magazine. “A united working class is the only effective wall against the billionaire class’ race to the bottom.”


It’s all true, Shawn Fain, but building “a united working class” in the South takes time, deep commitment, and roll-your-sleeves-up, ground-level, old school-as-well-as-new school organizing.


Tuesday, May 7, 2024

United Campus Workers pledge support for the pro-Palestinian protesters at the University of Mississippi and decry the actions of the counter-demonstrators

(To the right, University of Mississippi pro-Palestinian protesters. From widely shared videos on social media) 

The recent anti-genocide protest and counter-protest at the University of Mississippi have received international attention. Some three dozen Ole Miss students showed their support for the Palestinians in Gaza who are under genocidal assault by the Israeli military—tens of thousands, many of them women and children are dead as a result of that assault. The students were met with some 200 counter protesters who threw objects at them and mocked and shouted at them. One of the counter protesters jumped about like an ape in front of a black pro-Palestine protester who happened to be a former graduate student of this writer.

(Counter demonstrators at the University of Mississippi taunting the pro-Palestinian protesters. Screenshot from video by Stacey J. Spiehler for the Mississippi Free Press.)


The counter protesters evoked painful memories of the racist and violent throng that tried to prevent James Meredith from enrolling as the first black student at the University of Mississippi in 1962.


(James Meredith, accompanied by U.S. marshals, on the Ole Miss campus in 1962)


Pro-Palestinian protests at universities across the United States are a clear indication of a galvanized youth movement unseen since the 1960s and may spell major trouble for President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign. Biden’s military support for Israel has made this nation a party to the genocidal destruction of Gaza as well as the murderous actions of Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Pro-Palestine protesters aren’t defending Hamas’ attack on Israeli citizens on October 7. They’re standing against Israel’s murderous reaction to it.


Prompted in part by this writer, a charter member, the University Campus Workers of Mississippi-Communications Workers of America Local 3565 has issued a statement of support for the Ole Miss pro-Palestine demonstrators that I’ll copy below. Organized labor should stand shoulder to shoulder with these brave young people who’ve risked their college careers and possibly jail or injury to stand against this nation’s complicity in what Israel is doing to the Palestinian people.


Here is the statement:


United Campus Workers of Mississippi - CWA Local 3565


To UCWMS Members and the University of Mississippi Community:

On Thursday, May 2, a small and peaceful group of University of Mississippi students gathered to exercise their First Amendment right to protest on behalf of Palestinians facing a months-long genocidal assault by the Israeli Defense Force. This group of students were overwhelmed by a crowd of more than 200 counter-protestors, most of whom were also University of Mississippi students. Many of these student counter-protestors made explicitly racist remarks, shouting “hit the showers” and “your nose is huge” at the protestors; taunting a Black woman protestor by imitating a monkey; and equating the protestors with the terrorists in the 9/11 attacks. Others threw half-eaten food and water bottles at the students protesting against genocide. Several journalists, including student journalists, captured this abhorrent behavior on film, much of which is publicly available. Ultimately, police had to escort protestors off the premises for their own safety.

The unabashed racism displayed by the overwhelmingly White counter-protestors is unacceptable behavior for University of Mississippi students. It is out of step with our university’s creed, and violates the University’s own student code of conduct. Moreover, the counter-protestors’ throwing of food and drink at students engaged in a peaceful demonstration violated those students’ constitutional rights to free speech and to free assembly. 


We, the United Campus Workers of Mississippi, applaud the Chancellor's willingness to uphold the values of the university by condemning the racism at the protest and opening a student conduct investigation against one of the perpetrators. We call on the Chancellor and other university administration to continue their investigation to ensure that all students who behaved similarly are held accountable. The counter-protestors’ behavior, if left unchecked, sets a dangerous precedent for our students, as well as for any campus worker wishing to exercise their own First Amendment right to peacefully assemble and demonstrate on or off campus.


Saturday, April 20, 2024

Norma Rae is smiling in heaven at the United Auto Workers' landmark victory at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee

(To the right, a poster from the 1979 film Norma Rae)

Somewhere in heaven Crystal Lee Sutton, the real-life “Norma Rae” of the epic labor war in the Carolina textile industry of the 1970s, has a big smile on her face.


More than anyone, Sutton—the inspiration for the 1979 film Norma Rae--would know the joy that the 4,300 workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, must feel after their huge victory Friday to join the United Auto Workers.


As with Sutton, who died in 2009, and her fellow workers in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, who fought a decade-long war with the giant J.P. Stevens textile company before winning their union, it took the auto workers in Chattanooga three major votes and 10 years to gain Saturday’s win. They went from losing their first vote 626-712 in 2014 and second vote 776-833 in 2019 to win this time by an unofficial count of 2628 to 985, more than a 70 percent margin.


“Being able to have a voice of your own is more important than just letting other people decide for you,” worker Manny Perez, 25, told crusading labor reporter Mike Elk of Payday Report just before the final results came in.


“This is a defining moment for the workers throughout the South and the rest of the country,”  the University of California at Berkeley Labor Center Co-Chair Brenda Muñoz said in a statement issued after the victory. “Foreign auto manufacturers can no longer count on the Southern states to provide cheap labor at the expense of working families.”


The victory came despite the fierce opposition of what this writer has long described as the phalanx of anti-union forces in the South. Powerful politicians such as Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee told workers they “risk their futures” if they vote union. A so-called “labor” online site called the pushed anti-UAW propaganda even as it presented itself as a valid source of labor information.


In the 2014 union vote, then-Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and then-U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, both Republicans, essentially lied to the public by pretending to remain neutral while working feverishly to defeat the union behind closed doors. Haslam was part of a scheme to offer Volkswagen $300 million to expand its Chattanooga plant so long as the company worked with the state in preventing unionization there. Corker worked with owner Peter List back in 2014 to defeat the UAW.


(Ray Smithhart)

“You got the whole community against you, the supervisors, the merchants, the newspapers,” the late Mississippi labor warrior Ray Smithhart, then-dean of his state’s labor organizers, told me in 2004. “You can’t get the message across. What we needed was at least some kind of debate. This would let the employees hear both sides of the issues.”


Several factors contributed to the UAW victory in Chattanooga. A new cadre of young workers have joined the Volkswagen plant in recent years, bringing with energy and a greater willingness to consider the union cause that older workers have had. In a recent Southern Workers Assembly online discussion with workers and activists across the region, veteran organizer Ed Bruno of the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE) said that young and energized organizers are key to union success today.


Another factor is the success of the UAW’s Stand Up Strike campaign in 2023 that led to union victories at General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis, prompting the union to pledge $40 million toward a new effort to the organize the union-resistant U.S. South. A union vote is already scheduled for May 13-17 at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama. Organizers say they already have majority support for a union.


Volkswagen, unionized everywhere else in the world except in the United States, had to comply with rules from its German base to keep hands-off in the union effort, including forbidding anti-union one-on-one sessions and required attendance at anti-union films.


Workers have complained about safety conditions at the plant and lax efforts to address safety issues even when identified. Company promises of better days to come never materialized. All factors that provide fertile soil for unionization.


After Crystal Lee “Norma Rae” Sutton and her fellow workers won their fight for union recognition back in 1974, they had to wait another six years to get a contract with J.P. Stevens. That contract marked the end of a 17-year war that included illegal firings, delaying tactics, intimidation, what National Labor Relations Board administrative judge Bernard Reiss called “corporate designed lawlessness.”


Let’s hope Volkswagen is less intransigent and more willing now to sit down across the table from workers to develop a fair and equitable contract that can be a model to other foreign-owned and domestically owned companies across the South.

Friday, March 1, 2024

Organizing the South--Building success by learning from the victories of the 1930s and the failures of Operation Dixie in the late 1940s and early 1950s

(Sidney Hillman)

At the beginning of the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ “Operation Dixie” campaign to organize the U.S. South in 1946, Sidney Hillman, the leader of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, called the South “a venture into unplowed fields.”


Nearly 80 years later, organized labor has vowed finally to plow those fields and plant seeds that will ultimately help build a new labor movement across the nation.


“Take heart, learn the lessons and apply them to your situation, and thing big,” former UE (United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America) Director of Organizing Ed Bruno told participants from across the South in a Southern Workers Assembly online discussion Thursday, February 29.


Indeed, the United Auto Workers, fresh off its Stand Up Strike victories with General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis in 2023, has pledged $40 million to organize non-union auto plants, with a focus on the South. Results are already coming in. This month workers at both the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennesee, and the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama (that German company’s largest U.S. plant) announced majority support for unionizing.


They’re among some 10,000 non-union autoworkers signing union cards at 14 plants across the country.


After failed unionizing efforts at the Nissan plants in Mississippi and Tennessee and the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga in recent years, many wondered if the South would ever shake off its longheld distinction as the least-unionized region in the country, whether its “unplowed fields” will ever grow rich with a true harvest of its underpaid, overworked laborers.


After what has been dubbed “The Year of the Strike” in 2023 with UAW victories at the Big Three, nationwide organizing at Starbucks cafes (Starbucks has finally agreed to stop opposing unionization), in hospitals and on college campuses across the land, workers have a new confidence. The pandemic and record corporate profits also helped create a new worker consciousness, and polls show public support for unions at its highest level since the 1960s.


 “We’ve learned that we can’t trust Mercedes with our best interests,” Mercedes-Benz workers in Vance, Alabama, said in their announcement of majority union support this month. Citing the company’s “record profits”, widespread use and abuse of temporary workers, and imposition of a two-tier pay scale, the announcement continued, “There comes a time when enough is enough. Now is that time.”


At the Southern Workers Assembly Zoom session this week, Bruno and Jim Wrenn, a founding member of UE Local 150 at the Cummins Diesel Engine Plant in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, talked at length about the reasons behind the widely acknowledged failure of Operation Dixie between 1946 and 1953. The exploitation of divisions between black and white workers, the rank anti-communist demagoguery of the era, and inability of organizers to network campaigns at different plants in the region and work in solidarity rather than individually were all factors in the campaign never reaching its goals.


Bruno contrasted Operation Dixie with the massive pro-union surge in the mid-1930s that gave rise to the UAW and other unions, a high point in the history of organized labor in this country.


Five factors were key to the success of the 1930s labor movement, Bruno said:


1.     A committed cadre of organizers who were few in number but young and energized and who networked with other organizers. They were “not isolated.”

2.     A militant minority who “were fed up and ready to do something.”

3.     A high degree of class politics with pro-labor President Franklin D. Roosevelt leading the nation and powerful pro-labor forces in Congress and beyond.

4.     New rights as a result of the Wagner Act of 1935 and other legislation backing workers.

5.     The development of a “national voice” by strong labor leaders like John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers.


Workers today need to learn the lessons from successes and failures in the past, to work in solidarity with other workers who are struggling, to network, and build “corporate campaigns” that drive home their issues and demands to corporate headquarters, not just to local management, Bruno said.

(Philip Murray)


In 1946, CIO president Philip Murray called Operation Dixie “the most important drive of its kind ever undertaken by any labor organization in the history of the country.”


The new organizing campaign in the South in 2024 doesn’t have a name yet, but Murray’s words may very well still apply.


Monday, January 29, 2024

"War is a bad thing," young Hanh of Vietnam said in 1971, that is, unless today you're a neocon warmonger, struggling politician, or corporate member of the military-industrial complex

(U.S. soldiers and hooch maids near hooches in Plantation, Vietnam, around 1971)


The year was around 1971, and my Vietnamese girlfriend Hanh and I were talking in my hooch on the U.S. Army base at Plantation near Long Binh, Vietnam. A hooch maid, she was  beautiful, maybe 18, and I was 22. Our relationship was just getting started, but something real was there and we both felt it.


Then came this explosion somewhere in the distance. A bomb? We kept talking. No big deal. Then came another, this one closer, and finally a third explosion, this time closer still and loud and scary. Hanh looked at me, eyes full of experience way beyond 18 years.


“War is a bad thing,” she said in her broken English. I nodded as we got up and joined everyone else outside their hooches to see what was going on.


No more explosions came, thankfully, and no Army alerts were issued, so everyone went back to their lives, even if a little rattled.  In a few months, my tour was up and I’d leave Hanh with tears in her eyes and my heart heavy and no longer sure I was ready to go back to the “world” even though that’s what every soldier dreamed about day and night.


“We’ll see each other again,” I told her. “No,” she said, again much wiser than me, “we never see each other again.” She was right.


War has been on my mind a lot lately. It should be on everyone’s mind with wars in Ukraine and the Gaza Strip, and all the saber-rattling from our own political and military leaders toward Russia, China, Iran, Yemen, North Korea, or any other nation that might want to join the newly reconstructed “axis of evil”.


War was the topic of my recent discussion with host Nima Rostami Alkhorshid on his international podcast Dialogue Works. It was my fourth appearance on his show, and war has dominated every discussion.


Even as we spoke, Israel continued its brutal bombing of the Gaza Strip, an ethnic cleansing launched after Hamas’ bloody October 7 terrorist attack in Israel. Israel’s war on Gaza has killed tens of thousands, including thousands of children, injured more than 60,000, and displaced nearly two million, with more than 60 percent of Gaza homes destroyed or damaged, and it has sowed the seeds of hatred and revenge for generations to come.


President Joe Biden, the number one beneficiary in Washington, D.C., of the largesse of the Israeli lobby over his long career—some $4.3 million in the past three decades, early on pledged total support to Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloody campaign.


In a presidential election year with polls showing a dramatic loss of support among Arab-Moslem voters and the crucial youth vote, the president has since urged Israel to ease up on civilian bombing—pretty please!—but his administration continues to send Israel weapons and has blocked UN efforts to demand a cease-fire. Now the military conflagration has spread to the Red Sea with the Houthi rebel group attacking cargo and other ships doing business with Israel, and the U.S. responding with bombing attacks on suspected Houthi bases in Yemen. Fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon has spilled across that border as Israeli settlers continue violent attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank.


An attack this week on a U.S. base in Jordan killing three U.S. soldier and wounding dozens of others has ratcheted up the danger of a major regional war that brings in the U.S. and that perennial enemy of the neoconservative hawks in Biden’s administration, Iran. Recent Iranian attacks on suspected terrorist bases in Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan were a signal to the U.S., according to writer M.K. Bhadrakumar, that it will not tolerate the CIA’s efforts to help terrorist groups surround and attack Iran.


Of course, the war in Ukraine rages on despite the clear fact that Russia has won and Ukraine has lost. The recent discovery of a $40 billion corruption case dealing with military weapons in Ukraine is just another event souring public support for the Ukrainian cause.


Then there’s all this unrest in Europe with massive protests by farmers in Germany and France against the deteriorating economy that the bombing of the Nord Stream pipeline heralded. Energy costs are up an estimated 18 percent in Europe, putting the pinch not only on farmers but other major industries as well. Green Party ideologues in Germany and their fellow travelers in France want farmers—and, well, everyone—to get off coal, gas, oil, and nuclear dependency, and get those wind turbines turning! Suffer today in order to save the world tomorrow!


My key points to Nima on Dialogue Works this past week were several:


-       Politicians, not the military, are really running these wars in Ukraine and in Gaza. Netanyahu’s approval ratings in Israel are even lower than Biden’s in the United States. Both fear not only loss of power but also the future possibility of jail. U.S. House impeachment proceedings against Biden are proceeding, and Netanyahu has long faced a day of reckoning over corruption allegations. Biden can’t allow a defeat in Ukraine before election day in November. So Ukrainians have to keep dying until then.


-       Unhinged capitalism is destroying the United States with the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about now determining nearly all of U.S. foreign policy. Biden has signed off on $886 billion in defense spending for 2024. That’s “b” as in billion, or, in other words, nearly a trillion!


-       The eastward expansion of NATO began under the Clinton Administration in the 1990s, continuing the long history of broken U.S. promises that date back at least as far as all those broken treaties with American Indians in the 1800s. Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary essentially destroyed the modern-day Democratic Party, making it as war-like and Wall Street-ruled as the Republican Party. No longer is it the party that helped champion the rise of the American Labor Movement in the 1930s and support the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.


-       Why do we still listen to neocons and other warmongers after the utter failures they created in Vietnam, Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, wars that left ruin and devastation in their paths and served no purpose other than to further enrich corporate giants like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and BlackRock? How are wars with Russia, Iran, and/or China going to end any differently? I’ll answer that last one—those wars, if they happen, will end in the nuclear destruction of us all.


All these years later, I still think occasionally about Hanh and wonder how she fared after all the Americans left and the Communists took over. Did working on a U.S. Army base result in her going to one of those re-education camps, or worse? I want to think of her in Vietnam today living a good life with family and friends. Even so, I’ll bet she would still say as she did so many years ago, “War is a bad thing.”


Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Bringing to light injustice within the nation's justice system--Theatre Oxford's tales of former death row inmates whose innocence finally won them freedom

(Felipe Esteban Macias directing the cast of The Exonerated during a rehearsal)

OXFORD, Miss. - The stories told in the play The Exonerated are testaments to resilience and faith but also the post-traumatic stress that having lived in the shadow of death can bring, particularly when you are innocent of the crimes that put you on prison’s death row.


Sunny, 50, a mother of two, was in the wrong place at the wrong time and ended up on Death Row. Gary, a 45-year-old hippie, was so “brainwashed” by police interrogators that he falsely confessed to murdering his own parents. Sixty-year-old Delbert Tibbs got convicted of murder because he happened to be black and near the small Florida town where a man was killed and young woman raped.


“A bunch of cops surround us, and I’m trying to explain that we were kidnapped, but they just wouldn’t listen,” Sunny said about the aftermath of her fateful ride with a armed man who had forced her and her children into a car after killing two cops.


Gary’s troubles accelerated after he got to the police station. “They wouldn’t let me sleep, wouldn’t let me lie down,” he said. “I was emotionally distraught. I was physically exhausted. I was confused. … They started making me think I had a blackout and actually done it.”


Delbert Tibbs, an old soul from Chicago, seminary dropout, military veteran, and radical poet, had to learn how to cope with being an innocent man on death row. “This is not the place for thought that does not end in concreteness,” Tibbs tells us. “It is dangerous to dwell too much on things. To wonder who or why or when, to wonder how, is dangerous. How do we, the people, get outta this hole, what’s the way to fight?”


These true stories were among the half-dozen told in Theatre Oxford’s January 6 production of The Exonerated at the Powerhouse Arts Center in Oxford, Mississippi. A discussion on the legal and other issues raised by the play was led by Tucker Carrington, the founding director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, at the Powerhouse after the Saturday matinee. Serving as moderator was Melissa Gwin Pedron.


Authored by Jessica Blank and Erik Jenson, The Exonerated shares stories that range from racially motivated arrests and false confessions to tales of guilt by association. Directing the Theatre Oxford production was theatre veteran Felipe Esteban Macias.


“We have six wonderful stories wrapped up in one play,” Macias said about The Exonerated.


Taken from interviews, letters, transcripts, case files, and public records, the stories offer sobering insights into the nation’s criminal justice system and capital punishment. The Exonerated won the 2003 Drama Desk and Outer Critic’s Awards and also received the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Champion of Justice Award.


Theatre Oxford’s January 6 production of The Exonerator was timely considering the current case in Mississippi of death row inmate Willie Jerome Manning, whose attorneys are seeking a dismissal of state Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s efforts to establish an execution date for Manning. The attorneys argue that new evidence challenges the convictions of Manning, on death row since 1994, for the murders of two Mississippi State University students. Theatre Oxford does not have a position on this case.


(To the right, convict labor at Mississippi's notorious Parchman prison in 1911)


The production was also fitting considering the sordid history of prisons and jails in Mississippi, the U.S. South, and across the nation as a whole. Mississippi typically rivals Louisiana, Oklahoma, and other states for high incarceration rates.  Since 2006, 14 Mississippians have died in local jail houses while they awaited mental health treatment. Nine of them committed suicide. Twelve had not been charged with any crime. They were in jail because local and state governments have not funded sufficient mental health facilities.


The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled unanimously in April to end the so-called “dead zone” at jails across the state that allowed some inmates to stay up to years in jail without even being indicted for a crime or having a lawyer to defend them.


Convict leasing got its start in Mississippi in 1868 when cotton and railroad magnate Edmund Richardson needed cheap labor to offset the loss of slave labor on his 25,000 acres of cotton after the Civil War. Within 14 years, nearly one out of every five Mississippi’s leased convicts died from overwork or related causes. By 1906 even Mississippi’s notoriously racist governor James K. Vardaman was so incensed he said the system rivaled “in brutality and fiendishness the atrocities of … Torquemada.”


Private prisons today in Mississippi and elsewhere are the equivalent of convict leasing in that incarceration serves a profit motive. Both are abominable injustices within the so-called justice system. Conditions in private prisons, often owned by private-equity firms, can and do sink quickly as operators look for ways to cut costs and increase profits.


“Private or public, the places where people are warehoused for their crimes are back to being the kind of hellholes they were before the federal government intervened in the 1970s and told Mississippi it had to do better than this,” editorialized the Greenwood Commonwealth in Greenwood, Mississippi, back in August 2019.


The nation has a whole isn’t much better. Immigration by the undocumented has proven a goldmine for private prisons.  Guantanamo has become a symbol for a nation that has been called the world’s largest modern-day gulag with more people behind bars than any other nation in the world, including Russia and China.


The production of The Exonerated, re-scheduled to January 6 after a cast illness prevented production on its original September 8 and 9 dates, was made possible by the support of Frye | Reeves Attorneys at Law, the Mississippi Arts Commission, and Yoknapatawpha Arts Council.


The Exonerated provided a stark reminder of how theatre and all art can bring to light injustice in our world and give voice to the voiceless.