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.