How the UAW Lost at Nissan

by Dianne Feeley

IN EARLY AUGUST the UAW’s union recognition campaign at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi ended in a disastrous 63% “no” vote — 10% greater than the loss at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee three and a half years earlier.

From the beginning of the decade-long campaign at Nissan the UAW sought community support, stressing that “Workers’ Rights = Civil Rights.” This was a particularly effective strategy given that 80% of the workers are African American, and Canton is 80% Black. And given the 6,000-strong march held this spring in support of the unionization drive, it seemed like the UAW was headed for victory.

But that was outside the sprawling plant. Inside management took an aggressive anti-union stance, holding captive meetings, blaring anti-union videos in the break rooms, and in the days just before the vote holding mandatory large group meetings and even one-to-one sessions. They explained how the UAW would not represent the interests of employees and other “facts.”

In listening to the voices of the Nissan workers, health and safety was a major issue, as it is in most non-union workplaces. Several mentioned Derrick Whiting, 37, who collapsed and died on the plant floor in September 2015. He had gone to the plant’s medical facility complaining of chest pains and was sent back to the line.

Anna Wolfe reported in the Clarion Ledger, “Some employees claim Nissan did not respond quickly to the crisis and even kept nearby production lines moving. The company denies these allegations, maintaining that safety at its automotive plant is ‘significantly better than the national average.’” (http://www.clarionledger.com/story/news/politics/2017/08/01/inside-fight-over-unionizing-nissan/508465001/)

Others planning on voting for UAW representation spoke about the need for job security and pensions. A big contradiction in the election, however, was the division among African Americans. At Nissan, the top-tier workforce averages $26 per hour while second-tier workers make $18 — but both are much higher than Canton’s per capita annual household income of $15,000. Given these economic disparities the company was effective in discouraging eligible workers from “rocking the boat” and voting for an untested union.

African Americans in Mississippi have few opportunities for relatively higher paying blue-collar jobs. Faced with both an anti-labor government and Nissan, many Black workers feared losing a stable, well-paying job. Meanwhile there was debate in the plant around management’s favoritism of whites in promotions and opportunities. But neither the in-plant issues of economic inequality nor the particular history of racism in the region were well understood by the UAW leadership. Had there been a strong in-plant committee capable of taking initiative, these could have been addressed.

Organizing Problems

Of the 6400 workers at the plant, only 3500-3800 were eligible to vote. The rest were temporary workers. In fact 2500 are employed by Kelly Services, not Nissan.

At Nissan there are three separate tiers. There are “legacy” workers who were hired in when Nissan began. Second are “pathway” workers who started as temporaries and gained full-time employment — but whose benefits will never equal the highest tier. There are approximately 1500 of these second-tier workers. Third are the “temporary” workers employed by Kelly Services.

As a retired autoworker, I see two huge organizing issues: 1) the pro-union workers didn’t come together and begin to act like a union but merely talked about why there should be one. 2) The UAW didn’t reach out to the temporary workers and draw them into the campaign.

Most autoworkers see how temporary workers are superexploited. They work as hard, or harder, than “legacy” workers but are paid significantly less, with no job security and zero benefits.

In watching the organizing drive from a distance, I’ve wondered what could the UAW organizers do to build a militant union at a large Southern plant, given that many of the problems Nissan workers faced were similar to the ones we had in UAW-represented plants.

After all, UAW officials had preached concessions as a way to keep our jobs since the 1980s. They, along with the corporations, sold two-tier wages and benefits to autoworkers, intimidating and slandering those of us who argued against this strategy.

Once imposed, the two-tier structure was rationalized. Unable to organize the foreign-owned transplants who had located in the South in order to keep unions out, the UAW maintained that until the proportion of unionized autoworkers grew, UAW workers were stuck with concessionary bargaining.

That’s a circular argument. We lost our power because the proportion of unionized autoworkers declined with the opening of the nonunionized transplants. Therefore, we were told, UAW workers must survive by taking concessions, waiting for a better day, when we can grow again and regain what we have lost. But through taking concessions, we undercut the reasons why unorganized autoworkers would want to join!

In the last round of Big Three negotiations, UAW President Dennis Williams chose to negotiate with Chrysler first. Many wondered about his choosing the smallest and weakest corporation for negotiation because it would set the pattern for the other two.

When the negotiated contract was announced, it retained the two-tier system and limited the percentage of workers who could climb up the ladder. To the surprise of Solidarity House (the UAW headquarters), Chrysler workers overwhelmingly rejected it. A second and slightly improved contract was approved — but today there are more job and pay categories than ever before.

The current contract expands the use of temporary workers. Yet the industrial union model is built on the concept that whatever one’s job, there is relatively little difference in pay, benefits and working conditions. Yes, skilled workers make more money, but with the same benefits. Permanent differentials erode collectivity on the shop floor, and allow management to promote a culture where workers see themselves as individuals competing against other workers.

A Different Strategy?

What could the UAW have fought for at Nissan to benefit the 2,500 Nissan temporaries? A core of UAW supporters, coming from all three tiers, could have begun to function as a union on the shop floor. They could have raised demands around health and safety issues. They could have contested discrimination that occurs when supervisors favor white workers and when one part of the workforce lacks security.

This would have changed the dynamic about what the union is and deepened the understanding and commitment to economic equality on the job. The union is not a foreign body injected into the Nissan plant, it’s the workers who have come together collectively to voice their demands and seek their implementation.

Under this model, building the union is the goal. Maybe the shop committee would be so strong it could challenge the racist system of promotion, maybe even force the company to get rid of Kelly Services and start hiring. But whether or not it could accomplish its goals, the union would function as an institution to carry out campaigns that its members decided upon.

It might even turn the tables on management, tracking Nissan’s suppliers and helping those workers to organize as a way of increasing the union’s power over the company’s just-in-time production.

Holding a recognition election would be a secondary goal. Whenever it happened the temporaries, whatever their formal status, should have the right to vote. Two potential contract demands might then be that temporaries become permanent employees and the wall between tiers be dissolved. That would be a union worth fighting for.

I believe an organizing campaign that united the workers around their needs could have won at Nissan — despite the words of the Republican governor who opposed the union, despite all the Nissan ads on local TV and all the intimidating tactics used on the job.

Such a campaign would transform the union, which today is a shell of what the UAW was. Once it did take on management through a variety of actions including delegations during break time, work-to-rule actions and quickie strikes — a strategy, by the way, that’s also needed in the already organized UAW plants.

reposted from Against the Current (https://www.solidarity-us.org/node/5082)

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Pro-union rally in Mississippi unites workers with community

by Mike Elk

  • nissan-miss
    Workers and community members marched in Canton, Mississippi in support of Nissan workers’ right to unionize on Saturday. Photograph: Mike Elk for the Guardian

    For a mile outside Canton Multipurpose Complex on Saturday, the road was backed up. Many cars sported bumper stickers, pro-Bernie and pro-union.

    They came in school buses, hot rods, church vans and motorcycles, with license plates from Missouri, Texas, North Carolina, Illinois and Pennsylvania. A delegation of a dozen Nissan workers even came from Brazil, to support United Automobile Workers (UAW) activists who have faced illegal retaliation in a 13-year struggle to unionize the Japanese giant’s 5,000 workers in Mississippi.

    “I feel their pain because we have been through the same thing with Mercedes,” said Kirk Garner of Vance of Alabama, who has been part of the decade-long UAW effort to unionize there.

    Two weeks after the defeat of the Machinists Union at Boeing in South Carolina, an estimated 5,000 southern union activists gathered in Canton to lay the foundation of what they hope will be the large-scale community movements necessary to defeat anti-union forces nationwide – and in the White House.

    Community support is proving essential for union drives, as companies use politicians and expensive media buys to counter such campaigns. In South Carolina, Boeing spent $485,000 on TV ads and politicians warned that a successful union drive would discourage other companies from moving to the region. In 2014, anti-union forces used a similar strategy to defeat a high-profile attempt to unionize Volkswagen in Chattanooga.

    In Mississippi, as the UAW seeks a vote, Nissan has begun airing its own anti-union ads this week. The UAW claims that the company has told staff that if they unionize, the plant will move to Mexico. The company has denied the charge. In an email to the Guardian on Sunday, Nissan corporate communications manager Parul Bajaj said “the allegations made by the union are totally false” and accused the UAW of a “campaign to pressure the company into recognizing a union, even without employee support”.

    High-profile company ad campaigns can turn communities against unions. Workers often face not just intimidation from their bosses but also peer pressure from friends and neighbors, who warn of harm to the local economy.

    “I don’t think the pressure was as intense as it is now,” said GM worker John W Hill Jr, who was part of the first successful UAW effort to unionize workers in the south, 41 years ago at a GM plant in Monroe, Louisiana.

    “In 1976, there wasn’t the harsh anti-union sentiment that is so prevalent over the country right now … We didn’t have all the politicians and everybody against us.
    “I hope whenever the [Nissan] election is that they vote yes. But deep down inside, I think there is so much fear here and disconnect that I just don’t think [they will].”
    Hill was interrupted by a Nissan worker with a toddler on his shoulders: “Nah man, we got this, we got this. We are gonna beat them.”

    As they marched on the plant on an unusually warm March day, workers sang: “We are ready, We are ready, We are ready, Nissan.”

    They have organized a community coalition, the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan, that includes #BlackLivesMatter activists, church groups, the Sierra Club, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The coalition is calling for a mobilization not seen in the south since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

    More than 80% of Nissan’s workers in Canton are black. A win at Nissan could be a game-changer. On Saturday, they had a guest speaker.

    “If we can win here at Nissan, you will give a tremendous bolt of confidence to working people all over this country” Bernie Sanders told a crowd of 5,000. “If you can stand up to a powerful multinational corporation in Canton, Mississippi, workers all over this country will say, ‘We can do it too.’”

    sanders-in-miss

    Bernie Sanders speaks at the ‘March on Mississippi’ for workers’ rights in Canton. Photograph: Rogelio V. Solis/AP

    Out of 43 of Nissan plants worldwide, 40 are unionized. The only plants that are one in Canton, Mississippi and two in Tennessee. Workers say the lack of a union makes a difference. Bajaj said Nissan “respects and supports” employees’ decisions about who represents them.

    Many employees in Canton say they make less than $15 an hour, with starting wages for some at $13.46 an hour. Workers say they make $2 less each hour than those in Smyrna, where Nissan faces competition from unionized GM factories.
    Bajaj countered that the company’s “hourly wages are significantly above the average central [Mississippi] production wage of $16.70 per hour”.

    Many Canton workers also say they are forced to work for years as temporary employees and complain that they are denied vacation, only allowed to take time off in the last week of June and the first week of July – when the plant shuts down.
    Without a union, they say, workers are often forced to work in unsafe conditions.
    Since 2008, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Osha) has citedCanton facilities six times. In February, Osha issued a citation for a failure to have proper safety lights indicated when machines were on and for not instructing workers to turn off machines before fixing them.

    “I had to call [Osha] twice in the past month,” said Karen Camp, who works in the paint shop. “You couldn’t see 10ft in front of your face because of the ventilation problems. We know a union could help fix it.”

    In his email, Bajaj said: “The safety and well-being of our employees is always our top priority. We dedicate extensive time and resources to safety programs and training at the plant.” The Canton plant, she added, “has a safety record that is significantly better than the national average for automotive plants” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    Workers say Nissan has fought the union every step of the way. In 2015, the National Labor Relations Board charged that the company and its temporary employee agency provider, Kelly Services, violated workers’ rights, with one manager threatening to close the plant if it went union. Nissan has said it is defending against the charge.

    Workers say the company routinely imposes one-on-one meetings, where they are questioned about their views on unionization and have their work histories reviewed. Some say those who support the union are routinely denied promotion. Others say pro-union workers have been unfairly let go.

    In March 2014, a 43-year-old pro-UAW Nissan worker, Calvin Moore, who had worked in the plant since 2004, was fired. Many workers began to protest.

    The actor Danny Glover, a supporter of Nissan workers who was also present at Saturday’s march, with NAACP president Cornell William Brooks, called a press conference to denounce the firing. Students from Jackson State and Tougaloo College engaged in civil disobedience at Nissan headquarters. Workers in Brazil organized protests in solidarity.

    Three months later, Moore was hired again. The win put wind in the union’s sails.
    “It bolstered people’s spirits,” Moore said on Saturday. “To be honest, people were happier for me than I was for myself.”

    Moore said community support and events, such as the March on Mississippi, were key to winning support among coworkers. “We have had a lot of non-union workers who have changed their mind about the UAW,” he said. “Events like this should help us get more support, especially when people see this on TV.”

    High-profile labor efforts could prove crucial not just to unions in the coming months and years, but also to Democratic attempts to win back Congress and the White House. Last year, Donald Trump won the largest share of union voters for a Republican since 1984. He has since focused on bringing manufacturing jobs back to the US.

    However, with many of these new jobs being temporary, Democrats feel they can win union voters back by focusing on how to improve such jobs. Such a strategy, if successful, may not just to win back blue-collar voters. It could also help soften racial tensions that have spread among manufacturing workers.

    With Republicans fighting unionization nationwide, incoming Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez – who was labor secretary under Barack Obama – has signaled that he intends to focus on supporting efforts to unionize.
    In Canton, workers said their efforts could provide a model for the progressive movement in the age of Trump.

    “If there was ever a movement to be led,” said Mississippi NAACP president Derrick Johnson, “it would be led out of Mississippi, because we have always led the movement.”

    • Mike Elk is a member of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild. He is the co-founder of Payday Report and was previously senior labor reporter at Politico.  This article is reposted from The Guardian by agreement with the author.

Interviews for Resistance: On Treating Trump Like a Bad Boss

by Sarah Jaffe

Interview with Ben Speight

benspeight

Ben Speight is the organizing director of Teamsters Local 728 in Georgia. (Fred Nye/ IBT photographer)  

As Republicans introduce legislation that would make labor law for the entire country like it is in the deep South, who better to talk about making unions relevant than an organizer with lots of experience organizing in a so-called “right-to-work” state? Contrary to popular belief, right-to-work laws don’t ban unions, they just allow workers to opt out of paying representation fees to the union while still requiring the union to represent all workers in a workplace. But it is still possible to fight for workers under a right-to-work regime—as long as unions remember to fight.

Ben Speight: My name is Ben Speight. I am the organizing director of Teamsters Local 728 in Georgia.

Sarah Jaffe: Last week we heard that different labor leaders met with now-President Trump. Would you talk about your reaction?

Ben: Trump is the corporate bully-in-chief. For us, in labor, in looking at him as a boss, he’s one that has shown his inclination to align with some of the most reactionary forces in the 1% and folks that are rabidly anti-union.

His demagogic appeal to working people has been extremely successful. His form of economic nationalism has cut against our ability to build broad solidarity amongst white working people, black working people, brown working people, and to have a working-class perspective that is opposed to the right wing. His economic populism is very appealing to some in the labor leadership who are very risk-averse and want to try to maintain their positions and the institutions that we have as they exist over the short term. Trump’s promises of big infrastructure projects going to the construction trades, his symbolic withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his pronouncements of bringing manufacturing back to the United States appeal to traditionally conservative, mostly white-male-dominated smaller building trades and construction unions. Those were principally the ones that he met with earlier last week.

It is not terribly surprising that they would be the first to meet with him and give a full-throated endorsement of his initial actions. But the devil is in the details—what are we going to get out of it? When you go to somebody like Trump, like you would go to an intransigent employer, if you go from a position of weakness where you are happy just to be at the table—I think Trump viewed the labor leaders that came to the White House as pushovers. They came and spoke afterwards, clearly excited just to be there, not for what we could get out of it.

It has come out recently in a New York Times article that [when Trump met with] the construction trades, whose entire existence, in part, relies on their ability to enforce the Davis-Bacon Act, which sets prevailing wages for public infrastructure projects and other large-scale construction projects, and requires contractors to pay a family-sustaining prevailing wage—Trump was non-committal that the infrastructure projects that he is endorsing would require that wage. We have got a lot of work to do in order to understand the threat that he poses to working-class solidarity and ability to grow a labor movement today.

Sarah: I want to talk about how this, “We have got to go make a deal with the boss” mindset, in terms of dealing with Trump, is reflected in how a lot of unions have dealt with the more direct boss in recent years.

Ben: We are at an all-time low in strikes in this country. In the labor movement, because we are big enough to have power and we are big enough to get sued and to want to protect the institutional capital that we have left, we are extremely risk averse. The leadership that we have throughout labor has been burned so many times by every level of government, we have almost abandoned the strike as a weapon. We have abandoned any kind of innovative strategies that would end up maximizing our leverage when we get to the table. We have become overly reliant on the National Labor Relations Board and other legal tactics. Our institutionalization has caused us not to be as forward-thinking and visionary in being willing to use widescale collective action to put pressure on employers the way that we could and need to. Over time, we have become very, very conservative.

As a result of that, the standards that we have been able to achieve through collective bargaining have declined and our power politically has declined. What labor showed in 2016 is that even when we boast about our ability to mobilize our members in elections, we are not even successful at doing that. Our organizations have not, for years, talked to our membership, asked our membership what they want to see in their next contract, asked our membership to get involved in fighting for tangible changes in the next contract or, in the interim, fighting around issues collectively, building solidarity in the workplace, and applying it to community struggles and others that are fighting for expanded democracy. We simply have not learned, internally, how to fight.

When it comes to organizing in existing union work sites for improved conditions, organizing in non-union industries, mobilizing our membership to fight political battles, showing solidarity with others that are trying to expand and defend democratic rights, we have abandoned those basic tasks for so long that, in many ways, our organizations are paper tigers. So when we go and we are invited by somebody that has just taken power, we are not bargaining from a position of strength, because we know internally how weak we are.

Continue reading

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Was a Democratic Socialist

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.by Peter Dreier

As we celebrate his birthday, it is easy to forget that Rev. Martin Luther King was a democratic socialist.

In 1964, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, he observed that the United States could learn much from Scandinavian “democratic socialism.” He often talked about the need to confront “class issues,” which he described as “the gulf between the haves and the have-nots.”

In 1966 King confided to his staff:

“You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”

In holding these views, King followed in the footsteps of many prominent, influential Americans whose views and activism changed the country for the better. In the 1890s, a socialist Baptist minister, Francis Bellamy, wrote “The Pledge of Allegiance” and a socialist poet, Katherine Lee Bates, penned “America the Beautiful.” King was part of a proud tradition that includes such important 20th century figures as Jane Addams, Eugene Debs, Florence Kelley, John Dewey, Upton Sinclair, Helen Keller, W.E.B. DuBois, Albert Einstein, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Walter Reuther.

Today, America’s most prominent democratic socialist is Senator Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Like King, Sanders says that the U.S. should learn from Sweden, Norway and Denmark — countries with greater equality, a higher standard of living for working families, better schools, free universities, less poverty, a cleaner environment, higher voter turnout, stronger unions, universal health insurance, and a much wider safety net. Sounds anti-business? Forbes magazine ranked Denmark as the #1 country for business. The United States ranked #18. Continue reading

Orwell Misunderstood- Right Wing Radio

By Brett Taylor

orwell I feel the subject of Right Wing Radio is an important one because it has such a profound impact on many working class people. Having worked in many blue collar jobs, I know that many workers rely on this source for their information about politics. I feel it is important to combat misinformation as much as possible.

Living as I do in a depressed region of the country, otherwise known as rural Appalachia, it is always a surprise when literary classics are casually mentioned in conversation. So I took note when two separate mentions of George Orwell’s work came up in a short span of time. The first was at a fairly menial job, where a rather eccentric coworker varied from his usual complaints about the current state of affairs to drop this literary reference: “I read 1984 in school,” he said, “but I never thought I’d see the day when I’d have to use it as a survival guide.” Aside from a certain amount of dubiousness about the parallels he was drawing between Big Brother and the Obama Administration, I was surprised at his familiarity with this literary work. A famous novel true, but I didn’t know him to be much of a reader but did know him to stretch the truth. I suspected he was quoting something he’d heard on Right Wing radio, which was usually booming from the lab in which he tested automotive materials. A few weeks later I was visiting the nearest library, which is a small one, and usually inhabited by a local retiree who makes frequent use of the Internet. This retiree, a former engineer I think, has a habit of loudly lecturing the librarian on the usual hot topics of the crackpot fringe, chem. trails and the Moon hoax and the like, the same topics regularly discussed on Alex Jones’ crackpot program. On this occasion he offered some advice to the librarian’s daughter, who looked to be Middle School age. “What books are they teaching you to read?” he asked. “Have you read Animal Farm? You need to read Animal Farm.” Again, I have never known this gentleman to read anything other than Internet news, so I suspected he was getting his literary opinions straight from his favorite radio hosts and their related websites.

Michael Savage has been known to reference Animal Farm on his popular Right Wing radio show. This is perhaps not too surprising, as the former Michael Weiner is simultaneously the vilest and the most literary-minded of the radio blowhard. The official Savage website includes a rather incoherent summary of Orwell’s book, presumably transcripted from the Savage Nation show. In this excerpt, Savage drags in Orwell in order to justify his belief that Obama is manipulating the turmoil surrounding attacks on Dallas police officers as an excuse to kill his opponents, apparently. “The Jim Crow laws are long dead,” according to Savage, “but Obama keeps referring to them.” Then Savage rhetorically asks, “Why does Obama keep referring to them?” The explanation is surprising and a little confusing: “If you read Animal Farm, you’ll find the answer.” The confusion is made worse by the fact that Savage keeps confusing the Bolshevik Revolution with the French one. Insisting on being an ardent student of the French Revolution, Savage describes Socialism as one long bloodbath: “Don’t you see what socialism is? It’s leading us to the guillotines.” This would be a surprise to the supporters of Bernie Sanders, who are largely more concerned with raising the minimum wage and combating social justice than in setting up guillotines in the streets. Continue reading

Millennial Sanders Activists Give New Energy to Southern Organizing

by Mike Elk

CHATTANOOGA, TENNESSEE – Khristy Wilkinson, a 34-year-old, tattoo-adorned, stay-at-home mom, doesn’t look like your typical Eastern Tennessee politician. Before this year, she had never even considered running for public office, but says that she was inspired to run by the success of Bernie Sanders.

Until recently, Wilkinson was an adjunct philosophy professor teaching at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She has been active in her community, Highland Park, for years, and has been disturbed by the changes gentrification has brought to her neighborhood.

Elk TN“I would invite some of my African American friends over and when they would leave, my neighbors would call the cops on them,” says Wilkinson. “It’s just outrageous what is happening to this neighborhood.”

Wilkinson represents a new wave of young Southern activists who have seen massive economic growth in the South – as the auto and tech industries relocate from the North – but have grown dissatisfied by the unequal distribution of those gains. While Sanders lost the Democratic primary by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in Chattanooga, he did win voters under the age of 35, leading many to believe that the vote was an indication of much more progressive organizing to come. Across the South, activists say that the Sanders movement has given them energy to push against the issues of economic and racial inequality that plague even Democratic-leaning cities, such as Chattanooga.

The population of the town is taking off, growing at 5 percent per year, thanks in part to Chattanooga’s investment in the nation’s fastest municipal broadband and its new Volkswagen plant. The Southern Appalachian city, nestled in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains and dubbed the “Boulder of the South” by its Mayor Andy Berke, has attracted a massive influx of creative and tech types seeking cheap housing.

As a result of the population increase and urban redevelopment in Chattanooga, rents have risen at levels on par with cities like New York and San Francisco. Between 2007 and 2012, rent increased by 26%. However, income has not kept up with rent increases over the years. According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, since 1980, rent has increased at nearly three times the rate of income in Chattanooga.

At the same time, much of the population remains poor. One in four Chattanoogans and approximately half of the city’s children now live in poverty.

Khristy Wilkinson grew up in poverty herself. Her mother was a school bus driver and her father was disabled. She says her family’s efforts to escape poverty were further hampered by their struggle with alcoholism.

“My life is a constant effort to break a cycle that has existed in my family for generations. It takes tremendous effort; you can’t break the cycle without that help,” says Wilkinson. “Unfortunately, what I have come to realize is that not everyone has access to break that cycle for their own families.”

Across Wilkinson’s chest is a large blue and gray tattoo with birds and a phrase inspired by her days studying philosophy at Wayne State. When translated, it reads, “From nothing, nothing comes.” Wilkinson says that in many ways it represents the dilemma facing many Sanders Democrats: “If we don’t do something, nothing will get done. I mean, who else is going to do it, but us?”

Bernie’s Political Revolution Grows in the South

This week, Senator Sanders has called on his supporters to back Hillary Clinton while separately continuing the “political revolution” that they had started. What the continuing political revolution looks like remains to be seen, but activists in the South are hopeful that the young millennials attracted to the Sanders campaign will continue to fight against economic and racial inequality.

In Chattanooga, Sanders activists have gotten engaged in everything from running for local offices, to fights over affordable housing, to the Black Lives Matter movement. One group is even trying to set up a nonprofit used car leasing service for people who can’t afford transportation to work.

“There is a movement that is not going away – this is just the first wave,” says Katie Cowley, who is running for state representative in a Republican-leaning suburban district, which runs along Tennessee’s border with Georgia. Cowley worked with Wilkinson on the local Sanders campaign and is serving as a Sanders delegate this week in Philadelphia.

Cowley has been fervently involved in the effort to expand Medicaid, fight for affordable housing, and push back against police brutality. She says she doubts she can win this time, but hopes that her long-shot campaign can help spur more organizing where she lives, and maybe even lay the groundwork for her own Sanders-like crusade up the food chain of local elected office in the future.

In many ways, Cowley’s and Wilkinson’s stories as progressive activists running for elected office mirror the path that Bernie Sanders took. Sanders was involved in community and civil rights activism before getting involved in electoral politics in the 1970s. He then ran four times unsuccessfully for local or state office before being elected Mayor of Burlington in 1981.

Once elected, Sanders focused on working with community groups that were previously apart and using the ability of municipal government to implement so-called “sewer socialism.” Sanders dug into local issues: focusing on efforts to build the first affordable housing trust in the country, raise wages for local workers, and end subsidies for major developments.

The success of Bernie’s presidential campaign has encouraged many community activists to keep struggling.

“When I see him, I think, he’s not a politician – he’s like a comrade,” says Patricia Bazemore of Dalton, Georgia, right across the state line from Chattanooga.

More than this, the Sanders movement presented a roadmap for how people can organize. The campaign instilled in Cowley and Bazemore the importance of using digital media to connect with others and then to take that online organizing offline. (They also learned valuable lessons in crowdfunding, and raised more than $3,000 to attend the DNC in Philadelphia.)

Bazemore said that the trips that she and Cowley took to Iowa and other early primary states gave them a lot of encouragement to keep pushing the envelope.

“You walk into these places with all these volunteers and you know that they are all their on the same page with issues,” says Bazemore. “There is like an immediate feeling of family.”

“Nobody wanted to do it on their own,” says Cowley, “but when you feel like you are a part of the movement, it really empowers you and connects support.”

Building an Alternative Economy in Chattanooga

While these activists in the Chattanooga area focus on electoral politics and community organizing, others are helping to build alternative economic models in Eastern Tennessee.

Up until this past summer, 28-year-old Ryan Holmes worked as a car salesman at a Ford dealership in the small town of Cleveland, Tennessee. After two years, Holmes got upset with what he says was the manipulative pricing and sales tactics of car dealers.

“It just felt like I was ripping folks off,” says Holmes.

The frustration led Holmes to come up with a unique business plan, developing one of the first nonprofit used car dealerships in the country. Holmes theorizes that such an entity could provide a car and guaranteed lifetime warranty service at a fraction of the price that major car dealers charge.

“Big money has power over us as long as we are spending it with them,” says Holmes. “When we work for them and give them our money, we give them our power.”

In May, spurred on by the energy of the Sanders campaign, he quit his job and moved into a growing eco-village community in Sequatchie Valley, 30 miles north of Chattanooga.

Holmes recently acquired a dealership license and has used the networks of online Bernie supporters to help promote his ideas and generate support. He hopes eventually when he launches his nonprofit that he will be able to use the viral energy of Bernie’s still-existing online network to crowdfund for his project.

“There is a lot more we can do, regardless of the politicians,” says Holmes. “If we can organize better without them, it’s going to be the best way to do it.”

Spurred by his dream to help build a solidarity economy, Holmes and his business partner Tyler Short have already acquired a lease for 100 acres of land in the Sequatchie Valley. They’ve opened a sawmill and have plans to build a series of tiny homes. The group has already started selling fertilizer made from the runoff of fish farming and has begun work with a local community supported agriculture (CSA) project, Chi Farms.

The Beginnings of a New South

Chi Farms was founded by Bates Reed, a Chattanooga native and an openly gay pastor with the Unity Church. After graduating from college in the early 1980s, Bates moved away from Chattanooga as a result of the closed culture of the city. Four years ago, inspired by the more progressive cultural changes in the city, Bates decided to move back and came up with the idea of the Chi Farms system, which links community agriculture in the Chattanooga region.

This year, Reed was finally able to get the rights to farmland in Pikeville, Tennessee.

“It just amazes me how many people have wanted to get involved in the CSA,” says Reed. “Now, there’s just so much energy and folks are always showing up wanting to help.”

Reed says he is amazed by how much young activists have moved the conversation forward in Chattanooga. While it’s unclear what may happen with Bernie Sanders’s political revolution, activists in the South say that they don’t see it going away.

“What is most amazing to me is that these young folks now are just learning to lead,” says Reed. “Who knows what the future holds for the South? I’m excited.”

Mike Elk is the senior labor reporter at Payday Report and member of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild. He previously served as senior labor reporter at POLITICO and at In These Times Magazine.   This article is reposted from Payday Report with the permission of the author.

 

Why Virginia’s Open Shop Referendum Should Matter to U.S. Labor Movement

The most important election in Virginia this year has no candidates on the ballot.
Douglas Williams
On February 2nd, the Republican-dominated General Assembly passed the two-session threshold needed to put the open shop before the Commonwealth’s voters in November. You might be asking yourself, “Wait. I thought that Virginia was already an open-shop state?” Your inclinations would be correct: legislation barring union membership as a condition of employment was signed into law by Gov. William Tuck (a later adherent to Massive Resistance in response to Brown v. Board of Educationas a member of Congress) in 1947. As a result, Section 40.1-58 of the Code of Virginia reads:

It is hereby declared to be the public policy of Virginia that the right of persons to work shall not be denied or abridged on account of membership or nonmembership in any labor union or labor organization.

So why do this? The easy answer is that Virginia Republicans are fearful that, should the open shop meet a legal challenge in state court, Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring would not seek to defend it. The sponsor of the bill and defeated 2013 nominee for Attorney General, State Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), stated as much in the deliberations on the bill. In addition, should the Assembly find itself in pro-labor hands in the future, they could overturn the open shop with a simple majority vote. Never mind that the extreme amounts of gerrymandering in the Assembly (particularly in the House of Delegates) makes a unified Democratic state government unlikely for decades to come.

The vote this November will be the first popular referendum on the open shop since 54 percent of Oklahoma voters approved State Question 695 on September 25, 2001. In this, an opportunity presents itself to the labor movement in this country, and it is one that labor unions must take. Continue reading