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)

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

Why the coalfields of Central Appalachia need Bernie Sanders!

Mine helmets and painted crosses sat at the entrance to Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine on April 5, as a memorial to the 29 miners killed there one year earlier.

Mine helmets and painted crosses sat at the entrance to Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine on April 5, as a memorial to the 29 miners killed there one year earlier.

by Matt Skeens

For nearly a century the coalfields of Appalachia was a hotbed for union strikes and labor activity. We were at the center of more than a few violent and bloody fights between coal-miners pining for better pay and work conditions and the coal industry that was, and still is, one of the most corrupt and destructive industries in U.S. history. Mining conditions were horrid for those who went miles below into the earth for work to support their family. Tens of thousands of miners were killed and many more mangled in mining accidents or explosions weekly, and sometimes daily, that resembled the Upper Branch mining disaster that killed 29 miners in 2010. Company stores weren’t just lines in a song but real places where families were forced to give back over their pay, or scrip which wasn’t as valuable as cash and could only be used at the stores, to feed their family and survive.

The coal companies owned everything: the land, the stores, the courts, and local governments. The only thing they didn’t own were the people, not completely at least, and their desire for better and for what they deserved. It was because of this burning fire that wars were waged. Real ones. From the largest labor uprising at the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia which also served at the largest armed uprising since the Civil War to the multiple union strikes in Harlan County, Kentucky. The last one I remember was the Pittson Strikes in this part of Virginia right around the time I was born. Since then, however, the battles have been few and far between. The war against the impoverished Appalachian waged by the coal industry has continued without interruption ever since. Continue reading

The Bernie Sanders Path to Victory in the South: African American Union Leaders

by Mike Elk
iowa-berniesander_600x400

Southern states like South Carolina, where Hillary Clinton has held as much as a 30-point lead over Bernie Sanders, are thought to be crucial in securing the Democratic nomination for the former secretary of state. These states have large African American populations, among whom Clinton is far more popular than Sanders.

But, with the Vermont senator gaining momentum with his surprisingly energetic campaign, there is a path for him to win the south — and it goes through African American union leaders.

“I always like when they underestimate the African American community because on this one we are gonna rise to the occasion,” Charles Vance tells me over the phone while on break from his job on the docks in Charleston, South Carolina.

 Polling shows that Clinton has a 74% to 14% lead among African American voters over Sanders in South Carolina. Vance says that while organized labor represents only 3% of the workforce in South Carolina, that many key labor leaders, particularly in the African American community, could play crucial roles in organizing on Sanders’ behalf.

The support of key African American union leaders played an important role in Clinton’s narrow victory in Iowa, where union households made up 21% of the electorate and voted for Hillary by 52%-to-43% margin. Lee Saunders, the first African American elected to head the nation’s largest public sector union, the 1.4 million member American Federation of State, County, and Municipal employees (AFSCME), was quick to claim credit for his role in the victory, pointing out that his union knocked on more than 8,000 doors and conducted 11,000 member-to-member meetings on Clinton’s behalf.

“AFSCME’s boots on the ground make a difference for candidates who stand with working people,” Saunders said in a statement.

Activists say that in order for Sanders to win African American voters that he will need to mobilize an army of door-knockers who can do what AFSCME did for Clinton in Iowa for Sanders in the south.

Many African American union leaders have key connections within the civil rights and faith community that they are attempting to leverage to help build this army of door-knockers. And while the labor movement is small in places like South Carolina, in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 8 of the 13 States categorized as “Southern” gained union members, adding a total of 200,000.

 

Clinton has received endorsement from over 24 different unions representing 10 million of the nearly 15 million union members in the United States. However, the endorsement process has been heavily criticized as not a single one of the unions that endorsed Clinton have allowed their members to vote on the endorsement. In contrast, many of the international and local unions that have endorsed Sanders have done so through a vote.

For example, in October, Vance was outraged when Ken Riley, the president of his local union, the International Longshore Association 1422, decided to endorse Clinton at their union hall in Charleston without any of the members of his union voting on the issue. Riley’s endorsement of Clinton came as a shock to labor leaders not just in South Carolina, but longshoremen on both coasts. Riley had long been critical of endorsements of Democrats and had helped found the Labor Party in South Carolina.

“They are calling me a senior citizen, but I am a realist. I like winning,” says Riley. “In order to get things done, you know you are gonna have to have realistic positions and know you have enough support to get things done.” His words echo Clinton’s, who has repeatedly said, “”I am a progressive who gets things done.”

The lack of internal union democracy has lead many disgruntled union members to form the independent organization Labor for Bernie. The group’s spokesperson Rand Wilson, who is white, boasts that the organization has “more than 10,000 union members who publicly support Bernie Sanders, and three national unions, and more than 65 local and regional labor organizations, representing nearly two million members that have endorsed the Sanders campaign for president.”

The organization serves as an informal network of rank and file union members who are working together to form alternative union committees to get out the vote for Sanders. The union has also worked successfully with members to get regional federations to pass resolutions bucking their national unions and endorsing Sanders. The South Carolina AFL-CIO was formally rebuked for doing so by the international AFL-CIO last year in an effort to stop the pro-Sanders union mutinies from spreading.

Bill Fletcher, the first African American education director of the AFL-CIO, who is serving as an advisor to Labor for Bernie, says that many of the African American regional leaders that he speaks to on a regular basis are “feeling the Bern,” but don’t want to get burned by picking a loser

“The people I speak with are in general in favor of Sanders but they don’t know whether he is likely to win so they don’t whether it’s…worth taking the risk,” says Fletcher. “If he gets more serious, if there is a major black upsurge in South Carolina…things would shift very quickly in Sanders’ favor among African American labor leaders.”

But that’s an uphill battle for the Democratic socialist, who is better known in New England than in the south.

“I have known Bernie’s politics for years — I am just a political junkie,” says Jerome Favor, an African American electrician with the IBEW Local 776 in Charleston. “He is well known up north, but not nearly as well as the Clintons are in the South.”

According to a recent Reuters/IPSOS poll, approximately 25% of Democrats say that they are not familiar with Sanders compared to Clinton, who has near-universal name recognition nationally. However, polling shows that as more voters get to know Sanders that his support increases. A July 2015, Washington Post ABC-News poll showed that only 28% of voters of color approved of Bernie Sanders, but a poll taken last month showed that 51% of voters of color now approve of Bernie Sanders.

As the Democratic primary migrates to South Carolina on February 27 [The South Carolina Republican primary is held on Feb. 20] and then to much of the rest of the south on Super Tuesday, March 1, Sanders will likely spend time and effort increasing his profile there. And the key to winning, many labor activists for Sanders feel, is just getting African Americans in the south to know who he is.

“I talked to a lot of people and they said ‘I didn’t know Sanders was back with Dr. King back in the day,'” says Sandy Squirewell, a member of the ITPEU, the Industrial Technical Professional Employees Union. Sanders marched with King and his campaign has made wide use of African American surrogates such as Cornel West, Killer Mike, and former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner to tell that story, but it perhaps hasn’t yet spread far enough in the south.

But increasing his name-recognition among potential supporters isn’t enough; Sanders needs to “talk more about specific policies and communicate clearly to folks exactly what he is going to do for them,” says Favor.

One problem, perhaps, is that he hasn’t spent enough time asking them.

Bridget Todd, the former MSNBC social media editor and a veteran campaign strategist, says that the Sanders campaign needs to hold town hall meetings and engage on social media to figure out what type of policies that the African American community wants him to enact. Todd says that the campaign seeming responsive to social media pressure is vital for African American voters to feel like they have a real voice in Sanders’ candidacy.

“Black folks are having real conversations about our political futures in some pretty interesting online spaces,” says Todd. “A lot of these conversations are inherently political and can give you a sense of what black folks online care about, worry about, are suspicious of. This information should be used to drive policy — not just outreach.”

The key, Todd says, is to have African American supporters who can go out, listen to people, and be seen as effective representatives who have a real stake in shaping the policy of the Sanders campaign.

So far, the Sanders campaign has enlisted the support of local clergy and elected officials to campaign. Last week, former NAACP President Ben Jealous was asked if he would tour South Carolina for Sanders. South Carolina State Representative Justin Bamburg, who represented the family of Walter Scott who was shot in the back by North Charleston policy, recently switched his endorsement from Clinton to Sanders and has begun touring the state with Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, who was choked to death by police in Staten Island in July 2014.

So far, the efforts seem to be working, as recent polls showing the race beginning to tighten. While Sanders has trailed Clinton by more than 30 points throughout the campaign in South Carolina, a Washington Post/ ABC News poll released last week showed that Sanders had narrowed that gap by 15 points to a more manageable 19-point lead.

If Sanders can figure out a strategy to pick up African American support in South Carolina, it could be the formula to win not just in South Carolina but in the many Super Tuesday primaries that follow, where African Americans constitute a huge block of Democratic primary voters. Given its roll in Iowa, labor could be the key.

Mike Elk is a member of the Washington – Baltimore Newspaper Guild

Twitter – @MikeElk

Continue reading

South Carolina Raising Wages Summit

by Rick Patelunas

south carolina

The last of four Raising Wages summits sponsored by the AFL-CIO was held at the International Longshoreman’s Hall in Charleston, South Carolina on February 6th.  Previous summits were held in Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire, but South Carolina might present the environment most hostile to raising wages.  South Carolina is one of only five states without a minimum wage; it is a right-to-work state and Governor Nikki Haley said:

“We discourage any company that has unions from wanting to come to South Carolina because we don’t want to taint the water . . .[W]e educate different companies coming in from outside to understand that’s not what we want to do in South Carolina; and if they’re interested in that, we’re not where they need to come.”

That’s the same Governor Haley who delivered the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address in January.  She is also responsible for the infamous “It’s a great day in South Carolina” phase that state workers are forced to say when they answer the phone.  Speakers at the Raising Wages summit tell a different story.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenberg explained how his office is wrestling with the falling wages in the city at the same time housing costs continue to climb.  Using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology living wage calculator, the Mayor found that $11.60 an hour was needed for a living wage in Charleston.  With no state minimum wage, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 prevails.

On the legislative front, State Senator Marlon Kimpson talked about two bills he sponsored in the state legislature:  one to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour and one to provide paid sick leave to workers.  It’s an uphill battle with the Koch brothers behind some of the opposition in the state, but workers need to be respected with a livable wage and paid sick leave.

At the federal level, Congressman Jim Clyburn spoke of his support for a livable wage of $15 per hour.  He also recognized that everyone should do what they can at the local level and if $10.50 is all that’s possible in South Carolina, South Carolina needs to work for that.

Chris Kromm, Executive Director of the Institute for Southern Studies provided examples of South Carolina’s “low road” approach to economic development.  For instance, the $1,020 Billion incentive package the state put together to attract Boeing to North Charleston.  A handout from Mr. Kromm reports that the State newspaper “estimated that the price tag for incentive deals for just four companies – BMW, Boeing, Bridgestone and Michelin – totaled $800 million, or about $100,000 for each of the 8,000 jobs created.”

It’s interesting to find BMW in the list of incentives given Governor Haley’s anti-union polemics and policies.  From the BMW website:  “In accordance with the regulations contained in the German co-determination Act, BMW AG’s Supervisory Board shall comprise ten shareholder representatives . . . and ten employee representatives.”  Those ten employee representatives are the union.  That’s the law in Germany and it’s not simply for show — the Supervisory Board has final veto power of whether plants open or close.

Eight hundred million dollars is more than a price tag.  It’s $800 of taxpayer money that is not used elsewhere.  Politicians made a decision to use that money for business incentives rather than investing in the people of South Carolina.  Consider the plight of two Raising Wages panelists.   After ten years as a fast food worker, Rachel Nelson toils for $9.00 an hour with shifts lasting twelve hours with no breaks.  That’s above the minimum wage, but it is not a livable wage.  Likewise, Amy Reece is a child care worker who considers leaving the job she loves because her pay may be above the minimum wage, but it is not a livable wage.  Both are fighting for $15 an hour and the chance to unionize.

At a time when South Carolina’s education system, health and quality of life rankings are routinely at the bottom of the country, incentives to lure businesses to low wage, no union “havens” have another cost.  It’s corporate welfare.  Corporations keep the profits from paying low wages and leave taxpayers the responsibility of helping the underpaid.  Days before the Raising Wages summit, the Economic Policy Institute released a report showing how raising the minimum wage to $12.00 an hour would save billions of taxpayer dollars by 2020.

  • Among workers in the bottom three wage deciles, every $1 increase in hourly wages reduces the likelihood of receiving means-tested public assistance by 3.1 percentage points. This means that the number of workers receiving public assistance could be reduced by 1 million people with a wage increase of just $1.17 an hour, on average, among the lowest-paid 30 percent of workers. These workers would see higher incomes, even as they no longer received public assistance.
  • For every $1 that wages rise among workers in the bottom three wage deciles, spending on government assistance programs falls by roughly $5.2 billion. This estimate is conservative, as it does not include the value of Medicaid benefits.
  • Raising the federal minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2020 would reduce means-tested public assistance spending by $17 billion annually. These savings could fund a variety of improvements to government anti-poverty tools, such as expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to childless adults, or provide funding for new education initiatives, such as improving access to preschool for children from low- and moderate-income families.

Governor Haley’s anti-worker, anti-union, anti-minimum wage, anti-government policies are not particular to her or South Carolina.  At the Republican forum on poverty in South Carolina three weeks before the Raising Wages summit, six Republican Presidential candidates shared their remedies for poverty.  Governor Christie called teachers unions the single most destructive force in education.  Ben Carson called the US progressive tax system socialism that doesn’t work in America.  Senator Rubio dismissed raising the minimum wage because it would make people more expensive than machines.

On the Democratic side, both Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders favor raising the minimum wage, support unions and advocate raising taxes on the wealthy.  Their plans are different, but understanding the problems and the way towards solving them stands in stark contrast to Republican policies.

Our economic situation did not just happen.  It is not the working of some free market.  It is the result of government decisions and policies that have rigged the system against workers for forty years.  A number of the speakers called for the need to change the rules and the upcoming primaries and elections are an opportunity to begin the change.  Hold politicians accountable.  Ask them what they’ve done, what they’re doing and what they will do.

The Raising Wages summit provided a road map listing policies that can begin to turn things around for workers:

  • Restore Freedom of Association
  • Restore and Strengthen Labor Standards
  • Ensure Full Employment
  • Reform the Global Economy
  • Reform Wall Street
  • Increase Productivity Growth to Allow for Higher Wage Growth.