When You’re Down and Out | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

When You’re Down and Out


Joe Atkins

OXFORD—Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who rode into the Governor's Mansion decrying the evils of undocumented migrant workers, says he also doesn't want "unions involved in our businesses or our public sector."

He signed into law bills restricting workers' rights to peaceful demonstrations, local governments' rights in hiring union workers, and workers' ability to negotiate with companies for a harassment-free union election. With another "right-to-work" demagogue called Ross Barnett smiling from the grave, Bryant and his friends in the state Legislature let the 5,000-plus workers at the Nissan plant in Canton know in no uncertain terms this truth: "We will fight you every step of the way if you exercise your legal right to join a union and speak with a united voice."

You expect this from Republicans like Bryant. Republicans are not independent agents. The anti-union bills that Bryant signed into law this past session came straight out of the playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council and the billionaire Koch brothers, whose agenda is to further entrench what a recent study by Princeton and Northwestern University scholars calls the oligarchy of wealth that has replaced U.S. democracy. You don't expect it from Democrats like Mississippi legislators Steve Hale, Bennett Malone, Ed Blackmon and Tommy Reynolds, whose votes for one or more of the anti-union bills were a disservice to their working-class constituents.

The corruption of U.S. democracy today is clearly seen in recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that validate the corporate takeover of the two-party system. Corporate federal lobbying and campaign spending totaled $7.7 billion in 2011-12, compared to $237 million by labor unions. Corporate CEOs now earn 354 times the median pay of their workers, compared to 42 times that pay in 1980. It is not coincidental that private-sector union membership has declined from roughly 19 percent in 1980 to 6.6 percent today. Charles and David Koch, by the way, recently saw $1.3 billion added to their $100 billion personal piggy bank, making them the fifth and sixth wealthiest people in the world.

Republicans have long been in the hip pocket of corporate industrialists, but many Democrats are in there, too. It was Bill Clinton who gave us NAFTA, and Barack Obama is bound and determined to give us the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, another boondoggle to aid fat cats and impoverish workers.

Nissan workers at Canton, who may get a vote on whether to join the United Auto Workers as early as this summer, need to be prepared for the anti-union juggernaut that awaits them. The experience at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga on Valentine's Day tells us that Bryant & Co. will pull out all the stops to kill any unionization effort.

In Chattanooga, Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, both Tennessee Republicans, repeatedly lied as to their role in the vicious anti-union campaign that ultimately defeated the UAW in a 712-626 vote. The truth is they were part of a backroom blackmail deal that told Volkswagen it would lose $300 million in government incentives if the plant went union.

Aiding in their campaign was right-wing Washington, D.C., political operative Grover Norquist, whose Americans for Tax Reform financed billboards across the city that, among other things, called the UAW "United Obama Workers."

The UAW recently decided to drop its challenge to the National Labor Relations Board to invalidate the Chattanooga election. Given the weakness of U.S. labor laws, you can't blame the union. Corporations drag cases through the courts for years, and the NLRB has few teeth to enforce its rulings. Consider, for example, Nissan-Canton employee Chip Wells, a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and a union supporter. The NLRB ruled recently that Nissan broke the law by retaliating against Wells for his pro-union stand. However, current labor law allowed Nissan to settle the case without admitting guilt, and now Wells must fight for back pay lost due to medical leave necessitated by Nissan's treatment of him.

A recent international study showed that U.S. citizens lag behind other industrialized nations in economic mobility, and no region of the nation has less economic mobility than the U.S. South. The lack of upward mobility cuts across races. Unfair tax codes and lack of support for public education were among the reasons cited for the failure of the American dream.

Yet no institution did more to create the American middle class—and the American dream—than organized labor. The old blues lament "nobody knows you when you're down and out" never rang truer than today. One reason is organized labor itself is down. Thank goodness it's not out. Let's hope it rises again so that working class people can rise with it.

Joe Atkins is a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. Email him at [email protected].

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