Seeing Hope in Hard Times | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Seeing Hope in Hard Times


Joe Atkins

OXFORD - When I take a peek into 2016, I'm sometimes not sure whether to get depressed or elated. On the down side is the presidential campaign, with Donald Trump and the other Republican wannabes one-upping each other on how they're ready to go mano a mano with Vladimir Putin, build a mile-high wall between the United States and Mexico, ban Syrian refugees and their families from entering the country, and bury the memory of Barack Obama forever.

Here in Mississippi, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and the three-fifths Republican majorities in both houses of the state will assume untold power to continue underfunding education, highways, and other state needs while looking for ways to fatten the wallets of their corporate sponsors. Republicans need to keep their constituents pre-occupied with a scapegoat, preferably dark-skinned, while they accomplish the further corporatization of nation and state. Many Democrats are in on the deal, but others do try their best to expose this ruse. The problem is they can't shout louder than Fox News.

"Democrats should demand that Tea Party rebels explain why they are in league with a party that intends to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security in order to finance more tax cuts for billionaires," journalist William Greider wrote in The Nation. "If common folks ever understand the corrupt nature of the Republican coalition, we will see a popular rebellion that makes the present chaos look like, well, a tea party."

The reason Mississippi doesn't already have an Arizona- or Alabama-style anti-immigrant law is the hard work of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance in coalition with other progressive legislators. However, MIRA Executive Director Bill Chandler and the organization's other activists are worried.

"It will be a dangerous, unpredictable time for immigrant and worker rights," MIRA said in a release about the upcoming legislative session. "With Republicans holding an overwhelming majority in both sides of the Legislature, they will be almost unstoppable. On the national political stage, candidates in both parties are spreading xenophobic, discriminatory messages, which is stoking the fires here in Mississippi."

Still, I've got some reasons for cheer in the coming year. Nearly three-fourths of the skilled trades workers—71 percent—at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., recently voted to join the United Auto Workers. The victory sent shock waves across the corporate South, where CEOs like Nissan's Carlos Ghosn thought he'd found non-union heaven, and anti-worker politicians like Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., thought their Valentine's Day 2014 demagoguery in the UAW's previous Chattanooga election nailed the union's coffin shut.

I keep telling my pessimism-prone labor friends that they've got to keep a long view and remember that labor was on its knees once before—the 1920s—just prior to its historic rise to become a major force in American society.

In another shock to southern conservatives, Louisiana state Rep. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, defeated conservative Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter in that state's Nov. 21 gubernatorial race. Edwards won by 12 percent over the scandal-ridden Vitter, becoming the only Democratic governor in the once solidly Democratic Deep South.

Edwards, conservative on some social issues, is a progressive populist on economic issues. His message resonated with voters sick of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal's disastrous leadership, which endangered education and health care while he sought the limelight as a presidential candidate. Edwards pledged to expand Medicaid, support schools and roll back government giveaways to corporations in an effort to secure greater tax fairness.

Closer to home, 80 percent of Laurel firefighters joined a reorganized Local 207 of the Laurel Firefighters Association. Chartered in 1919 as part of the International Association of Firefighters, the union endeared itself to the community not only for its support of its members' safety and good working conditions but also for its Christmas toy drive. After a decline in membership, new life has been breathed into Local 207.

You may remember another story out of Laurel this column has followed closely: worker unrest at Howard Industries, beneficiary of more than $60 million in state and local largesse and site of the nation's largest raid on undocumented workers in history. Workers at this pampered company earn just 61 percent of what their counterparts earn at a similar plant in Crystal Springs.

Seeing voters in Louisiana and workers in Mississippi and Tennessee finally stand up to the political and corporate fog machine and assert their rights gives me hope for 2016. Challenges lie ahead, but I'm doing what I can to spread the good news.

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