VOICES: Protests in Tennessee as workers' rights are threatened
By Joe Atkins, Labor South
I'm thousands of miles away in Taipei, but I'm heartened to see brave young students join union members in taking a stand against anti-union bills before Tennessee's state legislature in Nashville.
Seven protesters were arrested Tuesday and accused of resisting arrest and disorderly conduct after they tried to make their voices heard before a state Senate committee considering the bills.
Most of those arrested were from Memphis, and several were University of Memphis students and members of the Progressive Students Alliance there.
Joining the student protesters were hundreds of union members rallying outside the state Capitol.
It's one thing for demonstrators to make a show of force in a historically pro-union state like Wisconsin. Quite another to do it in the South, where a solid phalanx of the political, industrial, religious, and media elite has remained virulently anti-union for decades. It is that same union-busting phalanx -- not Southern workers -- that has given the South its anti-union reputation.
Southern politicians don't want to be outdone by Wisconsin Republicans, so Southern workers need to be prepared for an assault on their rights that goes even beyond the assaults they've already weathered in this region of poor pay, poor benefits, and a rich-poor divide unequaled anywhere else in the nation.
I'm here in Taiwan, where I've been talking to migrant workers from Vietnam and the Philippines, who've come here to earn a decent living for their families back home. They have their proper documents, but that doesn't protect them. They are subjected to the vicious greed that pervades the globe's neo-liberal economies and which depends on keeping workers down and their corporate bosses on top.
It's an old story in the U.S. South and in the Global South, and only an awakening of worker consciousness is going to change things. We're seeing that happen in Wisconsin, Tennessee, and elsewhere. It's even happening here in Asia, where the elite wax nostalgic about the coolie past but even the lowest of workers are beginning to demand their rights.
"The employers treat us like slaves," Filipino worker Nelva Baldon told me Sunday. "We understand we are workers, and we have to work, but they treat us like slaves."
An activist with several migrant worker organizations, Baldon has worked as a caregiver for Taiwanese families for the past six years, a job that she describes as "24-7" with few legal protections against exploitation. She spoke to me during her one partial day off during the week, right after Mass on Sunday morning. She said she would have to return to work at 5 p.m. that day.
Female migrant workers have it the hardest over here, being vulnerable to sexual as well as workplace exploitation. Father Peter Nguyen Hung Cuong of the Catholic Church Hsinchu Diocese and Vietnamese Migrant Workers & Brides Office told me some hair-raising stories about such exploitation in an interview Tuesday. I'll be relaying those later.
The Catholic Church in Taiwan is at the center of the migrant worker issue, providing a place of refuge as well as legal assistance to workers.
In the long-term neo-liberal game plan, how many more years will it be before U.S. workers are in the same boat as these migrant workers? Will they someday be forced to leave their homes and country to find work in a foreign land, amid the hostility that Mexican and Guatemalan workers face today in the United States?
It's not as far-fetched as you might think.
(Still of student protesters being arrested in Nashville from news video by Memphis station WREG.)
Joe Atkins is a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of "Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press." A veteran journalist, Atkins previously worked as the congressional correspondent with Gannett New Service's Washington bureau and with newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi.