In Tennessee, new grassroots organizing efforts seek social justice

By Joe Atkins, Labor South

The old, tired image of the laid-back Southerner too happy and content with his lot to protest is being laid to rest -- again -- in Tennessee, where grassroots activism is popping up in the cities of Nashville and Memphis and challenging a status quo that keeps the state and region near the bottom.

Our Vanderbilt is an exciting, self-described "labor-community-religion partnership" that is making its presence known in one of the region's most prestigious universities and beyond. "We are workers, students, alumni, faculty, and people of faith and conscience working for economic and social justice at Vanderbilt University," proclaims the organization's Web site (

Leaders say the organization is gearing up for the coming Fall semester with 30 new members on board. Members are applying their research as well as organizing skills to bring attention to issues such as Vanderbilt's "high executive pay and sweet deals for trustees." While the chancellor was rewarded with a $210,027 bonus last year, good-performing service workers at the university got a 10-cent-an-hour bonus.

Members are busy developing videos, petitioning for social justice, and spreading the news. Let's see if their activism is contagious beyond Tennessee.

Folks in Memphis certainly aren't going to let Music City outdo them! Members of the Occupy Memphis movement recently joined with the Workers Interfaith Network to push for a "living wage" for working folks in the Bluff City. Their protest is part of a national push to get Congress to increase the current $7.25-an-hour minimum wage.

According to a 2010 study by David Ciscel, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Memphis, the parents in a family of four would need to earn $11.62 an hour just to survive without government assistance.

Another study by the National Employment Law Project shows that the largest corporations with low-wage workers have successfully recovered from the recession and the top executives earned an average $9.4 million in 2011.

Like much of the South, Tennessee suffers from an underinvestment in its people, a true contagion that now has spread from the South to the rest of the nation. The Volunteer State ranked in the bottom 10 of states in education, according to a national report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Other Southern states in that bottom 10 (all lower than Tennessee, which ranked 42nd) included Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia.

Given its recent record on immigration and right-wing politics, Arizona qualifies as an honorary Southern state. It, too, was in the bottom 10 in education.

The ranking assessed states according to reading and math skills, delayed or lack of graduation among high school students, and 3 and 4-year-olds not attending preschool programs.