Mississippi's Howard Industries pays bottom-feeder wages but enjoys plaudits & subsidies

Why does a company that gets millions of dollars in taxpayer support pay such low wages to its workers?

By Joe Atkins, Labor South

OXFORD, Miss. – Politicians and local editorial writers love Howard Industries of Laurel, Miss. The editors at the Laurel Leader-Call shower their blessings on Jones County's largest employer and castigate any naysayer who might want to offer an alternative viewpoint.

Politicians shower the producer of electrical transformers with money — taxpayers' money — to the tune of at least $60 million in local and state subsidies so far, plus a $20 million bond issue from the county.

Howard Industries rewards its friends. Besides taking out newspaper ads, it recently gave $8,000 worth of new helmets and face shields to the Laurel Police Department. Each of the state's legislators once received a Howard Industries laptop computer, a nice little thank you for their $31.5 million taxpayer-funded gift to the company back in 2002.

The only thing politicians asked of company CEO Billy Howard was that he use the money to create more jobs.

And there's the rub. What kind of jobs?

Many of the company's predominantly black workers say they're underpaid for the hard, grueling work they do, but negotiations with management went nowhere after at least 16 meetings. A recent union-backed study shows a top-line Howard Industries maintenance worker earns just 61 percent of the wages paid a similar worker at the ABB transformer manufacturing plant in Crystal Springs, Miss.

Defying the local newspaper and the power Howard Industries wields in the community, the Laurel City Council voted 5-1 in July to support the workers' call for higher wages. Those five council members quickly found out what happens when you stand in solidarity with workers rather than their bosses. In August, the council reversed its vote.

The council members initially "decided to pander to a handful of disgruntled workers," the Laurel Leader-Call editorialized. The council's support of the workers "got our community crossed off the list of every major company that would think about locating and hiring a large workforce here."

Nowhere in the Leader-Call's Aug. 10 editorial was there mention of the dismal record of arguably one of the state's worst employers.

This is the company that seven years ago became the site of the largest raid against undocumented migrant workers in the history of the United States. Approximately 600 workers from Mexico, Panama and points farther south were summarily arrested by federal immigration agents. Most of them were hauled off to a prison camp in Jena, La., where they languished for weeks in overcrowded cells without formal charges. Female workers who were mothers avoided jail but had monitoring devices locked onto their ankles.

This is the company that then had to be shamed by the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance into releasing 283 paychecks it still owed to the migrant workers it had hired.

Howard Industries is also the company that subsequently pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate immigration laws and received a $2.5 million fine in 2011. A year later, the company agreed to a $1.3 million settlement of a discrimination lawsuit by four black women who said they were refused jobs because of the company's preference for Latino workers. As many as 5,000 non-Latino workers were eligible to receive funds from the settlement.

This is a company that was fined nearly $200,000 for 54 violations of work safety rules by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the same year as the immigration raid. "It is unconscionable for an employer to tolerate serious injuries, including amputations, as just a cost of doing business," said Clyde Payne, Jackson's OSHA director at the time.  

Apparently the company is still going on the cheap as regards its workers.

"For the type of work they do, (wages) are incredibly low," says Roger Doolittle, a Jackson-based attorney who represents the 2,000-plus workers at the 4,000-worker plant who belong to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 1317. "It is a travesty that the city of Laurel supports hundreds of thousands in tax exemptions to that kind of employer. … It defies belief."

Attempts to get a response from Howard Industries have been unsuccessful.

The workers protesting the low wages are IBEW members, a fact that sticks in the craw of both company leaders and the Laurel Leader-Call. This is the solution offered by the newspaper: "If you're unhappy with your pay or working conditions, get another job." And remember, the newspaper editorialized, "unions fleece workers under the guise of working in their best interests."

Ironically, the city of Laurel was the site of one of the greatest victories of the pro-union movement known as Operation Dixie after World War II. Some 3,500 workers at the Masonite plant there joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), prompting Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hodding Carter in Greenville later to write, "CIO union contracts have added more than five million dollars to Laurel's annual payrolls."

Worker payrolls apparently aren't a priority with Howard Industries' friends in the news business and legislative halls. Keeping Howard Industries happy is their priority.

(A shorter version of this column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss.)