Labor activists and other progressive folks in the South have four new reasons to cheer: a United Auto Workers victory in Chattanooga, the rare criminal conviction of a coal mining boss in connection with the death of miners who worked for him, the victory of a populist Democrat in Louisiana's gubernatorial race, and a union victory in Laurel, Mississippi.
All four events took place in recent weeks. Whether they signal more changes to come remains uncertain, but we'll take good news wherever we find it, won't we?
UAW wins historic vote at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga
Nearly three-fourths of the skilled trades workers — 71 percent — at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., voted to join the UAW in a December 3 and 4 election. 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 had nailed the union's coffin shut in their state.
I keep telling my pessimism-prone labor friends that you'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 in the 1930s to become a major force in American society. I grew up in the segregated South and wondered whether we'd ever get rid of Jim Crow. I later lived in West Germany and remember thinking that the Berlin Wall would never come down. Those are reasons why I'm today often the last optimist in the room!
According to Reuters, the 164 skilled trades workers at Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant represent 11 percent of the total 1,450 hourly workforce. A Volkswagen appeal of last week's election likely will get no sympathy from the National Labor Relations Board.
The UAW victory marks the first union victory in a foreign-owned plant in what is called "Detroit South." It comes nearly two years after the union lost a 712-626 vote for bargaining rights at the plant. That vote came even though Volkswagen claimed it was open to union representation at the plant.
However, low and mid-level managers at the Chattanooga plant openly worked against the union in the February 2014 election, and Haslam, Corker and other Tennessee politicians, along with national groups like Grover Norquist's conservative Americans for Tax Reform, fought vigorously against it. Both Haslam and Corker were caught in public lies regarding their anti-union activity.
In the aftermath of the February 2014 vote, Volkswagen and the UAW began exploring the idea of establishing a European-style works council at the plant.
Last December, Volkswagen certified the UAW for top tier representation in labor policy there, which must have caused a lot of lost sleep for the anti-union, mysteriously funded American Council of Employees. The ACE wanted that top tier representation solely for itself as a means of keeping the UAW out. In actuality, the ACE only exists as a counterweight to the UAW, and it would mostly likely cease to exist the moment the UAW left town.
Coal industry boss Don Blankenship is GUILTY
Former Massey Energy Chief Executive Donald L. Blankenship conspired to violate federal safety standards at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W. Va., where 29 workers died in a 2010 explosion. That was the verdict of a jury of 12 that also exonerated Blankenship of three additional felony charges related to the incident.
The misdemeanor conviction can lead up to only one year in prison, and Blankenship was never accused of what the New York Times called "direct responsibility for the deaths," but the symbolic victory of having the coal industry's first top executive actually tried and found guilty in connection to miners' deaths is huge.
Federal prosecutors claimed Blankenship was responsible for 835 mine safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine between 2008 and 2010. Blankenship retired from his position at Massey in 2010.
Populism gets another ride in Louisiana!
Louisiana may have the strongest populist tradition in the South. This is the state that elected Depression-era populist Huey Long governor and U.S. senator before his assassination in 1935. Louisiana voters would go on to elect Huey Long's populist brother Earl Long governor three times and fellow traveler Edwin Edwards four times as governor.
In another shock to conservatives across the South, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, defeated conservative Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter in the Nov. 21 gubernatorial race. Edwards won by a commanding 12 percent over the scandal-ridden Vitter, becoming the only Democratic governor in the once solidly Democrat 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 of the state, a leadership that endangered education and health care while Jindal sought the national limelight as a short-lived presidential candidate.
A legacy of Huey Long is that governors in Louisiana have more power than most governors. Edwards has pledged to expand Medicaid, support public schools, and roll back government giveaways to big corporations in an effort to secure greater tax fairness.
The dreaded (by Republicans, local newspaper editors, and Fox News watchers) spectre of labor unionism rises again in Laurel, Mississippi!
Laurel, Miss., site of the recent political battle over workers' low wages at government subsidy-rich Howard Industries, is again on the labor frontlines as 80 percent of local firefighters have agreed to join 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 for years not only for its support of its members' safety and good working conditions but also for its Christmas toy drive for needy children and other community events.
A decline in membership in the early years of the new century led to the local's near extinction, but new life has been breathed into a reorganized local and its 49 members.
Labor South has closely followed another development in Laurel over the past year, the controversy over giant Howard Industries. The producer of electrical transformers has long been the beneficiary of politicians' largesse — tax breaks, subsidies totaling at least $60 million, a $20 million bond issue from the county.
Yet many of the 4,000-employee company's predominantly black workforce have complained of low wages for their grueling work and an obstinate management that 16 meetings failed to budge. A union-backed study showed workers there earn just 61 percent what workers at a similar plant in Crystal Springs, Miss., earn.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 1317, represents approximately half the workforce at Howard Industries.
The Laurel City Council voted 5-1 in favor of the workers in July 2015, but pressures from the company, local leadership and local newspaper likely contributed to a reversal of that vote in August.
Recall that Howard Industries was the site of the largest raid against undocumented workers in the history of the United States. In the 2008 raid, the federal government arrested hundreds of migrant workers at the plant.
ADDENDUM: NLRB charges Nissan with workers' rights violations in Canton, Mississippi
The National Labor Relations Board has filed charges against Nissan for violating workers' rights at its Canton, Miss., plant by keeping them from wearing clothing with pro-union logos to work.
According to the Associated Press, the company instituted a uniform policy in 2014 at its plants in Mississippi and Tennessee that effectively prevented them from wearing clothing with a pro-union logo or message. The United Auto Workers, which has been organizing at the Canton plant for several years, made the complaints that led to the charges.
Pro-union workers at the plant had been wearing T-shirts proclaiming their views. The company's 2014 uniform policy called on workers to wear company-issued shirts and pants. A Nissan spokesman told the Associated Press that the policy was not mandatory.
The NLRB also filed charges against Kelly Services, which supplies Nissan with temporary workers at the Canton plant.
UAW Secretary Gary Casteel told the AP that the NLRB only filed charges in roughly 6 percent of the 20,000 worker complaint cases that it received in 2014.
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.
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