Labor: A New Beginning in the South

By Michael Honey and Alice Bernstein

The first conference of the Southern Faith, Labor and Community Alliance took place in July, hosted by the University of Memphis and attended by several hundred people, black, white, Asian, and Latino. The gathering included ministers, labor supporters, community activists, academic workers, Change to Win and AFL-CIO unions, from eight southern states and far beyond.

In the following essays, Michael Honey provides historical perspective and Alice Bernstein reports on aspects of the conference.

I. Labor & Faith: New Life for an Old Alliance

By Michael Honey

"The problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation and the problem or war, are all tied together." -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ministers, union organizers, workers, and academic labor supporters met for three days in Memphis at the end of July, sponsored by the Southern Faith, Labor and Community Alliance, led by ministers Nelson Johnson and J. Herbert Nelson. These two African American men are veterans of a successful community-based struggle of 500 low-wage K-Mart workers in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1996. In Greensboro, ministers and black community members engaged in economic boycotts and civil disobedience, and went to jail to support union rights and higher wages. Martin Luther King gave his life in a similar struggle in Memphis in 1968.

Both strikes made the rights of workers a central issue for the black community and for civil rights movements. Memphis set off a decade of mostly-successful union campaigns among disproportionately black, female, and poor public employees. Greensboro helped to re-open religion and labor coalitions in the era of downsizing, privatization, and destruction of unions. Both provided hope for advocates of social movements and community-based unionism.

The Memphis conference sought to reinvigorate and reconnect the black church to the struggle of low-wage workers in the South, at a time when the Christian church seems to be failing them. "Much of Christendom is silent on the question of the poor," say conference organizers. "Christianity is increasingly becoming the faith of the empire, an empire that proclaims freedom and democracy on the one hand while enforcing economic tyranny within this country and abroad on the other," and largely standing aside as "the world is plunged into a permanent war culture." In a critique similar to Dr. King's, conference organizers say the mega-church has adopted a patriotic "empire theology," stressing the acquisition of individual material wealth instead of serving the poor left by the side of the road. King preached that Dives went to hell for abandoning the poor and that we should emulate the Good Samaritan who selflessly served those in need.

In the post-Katrina South, in the midst of multiple disasters induced by militarism and war, nothing could be more important than tying issues together, creating an organizing strategy, and building a core of people to carry it out, much as King tried to do in 1968. The Memphis conference is but one step in that direction. First in Gary, Indiana, at a conference in March, black organizers reassessed the strategy of the 1972 Gary conference to move from civil rights to political power. Gary II called on people to move simultaneously on all fronts toward a program for economic survival for people of color. In Orlando, Florida, in May, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists met for similar purposes, and both conferences stressed the need to create an alliance between black labor and the church.

Without such an alliance, our world seems doomed by the destruction of the Bush regime, as each terrible thing leads to something even worse. The labor movement is in particularly dire straits this Labor Day, and the crushing blows against it have hit the black working class the hardest of all. A higher percentage of African American belong to unions than any other group, and Labor Department figures show that blacks held 55% of the more than 200,000 union jobs lost in 2004. The key to turning this around is creating a broader vision and a broader movement, say conference organizers, with spiritual issues at the center of it, to organize the non-union South. The future of black survival and political power depends upon it.

No single movement or segment of societyónot unions, not civil rights nor any of the other social movement organizations, and certainly no single religious or political groupócan mount the massive grass-roots movement from below required to confront the massive, accumulating deficits and setbacks of the Bush years. But we must start somewhere.


II. The Force of Ethics in American Labor

By Alice Bernstein

The inaugural conference of the Southern Faith, Labor and Community Alliance was important in the fight for unions and social justice, at a time when Americans are in pain about jobs, healthcare, and a living wage. The purpose was to renew-óìresurrectî--the movement in the South against poverty and racism, which Dr. King was leading so powerfully in 1968 when he was assassinated while fighting for the right of 1,300 black sanitation workers to organize.

The 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike succeeded--they got their union, Local 1733 of AFSCME, and union membership also increased across the country giving workers, including black workers in the South, some of the dignity and the better wages they had been denied for so long. Yet today vast numbers of union jobs have been lost, and millions of people now have to work two, and many even three, jobs to make ends meet.

At the opening session, Rev. J. Herbert Nelson stated, "In Memphis we have the zip codes with the highest infant mortality in the nation, yet there are two world-class research hospitals here for children. People who work 40-50-60 hours a week still don't have enough to feed their families." He outlined a goal "to build bridges of hope and possibilities for labor through a movement of partnerships," including by educating young people.

I am a person with a big respect for unions -- my grandfather was an organizer who died on a picket line in the 1930s, and I am the wife of a Teamster retiree. This conference, and an event that preceded it in Las Vegas, made it clearer to me than ever that people need to know what is explained by Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy founded by the poet and educator Eli Siegel (1902-78), about why the economy is in the state it's in and what can change it.

The Profit System Has Failed

In May of 1970, after the stock market fell 300 points, Mr. Siegel gave the first of over 200 lectures in a series titled Goodbye Profit System, in which he explained that profit economicsó-the use of human beings for oneís financial gain without respecting them-óhad failed. He said:

"The conduct of industry on the basis of ill will has been shown to be inefficient ... There will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries ... Ethics is a force like electricity, steam, the atom -- and will have its way."

Evidence of the failure of the profit system continues right up to this 21st-century day. The dependence on war to build up the economy has failed. And there is a deep disgust throughout America about "corporate greed," and "golden parachutes" for retiring executives, while workersí wages, benefits, and pensions are slashed.

The Cause of Economic Injustice

Aesthetic Realism explains that the cause of every injustice -- from an unkind sneer to the brutality of racism and war -- is contempt: the desire for "a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself." Contempt is at the core of profit economics, which strips people of their humanity and sees their labor, even their pain, as a continual source of profit for a few individuals. Contempt drives sweatshops and is the reason "civilized" people countenance child labor -- as conference attendee Karey Newton and others in the National Mobilization against Sweatshops have witnessed daily.

Every union demonstration, sit-down, strike, and picket line is a criticism of contempt -- and a choice for respect!

The Memphis conference included panel discussions on labor history; current organizing campaigns; plans for future campaigns; labor in post-Katrina New Orleans; and immigrants in the work force. In the panel on the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike, what Rev. Ezekiel Bell said is evidence that both respect and contempt are in people of all races: "I was glad to be with men who were standing for the right thing. If you are your brother's keeper, then you ought to be there -- I felt that way. And in a meeting of the Memphis City Council I said, 'I don't like rats. I donít like black rats and I don't like white rats. I don't like rats!'"

In another panel, Gerald "Gerry" Hudson, Executive Vice President of SEIU, and leader of the division which represents 500,000 nursing home and home care workers nationwide, spoke about spearheading not only community unionism, but global unionism -- to stop the ruthless exploitation of workers in other lands. That is the force of ethics, too.

Yet people in the labor movement need to see that profit economics is based on contempt and that it doesnít work any moreó-which is why the attempt to save it is so intense and brutal. This fact is highlighted in working places in the South, many of which are run like plantations. The answer is for people to see that the way our economy is run has got to be based, not on ill will, but on good will, on what Mr. Siegel described as "jobs for usefulness, not for profit."

'Ethics Is a Force!' -- Las Vegas

Unions are large in that force of ethics which Aesthetic Realism explains. Every gain for worker dignity, safety, better wages and benefits meant an increase in respect -- the money that paid for these gains could no longer be taken by an owner for his or her private profit. Because unions were so successful in showing that respect has power, too, there has been a relentless determination to annihilate them.

Another important labor event this summer, which I feel has in it what people in the South and the labor movement itself are going after, took place in relation to the union so eminent at the Memphis conference: the Graphic Communications Conference of the Teamsters (GCC/IBT). The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company was invited to present "Ethics Is a Force! -- Songs about Labor" at the union's founding convention in Las Vegas on June 24th. Hundreds of delegates from North America learned, through 11 songs and comments -- by performers including Kevin Fennell of the American Postal Workers Union, and Timothy Lynch, president of Teamsters Local 1205 -- what Aesthetic Realism explains about the meaning of labor and the grandeur of unions. For example, there are these great sentences by Eli Siegel:

"Labor is the only source of wealth. There is no other source, except land, the raw material ... Every bit of capital that exists was made by labor, just as everything that is consumed is."

And there is this answer to the economic agony today given by Ellen Reiss in the international periodical The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known:

"When the jobs of America are owned by the people who work at the jobs -- when the wealth Americans produce from the American earth and American factories and offices with American thought and hands, goes to the people of America-- there will suddenly be plenty of jobs and plenty of respectful compensation for peopleís work."

"Ethics Is a Force!" was greeted by cheers and a standing ovation.

I first learned about the Memphis conference from Donald Minor of GCC Local 670C in Richmond, Virginia, a delegate to the Las Vegas conference. He called me after seeing "Ethics Is a Force!" and speaking with a cast member who told him about my work as a journalist, Aesthetic Realism associate, and oral historian. Mr. Minor said to me: "The Aesthetic Realism presentation was excellent and opened my eyes to whatís going on. I want to ask you to go to Memphis and tell about what happens and what it means."

Protest at Quebecor -- "That Was Beautiful!"

On the second day of the Memphis conference, a mass protest took place at the Olive Branch, Mississippi plant of the second largest printer in the world, Quebecor (QW), where magazines like Sports Illustrated and People, catalogs for Victoriaís Secret, and more, are produced. The Mid-South Interfaith Network for Economic Justice, directed by Rev. Rebekah Jordan, reported that from 2001 to 2005, QW ìhad more violations of Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations than any other printing company. In 2002 a worker in Clarksville, Tennessee [was] crushed in a shrink-wrap machine that had not been completely turned off during repairs -- a violation Quebecor had been warned of 35 times.î

Olive Branch workers at QW are African-American; the supervisors and plant manager are white. A woman I'll call Shaniqua, who has four children and works at a huge paper-jogging machine 8 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, told me:

"I don't like the way we're treated and the conditions. The last incident was that a guy was hung in the machine up to his shoulder. Guys are getting their fingers cut off. They want to have a union but they're afraid -- they have this job and that's all they have. I'm a fighter and I believe in freedom for all." She said that one of her supervisors had hit her and added, "I don't think I should be hit by anybody on my job, or provoked." About the situation of QW workers, she added: "There's not too much we can do about it because we don't have a union. To pay my bills I also have another job in a cleaning store, where I work sometimes four or five hours."

An independent arbitrator reported that QW "has violated an agreement with the Teamsters Union to remain neutral and allow its employees to make their own decision to be represented by a union" -- the GCC/IBT. In February, workers were intimidated by a mock lynching: a teddy bear with union colors was hung with a noose around its neck. Management describes this and other terror tactics as "joking" and "horseplay."

When 250 people drove across the Tennessee border in cars and buses to Olive Branch, they embodied the power of good will-óof ethics. Young and old marched, chanted, and carried signs reading "Mississippi Workers Demand Respect," and "Mock Lynchings Are No Joke." A delegation of faith, labor, and community leaders with a placard "Appeal for Justice," bearing hundreds of signatures, confronted the plant manager, Brad Bandura, on the front steps. As he smoothly defended Quebecor's actions, he was observed to be trembling. "Hopefully," said Sandy Weaver, the Teamsters Campaign Coordinator, "Quebecor World got the idea that the community will not tolerate their practices!"

Nearby, drivers of passing trucks and cars blew their horns and whistles in solidarity with the protestors! "That was beautiful!" said Rev. Michael Dawson from Georgia, a member of CWA Local 3204 in Atlanta for 20 years, and a Teamster for 15 years before that. "I'm a minister and a union man," he continued, "and they both work because they both help people. We're here to let those workers know that we care about them. Management began to shake because they realized money cannot stop us when we stand together."

This day of education and protest concluded with a worship service by Rev. Nelson Johnson in New Sardis Baptist Church, in which he honored and drew encouragement from the person he called the first labor organizer, Moses-óand from the first labor walk--out, Exodus!

To date, QW plants in Versailles, Kentucky, and Fernley, Nevada have been unionized by GCC/IBT. These successes and the conferences in Memphis and Las Vegas are evidence of the force of ethics, which Eli Siegel explained, at work in the South and across America.

Michael Honey teaches African American studies, ethnic and labor studies, and American history at the University of Washington (Tacoma); his book on the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike, Going Down Jericho Road, will be published by WW Norton in January. Alice Bernstein is a journalist, Aesthetic Realism Associate, and a founding board member of the not-for-profit Alliance of Ethics and Art. She is editor and co-author of Aesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism (Orange Angle Press, 2004).Email Alice Bernstein

 From The Progressive Populist, Oct. 1, 2006

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