Hope in Mississippi
By Joseph B. Atkins
Submitted to Portside by the author
July 28, 2011
JACKSON, Miss. - A hardened, intransigent rightwing has
taken over the Republican Party and proved its willingness
to take the nation to the economic brink to protect its
well-heeled financial backers. Legislators have targeted
government workers and immigrants as the source of their
states' economic ills. Meanwhile, all three branches of the
federal government pay homage to the nation's true power:
So why are worker activists in the nation's most
conservative state - veterans like Mississippi Immigrants
Rights Alliance Executive Director Bill Chandler, United
Food & Commercial Workers organizer Rose Turner, and
Mississippi Association of Educators President Kelvin
Gilbert--optimistic about the future?
They live in a state where "right-to-work" is embedded in
the state constitution, where teachers cannot legally strike
or even engage in collective bargaining, where, in other
words, the nation as a whole seems to be heading.
"There's a sense of people coming together," says Chandler,
a veteran of labor wars going back to the 1960s. "It's
reminiscent of the `20s and `30s, when people were excited
about the sense of unity, but this is more divergent and
"You can take one of two philosophies and look at it as an
obstacle," Gilbert says. "We look at it as an opportunity.
We could say, `Oh, woe is me,' but we look at it and say,
`What can we do?'"
Turner, a veteran of the historic and successful 1990 strike
by catfish workers in the Mississippi Delta, puts it this
way: "We are just clucking along like little chickens,
hoping everything turns out all right."
It's hard to see the reasons for any optimism from the
The power of money in today's politics cannot be
overestimated. Billionaires Charles and David Koch, the
corporate-backed, money-doling group known as ALEC (American
Legislative Exchange Council), and their lobbyist friends
such as former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi have now
become the fulcrum for what gets debated and what gets done
- whether in Washington or in the state capitols.
Bolstered by the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling
that opened the floodgate to corporate funding of political
campaigns, these financiers are why the same white-collared
Wall Street thugs who nearly destroyed the economy in 2008
are still holding the true reins of power. They're also the
brains behind the so-called Tea Party Movement, which
despite the faux populist rhetoric about "big government" by
its frontline soldiers is really only about one thing: the
complete corporatization of American society.
The trick is many of those frontline soldiers don't know
this. Years of ingesting Fox News propaganda has made them
really believe that it's all about getting back to America's
roots. What are they going to do when they find out the
And herein lies one of the sources of the activists'
For most Tea Party soldiers, immigration is nearly as
crucial an issue as big government.
They helped push nearly 1,400 legislative bills and
resolutions in the first half of 2010 targeting immigration
policy and undocumented workers.
However, many in the GOP establishment don't want
immigration reform. They actually like the status quo. Why?
The status quo supplies an endless source of cheap labor to
industry. Undocumented workers get the least pay and
benefits, have trouble organizing, and can always be
replaced if they complain. In other words, they're the
Thus a major split within the Republican Party regarding
immigration looms on the horizon. Just wait and see.
Another source of optimism is this: Most young people don't
buy the Tea Party rhetoric or the establishment GOP's
mantras to big business.
Chandler, who worked with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm
Workers in the 1960s and 1970s, first came to Mississippi to
help with civil rights leader Charles Evers' unsuccessful
gubernatorial campaign in 1971. "There was nothing for the
youth" in the state to encourage political activism or even
awareness, he says.
"Look at the 2008 election, a majority of the under-25 age
group (in Mississippi), 52 percent, voted for (President)
Obama. That's very interesting. That shows more of an
awareness among the youth of another world. I think that
presents an opportunity."
Here in Mississippi, named the nation's most conservative
state in a 2011 Gallup Poll, the opportunity Chandler sees
is compounded by changing demographics. More than one-third
of the population is African American, a number likely to
grow given recent statistics showing more African Americans
leaving the North and returning to their Southern roots. Add
to them other minorities such as the greatly increasing
Latino population---from 10,000 in 1990 to an estimated
150,000 today. Many may be undocumented now, but they are
here and are likely to stay. So are their children.
If just a quarter of the state's struggling working-class
whites were ever to realize that their best political
alliance is with blacks and Latinos, not billionaires on
Wall Street, Mississippi would undergo a revolutionary
Chandler's MIRA organization, however, isn't waiting for the
revolution. MIRA has already earned national kudos for the
alliances it has forged with the 50-member-plus state
Legislative Black Caucus and with the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference, and thus far it has been able to keep
an Arizona-like bill from passing the state Legislature. In
fact, it has been key to passage of six pro-immigrant bills
in the Legislature, including provisions for court
interpreter services and in-state tuition for college
The UFCW's Turner is as battle-savvy as any organizer in the
state. She helped rally hundreds of workers at the Delta
Pride catfish plants in the perennially poor Mississippi
Delta in the summer of 2010 when they threatened to strike
rather than accept a contract offer that would have returned
them in many ways to the same conditions that forced them to
strike in 1990. The company relented, and a fairer contract
Turner is busy now with an organizing campaign at a re-
opened 150-worker poultry plant in Water Valley, Miss., that
was union-represented before it shut down in 2003. "In two
weeks we had over 75 cards signed," she says. "I feel good
about it. Most of the people worked there before. They see
the difference between having a contract and not having a
contract, in working in a union plant and in a non-union
MAE President Gilbert says education activists in other
states like Wisconsin and Ohio have contacted his office in
recent months to ask about strategies for dealing with a
powerful and intransigent political-business alliance
totally hostile to unions, something Mississippians have
dealt with since "right to work" legislation was adopted in
1954 and embedded in the state constitution in 1960.
"They are not used to this," says Gilbert, whose
organization represents 8,000 teachers and other school
workers across the state. "They are used to having payroll
deductions for union fees, collective bargaining. .
Sometimes it's hard to make lemonade out of lemons, but we
try. The more people we have, the more talent and ability we
have to be able to do the things we want to do."
Although prohibited from striking or collective bargaining,
his organization lobbies legislators, trains teachers,
provides them legal assistance and other benefits, and works
with other organizations to make the state keep the
commitment to education it made in the historic 1982
Education Reform Act.
Although under the radar of the mainstream press, change is
taking place in many parts of the South, which legendary
labor leader Sidney Hillman once called a "venture into
unplowed fields" for union organizers. The Farm Labor
Organizing Committee recently won a three-year battle to get
tobacco giant Reynolds American to agree to meet with it and
to survey the abuse of workers - most of them migrants--on
tobacco farms across North Carolina, the state with the
nation's lowest union membership rate. The Coalition of
Immokalee Workers in Florida has won similar battles and is
now pressuring the grocery story chain Publix to do more to
improve wages for tomato pickers.
If catfish plant and poultry workers, migrant workers and
teachers--those at or near the bottom end of the supply
chain in this modern-day economy--can score gains or at
least hold their own against the formidable powers-that-be
in Mississippi, then maybe some optimism about the future is
justified - and not only here.
[Joseph B. Atkins is a veteran journalist, columnist,
professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi,
and author of Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the
Southern Press (University Press of Mississippi, 2008). His
blog on labor issues in the South is
laborsouth.blogspot.com. He can be reached at
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