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Covering for the Bosses

Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press

Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Covering for the Bosses
    Book Description:

    Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Pressprobes the difficult relationship between the press and organized labor in the South from the past to the present day. Written by a veteran journalist and first-hand observer of the labor movement and its treatment in the region's newspapers and other media, the text focuses on the modern South that has evolved since World War II.

    In gathering materials for this book, Joseph B. Atkins crisscrossed the region, interviewing workers, managers, labor organizers, immigrants, activists, and journalists, and canvassing labor archives. Using individual events to reveal the broad picture,Covering for the Bossesis a personal journey by a textile worker's son who grew up in North Carolina, worked on tobacco farms and in textile plants as a young man, and went on to cover as a reporter many of the developments described in this book.

    Atkins details the fall of the once-dominant textile industry and the region's emergence as the "Sunbelt South." He explores the advent of "Detroit South" with the arrival of foreign automakers from Japan, Germany, and South Korea. And finally he relates the effects of the influx of millions of workers from Mexico and elsewhere.Covering for the Bossesshows how, with few exceptions, the press has been a key partner in the powerful alliance of business and political interests that keep the South the nation's least-unionized region.

    Joseph B. Atkins is a widely published journalist, professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi, and editor ofThe Mission: Journalism, Ethics, and the World. Stanley Aronowitz is professor of sociology and cultural studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author, most recently, ofLeft Turn: Forging a New Political Future;The Knowledge Factory; andHow Class Works.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-325-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Stanley Aronowitz

    John Sweeney, the leader of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), led a revolt of a gaggle of large unions and was elected American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) president in 1995, an unprecedented challenge in modern labor history to a sitting administration. Not since 1908 when an insurgency within the AFL opposed the reelection of its longtime leader, Samuel Gompers, and a group of industrial unions bolted from the AFL in 1935, had labor’s ranks been so divided.

    The main reason for the division came about because the three leading metal workers’ unions (Auto, Steel, Machinists),...

    (pp. xiii-2)
    (pp. 3-18)

    Ray Smithhart and Robert Bracken, old soldiers of the Southern labor movement, are trading war stories in the conference room of the Mississippi AFL-CIO headquarters on Jackson’s North West Street. This is a long, bumpy stretch of road that runs alongside one of the city’s oldest cemeteries, between crime-and-poverty-haunted neighborhoods to the west and, to the east, an older district of once-genteel homes now in decline. The writer Eudora Welty grew up just a block or so away.

    They came in from the suburb of Brandon for this May 2004 interview. Smithhart, eighty-seven, lives in a nursing home. Bracken, sixty-six,...

    (pp. 19-36)

    In the little northeastern Mississippi town of Nettleton in the early 1980s, the Tapscott family was going through the many rooms and countless closets of the century-old, long-vacant home of my late wife Marilyn’s four never-married great-aunts, the last of whom—Aunt Cam (for Camille)—had recently died in a nearby nursing home at the age of ninety-eight. Known as “The Hotel,” the rambling former boardinghouse was about to fall prey to the wrecking ball, and members of the family wanted to see what remained to be salvaged.

    Many of the rooms had long been emptied of furniture and other...

  7. Chapter 3 THE CIO AND OPERATION DIXIE A “Lamp of Democracy” in the South
    (pp. 37-63)

    Clarice Kidder sits across from me, ladylike, her hair nicely coiffed, her voice soft but clear, a sense of dignity about her. At sixty-eight, she’s a lean woman, a legacy of her childhood as one of nine children in a sharecropping family in the Arkansas Delta. “You eat beans and potatoes seven days a week, you don’t put much meat on your bones,” she explains about the life she later escaped. “We were all skinny.”¹

    It’s the summer of 2006 and we’re talking in the home of her neighbor, my mother-in-law, in Helena, Arkansas, a once-booming river town that is...

    (pp. 64-85)

    The seeds of the civil rights movement that rocked the South in the 1950s and 1960s were planted long before by workers and labor organizers in the Southern textile mills and coal mines, by labor leaders like John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther of the CIO, and, of course, A. Phillip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Also planting those seeds were the activists who participated in Highlander, the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, and the CIO’s Operation Dixie.

    Some scholars believe labor could have done much more in support of the civil...

    (pp. 86-97)

    Claude Ramsay, the crusty, barrel-chested president of the Mississippi AFL-CIO from 1959 to 1986, delivered a stem-winder of a speech at the University of Mississippi in 1966—a time when the fires of the civil rights struggle were still burning—that included a snapshot history of the labor movement, a discussion of the twin legacies of Samuel Gompers and Eugene Debs, and a withering analysis of how the state’s political and business leaders had failed working Mississippians. His best shots, however, came in a blistering indictment of the Mississippi press.

    “The press in Mississippi has to be rated as the...

    (pp. 98-126)

    The “Sunbelt South” is only the latest reincarnation of a region that has been proclaiming itself renewed, redeemed, and reconstructed since the Civil War. Henry Grady of theAtlanta Constitutionintroduced the first “New South” in 1886. Political analyst Kevin Phillips became his spiritual descendant when he announced the arrival of the “Sun Belt” in 1969. Meanwhile, with each new emanation, a long lineage of writers, scholars, and musicians lamented the disappearance of the South they once knew and loved.

    Yet the South somehow has always remained as resilient, stubborn, frustrating, hated, and beloved as it was when Sherman marched...

  11. Chapter 7 SOUTHERN EXPOSURE “A New Style of Southern Journalism”
    (pp. 127-141)

    The first thing I thought about when I drove up to the modest two-story, red brick building on Chapel Hill Road in Durham, North Carolina, was Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s comment when he visited the equally unimposing headquarters of the Al Jazeera network in Doha, Qatar. “All this noise from this matchbox?”¹ It’s an easy-to-miss building just southwest of the renovated and gentrified tobacco warehouses of downtown Durham and due south of the gothic magnificence of the Duke University campus. However, from its cluttered second-floor offices comes a rare voice for the voiceless in the U.S. South, the progressive, independent...

    (pp. 142-159)

    I was a green reporter, in my rookie year as a late-blooming journalist, when I stumbled onto a story that would haunt me for the next thirty years. My newspaper was theSanford Heraldin the textiles-and-tobacco county seat of Lee County, North Carolina. “Go to Harnett County and come back with at least two stories,” my editor told me. The assignment was no cinch. Neighboring Harnett County was a rural backwater, a tobacco road of farms and pine forests with a handful of tiny, nondescript towns dotting its landscape.

    But off I went, driving aimlessly up and down two-lane...

    (pp. 160-175)

    She once played an elf outside a Wal-Mart along the Tennessee-Mississippi border during the Christmas season, handing out pro-union leaflets while a fellow member of Wal-Mart’s bête noire, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), stood at the front entrance in red suit, black boots, and flowing white beard, distributing candy to the eager children of Wal-Mart shoppers.

    “Of course, the manager came out and tried to kick us off,” the fifty-year-old former elf recalled in a March 2007 interview. A Memphis native and twenty-seven-year veteran labor organizer, she now works with UFCW’s highly visible and effective campaign. Her...

  14. Chapter 10 CHARLESTON “The First Major Labor Battle of the Twenty-first Century”
    (pp. 176-192)

    The first sign of trouble ahead was the swelling crowd of police at the entrance of the Columbus Street Terminal off Morrison Drive. It was 5 P.M., Wednesday, January 19, 2000, still the dawn of the new millennium in Charleston, South Carolina. Hundreds of battle-ready, black-clad police and highway patrol officers stood in formation, armed with riot helmets, wooden clubs, and plastic shields. A handful rode horses. They carried weapons able to shoot rubber pellets and buckshot. Canine units stood ready with attack dogs. The officers on the ground, summoned from across the state, formed a solid, impregnable phalanx. Parked...

  15. Chapter 11 DETROIT SOUTH
    (pp. 193-209)

    James Fisher, his hair closely cropped, his blue Nissan work shirt clean and neatly pressed, his demeanor serious, stood at the podium in the meeting hall of the Canton United Methodist Church and surveyed the assembly before speaking. He was there to give his personal testimony—not about his religious faith, but about his job.

    “One of the first things they showed us when we came in was an antiunion video, people throwing rocks,” the twenty-four-year-old tool-and-die worker at the company’s giant Canton, Mississippi, plant said at the January 2007 gathering. After three and a half years at Nissan, he...

    (pp. 210-221)

    When Mexican artist Diego Rivera traveled to the great metropolis of New York City during the Great Depression, he was both “amazed and appalled” at the shantytowns, breadlines, starvation, and suicides that he found to be endemic to a city that was for non-natives like him the very symbol of the United States. As New York journalist Pete Hamill wrote in his book on Rivera in 1999, the heavy-set, cigar-chomping, “‘big-jowled paisano’” and world-famous muralist proceeded to paint his conflicting views in one of his most compelling works,Frozen Assets. The painting is a haunting depiction of the American metropolis...

  17. Postscript MY HOMETOWN From Tobacco and Textiles to an Iglesia on Main Street
    (pp. 222-224)

    It is the first anniversary of my father’s death, and I’ve come home with my brother, sister, and mother to put flowers on his grave. We spend much of the rest of the day and evening on a nostalgia tour through the gritty, blue-collar town I grew up in.

    It seems that every other building or house in Sanford, North Carolina, is a landmark in our personal history—the boarded-up elementary school across from the textile mill where my father worked, the Pentecostal Holiness church where my grandfather once preached, the dairy bar where we teenagers hung out every Friday...

  18. NOTES
    (pp. 225-248)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 249-264)