May 1 , 2000

Putin's Promises
Will Russia's new president launch a revolution from above?

Union Nyet
The decline of Russian unions

Dullest Lights
Moldova makes a strange poster child for reform

Steering the Global Economy
Ingredients for an alternative

News & Views

Rudy plays the race card


A Terry Laban Cartoon

Mexico's Thought Police
FBI-trained forces allegedly tortured political dissidents

Dirty Deeds
Spain wants to extradite Argentina's former dictators

Party Palace
George W. Bush's lucrative sleepovers

Errol Morris, the interrogator

The Flanders Files
Arianna's change of heart

Spring Books

Mother Night
Slavenka Draculic's S.

Coming to America
Aleksandar Hemon's short fiction

Take a Hike
Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Corporate Ideals
John B. Judis, a real Progressive

Up, Up and Away
Frances Fitzgerald goes Way Out There in the Blue

Curtain Call
Susan Sontag gets lost In America

Constant Craving
The obsessions of Thom Gunn




Interview with Leroy Johnson,
Executive Director, Southern Echo

By David Dyssegaard Kallick

Can you tell me a little about Southern Echo?

Southern Echo is a training and development organization in Mississippi, doing work in the southeast region. It does community development - rooted in community organizing, and works to creates human infrastructure, creating power to create change. Improving public education, doing economic development, environmental justice, democracy, redistricting.

When you look at the southeast, you're looking at rural communities. Communities that looked at this region basically as an agricultural region. There were a few places that were not major agricultural depots - Birmingham is one - but most of it has been agricultural. So its dependency on cheap labor and slave labor has been historic and longterm. That's the nature of the region.

So as industry has sought to leave the industrialized North and Midwest, they've found that they can find cheap labor in this region. And this cheap labor, more often than not, was in "right to work" states, so union organizing and the ideal of these folks leaving these areas. . .that wasn't a fear [employers] would have.

There was a time, early on in the 80s, when I was first getting out of college, when I tried to figure out how to do union organizing. Not just: parachute, work toward an election, and get out - but a process where people knew you were going to be present.

[You had to show people you were in it for the long haul.]

When all the terror was brought to bear, where were the organizers and where were the unions? You had to have trust built with local folks. [You have to do] training and development of local folk to do the union campaigns. They can get training and understanding from union reps from other locations, but they had to be able to do it themselves. Unions that exist in this region have come about for that reason, not because of parachuting in.

I think part of the rationale around all this is that this region has been one of the regions of the country where fear brought about through terrorist acts perpetrated against people of color and poor white folks has been the norm rather than the abnorm. So you come to a place where communities have a history of being afraid to step forward. And the reason is the massive terror brought down on individiuals and a whole race of peple through the KKK, citizen councils, skinheads, Nazi sympathizers - who claim [that they are part of] a dominant and superior people who are supposed to dominate and rule an inferior people.

And where class struggles have also been a dominant feature of the region.

So you put all these things together, and this is fertile ground for exploitation.

Then, you [look at] communities having to deal with that. And then you see people happy to see these plants come into your community. But also being ahead of the curve in understanding that once these companies get a real feel for this question of exploitation, and a downward spiral of what you pay people who produce the goods and services, it made sense that once [employers] got used to that particular menu, that they would be looking for others to see how they can drive down their cost of production. And thus also increasing the amount of profit to astronomical levels.

This whole idea of driving down production costs and increasing profits became an insatiable hunger for these industrialists and service folk. So we were just a short stopping ground as they moved further to the south, to Mexico, Guatamala.

Because part of globalization is that you've got a free-wheeling flow of products crossing boundaries left, right and wherever. But that same people flow is not allowed to take place. There are no borders for capital and products. But there are plenty of borders for the human resources that it takes to produce these products.

One of the things my work involved 10 years ago was to create the South East Regional Economic Justice Netowrk. It was to bring African American folk together with poor white folk, who had the same issues, from Appalachia, tabacco farmers, etc. How do we look at this downward spiral in a way that we can support each other, and at least not scapegoat each other.

At the same time, one of the things we recognize is that for this idea to not continue in the same way that it was, we need to look at how do we improve or create in these communities quality public education. Because education is a means of equalizing the knowledge base and understanding of community folk across the region. The more knowledge and understanding we have, the more we can act on the raping of human resources in the region. So we also started to look at that, and figure out how to deal with that in a real way.

What we found was that education, especially in the Southeast and the Deep South, was only meant for gentried white folk, and that poor white folk weren't mean to get an education either. If you didn't have the right name, the right holdings, the right friends, then you weren't meant to get an education. It was during Reconstruction that the African American community was the one pressing for public education. As a part of a way to bring some equalization.

[Still,] there was a disparity between what Blacks and poor white folks got in education, and that was done very consciously.

One of the errors in talking about globalization is to say that it [is] new. [There are] periods of highs and periods of lows. We're in a high period of globalization at this time. But globalization is a product that's more than a hundred years old. Seeking out new territories - by the Spanish, British, Portugese - was about [developing] new places to find materials and wealth. So it's been going on since the beginning of time, but we haven't understood that. To look at it with a short-term view.

We need to find ways to talk about globalization in terms of what [people] can understand. You don't have to throw out all kinds of financial terms, and language that deals with the WTO and IMF and all that alphabet soup that continues to confuse the community about what the hell's going on. The question is: How do you translate it into terms they understand? And to do it historically is part of the way they can do that.

I think there's been some degree of success - I wouldn't try to make it into something so great or such a [replicable] model. But trying to help local communities to understand how they can create their own business ventures [is one goal]. How do you begin to create for yourself wealth that you control. How do you get local ownership of plants, and of industry? So that you become owners, and thereby are able to make decisions about where profit goes, what is the profit margin, do you sell stock, and all those things? The question is: who controls those decisions?

I think the organizing has to be around helping communities how to get control of that, and to be decision makers instead of objects of other folks decisions, subjects of other folks' largesse.

You do it by becoming more active in the political process. A lot of decisions about local tax dollars takes place at the local level. The local board of supervisors in rural areas - county commissioners in urban areas - have power to determine what type of industry can be in your community. They also create the tax breaks, incentives for bringing people in. You say to folks you've got to be involved in those kinds of processes.

So you can say: To locate in this community, you have to do this, this, and this. And require some degree of local ownership. And we'd prefer that the local ownership be workforce.

We've been able to get local folks involved, elected to county offices. We've been able to make some headway in terms of housing - we're not going to be able to prevent low-income housing from coming to our community. We're going to make sure the housing is not owned by the employers, so those folks don't feel like they can't speak out at their work.

For us, the first step has always been a place to live that wasn't controlled by the folk you worked for or slaved for. And you'll find that's a problem all over the country.

Once you've got housing, you need to talk about new jobs. We've had a lot of discussion in the last five years among about county commissioners about [how businesses] coming in have got to pay a living wage. We don't want any more minimum wage jobs - we don't want that for our community.

Until the 1950s, landowners were the only folk that could be on the boards of supervisors or county commissioners. They were saying they didn't want any industy to come, because [letting those industries in], you drew people off the farms. So you had your slave labor, and you had enough people who were idle that you could keep your slave labor down by saying if you don't go along we'll get another one to take your place.

There's a network of people we've been working with. Also on how to do local redistricting.

Is there anyplace where a political majority has been able to implement some of these ideas?

In Mississippi, there are places where people who are sympathetic to this kind of thinking are a majority. Or where they are two of the five on a county commission, and by being connected with community organizing they can put pressure on the others so they can get things passed some of the time. There are enormous breakthrough in terms of what is tolerable at this point. What they must do if they want to stay in power is to bring in jobs that are not so exploitative.

We're not living under a cloud of stupidity. We don't expect these comapnies to stay for a long time. We expect them to stay here five or ten years. But during that time, we expect them to pay a living wage.

[One big question for us is:] What is a living wage? In California they've set it at such and such. But we ain't in California. What would be appropriate in Mississippi, Lousiana? It's different in different in parts of the state. We've vascillated a lot - from $7 an hour to $8.50 or even $9.50 an hour.

When we've been brought to look at this critically, we can't say that's real - it has to go up. Some of [our decisions were] before welfare reform, because you could make [that] much money and still have your children on the insurance. [But] it's hard to move industry, and say it has to be $6.50 an hour, and then come back around a year or so later and say it needs to be higher.

Industry does have a lot of choice about where to locate. But part of having a lot of choice is saying they have some degree of stability in the US. Companies can't move their whole operations overseas. There is a degree of moving overseas, but they also say they have to exist somewhere. Too much of the infrastructure is located in this country.

Sometimes [threats to move are] a bluff. It's like playing cards. Sometimes it's a bluff, and if you don't have enough understanding of it, the bluff can be turned into something real.

But the argument is: How do you have the most productive plant you have and move it to Mexico? Plus, they often do have some local ownership. Would they be willing to pay people enough to [make them willing to] do that? No. Would they close it down and not move it anywhere? No.

If you had a wholesale jumping of industry from US to Guatamala or wherever, I think this country would go up inn revolution. So it has to be a slow movement. It can't be a fast movement.

And sometimes the threat is more devastating than the actual event.

Another thing they use is to say: if you organize, we'll privatize. So industry begins to take over public-sector jobs, where you had some success in organizing laborers, and the welfare department becomes a private industry. [In fact,] the biggest place privatization is going now is in prisons. And one of the most outstanding growth markets is the private prison industry.

That's where folk are going. They've got to have folk there in order for the industry to be strong. So understand that the idea of a police state is becoming very real. Private prisons also mean there can be prison labor. They can produce uniforms, produce parts for GM cars, construction work building hotels, and put them on the market at prices that will be astronomically low compared to industry that isn't publically supported. We're paying for them to house and keep those folks in prison, then they'll put them to work to produce items. That's socialism. And we don't believe in socialism, in this country. But they know how to use it and abuse it. That's the hypocracy of folks talking out of both sides of their mouths.

We don't know how to challenge them on leaving [in a way] that is not just one community, but a network of communities and labor activists poised to say, "we dare you." We dare you to leave. We dare you to tear down this community. Because if you do, we're going to be able to say to our neighbors and friends across the region, don't have anything to do with those folk.

Because a part of the process is: we've got to buy the cars, trucks, SUVs. And then we've got to have money to buy them with.

[So the point is to call their bluff. Don't let them do it little by little without people being clear about what's going on. Press the case so that they either have to do it all at once or accept certain conditions.] If we can stop them from slowly doing it, and stand up as a people and say that isn't right, they won't be able to do it all at once.

Bring it to the light of day. It is a slow and methodical process on their part. It's a direct threat on all of us. We've got to stop being caught up in allowing the rich to divide us.

[Why is it that] people will loan you money when you ain't making but $20,000 a year, when they won't lend you money to buy a house?

True, you [could continue to] have this increasing polarization. But there are also moral implications. And that's [an issue] that resonates very well in the South and Southeast. Churches can get involved. [Church leaders can say:] here's where it's at. And you're a part of it. And you challenge them to become more justice-oriented in their advocacy. That [is a question of] moral resonance: Is this moral? Is this ethical?

That whole Henry Ford analysis is still true today. You can pay people a living wage, so they can afford to buy your cars. Bigger industry has not thought in this way; and there's something wrong with the way industry is thinking. It's morally decrepit. Economists have to be able to debate folks rather than support folks.



In These Times © 2000
Vol. 24, No. 11