Labor reporter Mike Elk discusses the potential backlash faced by Maryland Democrats as well as the significance of the Mississippi Nissan workers struggle – Part 1/5
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JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor, here in Baltimore. We’re joined by Mike Elk today. Mike Elk is a long time labor reporter. He helps run ‘Payday Report’, which is the new online venture covering issues around labor all across the South. You just traveled 3,000 miles in the past few weeks across the South, and we’re going to ask you about that. But let’s start off by asking you about some breaking news here in Baltimore today. Just a few hours ago, the Democratic mayor vetoed a $15 minimum wage measure. It had a number of exemptions, but I wanted to get your response to that. It would’ve lifted the wages of some 80,000 people in the city, which, as you know, just from driving through here, the City of Opportunity, but it’s marked with extreme inequality. People were hoping it would help bridge some of that inequality here. MIKE ELK: Well, I think what a vote like this shows, is that the corporate wing of the Democratic Party is still very much alive. You know, a lot of people have said after the election that the Clinton wing is discredited. But here in Baltimore, we’re showing that they still have power, they’re still trenched in, and they’ll still take votes against workers’ interests. How disastrous is this in a state like Maryland, which is held by a Republican Governor, Larry Hogan that the Democrats would come out against something like this? You know, obviously, these kinds of minimum wage laws; they’re very, very popular among voters. Well over 60% in almost every opinion poll… JAISAL NOOR: Including Maryland, too. MIKE ELK: Yeah. And these folks, I mean, they’re shooting themselves in the foot. I mean, what else do you run on, unless it’s raising people’s wages? JAISAL NOOR: And so, I was at the press conference when the mayor announced her decision. I asked her, you know, about the reasoning behind it, and she repeated the same talking points which you hear from the business lobby across the country: jobs are going to move outside, it’s going to hurt low-wage workers. They’re going to lose their jobs. It’s going to hurt ex-offenders. We kind of hear these arguments all over the country, and I asked her, you know, where she got… who she consulted about it, because that hasn’t panned out anywhere where they’ve raised minimum wages. MIKE ELK: Well, I mean, it’s absurd. I mean, look, you know, right down in D.C., they passed a $15 an hour minimum wage. But when they tried to come out to the suburbs, to Montgomery County, the county council there passed $15 an hour, and then it was vetoed by the county executive, as well as many leaders from Prince George’s County, Democratic Party have been opposed to it. I mean, if D.C., you know, just an hour down the road, has $15 minimum wage, what effect would it have on the suburbs? And instead of, you know, the Democratic Party in Maryland getting together, and having a coordinated strategy to go against, and get all these counties, what they’re now trying to do, many of the Democrats in the State Legislature, is pass laws that forbid municipalities from raising their own wages. I mean, this is something we see Republicans doing all throughout the South, and even in the North. JAISAL NOOR: Yeah –- you’re talking about the Pre-emption Measure. MIKE ELK: Yeah. JAISAL NOOR: And Delegate Derek Davis introduced that measure in his committee. He’s the chair of the Economic Means Committee, and he had to withdraw it because of the enormous protests and opposition he faced. But that is something that you see. It was part of North Carolina’s Bathroom Bill. And more than, I think, almost two-dozen states, mostly Republican, have such measures across the South, mostly across the South, and some northern states, as well. I wanted to ask you about your travels. You just… like we said, some 3,000 miles across the South, and we were actually both in Mississippi covering the Nissan… MIKE ELK: Oh, I didn’t know that. JAISAL NOOR: Yeah. I was there, too –- covering the march of the Nissan workers. Bernie Sanders was there, Danny Glover, Nina Turner, other progressive voices. You were there. You talked to some of the GM workers there. Why do you think that’s such an important struggle? MIKE ELK: I mean, really, and I think you would agree, I’ve never seen a march like the march on Mississippi. It’s something that will stay with me for a very, very long time. You know, pulling up there, it was at the sports complex, and people crowded in these cars from all around. And there were lines and lines of cars outside of the facility, and then when you got in there, there were folks from all over the South who had driven down. They’d heard Bernie was coming, they heard there was going to be a union march, and this organizing drive at Nissan… You know, starting wages for workers at that Nissan plant are $13.46 an hour. These are people making cars in the United States of America, making $13.46 an hour. While also being required to work temp, often. That struggle there, to organize them, has been going on for 13 years. It’s a very uphill struggle. The company always threatens to close the plant. Many people in the community put pressure on them. I was just down the road in Vicksburg a few days later, and a bunch of people said to me, if they ever unionize that place, they’ll close the plant. What happens that we’ve seen, in organizing drives in the South, is that the community peer pressure has a big role in people voting anti-union. At Volkswagen, we saw the effect of peer pressure when there was hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on TV ads, and billboards, and sophisticated anti-union campaigns, and they lost the vote. In Boeing, in South Caroline recently, just earlier this year, Boeing spent almost a half million dollars on TV ads against the union. What that does is, it turns community members against the union, that if the people who worked there vote for the union, it’ll hurt the whole community. What we saw in Canton, was an ability to get outside of that box, to really tie the cause to unionize that Nissan plant to something much bigger. And that day marching, you know, we were marching on the highway with 5,000 people, they were singing, you know, “We’re ready, we’re ready, we’re ready, Nissan,” it had an effect on me. You could really feel that the framework of a new coalition was being glued there, on that highway, as people walked along. And you could sense that the much bigger power this fight was having, in the local community. And its ability to really get the NAACP, and groups like the Sierra Club involved. Because we know in the South, no one union can win an election by itself. It really takes a community effort, when you’re fighting an effort in the community to destroy the union. JAISAL NOOR: And just to put it in context, almost all of the Nissan factories around the world are unionized. Their factories in Brazil are unionized, but not in Mississippi. Talk more about the challenges of unionizing in the Deep South. And Mississippi has some of the worse health indicators, for example, some of the worst standards of living, especially for African-Americans, who comprise the majority of these workers at the factory. MIKE ELK: Well, there’s 42 plants worldwide, out of Nissan’s 45 plants, that are unionized. There are three that aren’t. The one there in Canton, Mississippi, we were at, and then two in Tennessee. And what’s interesting is that the two Tennessee plants are located closer to unionized plants, so those workers there make 15 bucks an hour, or more, because of that kind of pressure. So, obviously, it shows you just how much the threat of labor, even unionized labor, being close, has on workers. What we saw there is, it’s really devastating. I mean, you have people that are making cars living in poverty. Not just living in poverty, but also working in unsafe conditions, especially temp workers that aren’t trained in proper procedures. I just did a story in Alabama, on a woman who was working as a temp in a Kia plant, and she was crushed by a machine — and she hadn’t turned off the machine before working on it. She was instructed by her boss to go in and do this. So, when people are working in these temp positions, and this is really a huge trend we see all across the South -– I mean, Volkswagen just put in a new assembly line, and every worker they hired for that assembly line is a temp -– and some of these people work for years. It really, it has a real plantation mentality, when people don’t have permanent jobs, working in factories. JAISAL NOOR: All right. This wraps up Part 1 of our conversation. Stay tuned to Therealnews.com for our full conversation with Mike Elk. Stay tuned. ————————- END