LENA MITCHELL: Mississippi workers languishing

LENA MITCHELL

LENA MITCHELL

If there’s any place where incomes could use a boost it’s Mississippi, dead last on the Census Bureau’s list of median household income.

Teachers are about to get a bit of help with legislation that gives them a $1,500 increase during the next fiscal year. Pay increases for the rest of Mississippi’s workers are not likely to come with a state increase in the minimum wage from the federal rate of $7.25 per hour, although as of 2014, 21 states will have a minimum wage higher than the federal level.

Three laws signed last month by Gov. Phil Bryant will make it even harder in right-to-work Mississippi for workers to gain higher wages through union organizing.

Bryant, and bill supporters in the Legislature, claim the bills “level the playing field for employers.”

Since when have employers not had the upper hand in their relationships with employees?

The simple fact of “at will” employment means that any employer, at any time, can fire an employee for any reason, or for no reason at all, according to employment attorney Donna Ballman on jobs.aol.com.

I know, I know. Most Mississippians that I’ve talked with about the topic – and maybe most Southerners – recoil at the mention of the dreaded term labor union. I’m talking about the rights of employees under federal law to organize themselves to press employers to listen to their concerns about wages, benefits, working conditions and so forth.

“While right-to-work supporters have done a great job of convincing employees that these laws will benefit them, the laws benefit employers way more than employees,” Ballman wrote. “If you have any doubt about which side these laws benefit, look at who supports them. We’re talking big business interests, chambers of commerce and wealthy donors.”

Within a few years of George McLean’s 1934 purchase of the then-“Tupelo Daily Journal,” he had run afoul of many businessmen in Tupelo and Lee County with his pro-labor stance, said Vaughn Grisham in a 1999 article he wrote for The Aspen Institute.

“As long as your customers are poor,” McLean said, “you’re going to be poor. You can’t sell them anything beyond their spendable income. So let’s find a way they can make more money. If they can make more money, they can buy more of your (goods).”

That sentiment is no less true today.

In 1959, Grisham said, Tupelo established the “Community Relations Agency, which operates to protect labor without the necessity of a union. The agency held meetings with management to assist with any labor problems. It also investigated complaints from workers and, if they were found to be valid, pressured companies to correct the problems. The pro-labor Tupelo Daily Journal acted as a sort of backstop; when a company simply would not respond to quiet pressure, publicity in the newspaper could be counted on to dry up its pool of available labor.”

If government officials and employers are truly as concerned about the welfare of employees as they are about keeping out union organizing, why don’t they codify a “Community Relations Agency” type of structure in law?

Just sayin’.

Lena Mitchell is the Daily Journal Corinth Bureau reporter and writes a Sunday column each month. Contact her at lena.mitchell@journalinc.com.