An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

Transcript of "When I Say 'Steal,'
Who Do You Think Of?": Part One

Every week Miz Nell Weaver had us memorize a Bible verse, one for each letter of the alphabet. This was in the fourth grade, Centreville, Alabama, 1956. One by one, on Fridays, our name would be called and we would go into the only privacy there was, the cloakroom at the back of the classroom, and there in the narrow space jumbled with coats and book bags, we would stand in front of her and open our mouths and recite. "I" was In the beginning, of course. And "L" was Lay not up treasure on earth where moth and rust doth corrupt and where thieves break through and steal. Lay up treasure in heaven, where moth and rust doth not corrupt and thieves do not break through and steal. (Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.)

Who did I think was stealing? What was the endangered treasure, that which would rot away and be lost? Why was I being taught that any security I might ever have would be after I was dead?

I was a child, and treasure was something inside my house, something I could hold, like the silverware Mama kept in a leatherette case in the dining room. I was a white child of the southern segregation who knew nothing of slavery, of how people of the African diaspora had once been owned as property. I was a child of the U. S. during the Cold War, who listened to my pa sit in front of the TV set and rant against any one who questioned the ownership and disposition of property as it stood-vicious comments, red-baiting, accusations of communism, of perversion, about those fighting for an end to segregation, for unions in the mills and factory.

I was a child who worried all the time about money, because I watched my pa and my mama worry all the time about money. I was a child surrounded by economic insecurity, with no knowledge of the huge economic and political forces that buffeted all of us in my little Bibb County town.

In January of this year, I came back home to stay for the longest time since I left at eighteen — came home for a month to take care of my mama who was having some health problems.

I get up with her at dawn every day, to go walk with Miz Thelma, a white woman who is her friend. Their route is around the one strip mall in town, where there is a sidewalk, Olon Heights, built by one of the Belchers who owned the saw mills. But the mills are closed now, bought by a big corporation like International Paper. As the sun comes up, there is no 7 a.m. whistle, and in the afternoon no 4 o'clock steam whistle yowl that marked off a day of work for the whole town. The saw mills have closed, and the toy factory. Lynne Fashions closed in the early '90s, the Health-Tex garment plant a couple of years ago.

Mama and I eat breakfast for $2.00 each at the hospital cafeteria, where Helen and Barbara, who are African American, are serving grits and biscuits and sausage, having gotten up at 4:30 a.m. Later she goes to the Senior Center, where there is bingo on Tuesdays, and singing on Thursdays, and exercise on Fridays. The people who gather there are mostly women, many who had worked at the garment plants, mostly but not entirely white women.

The plants were closed by big business on the prowl for profit, moving its capital investment across the Mexican border. The Health Tex jobs probably went to maquiladoras in Veracruz or Oaxaca-where the super-low wages of women make for big money for big business. 296 people in and about Centreville, Alabama, were put out of work when the garment plant closed, including Cynthia Bagley, an African American woman jobless at 39 after 20 years of sewing on cuffs and collars ("Mexico"; T. Pratt; Crowder).

Now, someone told me, 80 percent of working people in Bibb have to commute outside the county in order to find work.

I had to find a companion for mama, and people said to me, oh, you won't have any trouble, there are so many women looking for work, now that the garment plant is closed. We hired Pam, a white woman who said she was glad she had turned 60, because now she could collect her widow's pension, her widow's mite, from Drummond, the big Alabama coal company where her husband had worked. She had worked at Health-Tex for a while, and then Lynne Fashions, they made fancy knits for Jonathan Logan, all that attention to details, the stitching on the collars had to be just the exact width, to match the stitching on the jacket, but the pay was good and she could do a lot, she made $100 a day then, that was because it was unionized, ILGWU. (The old International Ladies Garment Workers' Union, that's now Unite HERE.)

Pam said when she and the other girls first went over to Lynne from Health-Tex, where there was no union, if a manager blamed them or chewed them out, they just nodded, but the Lynne girls took them aside and told them if any thing happened, they went to their shop steward, and then they went to the assistant manager and the manager, and then they got an apology. Because if a supervisor told them to do something one way, and that was wrong, the supervisors would blame the girls. Pam said, "Those girls kept their union books by their machines."

During my stay, I had a lot of errands for Mama, so I went to Wal-Mart every day, since anything you need, pretty much, is there and usually nowhere else in town. The first Monday after I was in town, I went to the bank, and a young African American woman in a suit smiled, said hello, challenged me, "You don't know me, do you?" She had been the cashier who'd checked me out on Saturday at Wal-Mart, I guess holding two jobs to make ends meet, six or seven days a week. Another African American woman who checked me out on a Wednesday rang up my bathmats and birdseed and detergent while talking to a friend. She said, "I put my application in, I'm praying over that Mercedes job."

Daimler Chrysler is doubling the size of its Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, 30 minutes away, and it's hiring (Maynard). They've made luxury SUV's there since 1987. Actually, while 32,000 jobs in textiles have been sent out of the states in the less five years, Daimler Chrysler, Hyundai, and Honda are shifting about 10,000 jobs into Alabama, with about 10% of the state's manufacturing jobs from automobiles now (Lyne; Beyerle).

Foreign-based automakers are interested in opening up the U.S. to their cars—and are getting a boost from the falling dollar, since they can sell cars produced in the U.S. cheaper than they can imports. And they make more profit using young, non-unionized workers in the South, instead of say, the unionized German workers of IGMetal of the home country Mercedes-Benz plants.

But the squeeze is on for profits in a glutted car market. Workers at Nissan can make a car in 15.74 labor hours—and then Nissan makes an average of $2069 in profit per vehicle. But workers at U.S. Daimler Chrysler plants average 28 hours per vehicle—and the company is making only $226 per vehicle. So Wall Street says, "Lower costs, improve performance, improve efficiency, improve productivity!"(Hakim)

What does that mean? It can mean better technology, not using 100 parts when 50 can do, and—

The manager at Health-Tex would just lie to the workers, my old supervisor Elizabeth told me over lunch at the Senior Center. She said, "He did things he shouldn't have"—to get the workers to make orders on time. A million dollar contract from Sears or Penny's would be canceled if the plant didn't have it ready by the ship date, so he would tell people he'd fire them if they didn't get a certain amount done or if they didn't work over-time. She said, "That was illegal, you can't fire someone for refusing overtime, but he would have."

So "improving productivity" means to get more work out of workers for less money-either by eliminating or reducing benefits, or by driving wages down by pitting workers against each other with discriminatory pay that differ by sex or by nationality, or by simply driving workers to do more work in less time, using new technology, or speeding up the line, or firing some workers and giving others a higher quota. It means that for any day, of 8 or 10 or 12 hours, that a person works with her or his hands, brain, tongue, feet, adding value with this work to something that can be sold, some commodity — that person gets paid a fraction of what she, what he, has created. And almost all of that collectively created wealth over and above those narrow wages goes to those who own the company, the business, the corporation, not to the people who made that wealth.

That's what that bland phrase, "improving productivity" means—more profits, by hook or by crook. The taking of what someone has created, without compensation. Some would call that theft.

Sometimes the "improving productivity" means locking people up. While I was home, I had Sunday dinner with my cousin Eddie, who inspects meat packing businesses for the government, and his wife Lynda, who is a supervisor at Wal-Mart. Their son Paul was there, he's an exterminator, with his sweet wife, a beautician at Woodstock, who's expecting their first baby.

Over butterbeans and ham and sweet tea, I say to Eddie and Lynda that they surely are at the center of the news, what with mad cow disease and the market for beef, and the charges against Wal-Mart for using illegal immigrant workers and locking night workers in the stores, telling them if they use the emergency exit, they'll lose their jobs. The rationale given publicly? For their safety. The reason given privately? To keep workers from stealing.

Lynda says the store in Centreville has been there 21 years, 93 people, and yes, they can go out the back door if they hit the exit bar, but the front door is still locked on the night crew. Paul says when he worked at the Wal-Mart in Pelham, and got locked in at night, they used to talk about what they would do if there was a fire, how they'd break the windows, shoot them out with a gun grabbed from the hunting supplies section. Lynda and I look at each other, that knowing look of mothers, as I say not everyone would know how to do that, and she says tempered glass doesn't break that easy.

Eddie says, "The day after that fire in North Carolina, I guarantee you all the chicken processing plants in the state had their exit doors unlocked." He means the 1991 fire in Hamlet, North Carolina, where 25 people died, and another 49 were injured, many of them African American women, at a fire in the Imperial chicken processing plant. Witnesses at the scene described panicked workers screaming, "Let me out!....Let me out!" as they tried to kick open doors that were reportedly padlocked by the plant management to prevent vandalism and theft. After the fire, inspectors said, "Footprint indentations were evident on the inside of at least one door, that was seen to be locked from the outside." That same reason was given: To keep "them"—them—from stealing ("Fire Violations").

Eddie starts in on that idea, the people who steal our money. He's angry about NAFTA, it'll be the ruin of the country, and U.S. jobs going overseas, he's angry about Bush's just-proposed amnesty for illegal immigrants — a proposal, actually, that all the emigrant rights organizations are against.

He says he disagrees with just about everything Bush has done, and I wonder if by that he also means the war the U.S. is waging in Iraq, Afghanistan, elsewhere. I think about how almost every day the papers run stories, buried in the back pages now, about the big and questionable profits that companies are making from these wars, or the big business opportunities the wars are giving them-profits in construction for Halliburton, Vice President Cheney's former company, profits in the so-called "rebuilding" of a devastation created by U.S. sanctions and bombing; profits in oil for Unocal, profits in communications for companies like WorldCom.

Eddie says he has to work hard, he has to keep the law, he has to pay taxes, and what about the people getting by easy. He's angry about government corruption, but who he mentions is other working people he sees as somehow getting away with what he doesn't have — the people next to him by kin, or on his street, or in town.

I say what about the corporations, the chance to exploit immigrants and drive down wages for everyone else at the same time, what about NAFTA ruining farmers in Mexico and driving them here for survival, what about the corporations paying no taxes while we working people squabble among ourselves over pennies, and big business claps its hands in satisfaction.

What I'm thinking is what about—what about—what about—

What about McWane Inc. in Birmingham, major manufacturer of cast-iron pipes, one of the country's worst violators of safety and environmental law, with 5000 workers—who've been injured 4600 times since 1995? Who's stealing health and hands, legs, lives, from those workers? (Barstow)

What about the people who live on the Tallapoosa, where Alabama Power floods the river at least once a day, so as to make money by making power at the time of "peak electricity demand, when the price is higher than the rest of the day"? The riverbank is devastated, all the deer, muskrat, hawk, fish gone. James Traylor, whose family has lived there for 60 years, says, "Something was robbed from me; something was robbed from my kids" (Banerjee).

What about the fact that energy production in Alabama has now become part of an international merging of finance capital with industry, as Morgan Stanley, giant Wall Street bank, builds electric power plants in the South, one in Alabama? This way the bank can make profits in two ways-by owning the plant and by selling the power it creates as a commodity in the speculative market. So the power outage that brings us heat strokes, or a week's or a month's paycheck lost when everything in the freezer spoils, brings the bank more profits (Barboza).

What about the fact that two years ago Alabama workers suffered the deadliest U.S. coal mining accident since 1984, in the Jim Walter Resources' Brookwood mine, where 13 people died, including Dennis Mobley, who was in my high school graduating class? When the company was fined, each worker's death was worth only $55,000-a sum acceptable to any company willing to offset that cost and more by the extra production it can get from workers not slowed down by safety procedures (Lin; "Virginia").

What about Drummond, that moved its main mining operations to Colombia as the Alabama coal fields reached depletion in the 1990s? Union leaders working to organize in the mines there have been assassinated in tactics that recall the struggles in the coal fields of this country in the early 20th century, when workers were organizing to resist the theft of their work and lives by big business. In fact, 90% of union organizers reported killed worldwide die in Colombia, over 1500 in the last 10 years.

Drummond is charged with supporting paramilitary gunmen in carrying out murders of those trying to organize at the company's La Loma mines, and is being sued by the United Steel Workers and the International Labor Rights Fund in a case coming before the Federal court in Birmingham (Forero; Tam).

And-what about someone like Richard Scrushy, founder and former chief executive of HealthSouth in Birmingham, who got a boulevard named after him in Bessemer, bought a $3 million yachting marina on the Gulf, co-owned a Cessna jet, and piloted his own half-million-dollar power boat named Monopoly, painted like the board game with "Go" across the deck. HealthSouth is the largest chain of rehabilitation hospitals and surgery clinics in the U.S. but if you are one of the 40 million people without health care in the U.S. — injured on the job but with no insurance — you probably won't get past the front desk at a hospital where they ask for your insurance card (Freudenheim; Broder).

Well, if you are working person, on some level you know these things—because when I said some of what I was thinking, when I sat at the Sunday dinner table and finally said "You know things would change if we could just remove the profit motive," my cousins nodded in slow agreement.

There it was, so clear—If you are a working person, and have no hope of getting anything from the profits that are obviously going to big business, why keep the system? So clear, and yet so unspoken.

What if the wealth that working people make every day, every penny that we now produce for corporations above and beyond the wages we are paid—what if that wealth—the thousands in profit on cars made by non-unionized workers in Alabama, the huge difference between the wages paid to women sewing jeans in Mexico and what the clothes are sold for here—what if all that wealth, that surplus value, didn't go to the Scrushies, or the Morgan Stanley banks, didn't go to the McWanes or the Drummond Corporations? What if the wealth came back to the people who created that wealth, in the form of free health care, free schooling as far as you ever wanted to go, inexpensive good food, cheap housing, recreation of all sorts, books, music, computers accessible to everyone? What if we were to remove the profit motive?

It sounds like a dream, doesn't it? Not for this earth. But it's a dream that people have been working to make come true on earth for a while. It's the dream that Rev. King was working on when he went to Memphis to speak at the garbage workers strike, when he connected the fate of Black people in the U.S. to that of the people of Viet Nam, when he was assassinated just as he began to link together the struggle against racism and against national oppression and against colonial oppression and the struggle against the exploitation of workers.

And if you are from the South, and you want "justice" and you want "social change"—that is, if you and your heart have almost been broken by what you know happens to people here, what has happened to you—if you know the history of this place, of your own life—it is a dream for you, too.

* Transcript prepared by Minnie Bruce Pratt. Text may not exactly correspond to the video recording of Pratt's lecture available on Southern Spaces.

© 2004 Minnie Bruce Pratt and Southern Spaces