Phil Cohen earned his nickname by being one of the most effective labor organizers ever in a region that has never been kind to unions. But Cohen is more than just an organizer: He is also a songwriter, an accomplished wildlife photographer, and now, the author of a powerful memoir that offers an uncommonly up close and personal look at the struggles of organized labor in the South.

Story By Art Menius | Photographs by Kate Medley


Delta’s unready when you are

By Art Menius

Concourse C, LaGuardia Airport, 5:32 AM July 18, 2017

Ann Coulter got her $30 back from Delta. Ann Coulter didn’t get the seat she paid Delta for, and she got her $30 back. We didn’t get the flight, including the seats, we paid Delta for, and we got to spend the night pretending to sleep in different parts of LaGuardia Airport. We didn’t get $30 back.

Ann Coulter got her $30 back from Delta. She had a Twitter fit, insulting Delta, its employees, and at least one fellow traveler. We did as advised, didn’t insult anyone, and went through a hassle dealing with rerouting our checked bag, then had to go back in through security. Eventually, after considerable effort by two Delta staffers, we received boarding passes for our rebooked flights the next morning, slept on the floor near C17, got rudely kicked out and sent back to baggage claim, then directed up to ticketing to rest in a wheel chair and on a baggage cart. At 4:15 AM we shuffled back through security yet again, and up to hang out near C15 the remaining two hours until our automatically rebooked flight started boarding.

We ended up there because our route home from a week in Prince Edward Island was Halifax to Toronto and then Toronto to LaGuardia on Delta’s Canadian partner WestJet leading to an 8:30 Monday night Delta flight home to RDU. Wicked weather delays meant that our flight from Toronto left around two hours late. We still had a chance to make our connection even then, but the monitor reported that our flight to Raleigh had been cancelled.

Finally coming upon a gate agent who wasn’t besieged with people, we learned that we had been automatically rebooked on a 7:15 AM Tuesday flight not directly to Raleigh but via Detroit. She explained that we needed to rush down to WestJet baggage to get our bag rerouted. Only with the help of an airport employee were we even able to find a WestJet baggage agent who rerouted our bag only when Becky insisted at first resistance, and I at the second. She seemed to accomplish what she said was impossible in less than a minute.

The large number of weather related cancellations meant that all the airport area hotels were booked, leaving us to fend for ourselves in LaGuardia without any guidance on the rules, where things are, or anything else. No fun ensued.

IMG_20170718_053827 DeltaThe weather delay does not obligate Delta or any airline to billet passengers the way it would with mechanical issues or overbooking. Good customer service and simply decency does obligate them, however, to provide stranded travelers with some assistance or at least information. Gate C21 was able to get three wheelchair handlers stat. Why couldn’t those of us coming off the Toronto flight be greeted, as the WestJet flight attendant said would be the case, by Delta representatives who would let us know the status of our connecting flights, explain our options, let us know what crashing at the airport entailed – we were fortunate heretofore to be ignorant of this aspect of human endeavor – and perhaps do more to help us find a room than to direct us to the Port Authority desk in baggage claim.

After paying several hundred dollars is it too much to ask to be treated decently during a very stressful and confusing experience filled with various unsatisfactory options. I’m just saying that Ann Coulter got her $30 back for behaving badly after not getting the right seat while we got to sleep on floors and in wheelchairs for having 14 hours added to our trip. We did get a text at 4:17 AM telling us the flight we would be on. I guess that is something.

When folk music was a real ‘hoot’: How the Old Town School began – Chicago Tribune

“One student stepped up to the mike,” the Tribune reported in April 1958. “(He) asked the audience to smile, took a snapshot, then hitched his guitar around his neck and sang, ‘Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.'”

And so began what is now a 60-year tradition of student performances at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, which had opened Dec. 1, 1957, and helped propel the folk music craze that was sweeping the country.

The Yamikah Under the Cowboy Hat

This time around I have explored the experience and identity of a group of Jews who live, like myself, a life defined by conflicting dualities: They are Jews and they play and rely on the music industry of the American South.

My research specifically explored the identity and experience of Jewish musicians who grew up in the American South, or currently rely on the music industries of the South to support their career. 

The Jackson Project Reviewed in History


History: Reviews of New Books

Volume 45, 2017 – Issue 3

US and Canada

The Jackson Project: War in the American Workplace: A Memoir

Cohen, Phil, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press 375 pp., $26.95, ISBN 9781621902430 Publication Date: July 2016

Pages 64-65 | Published online: 10 Mar 2017

From widening disparities in wealth and income to the growing power of conservatives and business, the decline of the labor movement has cast a long shadow over American politics and society. Over the past half century, a wide range of scholars has documented the role played by weak legal protections, strong business opposition, global competition, and bureaucratic union leaders in reducing organized labor to a state of crisis.

Phil Cohen’s compelling memoir combines and complicates these explanations. A thirty-year veteran of the labor movement in the South, Cohen is well positioned to recount the successes and the failures of organized labor in the region. After moving from his native New York City to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the late 1970s, Cohen found employment as a municipal driver. His work with his own local labor union eventually drew the attention of the southern regional staff of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU), which he joined in 1987.

With the exception of the opening chapter and occasional flashbacks, most of the narrative covers an eleven-month campaign in Jackson, Tennessee, in 1989–1990. Charged with stabilizing and rebuilding Local 281, Cohen encountered a flagging interracial union in a capital-starved, competition-swamped textile mill of just under 400 employees. In sometimes grim, often moving prose, Cohen recounts the local union’s subsequent efforts to navigate managerial opposition, rank-and-file splits, and corporate restructuring, taking the reader from the bargaining table to the courtroom to the picket line.

At its best, the book offers an unusually vivid and accessible window into the practical operation of American labor law. In recounting the give-and-take of negotiation, the marshaling of evidence for arbitration, and the resolution of a seemingly endless number of individual and collective grievances, Cohen conveys a sense of the power of the contract. Yet in recalling the inaccessibility of the bankruptcy process, the secrecy of new foreign investors, and the flagrant violation of workers’ right to organize, he also reveals its inefficacy. Though a dedicated group of picketers managed to restrict the plant’s access to raw cotton, win surprisingly positive coverage from the press, and garner significant support from the local community, the campaign ultimately failed. Bankruptcy proceedings displaced the old union, the new owners blacklisted the old union members, the regional office pulled Cohen, and the firm went under soon after. In the end, the local’s leadership was trapped by the same dilatory, insulated legal structures that otherwise afforded their members a modicum of protection from arbitrary action.

There is a throwback quality to the book, which sometimes has the feel of a rust-belt drama with a southern accent. Cohen recognizes that organizing drives are emotional, as well as tactical, and that workers respond to empathy and passion as much as to bread and butter. Demonstrating a remarkable capacity for resisting simplification, Cohen humanizes the struggle without romanticizing it. The law is both useful and broken. The employer is both greedy and trapped. The workers are both desperate and resilient. The union is both committed and pragmatic. Organizing is hard. The firm’s troubles owe much to global developments beyond anyone’s comprehension, much less their control. Though a sometimes callous, incompetent management exacerbated these macro-pressures, there are more victims than villains in a sad story that ultimately underscores the human costs of the war on workers.

That story is worth telling. Scholars and observers of the labor movement will find much of the account familiar, but the memoir has potential to be useful as a teaching tool. At a time when few students are familiar with the world of unionized labor, Cohen’s memoir offers a compelling starting point.