Organizing the South

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

It’s the fastest-growing region of the U.S.  Despite the demise of its once-dominant textile industry, it’s still industrializing, especially in autos and aerospace. 

It’s also the least-unionized and politically most right wing area of the country.  Only in Alabama, among the 11 states of the old Confederacy plus Kentucky and Oklahoma – where majorities have adopted the South’s values, attitudes and ethos – are more than one in 10 workers unionized.  North Carolina (1.9 percent) is the least-unionized state in the U.S.

And Southern politicians, now overwhelmingly Republican at statewide level and in Congress, are business-friendly, or beholden to corporate interests.  Many, like right wing GOP Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, are intensely anti-worker and anti-union.

This is not new.  Arkansas, in 1944, passed the first so-called right-to-work law stripping unions of the right to collect dues or even fees from non-members they represent.  Its law, three years before the GOP-run 80th Congress let states nationwide do likewise, symbolizes the attitude the region had for years – and many say, still has – towards workers and unions.

All this poses a big problem for unions.  And, because the South is still the poorest section of the country, a big opportunity, too.  But how to take advantage of it?

“There are special challenges” to organizing the South “even prior to the industrial era,” says North Carolina AFL-CIO President James Andrews, an Office and Professional Employees member who just stepped down from the AFL-CIO Executive Council.

“There’s a culture, a master-servant kind of attitude, whether you’re black or working class, that continues to exist,” he explains.  Politicians foster that, say both Andrews and Ron Ault, a native Arkansan and veteran organizer who heads the fed’s Metal Trades Department.

Organized labor is still wrestling for a comprehensive answer.  Symbolically, the AFL-CIO’s last two winter Executive Council meetings were in deep Southern states: Houston, Texas, in 2014 and Atlanta, Ga., in February 2015.  Preceding the latter session, an informal committee on southern organizing gathered behind closed doors to ponder the dilemma.

Several unions have targeted specific groups of southern workers and used a variety of ways to organize them.  Examples include:

• The Communications Workers and the Teachers concentrate on organizing public workers, even when they can’t bargain contracts for them, as in Texas and North Carolina. 

• The Government Employees (AFGE) and Machinists set their sights on workers at military bases, depots and suppliers, since laws covering them restrict – to a greater extent than general labor law does – management hostility to organizing drives.

• After an election loss at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tenn., plant last year, the UAW chartered a new Local 42 there specifically for workers who voluntarily joined, even though it lacked a contract.  UAW also established an arrangement with VW management to informally discuss and resolve workplace issues, just as unions do with VW management in Germany.  That local now has a majority of the Chattanooga workers as members.

• The Teamsters and the Service Employees are organizing low-paid, exploited workers, with SEIU campaigning among janitors and Teamsters gathering cards for union recognition elections at FedEx terminals.  And the Fight for 15 movement has spread to the South, too.

All of these moves help the individual unions organize the South.  But 50 years after the Republican Party launched its “Southern Strategy” to win the White House and – later – Congress, does the union movement have an overriding equivalent “Southern strategy?”  It depends on whom you talk with.

Interviews with special committee members or others heavily involved in organizing in the South, held during the AFL-CIO council meeting in Atlanta, don’t seem to reveal a coordinated strategy per se or a comprehensive approach, with one exception: An intense focus on door-to-door, house-by-house, worker-by-worker education, and not just of people unions are organizing, but of entire surrounding communities.  Lots of education.

Andrews, Ault, Maritime Trades Department Secretary-Treasurer Dan Duncan and Mine Workers Director of Organizing James Gibbs all agree on that point, with variations on whom to educate and how.

Duncan, who started with the Retail Clerks in his native Tennessee before moving on to be an organizer and political director for the Seafarers in Florida and Virginia, says, in so many words, to lobby younger people, starting in high school.  Their minds are more open to new ideas than their elders’ are, he explains – and they’re seeking ways to find well-paying jobs.

“At career days, we say ‘We work for Amtrak,’ or ‘We work for Safeway.’  We’ll ask them ‘How do you get your TV news?’ ‘How do you get your mail?’ ‘How do you get your electricity?’ ‘Who bags your groceries?’ ‘Do you have a favorite teacher?’”  When the kids say yes or give examples, only then do the organizers point out “They’re all union members,” Duncan says.

And the organizers go beyond the good kids to the “hard cases,” the high schoolers who believe they have no prospects, who are in danger of dropping out of school and into crime to make a living.  The unionists step up by showing the way to apprenticeship programs that lead to well-paying building trades jobs.  And those apprentices eventually become union members.

Older workers, however, are often more set in their ways, exhibiting skepticism or negative attitudes, Duncan notes.  Ault agrees.  “’I was in IBEW and they wouldn’t process my grievance,’ they’d tell me,” he says, explaining one reason older Southern workers are reluctant to organize.  But another reason is race.

For years, Southern bosses played off white workers against African-American workers and vice versa. Many still do.  For Gibbs, who hails from Clinchco in the coal-mining country of western Virginia, the answer is organizing in the communities, too.

Head for the churches, especially the African-American churches, in particular, he says.  But also get out and wear out shoe leather going door-to-door.  And you can’t come in from outside and expect to be immediately effective, either.  “You cannot organize folks if they don’t know you,” Gibbs comments.

The education thus becomes a matter of 1-to-1 relationships, he adds.  “We cannot go into a factory in Mississippi without educating the folks around it.  They’ve been weakened by these corporations telling them: ‘You got a job.  Be happy about that.’”

That also means labor must educate its own organizers in how to counter that corporate pitch, those interviewed say.  And it must also educate organizers in how to overcome the divide-and-conquer tactics.

Otherwise, if the corporations “run the same play over and over again and you don’t stop it, they’ll continue to use it.”

Ault agrees, but says the South is not a monolith.  The Metal Trades chief led the 9-year successful department campaign to organize the Avondale Shipyard in New Orleans and he’s on the road, much of it in the South, 266 days a year as an organizer-in-chief for his 11 unions.

“The seaboard communities, especially those with shipyards, have been more receptive to organizing campaigns,” he explains.  One reason is that the federal government is the biggest, if not the sole, customer of many of those yards, so his department can lobby agency executives in D.C. to try to prevent labor law-breaking by yard owners.  The “club” the feds can use is the end of contracts and federal funding.

And workers and organizers from those unionized Southern shipyards can reach out to organize their non-union colleagues elsewhere along the coast, Ault says.  Coming from the same region and talking in similar Southern dialects, they have credibility in such drives – and they can show the non-union workers the union difference in wages and benefits.

Meanwhile, “employers try to dismantle internal communities among the workers” to prevent organizing, Ault points out.  “That’s a chilling effect.

“But people want what we offer,” he declares.  “They say, ‘If I join I’d make 30 percent more.’  But they won’t say that if they aren’t educated into the process and promise of organizing,” adds Ault, who also organized for the Machinists and the Operating Engineers.

You can also point out ancillary benefits of being union members – things like local deals on boats and car tires, often arranged through Union Privilege or Union Plus.  And, of course, the possibility of better on-the-job benefits, too, like health insurance.

And there are other vehicles to help union organizing in the South.  Andrew reports the committee discussed greater use of Working America, the AFL-CIO’s 3-million-member affiliate for workers who can’t – because of legal restrictions – or won’t formally join unions, but who agree with unionists’ goals.  It already has 44,000 members in North Carolina alone.

“We don’t’ just talk about union issues” in Working America  sessions, he adds.  They discuss the issues that led to the Moral Monday movement, which started in his state against the anti-worker anti-minority measures jammed through by the right wing GOP governor and legislature: Jobless benefit cuts, removal of worker protection, voting rights and suppression.

The Fight for 15 movement helps organizing, too, since one of its demands is the right to organize without employer intimidation, harassment, interference and labor law-breaking.  The Service Employees, a non-AFL-CIO union, have given that movement a lot of help.

And still other unions are looking at the UAW’s model in Chattanooga.  Meanwhile, UAW has expanded that concept to its attempts to organize other “transplant” auto plants, established by foreign car manufacturers, in the South.

“But the one key thing organizers can’t do is overpromise,” Gibbs warns.  “They can tell workers about the better wages union members earn on the average, but they can’t talk down to them.”  Adds Ault:  “Don’t b.s. them.”

“It’s a lot of hard work and you start from scratch.  But once you have a good strategy of house calls, education and being part of these communities, you can’t miss,” Gibbs says.