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Workers In The (Local) South

A timely re-post of an article about the southern labor movement and the economic foundations of right-wing power in 'red-state america'.

This week GW Bush, the most hated man in the world, won a slim re-election this week through the savvy use of gay-bashing referendum votes in pivotal swing states. Since then, progressives and radicals have been confronting painful truths about cultural divides in the United States. Crafting a strategy to re-identify 'moral issues' as civil rights and social justice for all people, and then using it to organize mass movements for social change, is now a life-or-death challenge for the left. Either we do this, or we lose everything. The news and debate on websites like the Richmond IMC are particularly important in this context--- the problem of 'organizing the south' is more crucial now than ever before.

As we grapple with these issues, I'm posting an article written for the last issue of Left Turn magazine. It's about the southern labor movement. Hopefully it can shed a little light on the economic foundations that right-wing power in 'red-state america' rest on. It mentions a struggling union of city workers in Richmond which is, unfortunately, no longer active. However, the Richmond Coalition for a Living Wage remains active, and has done amazing work making space for temp workers, day laborers and their allies to organize each other and fight for economic human rights. RCLW deserves more active support from Richmond-area progressives and radicals in thsi endeavor; maybe GW Bush will light a fire under our butts to work more with temp workers in attacking the structures of economic apartheid in Virginia that help thugs like Bush hold power over this empire.
Here's the article:

Workers In The (Local) South
The past, present and hopeful future of the southern labor movement. By Jim Straub

Every day, hundreds of sanitation workers in Richmond, Virginia, drive dilapidated trash trucks up and down the cobblestone back alleyways of their small southern city, taking away the trash. The work is hard. The summers are hot. And the pay is low.

Richmond sanitation workers, like workers all over the south, earn less money and have fewer workplace rights than their northern counterparts. This is because the ’Solid South’--- the southern region of the US that has historically been dominated by entrenched elites and political conservatism--- is also solidly non-union. Whereas, for example, more than 25% of workers in New York state belong to a union, in Virginia less than 6% do. Not coincidentally, sanitation workers in New York earn much better wages than their Richmond counterparts, and have a wide range of superior benefits.

But, when a budget-starved city government in Richmond tried to pinch pennies by speeding up their work pace and outsourcing some of their jobs two years ago, the sanitation workers proved that even without a union they could fight for their interests--- by going on a ‘wildcat’ (meaning spontaneous) strike. “We had a meeting amongst ourselves about management’s work changes,? says trash truck driver John Will, “and the next day we refused to get up and go do the work until we got a meeting with the City Manager.?

A panicked management gave in to their demands right away. However, over the next year the city moved to demobilize the suddenly militant garbage workers, with firings and harassment of leaders. But while the incident passed with little notice, it revealed something important about the south--- that millions of workers denied union representation or fair wages might prove suddenly politically explosive one day.

Trains Run North
Like everything else in the south, the situation of labor there is a product of the region’s past. Throughout early American history, the south was dominated by a white oligarchy that grew cash crops like tobacco and cotton with an enslaved African-American labor force, who were policed by a pervasive ideology of white supremacy. The region was an ’internal colony’ of the north--- crops and resources were ’exported’ north, while the region’s economy remained undeveloped and feudal. This sentiment is expressed by the old southern saying that “the trains run north?.

Even after the Civil War and Reconstruction abolished slavery, social relations in the south remained much the same. The old elite used racial terrorism and paternalism to keep the people down and divided, and the few industrializing areas of the south were kept out of the labor struggle that enveloped much of the north. Eventually, however, industrial development and labor unrest began to grow there, and the radical union federation the Congress of Industrial Organizations announced a historic crusade to ‘organize the south’ in 1952.

Sadly, this drive (called ‘Operation Dixie’) became one of the defining defeats of the American labor movement. The CIO had recently begun to move away from its multi-racial, anti-capitalist roots, and mounted a badly planned, contradictory southern campaign. Leaders shied away from the kind of all-out social movement that might have challenged the entrenched power structures that dominated southern cities and company towns; instead they tried to present themselves to employers as
cooperative in hopes of not arousing their opposition. This turned out to be a colossal and cowardly miscalculation--- the bosses brutally attacked the unions no matter what, while the unions failed to fight back. The CIO also shied away from attacking racism and frequently turned its back on black workers ready to fight for a union--- reflecting the white supremacy ingrained in many American unions.

Due to these and many other problems, Operation Dixie failed, and the south remained a nonunion haven for many factories to eventually flee to. But the history of labor in the south is not entirely one of defeat--- from ironworkers in Alabama to cotton farmers in the Mississippi Delta to textile factory employees in the Carolinas, many southern workers bucked the trend over the years and organized successfully. In general, unions grew and won in the south when they took on a larger social-movement tone in the community as well as the workplace; when they worked with the tradition of religious radicalism in the region; and when they were led by southerners themselves, who articulated their demands in a southern vernacular and context. Most importantly, unions have only ever survived in the south when they attacked white supremacy and were multi-racial in their membership.

But like so many other lessons, most unions in the US remained blind to these prerequisites for organizing the south and never tried again. This has resulted in a kind of ‘internal globalization’, whereby much industry and capital in the US has moved to the south. Since a region right here in the USA can guarantee relatively low wages, low taxes and little regulation by precenting workers from organizing into unions, it should come as no surprise that some corporations move their factories to Arkansas and Georgia rather than China or northern Mexico. In this manner even northern workers have been hurt by the union movement’s neglect of the south.

Not only has the lack of unionization in the south hurt folks
economically; it has also created a stronghold for right-wing politics in the US. With Dixie elites facing little challenge from popular movements (with the important exception of the upheavals of the civil-rights movement), a bipartisan consensus of cultural conservatism, white
supremacy, and economic exploitation has entrenched itself there. This has made life worse for countless southern people of color, women, LGBTQ folks and immigrants. It’s also disfigured national politics, giving the far-right disproportionate power in Congress.

However, southern workers have not all accepted this fate; numerous labor battles have erupted there in recent years. But, like the wildcat strike by Richmond sanitation workers, these struggles are frequently isolated and too often ignored. One instance is local 100 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), formed by longtime southern community organizers to unionize low-wage industries in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. This union recently worked with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and a living wage coalition in New Orleans in an innovative cross-community battle to win a citywide raise in the minimum wage (which would have benefited tens of thousands of workers in the city’s low-wage tourism jobs, had it not been smacked down by Louisiana’s solidly white republican legislature). Another example of contemporary southern labor militancy was the case of the Charleston 5, black dockworkers in South Carolina who were put on trial for ’felonious riot’ after cops attacked their picket of a scab shipping company (the workers were acquitted after unionists around the world rallied to their cause).

These struggles have much in common with the historical examples of successful southern labor struggle noted earlier. They are multiracial and focus on fighting racism (for instance, the Charleston dockworkers have fought hard to remove the confederate flag from their state’s capitol, and participate in the struggle to free Mumia Abu-Jamal). Also, they reach outwards from the workplace, uniting workers with their community and with allies around the country and world. And crucially, they take on the broader perspective of a social movement, fighting not just for their institution’s self-interest or for another Democrat to be elected, but for an entirely different kind of South.

Key States
What these outbursts of militancy or organizing do not constitute, however, is a strategy for organizing the whole region. The big union federation in the US, the AFL-CIO, has become somewhat more politically progressive in recent years, and as it organizes more aggressively some wonder if another southern union crusade is on the way. Indeed, the president of the important member-union SEIU announced at their national convention this July that in the coming years they are going to attempt to organize more in the south and southwest. Although nothing very specific is nailed down yet, one modest and strategic attempt already begun by SEIU and their allies might give us a sense of what they have in mind. Organizers call it the ’key states’ strategy.

This ’key states’ campaign reflects the AFL-CIO’s political orientation toward the (increasingly unresponsive) Democratic Party. Surveying the south, union strategists have concluded that the Republican Party has an enduring, controlling majority in most state legislatures in the region. Since the AFL-CIO wants to organize in a legal framework, reform of the region’s ‘right-to-work’ laws (a set of laws common in the south that are crafted to make unionization practically impossible) is seen as a prerequisite to any investment in serious organizing there (rather than as something to fight for in the course of an organizing drive). Since Republican-dominated legislatures would never make pro-labor legal reforms, the unions are looking to particular states where Democratic fortunes might fare better. They have identified Texas and Florida--- states with economies and demographics quite different than conservative-bedrock neighbors like Georgia and the Carolinas--- as ripe for labor-Democrat cooperation.

One innovative initiative springing from this ‘key states’ strategy is the current campaign for a statewide raise in the minimum wage in Florida. Across that state, enormous numbers of workers toil in low-wage service jobs like tourism and health care. Some unions there, working with community organizations like ACORN, have organized to put on the ballot this November an initiative that would raise the entire state’s minimum wage by a dollar. Thus, in the upcoming election, millions of low-wage workers across the state are likely to come out and vote their immediate economic self-interest. While there, however, those individuals are obviously very likely to vote against Bush as well--- potentially turning the tide against Bush in the very swing state where he stole his election last time. A key benefit to this wage referendum is that while it does mobilize anti-Bush voters in an extremely important state, the focus first and foremost of winning a battle in the workers’ collective self-interest.

The Social Movement Alternative
However, there are good reasons to question whether these mainstream AFL-CIO unions are genuinely committing to southern workers. While there has certainly been a long-overdue shift towards better politics, internal democracy and new organizing in the unions of the AFL-CIO, they all remain more or less tied to the Democratic Party and business unionism. Institutional self-interest and the careers of bureaucrats and politicians remain more important than workers themselves to many in the leadership.

For a telling example of how this kind of perspective may limit the AFL-CIO’s ability to break into the south, we can return the story of the Richmond sanitation workers again. For after the sanitation workers’ wildcat strike (and the subsequent successful efforts by the city
government to demobilize them), the ferment of discontent among city employees spread to other departments. A handful of workers ready to organize themselves began meeting, and applied for affiliation as a local of the large nationwide (but mostly based in the north) public-sector union the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Although these workers did not have training, resources, and indeed most had never been in a union before in their lives, they had some immediate success self-organizing a couple hundred workers into the new union, AFSCME local 3134. However, despite this high level of worker activity (called a ’hot shop’ in union organizing terminology), the national structure of AFSCME never sent any organizers, materials or resources down to Richmond to assist the drive. Instead, the national office collected their dues money and demanded more, while laying off the only AFSCME organizer in the city and closing their only office there. Frustrated members of the Richmond local found their national union actually pulling resources away at the very moment when they were so important; an unresponsive national bureaucracy alienated the local leadership from AFSCME and eventually unions themselves.

But while the story of Richmond’s city workers casts doubt on the
commitment of mainstream unions to the south, other developments among public-sector workers in Virginia offers hope for an alternative,
social-movement strategy. While AFSCME pulls resources out of the state, the small but radical union United Electrical Workers, (UE, long a pariah for steering clear of the AFL-CIO and opposing the Democratic party) is investing resources and organizers in a bottom-up campaign to organize state employees in both Virginia and North Carolina.

The contrasts between the two strategies could not be clearer. While the AFL-CIO’s strategy for southern organizing grows out of the electoral needs of the Democrats, UE’s campaign grows out of a decade of radical movement work done in North Carolina by the group Black Workers For Justice. BWFJ was organized by working-class black revolutionaries in North Carolina in the late 80s, to fight against racism on the shop floor of the many factories in that state. In workplaces where black workers were a minority (or even a majority), racism by both management and some white workers often either kept unionization from happening or from serving black workers as equals. To combat this, BWFJ developed a strategy of being willing to organize a minority of workers in a factory to promote political organization and consciousness. Dismissed as ‘minority unions’ by mainstream AFL-CIO unions, BWFJ calls this strategy ‘organizing pre-contract bargaining formations’.

After organizing around the state, and reaching out to other groups like living wage coalitions, the anti-imperialist movement, and the
predominantly-Latino Farm Labor Organizing Committee, BWFJ drew the attention of the union UE. Known for a willingness to try innovative, radical approaches, UE wants to go where the other unions won’t go. So working with BWFJ, UE began organizing unions in factories and the public-sector in North Carolina. After some modest successes in recruiting a couple thousand workers there, UE brought the campaign to Virginia by connecting with worker activists from a living wage fight at the college William and Mary. To date they have also organized workers in state hospitals at a few locations around VA.

The fact that UE is going after public-sector workers in Virginia is particularly gutsy. There are a set of laws called the ‘right to work’ laws that erect numerous legal hurdles to organizing in southern states--- and the worst of these laws in Virginia explicitly forbids any local government from ever negotiating a contact with any union of its
employees. This outright prohibition of collective bargaining for public-sector workers (who make up the largest and best-organized unions in the rest of the country) is in many ways the central component to keeping unions out of the south. For UE to take on this battle in particular, therefore, is a true David and Goliath story--- but one that, if successful, could undermine the entire structure of inequality and exploitation in the region.

UE is a small union without deep pockets for campaign contributions, that is not tied institutionally to the Democratic Party. So, their strategy for public-sector unionization in Virginia and North Carolina is centered on workers rather than elections and laws. Organizers hope to use their modest resources to develop leadership, organization and political consciousness among the rank and file of workers in some government workplaces--- then linking that union up with allies in the community and left around the state. As history shows, labor militancy will
periodically grow--- and UE hopes to have a network ready to carry the tide as far as possible when it comes in.

UE’s independent and radical politics have allowed them to avoid past strategic blunders by the rest of the labor movement, and they have often found themselves trailblazing paths for the much-bigger AFL-CIO to follow. Perhaps someday soon mainstream unions like SEIU and AFSCME will find
themselves adopting a social-movement southern strategy like UE’s by necessity if not by choice. If they do, then on the trash trucks of Richmond and shop floors across the region, the union movement will likely find a southern working class ready--- after years of waiting--- to fight to win.
 
 


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