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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How to Nurture a Culture of Unionism in the South

Douglas Williams and Cato Uticensis have an interesting post. “Creating a culture of unionism in the South,” which merits some thoughtful scrutiny from Democrats, as well as the labor movement. As the authors, both union organizers, explain:

One of the difficulties of organizing in the South is that the struggles here frequently occur under a veil of invisibility due to the lack of pro-worker media down here. Barring major fights like the United Food and Commercial Workers’ (UFCW) fifteen-year long trench war against Smithfield Foods, where everything from cops on the company payroll to enterprise corruption lawsuits were used against the union, most of our battles do not gain much in the way of attention outside of the communities where they occur, and when there is coverage it is almost always skewed against the union. Even when unionized businesses hit hard times or close, the workers are never part of the story.
This cannot be entirely blamed on the media: Southern workers are trained by everything around them to see unions as a threat. Some of this is the fault of labor: The failure of Operation Dixie, the weak response by both the AFL and the CIO to the first right-to-work law in Florida in the early 1940s, and the ongoing lack of investment in organizing in the South by all unions feed this notion, but it’s only part of the story. The fact of the matter is that Southern workers tend to be culturally conservative….

The authors note that Taft-Hartley was particularly effective anti-union weapon in the south and the socialist boogeyman is still a useful fairy tale parroted by conservative politicians in the region to this day. Williams and Uticensis say the remedy is to promote a “culture of unionism,” a “shared mindset necessary to build and exercise collective power on behalf of working people.” They suggest 8 key principles for meeting this challenge, four of which include:

2. Solidarity is non-negotiable. An attack on any union has to be considered as an attack on all unions and must be reacted to as such. The two most recently successful organizing drives in North Carolina were carried over the line by other unionists showing solidarity with Farm Labor Organizing Committee and UFCW and holding the line on boycotts. Additional actions that unions can do to show solidarity with other workers engaged in labor struggles include contributing to the strike funds of fellow unionists, turning up to protests organized by other unions, and engaging in joint community awareness campaigns to let neighbors know why supporting the union is also supporting themselves…
4. Right-to-work doesn’t prevent union organizing; it prevents shitty union organizing. The labor movement should always be engaged in an effort to repeal right-to-work laws at the state level, and the effects that those laws have on unions and organizing have long been documented elsewhere. But until that happens, the struggle for worker justice must continue to be fought, even where it seems to be the most difficult or intransigent. To that end, visibility is an absolute necessity, as there are people in Southern states who think that they can’t form unions because of right-to-work. Taking the time and energy to demystify the jargon and give a worker the information she needs to make an informed decision is, in a word, organizing. As an example, there are UAW-organized plants in North Carolina with membership levels rivaling those of plants in Michigan, and even in the explicitly open-shop federal government, where the union has to provide support to non-members, the American Federation of Government Employees’ locals representing the Bureau of Prisons have very high rates of organization. How these two very different unions manage this feat is similar: they are very proactive at getting new hires on-board the first day. When it comes down to it, servicing your members and showing people that there is power in a union can go a long way towards increasing union density, no matter where you reside…
6. Labor has to work for the broader interests of working people. An isolation from the community makes it much easier for our enemies to vilify the union and attack it using the political process. There is no better example of this than Wisconsin, where labor was isolated from the community and an ultimately successful campaign was waged against public sector collective bargaining by hardline right wing politicians. When labor works in the broader interests of the working public, it serves as a force multiplier. There is no better example of this than Chicago, where the Chicago Teachers Union has successfully changed the conversation about education in the city through a careful and deliberate strategy of community outreach combined with on-the-job action. In the end, what’s good for the broader community is good for labor, and working towards that can bring people who would otherwise be skeptical of organizing around.
8. If an action does not build power, you must seriously question whether or not to do it. This is a key to building union strength anywhere that union density is low, but especially in the South. When you get right down to it, unions are about power for working people. There are a lot of other things that get attached to them, but that is their original and main purpose: to serve as a defense against the exploitative characteristics of corporate power. No matter how noble the action or good the cause, if it does not build power, you must think critically about whether it is necessary and whether those resources can dedicated to another project that does build power.

The authors allow that these principles are universal, but they apply exceptionally well in the south, where suppression of unions has been most successful. They argue that “The desire to retrench to previously secure places and industries is an understandable if wrong-headed notion: it rests on the idea that there are certain regions or industries that are safer from attack than others.”

This notion should have been dispelled by the bill signing that made Michigan the twenty-fourth right-to-work state in America. It should have been dispelled by the bill signing that made Indiana the twenty-third right-to-work state. It should have been dispelled by Wisconsin gutting public sector collective bargaining rights. It should have been dispelled by putative political allies of labor trying to break the teachers union in Chicago. There is no one safe place left for labor anymore, and the only way we can preserve what we have is by going on the offensive and building power in places where we do not have a strong presence.

Above all, conclude Wiliams and Uticensis, “we must make sure that working people see collective bargaining as a solution for righting wrongs on the shop floor,” while “engaging workers and the community,” using the principles they suggest. It’s a good read, one that doesn’t write-off the south or whine about it, instead offering a path which can work well with the demographic transformation now underway.

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