Southern Workers: In for the Long Haul

After the UAW’s bid to represent workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee was narrowly defeated last winter, mainstream pundits wrote off the AFL-CIO’s much-vaunted commitment “to develop a Southern organizing strategy.” But the obituaries are premature. Just days after the vote, panelists at a crowded forum in Durham, North Carolina, rejected the pessimistic conclusion that organizing unions in the South remains futile and pointed to areas of potential growth. Their common message was that unions can win in the South through a variety of tactics, such as reaching out to new constituencies, cultivating and mobilizing community support, running innovative campaigns, recruiting and retaining public sector workers, and political action.

New Constituencies

Chris Kromm, director of the Institute for Southern Studies, pointed out that the South has the lowest rates of union membership and the worst concentration of poverty in the United States. The two facts are intimately related, rooted in a well-established strategy of attracting business through a combination of economic incentives and the lure of a low-wage, “union-free” work force. Southern hostility to organized labor is also fueled by racism, with unions viewed, correctly, as vehicles for African American economic and political empowerment.

For more than a hundred years, the South has been the site of significant labor efforts. Duke University historian Bob Korstad points to major strikes in the textile industry in the early twentieth century, organizing among tobacco workers in the mid-twentieth century, the J.P. Stevens organizing campaign in the 1970s, and recent victories by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) at Smithfield and by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). Women and African Americans played major roles in this history, a trend that continues today and that can lead to organizing success.

MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina AFL-CIO, believes that the changing demographics of the South, with people moving from elsewhere in the United States, along with substantial immigration from other countries, mean growth in segments of the population—particularly African Americans and Latinos—that are more likely to support unions. These trends represent an opportunity for labor and for the broader progressive movement.

Building Community Support

Community support is crucial. Keith Ludlum of UFCW Local 1208 commented that workers vote against their own interests when they hear anti-union rhetoric from their neighbors and local politicians. Unions must counter that rhetoric by getting their own message out through the community. The union’s strategy in the long struggle and ultimate victory at Smithfield Foods included building community support among, for example, churches and the NAACP. Justin Flores, vice president of FLOC, noted that farm workers lack any protection under federal labor law, and many are also vulnerable as undocumented immigrants. Despite these challenges, FLOC was able to follow a successful strike against the Mt. Olive Pickle Company with a ground-breaking collective bargaining agreement between the union and the North Carolina Growers Association. In June, UFCW Local 1208 launched a statewide “Jobs and Freedom Tour” in support of its effort to organize workers at the Montaire Farms chicken processing plant in Lumber Bridge, N.C.

Innovative Organizing

Non-traditional organizing has also taken off. Zaina Alsous, an organizer with NC Raise Up, discussed the ways that retail and fast-food workers have departed from the traditional union organizing script of seeking formal certification through National Labor Relations Board elections. The new approach emphasizes direct action, including walkouts and demonstrations at hundreds of workplaces around the country, many of them in the South. Already these tactics have resulted in pay raises, recovery of unpaid overtime, and an increased focus on the problems of poverty and low wages.

Public Sector Organizing

Across the country, there have been major assaults on public sector workers, because anti-union forces realize that this sector is the last to hold some power. Often, state legislatures have forbidden collective bargaining or strikes by public sector employees. In North Carolina, commented Angaza Laughinghouse, president of the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, UE Local 150, collective bargaining agreements between unions and public employers are illegal, as are strikes by public service workers. Despite these obstacles, UE 150 has succeeded in organizing and winning improvements in wages and working conditions for its members. It has done so through rank-and-file workplace action, including wildcat strikes in some instances.

Political Action

Some of this activity has focused on challenging the Republican-controlled North Carolina state legislature and state house, which have pursued an aggressive reactionary economic and social agenda. The “Moral Monday” movement, in which labor has played an active and visible role, devoted its June 16 state capital demonstration to workers’ rights. Public school teachers have established the rank-and-file “Organize 2020” caucus within the North Carolina Association of Educators, mobilizing not just for better teacher pay and working conditions, but also to defend public education against destructive budget cuts and counterproductive standardized testing.

The North Carolina AFL-CIO and Working North Carolina inaugurated a new Workers’ Clinic this summer. The NC AFL-CIO held its annual Labor School in July, empowering workers with knowledge about their legal rights and how to organize for better jobs. NC Raise Up has mobilized fast food workers around the state in a wave of strikes and demonstrations to demand living wages and decent working conditions. FLOC continues to press R.J. Reynolds to take responsibility for low wages and dangerous working conditions in the state’s tobacco fields. And this July, at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant, five months after the defeat, the UAW chartered Local 42, which is modeled after the works councils in German plants.

Throughout the region, where workers have never stopped fighting for their rights, there is renewed energy as the rest of the country realizes that labor’s best hope lies in the South.



Eric Fink is an associate professor at Elon University School of Law in Greensboro, North Carolina. He formerly practiced labor and employment law in Pennsylvania and California. An earlier version of this article appeared in the DSA Talking Union blog.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

This article originally appeared in the fall 2014 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.