elements of organized labor are going South in earnest. Let us hope
that the main forces are not far behind. The struggle to unionize the
South began late and remains problematical, yet it is unavoidable if
unions are to reverse their long slide into the margins of political
this battle, Black political power is also at stake. That should be
labor’s trump card.
Americans know who their enemies are. Half of the Black population lives
in Dixie, in daily confrontation with the same old antagonists, the
evil-eyed men who hated both Blacks and unions in the Fifties
and Sixties, but now claim to despise only the unions.
unreconstructed reactionaries fool no one—at least, they don’t fool
many African Americans. Despite the fact that Black people’s historic
foes are at least as formidable in the 21st century as they
were four decades ago, they can be beaten. Union resources are essential
to Black victory, and Black people’s vision and numbers are the only
hope for organized labor in the South.
Republican Party below the Mason-Dixon Line has been transformed into
the White Man’s Party, under the firm control of racist businessmen
who are as vicious as mistreated pit bulls. In state legislatures across
the South, multi-layered legal fortifications have been erected against
union organizing, in the same way that the Dixiecrats piled on Jim Crow
laws in overlapping profusion from the moment of Emancipation right
through the middle of the last century.
hindsight, we now know why the racists legislated with such mad, redundant
energy: They were wracked with desperate fear of Black freedmen and
women. Their awesome, bewildering framework of statutes made the system
of racial oppression seem impregnable, but concealed a fragile inner
structure, whose legal façade was made to crumble in the space of one
decade—1954 to 1965.
with wild and thumping pontification, these same bigoted bosses rail
against “agitators” causing “dissension” among the “good working people”
who stand to “lose their jobs” if “outsiders” wearing union baseball
caps invade the sacred soil of the South.
all sounds so familiar, especially to the insiders: southern
Myths and Power
Americans are the most politically attuned people in the nation; it
comes with the experience. Blacks know that what the corporate media
treat as venerable southern “tradition” is rooted less in history and
culture than in the immediate need to retain power. We have seen it
all before. When conditions change, traditions evaporate.
propagate the myth that the South is solidly anti-union, and that this
state of affairs is rooted in the region’s peculiar “traditions.” Nonsense.
The same thing was said about segregation—the system, we were told,
was “traditional.” Mythmakers also convinced most Americans that the
Stars and Bars had always had a revered place atop the region’s public
buildings. That, too, was a lie.
legislatures began stitching confederate banners in the corners of their
state flags in the 1940s when it became clear that Blacks might soon
achieve critical mass in their search for allies against American apartheid.
The racists anticipated, with good reason, that a concerted assault
on segregation was imminent. “Tradition” had nothing to do with the
unfurling of these new flags. They were dramatic signals that “massive
resistance” to desegregation and Black voting rights had begun.
southern lawmakers worked themselves into a frenzy of right-to-work
legislation in the Fifties and Sixties, as it became clear that Jim
Crow constraints against African American social mobility were about
to burst. Southern barons realized that, in much of the region, working
people’s power plus the right to vote meant Black power.
union organizers had followed civil rights workers onto southern turf
in large numbers, the entire edifice might have collapsed. We will never
American labor leadership had not desegregated itself, and was
in no position to take advantage of the enormous human energies unleashed
in the South. Racism in top union ranks was in large measure responsible
for abandoning the South to the worst elements of a corrupt, greedy
and racist business class.
during the heyday of the civil rights movement that collective bargaining
among public employees was made illegal in all of the Old Confederacy.
This was not a historical coincidence.
Goldwater carried five southern states for the GOP in 1964, running
against civil rights and for union-busting legislation. This was the
debut of the Republican’s Southern Strategy.
Today, a white Democrat businessman is often hard to find in Dixie,
while in many districts Blacks make up a solid and even overwhelming
majority of the Democratic Party vote.
rule is the reason the South remains entangled in the barbed wire of
anti-labor legislation, with new bills passing all the time. Tradition
is irrelevant. Political action can break the Republican grip on the
region, but that will require an absolutely unprecedented investment
of union resources and political will.
real South is pro-union
people of the South are ready for unionization. African American
receptivity to organized labor’s call—when the call is made—is thoroughly
documented and beyond dispute in all regions of the country.
next fact bears repeating: White southerners are more receptive to
unions than whites anywhere else in the United States.
to Wade Rathke, chief organizer of Local 100 of the Service Employees
International Union (SEIU), rabid anti-unionism among white workers
in Dixie is a myth, yet another “tradition” with no basis in fact.
Indeed, the opposite is true.
workers in the South are more inclined to organized labor than elsewhere
in the country,” said Rathke, speaking from New Orleans. His local’s
jurisdiction includes Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas. The racial data
come from polls commissioned by SEIU, the nation’s largest union and,
along with fourth ranked American Federation of State, County and Municipal
Employees (AFSCME), the most aggressive in signing up unorganized workers.
workers as a whole are 20% more pro-union than their counterparts in
other regions, providing “a rich opportunity” for organizers, said Rathke.
“And if you are fortunate enough to have a union full of Black women
- praise the Lord!”
region, by all measurements, Black women are the most pro-union group
in the nation, followed in descending order by Black men, Hispanic women,
Hispanic men, white women, and white men. Down South, all six sex and
ethnic cohorts are willing to hear what the unions have to say, if given
the exercise of raw state power by the venal businessmen who control
most of the capitals of the Old Confederacy, keeps the South captive
to low wage employers. Forget about “tradition.” Spit that word out
with the snuff.
the cost to fight the boss
organizing is expensive, costing thousands of dollars per person. In
those regions where right-to-work laws undermine the very existence
of the unionized workplace - allowing individuals to opt out of paying
dues, for example - the task is even harder. In the past, labor concentrated
its expenditures in areas of previous success, in search of easy pickings
in friendly territory containing higher “densities” of union workers.
Much of the South was all but written off.
is, of course, a general description of affairs; there are many notable
exceptions along the spectrum of organized labor and within individual
unions. However, the overall result was that broad swaths of the South
were treated as no-go zones. Having abandoned the field – and millions
of southern Black workers, who are ready and eager to fight the powers-that-be
– many northern-based unionists whined that the South’s “low density”
of existing membership represented a prohibitively expensive investment.
decades, the whiners prevailed, but now there is no alternative. A tidal
wave of change has left labor gasping. Unions represent only about 11%
of the U.S. workforce, and much of that membership is in the public
sector. Jobs are going South.
Rathke points out that “42% of job growth in the U.S. is in the unorganized
private sector of the South.” As a top organizer, Rathke lobbies for
funds to get the grassroots job done. He acknowledges the “resource
problem,” but adds, “It’s never too late. If we don’t do it now, we’ll
pay for it forever.”
Executive Vice President Patricia Ford constantly stresses the urgency
of a Southern Strategy. There is no other option, says Ford, a Black
woman in a 20% African American union. “There was resistance [to a big
southern push] for various reasons. You can spend a lot of money down
there, and your success rate won’t be as good” as elsewhere, she said,
Washington office. “But, if business keeps going that way, we have to
face the situation, sooner or later.”
northern jobs went south, they didn’t arrive with Detroit-level wages.
Good pay, however, is relative. Ford points to Alabama’s new auto plants.
“People who were making $8.00 an hour are making $22.00 an hour, now.
But that’s cheaper than what the automakers were paying in Michigan.
What’s the union going to tell them they’re going to do for them?”
answers her own question: “You can make a million dollars a day, but
if they can fire you today, what difference does it make? Job protection
is the issue. That’s one of the reasons that African Americans went
to work for the federal government. They had the civil service system.”
any rate, Rathke and Ford aren’t organizing autoworkers. The SEIU’s
current focus is on the public sector in Georgia, Arkansas, Texas and
Louisiana, and health care workers in Florida. Since unions organizing
on behalf of public employees must operate on the fringes of legality
in the South, the union’s mission is openly political. State legislatures
have to be convinced to ease the restrictions under which organizers
work. Friendly executives need to be cultivated.
hinges on the union being seen as representing far more people than
its actual or potential membership, alone.
Roy Barnes, in Georgia, is very accessible to us,” Ford reports. Barnes
is a Democrat. In Georgia, the only significant block of votes his party
can count on are African American. In that sense, Blacks, unions and
the Democratic Party share a commonality of interests (although southern
white Democrats constantly delude themselves into thinking that they
are the bulwark against Republicanism.)
unions to thrive in Dixie – that is, seriously penetrate the “42% of
job growth in the U.S. [that] is in the unorganized private sector of
the South” - they must transform the region, itself. This requires open,
intimate identification with Blacks, who have the numbers, historical
experience, and political will to confront the prevailing order.
no daylight should shine through any cracks in such an alliance.
new kind of union
SEIU and AFSCME, its sister union – both of which have African Americans
as second in command and heavily Black memberships – are developing
strategies suited to the region. “For organizing to be successful in
the South, it has to be community based,” said the SEIU’s Rathke. “You
can’t pretend that it’s just labor versus management at a worksite.”
legacies of slavery and the civil rights struggle are central facts
of the southern organizer’s environment. “Out of these roots, the branches
must include continuing commitments to civil and human rights for working
people,” said Rathke.
has been an important activist in the region since the late Sixties,
having helped found the national grassroots community organization ACORN
and Local 100 of SEIU. He’s chief organizer for both outfits.
Few unions have this kind of in-depth southern presence.
labor’s southern offensive has materialized a few decades late. “The
shame is that we don’t have more vibrancy in our civil rights institutions.
They’re not what they were,” Rathke laments. “You’ve got to build your
own community roots.”
Living Wage Movement is labor’s project to re-root itself. SEIU, AFSCME
and ACORN are the key components of the national movement. New models
of community-union collaboration are being created, ties that will undoubtedly
shape organized labor’s future in the South.
a mass movement to win a referendum, in February, raising the New Orleans
minimum wage to $1 above the national floor. This popular victory in
a large, majority Black southern city placed labor at the center of
a collaboration among many organizations. African Americans, in particular,
were overwhelmingly supportive. The campaign didn’t increase labor’s
“density” in the region, but it firmly established unions as allies
of unaffiliated working and poor families, as well as the churches and
other institutions that serve them.
New Orleans referendum is an example of how labor can build its political
base, without necessarily adding a single member. “Density” is not destiny.
Louisiana Supreme Court put the New Orleans wage hike on hold, while
it decides if the state’s cities can constitutionally raise minimum
wages. Just weeks ago, the South Carolina legislature voted to make
it illegal for cities in that state to follow New Orleans’ lead. Florida’s
legislature is headed in the same direction.
it seems that we are reliving the “massive resistance” of the Fifties
and Sixties. Yet, in the end, the Jim Crow edifice came tumbling down.
The chains that currently bind labor in the South can also be broken,
if the region’s people – especially African Americans - perceive that
their concerns and labor’s are one and the same. Besides, labor has
no choice. The status quo means slow death.
the Democratic Party in the South
White Man’s Party—the southern GOP—is organized labor’s most implacable
political foe, the boss’s mouthpiece. Its groveling cousin is the Democratic
Leadership Council (DLC), a group of conniving white Democrats whose
mission is to retain dwindling white support through continual compromise
DLC is a southern invention that expanded to include conservative Democrats
from other regions, and now even boasts a small clique of unprincipled
Black office-seekers. (Cory Booker, the right wing-funded aspirant for
mayor of Newark, NJ is a DLC darling.) Bill Clinton and Al Gore are
founding DLC members.
Southern Disease has infected the entire nation, moving the country’s
political center of gravity further rightward and southward, year after
year. Labor and Blacks count fewer friends
on Capitol Hill. Both groups find themselves accepting whatever crumbs
they can get from whoever lives in the White House.
fight the disease, labor must go straight to the source.
35 full voting members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), 16 represent
districts in the Old Confederacy. (The African American congressional
delegates from Washington, DC and the U.S. Virgin Islands do not have
full voting privileges.) That’s almost half of the CBC’s voting strength,
and the only dependable, labor-friendly block in the region.
the uncertainties of redistricting, the CBC is likely to become increasingly
southern. However, Black seats are not automatically labor seats,
as became dramatically evident on June 25.
SEIU's Patricia Ford observes that African Americans in congress have,
until now, "intuitively" voted pro-labor, even when their
support is unappreciated. "They usually vote on behalf of working
families. They themselves often come from working families."
knows the math. "From a congressional perspective, in terms of
who supports a labor agenda, you will find the Black Caucus supports
a labor agenda more frequently than any other caucus, about 90% of the
time," said Ford. "These are largely congresspersons from
the South. But, labor has taken them for granted."
struck on Tuesday, June 25, in the heart of Alabama's Black belt. In
a run-off primary election, five-term Representative Earl Hilliard was
trounced by an African American challenger with pockets full of right
wing cash (including many thousands of dollars from zealots of the pro-Israel
lobby.) Hilliard was overwhelmed, despite the desperate efforts of Black
Caucus members and a few unions - notably SEIU.
excellent labor record could not save him from the onslaught of money,
largely because the full weight of labor's resources had not been brought
to bear. The accumulated decades of union inactivity took their toll.
When Arthur Davis, a young former district attorney, takes office, he
will owe organized labor nothing.
now be clear that the battle is not just about electing more African
Americans in the South. Unions must work to shape community infrastructures
that can resist the power of money.
must also convince white southern Democrats to change their ways; to
stop, in effect, running away from Black voter's concerns-the DLC's
electoral formula. Money is, of course, a very convincing commodity,
and labor isn't broke, yet. However, there is no substitute for grassroots
organizing, a labor resource that the boss's money can't buy.
organizer Wade Rathke senses a change in the climate: "The limits
of greed are about to be reached. The level of greed and corruption
is just disgusting to people. In the South, it is even more stark."
receptivity to unionism is a fact-Black women are treasures, in this
regard. White southerners tell pollsters of their willingness to join
union ranks. Experience has taught us that the Hispanic workers pouring
into Dixie are amenable to unions. The region is rich with potential.
Only the law - and lack of political will - stands in the way.
have experience with changing laws.
has been loosing on the southern front, by default. Union paymasters
must mobilize their organizers like never before, and send them South.
As Rathke puts it, “When you get ready to organize the South, be ready
for a fight.”