Workers in the South Aren’t Letting Anti-Labor Laws Stop Them From Organizing

From a recent work action in Durham, North Carolina to union drives at REI and academic institutions, workers are taking important steps to organize the South.

Mindy Isser

Members of North Carolina Public Service Workers Union rally. UE150 NC Public Service Workers Union / Facebook

Every weekday morning, Montrell Perry, 40, wakes up at 5am to arrive at work at Solid Waste Management in Durham, North Carolina by 6am. Perry, who works on the yard waste team and rides on the back of a sanitation truck, will soon have to start waking up closer to 4am to get to work on time, since he’s been priced out of his native Durham and is moving 45 minutes away. 

After he completes his grueling shift picking up yard waste — and dealing with hazards including extreme weather along with snakes, wasps, bees, hornets and raccoons — he heads to his part-time job as a custodian at a public school, working from 4pm until 8pm every weekday. By the time he gets home, he barely has enough energy to get washed and eat dinner before going to sleep and doing it all again the next day. 

Even though strikes are illegal for public sector workers in North Carolina, the difficult and sometimes dangerous work — coupled with low wages and the rising cost of living — led Perry and his co-workers to refuse to get in their trucks to pick up trash on September 6. The action reflects growing labor agitation in the South — a region where union organizing and striking are exceptionally challenging, but workers are nevertheless coming together to improve their working conditions. 

The day before the action, on the evening of September 5, sanitation and other city workers packed the Durham City Council meeting to present a petition demanding an immediate $5,000 bonus, payment for all work done outside job titles, and hiring all temporary workers as permanent. But, Perry told In These Times, we felt like our words were landing on deaf ears.”

The next morning when sanitation workers got to their yard, the majority of them decided not to load their work trucks. According to Perry, the stand-down,” as the union calls it, just happened organically,” and continued through September 11. The city apparently hired a private contractor to pick up trash over the weekend, and the union announced that sanitation workers would head back to work on September 12, not because their demands have been met, but because they want to keep their commitment to the community by keeping it clean and healthy for everyone.” 

A spokesperson for the city of Durham told In These Times The City’s priority during the protest was to make sure that our residents’ garbage was collected in a timely manner. To that end, we are happy that Durham’s solid waste collectors have returned to work to help put us back on schedule with garbage collections. We intend to continue to listen to all of our employees, and to reward them in a fair and fiscally responsible way.”

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Perry, a single father of a high school senior, has been working for the city as a sanitation worker for nearly two years, and is now making $17.80 per hour. This past July, city workers received a small raise (on average, a 7% increase) that their union, the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, UE Local 150, says does not keep up with inflation and rising costs of living. 

Jillian Johnson, a Durham City Council member associated with Local Progress, a national left-wing organization, posted on X (formerly Twitter) that the city is currently in the process of a pay study which will be used to make decisions about mid-year and/​or future wage increases” for city workers. Johnson went on to say that situations like the sanitation workers’ stand-down usually happen at the end of a long negotiation process when it’s determined that an agreement between parties isn’t possible. We haven’t had that here… because we don’t have public worker collective bargaining in NC (which we should!) so we’re just left in an informal situation.” 

Durham is a solidly blue city in a red state — North Carolina voters have not supported a Democrat for president since 2008 — and the union density stands at 2.8%, higher only than South Carolina. Not only is North Carolina a right-to-work state, but for public sector workers like Perry, collective bargaining is also banned. Thanks to pressure from workers, however, the city has taken steps to support union organizing and other campaigns to improve workplace conditions. 

In 2019, the city established a Workers’ Rights Commission, to serve as an advisory body to the City Council on how to improve conditions for all workers in Durham. The commission is made up of 13 voting members appointed by the City Council, and, according to its bylaws, at least two members must work at one of Durham’s largest workplaces, at least four members must work in a low-wage industry like fast food, home healthcare, or retail, and one member must be a member of a union or another worker organization.

Despite the anti-labor laws and the otherwise-unfriendly environment for unions, workers are still organizing and finding ways to garner political support for their campaigns. Eric Blanc, Professor of Labor Studies at Rutgers University, told In These Times that though unionization and strike activity remains centered in blue states, we’re now starting to see labor’s national uptick in the South too. Many workers there still wrongly believe that living in a right-to-work state means they can’t form a union. But if some high-profile union drives in the region are able to win, then it’s possible that other workers will try to follow suit.” 

And it’s not just public sector workers like Perry and his coworkers — it’s workers across industries: graduate workers at Duke University won their union election with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in August after organizing for seven years, and workers at the REI Co-Op, also in Durham, went on strike this past May in response to anti-union retaliation, and then went on to win their union election with the United Food and Commercial Workers later that month. Last month, graduate workers at Emory University in Atlanta filed for a union election, and campus workers at Jacksonville State University in Alabama announced the formation of their union, as did campus workers at Virginia Tech.

Other recent efforts have fallen short. Auto workers at Nissan in Mississippi voted against joining UAW in 2017, as did Volkswagen workers in Tennessee in 2019 (albeit narrowly, by a margin of 57 votes). Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama also lost their union election, although they continue to organize through the Southern Worker Assembly and its Council of Amazon Workers. But while these workers may have lost their individual campaigns, their attempts show that workers in the South want to organize, even if it may take longer than in more union-friendly states.

Unions are staying creative in order to respond to the difficult conditions of organizing in the South. The Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW) — which was born out of the Fight for $15 campaign in which fast food workers have organized for higher wages and union rights — is continuing to organize across the service sector in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. USSW says they have over 200 workers involved in their movement, and that it’s continuing to grow and gain momentum. The National Domestic Workers Alliance (my employer) is also organizing domestic and care workers in North Carolina, Texas, and Georgia in a direct-join model, fighting for legislation to protect domestic workers, and for more federal and state funding to support home care and child care.

"We wouldn’t have the weekends without unions; they’ve gotten us a lot that we take for granted these days. That’s why we need to regain that history about what unions are and how we expand them in the South.”

Gerald Green, a 31-year-old Waffle House worker in Atlanta, learned about the USSW at a Black Lives Matter protest last year and pledged to get involved. He told In These Times that in a place like Georgia, if you’ve heard about unions, you probably have a negative connotation or opinion about what a union is. But we wouldn’t have the weekends without unions; they’ve gotten us a lot that we take for granted these days. That’s why we need to regain that history about what unions are and how we expand them in the South.” Earlier this month, Green led his co-workers and supporters in a march on the boss to demand higher wages and better working conditions.

Jaeyeon Yoo, 29, a 3rd year PhD student in the Literature department at Duke University, said that USSW supported our [fight] and we’ve held trainings in their office. Although the nature of our work is different, we’re united in our struggle against greed — such as the ever-increasing cost of living in Durham.” Now that graduate workers at Duke have won their union election after seven long years of organizing, they’re ready to meet the administration at the bargaining table and win a strong first contract. Because union density is so low in states like North Carolina, workers who are either in unions or are in the process of organizing have incentive to stick together. Yoo told In These Times that it’s not the most union-friendly state to organize in, but that’s made our victory even more incredible.” 

Beyond the South, workers at some of the most profitable companies in the United States are organizing to demand better pay and treatment on the job. In July, Teamsters members at UPS narrowly avoided a strike and won one of the strongest contracts they’ve seen in decades, and UAW members at the Big Three auto companies are preparing for a potential strike on September 15. Workers at Starbucks and Trader Joe’s around the country continue to organize, file for union elections, and in some cases, strike in their fight for a contract. And while U.S. union membership stands at a historic low of 10.1%, there has been increased energy around revitalization of the labor movement, with new workers organizing all the time. Generation Z, encompassing young people born after 1997, are the most pro-labor generation alive today, with 64.3% approving of unions.

Perry and his coworkers are planning to rally before the next Durham City Council meeting where they’ll demand that the $5,000 bonus be approved. He believes that we might not get everything we want, but we’re gonna get something… sanitation work is the fifth most dangerous job in the country, especially working on the back of the truck. We deserve more, and we’re gonna get it.” 

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Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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