Following the Nissan Loss, What Will It Take for Labor to Organize the South?

Chris Brooks September 6, 2017

On November 16, 2016, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400 members voted to ratify new union contracts, which included agreements for higher starting pay, more frequent wage progression increases and a plan that moves towards pension security. (UFCW Local 400 Facebook Page)

This arti­cle was first post­ed by Labor Notes.

It’s a tru­ism that for unions to pre­serve their gains they must orga­nize the South — but as the recent fail­ures at Volk­swa­gen, Boe­ing, and Nis­san made clear, this is eas­i­er said than done.

South­ern” con­di­tions are fast becom­ing the new nor­mal; right-to-work is the law in more than half the states, includ­ing those in labor’s Mid­west heartland.

The South’s low union den­si­ty, right-to-work” laws, gov­ern­ment hos­til­i­ty to unions, and severe lim­its on rights for pub­lic work­ers are a mag­net for com­pa­nies, who can either brow­beat North­ern union mem­bers into con­ces­sions or make good on their threats to pack up and leave.

After the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers gar­nered only 37 per­cent sup­port in last mon­th’s vote at Nis­san in Mis­sis­sip­pi, Labor Notes host­ed a dis­cus­sion about what labor in the South is up against — and some use­ful counter-examples.

Kate Bron­fen­bren­ner is a labor researcher at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty and co-author of Blue­print for Change: A Nation­al Assess­ment of Win­ning Union Orga­niz­ing Strate­gies.

Tiffany Flow­ers is orga­niz­ing direc­tor for Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers (UFCW) Local 400, which rep­re­sents 35,000 work­ers in Mary­land, Vir­ginia, Wash­ing­ton, D.C., West Vir­ginia, Ohio, Ken­tucky, and Tennessee.

Cassie Wat­ters is lead orga­niz­er for the Unit­ed Cam­pus Work­ers (UCW-CWA), a non-major­i­ty union with­out col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights. It rep­re­sents pub­lic high­er edu­ca­tion work­ers across Ten­nessee and is affil­i­at­ed with the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Workers.

Respons­es have been edit­ed for length and clarity.

What exam­ples of orga­niz­ing in the South would you hold up as exam­ples, and what makes them work?

Flow­ers: I would point to last year’s vic­to­ry for UFCW Local 400 at the only Lip­ton Tea plant in the U.S., in Suf­folk, Vir­ginia. We rat­i­fied our first con­tract there this July.

Lip­ton was forc­ing all employ­ees to work 12-hour shifts for 13 days in a row, with only one day off every two weeks. The work­ers were frus­trat­ed and exhaust­ed. One was forced to choose between attend­ing their child’s grad­u­a­tion or a very impor­tant doctor’s appoint­ment for a ter­mi­nal­ly ill child. Fam­i­lies and rela­tion­ships were suf­fer­ing bad­ly and the com­pa­ny was unresponsive.

They were so excit­ed about the prospect of change that 27 peo­ple out of 200 showed up to the first meet­ing. They demand­ed to sign cards and launch their cam­paign. They imme­di­ate­ly took own­er­ship in hopes of cre­at­ing a bet­ter work­ing environment.

With­in 72 hours of the first meet­ing, the com­pa­ny held its first anti-union meet­ing, com­plete with the plant man­ag­er show­ing a Pow­er­Point with a pic­ture of him­self point­ing in the mir­ror and tak­ing all of the blame for the ter­ri­ble work­ing con­di­tions. He begged for just one chance to make it right. He cried. He announced that he might be able to do some­thing” about the manda­to­ry over­time if they rethought their posi­tion on the union.

From their first taste of oppo­si­tion from man­age­ment, they nev­er cow­ered. Our com­mit­tee demon­strat­ed inter­ra­cial and inter­de­part­men­tal sol­i­dar­i­ty from the begin­ning to today. When con­front­ed by bla­tant­ly racist work­ers who were not union sup­port­ers, we wit­nessed black and white work­ers stand togeth­er and pro­claim that there was equal suf­fer­ing among black and white and black and white work­ers are going to ben­e­fit from us form­ing a union.”

Bron­fen­bren­ner: One of the exam­ples that many peo­ple don’t know about is the CWA orga­niz­ing pub­lic sec­tor work­ers at Stephen F. Austin State Uni­ver­si­ty in Texas, a state with no pub­lic sec­tor labor laws. In the 1980s, the CWA was orga­niz­ing 156 pub­lic sec­tor employ­ees, all Black, in the food ser­vice department.

These work­ers had been work­ing with the NAACP on a civ­il rights law­suit they brought against the uni­ver­si­ty after notic­ing that Black work­ers were exclu­sive­ly hired to work in the house­keep­ing and food ser­vice departments.

Dur­ing the law­suit, the NAACP dis­cov­ered that admin­is­tra­tors would cir­cle one of two let­ter N”s on the top of the appli­ca­tion if the appli­cant was Black, which would lead to their being put in spe­cif­ic job cat­e­gories. The NAACP had won their law­suit years ear­li­er, but the uni­ver­si­ty refused to hand over the court-man­dat­ed back pay the work­ers were due for the dis­crim­i­na­tion they suffered.

The NAACP and CWA joined togeth­er to orga­nize the food ser­vice work­ers, expand­ing the civ­il rights strug­gle into a work­ers’ rights strug­gle. The uni­ver­si­ty sub­se­quent­ly con­tract­ed them out. So the food ser­vice work­ers became pri­vate employ­ees con­tract­ed with a pub­lic employer.

At the time, under this arrange­ment, nei­ther fed­er­al labor law nor state law cov­ered these work­ers; they were in a gray area. The union didn’t stop, though. The work­ers went and vis­it­ed all the unions in the area, all the church­es, the Board of Regents, and devel­oped an incred­i­ble com­mu­ni­ty and labor cam­paign to pres­sure the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board. They brought down union mem­bers from all over the state of Texas and CWA mem­bers from all over the region to march on Nacog­doches. They marched from one end of the town to the other.

They knew the uni­ver­si­ty is depen­dent on state gov­ern­ment, so they vis­it­ed the leg­is­la­ture. They under­stood all the pow­er play­ers — the Regents and state gov­ern­ment — and they under­stood that the NLRB ulti­mate­ly is a polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion sub­ject to polit­i­cal force — so they brought it all to bear on Nacog­doches with thou­sands of peo­ple march­ing in the streets. Sud­den­ly, the NLRB said, We’ll find a way for these work­ers to have an election.”

It was con­stant activ­i­ty on mul­ti­ple fronts. So Stephen F. Austin Uni­ver­si­ty is not only union­ized but it’s pos­si­ble for Blacks to get jobs in all areas of the Uni­ver­si­ty. The out­pour­ing of activ­i­ty served as a deter­rent to future attempts at pri­va­ti­za­tion and helped kick off orga­niz­ing dri­ves at region­al man­u­fac­tur­ing plants.

Some peo­ple see work­ers in the South vot­ing against unions and vot­ing for Repub­li­cans and write them off as back­wards or igno­rant. What is the reality?

Flow­ers: When I hear folks paint South­ern work­ers with such a broad stroke, I often won­der how much time they’ve invest­ed on the ground. Being South­ern, Repub­li­can, and a union sup­port­er are not mutu­al­ly exclusive.

The man who called UFCW to find out how to start a union at Lip­ton is a white, 50-some­thing, loud and proud Trump — and union — sup­port­er. He’s lived in Suf­folk all of his life. He is an avid hunter. He makes sure to wear Trump or MAGA para­pher­na­lia every­where he goes because he’s wait­ing for a son a bitch to get frog­gy” so that he can put his black belt in karate to use.

He was the first to out­fit his lock­er and tool­box with union stick­ers. He was a leader through­out the cam­paign and was elect­ed to the bar­gain­ing com­mit­tee by his co-work­ers, who also refer to him as piss and vine­gar.” He rou­tine­ly refers to anti-union work­ers in unpleas­ant terms and nar­row­ly avoid­ed sev­er­al shop floor dis­putes, as he is not shy about vocal­iz­ing his opinions.

Con­verse­ly, we had a Black leader whose desire to orga­nize was born out of what he saw as a lack of con­sis­ten­cy.” He saw the union as the only way to bal­ance scales and ensure that there was one set of rules for all work­ers. He was a huge Jill Stein sup­port­er, said he’d even con­tributed to her cam­paign. He’d lament the igno­rance of the aver­age Amer­i­can vot­er and the futil­i­ty of the two-par­ty system.

Once dur­ing a house call, he lec­tured me about the impor­tance of research and know­ing the facts. He said he was as skep­ti­cal of unions as he was of the Democ­rats, but after much research he found that UFCW was a cred­i­ble orga­ni­za­tion with rela­tion­ships with Unilever [which owns Lip­ton] in oth­er parts of the coun­try. He said that if his dumb-ass co-work­ers would pick up a book or uti­lize Google, they’d real­ize that orga­niz­ing is the only answer.”

I say all of this to say: the idea that the South is a mono­lith is lazy. To sug­gest that we can write orga­niz­ing the South off because it is full of unre­deemable deplorables” is a cop-out. South­ern work­ers are com­pli­cat­ed. If we are going to cre­ate dif­fer­ent out­comes, we are going to have to aban­don our mis­giv­ings and talk­ing points about the South and make it the epi­cen­ter of the movement.

Wat­ters: This is part of a larg­er prob­lem, the seri­ous divide between North and South, urban and rur­al, red state and blue state, coastal and land­locked. And there is a real blind­ness to how the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty failed us by aban­don­ing poli­cies that would have stood up to cor­po­rate pow­er — for exam­ple, peo­ple have for­got­ten total­ly about the Employ­ee Free Choice Act and the party’s refusal to make it a pri­or­i­ty dur­ing Obama’s first term.

The deter­mi­na­tion of the rul­ing class to keep unions from gain­ing a foothold, cou­pled with an incon­sis­tent at best invest­ment by nation­al unions in orga­niz­ing in the South, plus the fact that off­shoring is a more recent phe­nom­e­non here, so many per­ceive it as the inevitable result of demand­ing more, all these are fac­tors in explain­ing the weak­ness of unions here.

I recall talk­ing to a cus­to­di­an at East Ten­nessee State Uni­ver­si­ty. Despite hav­ing lost two pre­vi­ous jobs to plant clos­ings, end­ing up at ETSU only to face two attempts at out­sourc­ing, she was plan­ning to vote for Don­ald Trump because of his sup­posed stance on trade and doing away with NAFTA.

But mean­while, orga­niz­ing is hap­pen­ing. For the last two years, UCW-CWA has fought a bil­lion­aire gov­er­nor. In our Ten­nessee is NOT for Sale” cam­paign, peo­ple across the state have spo­ken their bit­ter­ness about Gov­er­nor Bill Haslam and the inhu­man­i­ty of his attempt to out­source all state facil­i­ties to a cor­po­ra­tion — Jones Lang Lasalle, based in Chica­go — in which he was invest­ed when he ran for office and who has enjoyed a no-bid con­tract on pre­vi­ous out­sourc­ing. Work­ers and sup­port­ers have par­tic­i­pat­ed in var­i­ous kinds of actions in John­son City, Knoxville, Cookeville, Chat­tanooga, Murfrees­boro, Nashville, Clarksville, and Memphis.

The Fight for $15/​Show Me $15 cam­paign in Ten­nessee also showed there are many low-wage work­ers of col­or will­ing to take action and risks on the job, and inspired many in orga­nized labor to stand with them. Stand­ing with work­ers in the Ten­nessee Is NOT for Sale fight is an invest­ment in build­ing rela­tion­ships with many who feel aban­doned. The pos­si­bil­i­ty is being built to then get in the room togeth­er about oth­er, more divi­sive issues — race, gen­der, vot­ing rights for ex-offenders.

What are some of the spe­cif­ic obsta­cles to orga­niz­ing in the South and what will it take to over­come them?

Bron­fen­bren­ner: For one, the lead­er­ship of exist­ing unions in the South tends to be white while the work­ers that most want to be orga­nized are not white. Addi­tion­al­ly, there are a lot of racist and anti-immi­grant atti­tudes in the labor lead­er­ship which keeps them from build­ing bonds between immi­grant work­ers and union members.

For anoth­er thing, employ­er oppo­si­tion is aggres­sive every­where, but in the South the oppo­si­tion from the polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment and the com­mu­ni­ty is stronger. The polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment as a whole will inter­vene in elec­tions in the South; that is not com­mon in the North. They would be afraid of los­ing clients, of los­ing con­tracts with vis­it­ing groups — but in the South they are will­ing to risk that. So you see the sit­u­a­tion in Chat­tanooga [home of the Volk­swa­gen plant] and Can­ton [home of the Nis­san plant] where the entire busi­ness com­mu­ni­ty gets involved in keep­ing the union out.

Anoth­er obsta­cle is that many North­ern labor lead­ers just believe that it’s not pos­si­ble to orga­nize in the South. They tell them­selves it is too hard” and imply that unions that win there are cheat­ing some­how. So when they hear that CWA or AFT [Teach­ers] have been able to orga­nize pri­vate or pub­lic sec­tor work­ers in the South, they don’t believe it. It doesn’t make sense to them, it must not be real or they must not face the same oppo­si­tion as man­u­fac­tur­ing or oth­er indus­tries. Of course they face the same kind of busi­ness threats and even vio­lence, but they orga­nized effec­tive­ly and intel­li­gent­ly and they won.

Last­ly, if you’re going orga­nize the South, you can’t do it top-down. You have to involve the mem­bers because they aren’t going to take the risks to orga­nize if you don’t involve them in the campaign.

If you do what it takes to win in the South, work­ers aren’t going to come into the union and then just be told they don’t have any say. These work­ers are going to have tri­al by fire and they are going to have expec­ta­tions and they will chal­lenge author­i­ty. Many lead­ers don’t want that. They don’t want to adopt an orga­niz­ing mod­el that involves work­ers in every step of the cam­paign because it is very threat­en­ing, even though in the long run it’s bet­ter for orga­niz­ers and lead­ers and all of labor.

Flow­ers: One of our biggest chal­lenges is our fail­ure to con­front right to work as a tool used to divide and con­quer work­ers in the South. Right to work must be framed in much more rad­i­cal terms as a tool designed to keep the work­ing class dis­or­ga­nized and poor.

One strong exam­ple of how this can be done was the 2016 cam­paign to bat­tle right to work from becom­ing part of Virginia’s con­sti­tu­tion. That fight ener­gized more mem­bers than our Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date did. We had record num­bers of vol­un­teers. More Vir­gini­ans vot­ed to keep right to work out than cast a vote for Clinton.

Eigh­teen months of con­sis­tent labor-to-labor out­reach and mem­ber edu­ca­tion paid off and demon­strat­ed a cou­ple of things to me: Mem­ber edu­ca­tion and politi­ciza­tion must become a pri­or­i­ty in right to work states, and part of our strat­e­gy to orga­nize the South must include recruit­ing and elect­ing local can­di­dates who are active union mem­bers. I believe that labor’s biggest chance at rolling back these laws is by pre­sent­ing new lead­er­ship at the polit­i­cal level.

Wat­ters: As pub­lic sec­tor work­ers in Ten­nessee, we don’t have union recog­ni­tion, col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, pay­roll deduc­tion (with a few excep­tions), agency fee, or robust rep­re­sen­ta­tion rights. We have had right to work since the 40s. But that same right to work law also says that you can­not be dis­crim­i­nat­ed against for belong­ing to the orga­ni­za­tion of your choice.

It will take a move­ment and build­ing inde­pen­dent polit­i­cal pow­er in order to pre­pare, run, and sup­port can­di­dates who will stand up for work­ers’ rights and change state laws. It will take work­ers who don’t cur­rent­ly have many rights tak­ing risks togeth­er. That’s what UCW, [work­er cen­ter] Work­ers’ Dig­ni­ty, and oth­er groups are doing.

It will also take a social jus­tice union­ism that is will­ing to stand up on race and gen­der in and out of the work­place. This can look like many things — for exam­ple, sup­port­ing work­ers fac­ing court dates with tac­tics like com­mu­ni­ty defense, in which com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers train them­selves to par­tic­i­pate as advo­cates with those fac­ing unjust charges. Today, UCW-CWA will meet with two mem­bers — a woman in a pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion with a fam­i­ly mem­ber hav­ing brought an unjust charge against her and an African-Amer­i­can man attempt­ing to get cus­tody for his kids, both cus­to­di­ans in dif­fer­ent depart­ments — about upcom­ing court dates to help them get pre­pared and see if there are ways they can build their defense. We write let­ters in defense of their char­ac­ter, pro­vid­ing the judge with the details of their per­son­al story.

And it will take cre­ativ­i­ty and a polit­i­cal will to take risks. This includes find­ing ways to talk with mem­bers about what’s hap­pen­ing in the world — for exam­ple, Char­lottesville and the issue of Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments on pub­lic grounds. The state­ment put out by CWA Pres­i­dent Chris Shel­ton on Char­lottesville, cou­pled with the var­i­ous attempts around Ten­nessee to con­front Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments on pub­lic grounds, opens the door for us as a local to engage on racism and white suprema­cy with our members.

Right-to-work” laws pre­vail in all South­ern states. To what extent are South­ern labor’s chal­lenges and prob­lems due to these laws, and how much is due to oth­er factors?

Bron­fen­bren­ner: Right to work is a prod­uct of the South­ern cli­mate, it’s part of it. The threats, the intim­i­da­tion, the dis­charges, all the worst tac­tics that employ­ers use to fight the union dur­ing an orga­niz­ing cam­paign con­tin­ue in a right to work set­ting, because employ­ers want to scare work­ers away from the union. In agency fee states, where work­ers must join the union or pay a fee, those threats stop because they have no pur­pose, but in the South the employ­er cam­paign nev­er stops. So unions have to be con­stant­ly fight­ing to keep work­ers inoc­u­lat­ed and strong and remind­ing them that the employer’s strat­e­gy is to scare them away from being active in the union.

Wat­ters: Right-to-work has been law in Ten­nessee since the 40s. It makes achiev­ing den­si­ty and secur­ing resources a much more uphill bat­tle. Despite this, locals like CWA 3805 in East Ten­nessee see den­si­ty in some shops of above 90 per­cent with telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion work­ers in AT&T and UVerse. They have a well-trained group of stew­ards who make the best of their access to employ­ee ori­en­ta­tions to sign up new employees.

It is pre­cise­ly this kind of access, how­ev­er, that pub­lic work­ers are large­ly exclud­ed from hav­ing, so instead they are being cre­ative and part­ner­ing with stu­dents and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions in order to be vis­i­ble and reach work­ers through dif­fer­ent means — doing joint events with stu­dent orga­ni­za­tions like fall cook­outs, tabling, hold­ing hap­py hours for adjuncts, reg­is­ter­ing vot­ers at work with the League of Women Vot­ers and stu­dent groups, peti­tion­ing for ear­ly vot­ing loca­tions to be open on cam­pus­es, march­ing in the MLK Day Parade, or hold­ing a June­teenth event.

Right to work is just one tool in the anti-union arse­nal. We saw the lengths that Gov­er­nor Bill Haslam, U.S. Sen­a­tor Bob Cork­er, and State Sen­a­tor Bo Wat­son were will­ing to go to inter­fere with a demo­c­ra­t­ic work­er elec­tion at Volk­swa­gen — threat­en­ing to with­draw $350 mil­lion of tax incen­tives, lying that a new prod­uct line may not come to the plant if a pro-union vote prevails.

The rea­son why pub­lic work­ers are so exclud­ed from any rights, how­ev­er, is also about racism. When pub­lic jobs were deseg­re­gat­ed, it was racism that prompt­ed the South­ern pow­er struc­ture to pro­hib­it and restrict the rights of work­ers in those jobs. There are racist roots to right to work, where a cam­paign equat­ing union growth with race-mix­ing and com­mu­nism suc­ceed­ed at estab­lish­ing the first anti-vio­lence” laws that attacked pub­lic work­er pick­et­ing, fol­lowed by right-to-work laws.

All across the coun­try, con­di­tions for unions and work­ers in the pub­lic sec­tor are quick­ly dete­ri­o­rat­ing as Repub­li­can majori­ties take over state gov­ern­ments and enact anti-union leg­is­la­tion. What lessons can be learned from pub­lic sec­tor unions in the South, many of which have decades of con­tend­ing with few­er legal rights?

Wat­ters: The need to take risks, the need to take action with­out offi­cial pro­tec­tion — such as orga­niz­ing actions like ral­lies, sign-hold­ings, or speak­outs at the work­place with­out a con­tract or hope of recog­ni­tion — this builds the con­fi­dence of work­ers and those who sup­port and see them.

The impor­tance of orga­ni­za­tion-build­ing — ask­ing peo­ple to join an orga­ni­za­tion, doing it over and over and train­ing more and more work­ers to do so, despite con­di­tions that make it dif­fi­cult, and see­ing growth as a result.

The impor­tance of coali­tion-build­ing — in addi­tion to just those times when unions are work­ing to win a con­tract, build­ing aware­ness about fights that impact the broad­er com­mu­ni­ty such as pri­va­ti­za­tion (Ten­nessee Is NOT for Sale), tak­ing actions that make asks of oth­er orga­ni­za­tions and their mem­bers like com­ing to the state Capi­tol on the same day for a pub­lic action or con­tribut­ing funds to bus trans­porta­tion to actions, and of elect­ed leaders.

The impor­tance of devel­op­ing mem­bers as lead­ers to orga­nize their co-work­ers — a ded­i­ca­tion to prac­tic­ing ask­ing peo­ple to join, tak­ing assign­ments, look­ing at charts, report­ing back, trou­bleshoot­ing, and doing it all over again, out­side an elec­tion campaign.

Many com­pa­nies pit nonunion work­ers in the South against union work­ers else­where in the coun­try. How can unions con­nect the strug­gle of union work­ers to main­tain stan­dards in one area to the need to orga­nize work­ers in the South?

Bron­fen­bren­ner: We have almost twice as much domes­tic out­sourc­ing as for­eign. We hear about jobs mov­ing to the South, but com­pa­nies are mov­ing all around the coun­try. Lots of states are say­ing come here, we’re dereg­u­lat­ing” or we’re offer­ing incen­tives, we have a high-skill work­force and low tax­es.” It’s not just a South­ern phenomenon.

More and more unions need to do com­pa­ny-wide issue cam­paigns that affect all work­ers, both union and non-union. That means that the orga­niz­ing of today needs to be done, not unit by unit or work­place by work­place, but across the com­pa­ny. So the way that the SEIU is orga­niz­ing McDon­alds is by orga­niz­ing all the work­ers. They aren’t orga­niz­ing just one McDon­alds. I don’t think that orga­niz­ing Nis­san works by orga­niz­ing one Nis­san facil­i­ty. There needs to be a glob­al strat­e­gy. Now, there are only a few Nis­san loca­tions that are not orga­nized, but that dri­ve needs to involve the orga­nized Nis­san work­ers and fight on issues that impact all the work­ers. If you are orga­niz­ing a com­pa­ny it has to affect the orga­nized and unor­ga­nized work­ers and lift them all up.

Flow­ers: When we were orga­niz­ing Lip­ton, the Hellman’s may­on­naise plant in Chica­go was a hot top­ic. Unilever is the par­ent com­pa­ny of Lip­ton, and Hellman’s is rep­re­sent­ed by UFCW Local 1546. The Lip­ton work­ers had nev­er seen any con­crete infor­ma­tion about pay, ben­e­fits, etc., but the rumors were fly­ing and we were being faced with innu­mer­able ques­tions about Chicago.

We orga­nized a phone call between four work­ers from the Hellman’s plant and any Lip­ton card sign­er who’d like to join.

There was instant work­er-to-work­er sol­i­dar­i­ty on the call. The Hellman’s folks talked about how hap­py they were that oth­er work­ers under the Unilever ban­ner were get­ting orga­nized. With­out prompt­ing, the mem­bers in Chica­go told the Suf­folk work­ers that their win was more nec­es­sary than ever. They rec­og­nized that there was safe­ty in num­bers” and their instincts told them to affirm and encour­age the Suf­folk group. They cred­it­ed the union with improve­ment in morale, clean­er work­ing con­di­tions, bet­ter pay, high­er over­time dif­fer­en­tials, and health care plans that cost a frac­tion of what Lip­ton work­ers were pay­ing. They were hon­est about the fact they were still strug­gling with manda­to­ry over­time. The call end­ed with Hellman’s work­ers offer­ing sup­port and solidarity.

When we got off the call, one of the Lip­ton work­ers sug­gest­ed that we cre­ate an info­graph­ic com­par­ing the cur­rent con­di­tions at Lip­ton to those in Chica­go. We cre­at­ed the fly­er, gave it to lead­ers, and watched our card count grow by almost 20.

What should union inter­na­tion­als be doing to sup­port South­ern organizing?

Wat­ters: Per­ma­nent orga­niz­er posi­tions, long-term plan­ning, real coali­tion-build­ing, not just around con­tract fights, over­haul­ing the way elec­toral pol­i­tics hap­pens in the estab­lished labor move­ment by cre­at­ing a new set of pro-work­er, pro-com­mu­ni­ty stan­dards to which can­di­dates will be judged and held account­able when mem­bers’ dues mon­ey is involved, hold­ing elect­ed lead­ers account­able for issues out­side mem­bers’ imme­di­ate job inter­ests such as expand­ing, not lim­it­ing vot­ing rights, and the abil­i­ty for ex-offend­ers to have a fair shot on job appli­ca­tions (ban­ning the box).

Flow­ers: I’ll nev­er for­get being at a Fight for 15 action at a Kroger Mar­ket­place and chant­i­ng about 15 and a union” with a group of young women. When we were walk­ing back to the car, I asked every­one where they worked and one of them actu­al­ly worked at a Kroger that my local rep­re­sents. I asked her if she’d joined the union, and she had no idea that hers was a union shop.

That was such an eye-open­ing moment. If labor plans on being rel­e­vant and trust­ed in the South, then we’re going to have to ded­i­cate time and resources into embed­ding our­selves in com­mu­ni­ties and work close­ly with groups like the Black Youth Project, the Move­ment for Black Lives, South­ern­ers on New Ground, and Mijente to name a few of my favorites. These groups are pro­vid­ing polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion, cre­ative spaces, and they have chap­ters all over the South.

Labor unions should recruit, train, hire, and pro­mote local South­ern lead­ers, not just use them as faces for their cam­paigns. South­ern­ers are exhaust­ed with out-of-town­ers swoop­ing in and offer­ing their per­spec­tive. We need to build com­mu­ni­ty before we can build campaigns.

Final­ly, labor needs to do a very good and hard assess­ment of itself and right its wrongs before it’s too late. Labor is silent when Black peo­ple are killed by the police. Labor is silent as mil­lions of undoc­u­ment­ed folks suf­fer through this evil régime. Labor is silent as our Mus­lim broth­ers and sis­ters come under attack. Labor is silent when trans­gen­der rights are under attack. Labor unions are fail­ing to demon­strate the val­ues that they pur­port to hold and their slip is showing.

U.S. labor has a com­bined mem­ber­ship of 14.5 mil­lion peo­ple. We should be mobi­liz­ing our mem­bers and help­ing to lead the resis­tance, not sit­ting this one out. I am proud that I work for and am a mem­ber of a very polit­i­cal­ly and social­ly pro­gres­sive and active local union, but we need inter­na­tion­al unions to make it a mandate.

Chris Brooks is a staff writer and labor edu­ca­tor at Labor Notes, where he cov­ers the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers. He is a mem­ber of the Nation­al Writ­ers Union (UAW Local 1981).
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