Category: Labor

Know Your History: Lessons in organizing from the leftists and labor organizers of yore.

Ever heard of the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union? You could be forgiven for answering in the negative.

Ever heard of J.P. Mooney and his organizing exploits in Avondale, Alabama? Nope?

Did you know that the largest political rally ever held in Alabama was put on by the Communist Party during the Depression? Nah?

The South has earned its reputation as the region most hostile to leftism and union organizing in the United States. After all, Gov. Nikki Haley, who is cruising towards re-election in South Carolina, declared that any auto companies that had unionized workforces should refrain from relocating in South Carolina. In Tennessee, state legislators made plain their opposition to the United Auto Workers gaining a foothold in Chattanooga by stating that they would revoke any tax incentives that Volkswagen received in the event of a yes vote. Aside from those anecdotal examples, the South is home to some of the lowest unionization rates in the country — North Carolina’s union density, at only three percent of workers organized, is the lowest in the country. Arkansas is not far behind at 3.5 percent, nor is Mississippi and South Carolina at 3.7 percent. One does not think “citadel of unionism” when they think of Alabama, but at 10.7 percent, they far outpace any other state in the region for union density.

But there was a time when radical politics and organizing found its home in the rural South.

How The UAW Lost Chattanooga.

(This was a joint post, written with Cato Uticensis, which is the pseudonym of a union organizer working in the South. He likes barbecue, bourbon, cigars, and labor politics. He can be found on Twitter at @Cato_of_Utica.)

“Neutrality should mean ‘we’re not going to fuck with your shit’ not ‘we’re not going to fuck with your shit as long as you use the outhouse’” –Brett Banditelli

There is no question that the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) failure to organize at the Volkswagen (VW) plant in Chattanooga, TN is significant. It is the first time UAW has brought a strategic campaign targeting the so-called “transplant” automakers to a National Labor Relations Board ballot since it lost to Nissan in 2001.* Secondly, it is the UAW’s first new campaign in the South since that crushing loss. Thirdly, this election was touted as a new model by both VW executives and UAW leadership, seeking to create a “works council” at the plant in Tennessee similar to ones in existence at every other VW plant. More on that last point later.

A Bundle Worth Keeping: Critiquing “The Unbundled Union”

In recent years, we have seen an explosion in activism around the issue of economic inequality. The frustrations that many low-income people feel at a slow economic recovery and a continued assault on the American welfare state have culminated in a slew of direct action by individuals, labor unions, and other progressive organizations. While the policy outcomes generated from these actions have been mixed, it is undeniable that the issue of poverty and income inequality commands a place in the economic policy discussion that has not been seen since the end of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Presidency.

In addition to the concerns about economic inequality, the lack of representational equity for low- to middle-income workers has also been a rallying point. The failure to pass a farm bill has led to the reduction in food assistance that working families receive from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) while the companies that they work for continue to rake in record-setting profits. The same gridlock that has delayed the farm bill’s passage would likely delay any policy proposal that could ameliorate the problem of stagnating wages as well. And through all of this, the conversation about revving up the American economy has focused less on solutions that would impact low- and middle-income families and more on things like more tax cuts, which would disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Americans. Attempts by Congress to ameliorate this representational inequality through policies such as campaign finance restrictions have largely been ineffective, as the wealthy and their advocates were able to circumvent the procedure through myriad loopholes (the infamous “social welfare organization” loophole being one of them), culminating in the Citizens United ruling that effectively gutted America’s campaign finance regulations.

Benjamin Sachs, a labor law professor at Harvard, correctly attributes representational inequality to the decline of the labor union in America. Labor unions were strongest as arbiters of economic and representational equality, he states, when they had the ability to pressure lawmakers into supporting progressive legislation that leveled the economic playing field. This was done through an organizing apparatus that was able to mobilize workers for direct action on Capitol Hill and turning out on Election Day, as well as building a lobbying apparatus that could effectively push labor’s priorities in Congress. Sachs’ central argument is that this political power has always been tied up in the collective bargaining of wages and benefits by workers at their respective workplaces. He calls this “a highly contested form of economic organization”, meaning that the opposition to a labor union’s entry and continued operation at a workplace is always under attack, usually from both external political forces and company management. As anti-union forces became more successful at reducing the ranks of the unionized rank-and-file, the political machine that churned out policy victories for working people slowly began to wither.

Sachs’ solution to this problem, and the larger issue of representational inequality, is to decouple the political and economic functions of a labor union, and change labor law to allow employees at a particular workplace to form “political unions”. These unions would enjoy the same advantages that have traditional unions have enjoyed in the workplace, namely:

  1. The ability to use the shop floor as a locus for organizational activity,
  2. the ability to use the employer’s payroll function as a means of funding union activity,
  3. the ability to use the company’s information that has been gathered about their employees, and
  4. the protection of workers against retaliation by their employer for engaging in union activity.

Sachs makes it clear that he proposes the political union not as a replacement for collective bargaining efforts, but rather as a complement. But as I will point out through the course of this piece, the birth of the political union could end up doing just that: replacing hard-won gains in collective bargaining with a toothless form of worker activism.

The Organizing Cadre: On The Training of Organizers for a new Operation Dixie

(This was a joint post, written with Cato Uticensis, which is the pseudonym of a union organizer working in the South. He likes barbecue, bourbon, cigars, and labor politics. He can be found on Twitter at @Cato_of_Utica.)

The organizer has to play many roles on any campaign: manager, scheduler, healer, therapist, evangelist, and so much more. It is a job that stretches the limits of what seems possible for one human being to do, yet thousands of people wake up everyday and serve as the floor general or lieutenant for their party, their union, or their individual cause. When it comes to the labor movement, the organizer plays a key role in all aspects of growth. They are integral in bringing together enough workers to vote for the formation of a union, assisting in contract negotiation by pulling together a contract campaign, and then ongoing in some states to keep density on the shop floor up. Without dedicated organizers, the labor movement would be nowhere near as strong as it is today, if it even existed at all.

As such, when a primary criticism of our last piece seemed to be that the lack of sufficient lead organizers to supervise the effort and the difficulty of getting hundreds of organizers up to speed for a operation of this size could make it infeasible, it was a criticism that we had to take seriously. The current training system can be described as an artisanal one: it trains excellent organizers in comparatively small quantities. For a new Operation Dixie to be successful, however, the labor movement must have the ability to raise a battalion of organizers in a relatively short period of time. The implementation of organizing cadres is an optimal solution to this potential issue facing a large-scale labor organizing operation in the South.

A Call for a Second Operation Dixie

(This was a joint post, written with Cato Uticensis, which is the pseudonym of a union organizer working in the South. He likes barbecue, bourbon, cigars, and labor politics. He can be found on Twitter at @Cato_of_Utica.)

There are no fortresses for labor; no metaphorical stone walls that we can shelter ourselves behind to try and ride out the onslaught. MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina AFL-CIO, said that we must “Organize the South or Die,” and she is absolutely correct. The fact of the matter is that without a deliberate, concerted effort to organize in the states of the old Confederacy, there will not be a labor movement worth speaking of within the next ten years, and all the gains for working people that brave men and women fought and bled and died for over the past century will be clawed back by rapacious corporate oligarchs bent on societal domination.

The notion that this is a crisis is massively underselling the problems facing labor, both organized and unorganized, right now. The destruction of PATCO, the air traffic controllers union, in 1981 was a crisis. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement through a unified Democratic federal government in 1993 was a crisis. The recent “Civil Wars in American Labor” between the Service Employees International Union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, and UNITE HERE were a crisis. What the union movement faces right now is not a crisis, it is nothing less than a threat to the existence of unions in their present form, and with that comes a threat to the very basic minimums all workers in the United States can rely upon.

As we discussed in our previous piece, there is a cultural void in the South when it comes to labor. What we didn’t do is go into detail on why that is. There is a long and ignoble tradition in the South of active repression of workers organizing. Much of this tradition was exercised against the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the largest unionization drive in the South to date: Operation Dixie.

Labor’s Trek: A discussion on the importance of building The Next Generation of Southern labor activists.

My labor education came pretty early in life. My father was a union steward at the job that he had held since before my birth, and I was always surrounded by union literature, clothing, and other paraphernalia. I vividly remember him being active in the rank-and-file drive to prevent NAFTA from becoming law, even continuing that fight after he was laid off. When my father officially reentered the labor movement as a labor educator in 1999, it solidified the union’s place in my life. As I spent my summers traveling with him throughout the Midwest to give steward’s trainings and new member/new hire trainings, amongst others, the images and the people we met along the way helped to solidify the notion that a union is as strong as its membership. There was one conspicuous absence amongst all of those workers that I met in my journeys throughout the House of Labor: young people.

I recognize that my entry into the labor movement was a lot easier than it is for most people. After all, not many people have a parent that is a labor organizer or educator. But as we search for ways to strengthen and grow the labor movement, especially in the South, we must make the integration of young people (my definition being 15-36) into labor a priority.

Culture Warriors: Why creating a “culture of unionism” is essential for increasing labor density in the South.

(This was a joint post, written with Cato Uticensis, which is the pseudonym of a union organizer working in the South. He likes barbecue, bourbon, cigars, and labor politics. He can be found on Twitter at @Cato_of_Utica.)

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.