A Fortress with No Soldiers: The limited effectiveness of “fortress unionism” in the South.

In the summer edition of the journal Democracy, Richard Yeselson writes about the pall that restrictive labor law has cast over the labor movement. Yeselson takes us through a very thorough history of the construction of current labor laws, from the first right-to-work laws in the states through the Taft-Hartley Act, as well as the post-World War II labor unrest and progressive coalition building that provoked the ire of conservatives and business alike. It is a very compelling retelling of history; one of the best I have seen in an article about labor in a while.

He then goes into the cost of running comprehensive campaigns that seek to organize large numbers of unorganized workers. He makes the argument that, in addition to such campaigns being prohibitively expensive, the American workforce is so large and diversified that even large organizing successes will not make much of an impact in labor density. Furthermore, he suggests that labor growth occurs in spurts, and from the ground up, making the formulation of “a campaign in a union office in Washington” ultimately pointless.

After laying out all of these challenges, he suggests a way forward for labor unions in the 21st century. He calls this path forward “fortress unionism.” It entails:

  1. Defend the remaining high-density regions, sectors, and companies.
  2. Strengthen existing union locals.
  3. Ask one key question about organizing drives: Will they increase the density or power of existing strongholds?
  4. Sustain coalition work with other progressive organizations.
  5. Invest heavily in alt-labor organizations, especially Working America.
  6. And then . . . wait (for workers to demand a collective solution to issues at the workplace).

As someone whose primary concern is the growth of Southern labor, this strategy is . . . disconcerting.

As Bold As Our Recipe Flavors: Our Progressive Southern Stories Must Be Heard

While I have stressed the importance of southern progressives sharing about our incredible work at the grassroots level in the South, I also know that we need people to listen to us. We cannot shift the narrative if our thoughts and words are not seen or heard because of people perpetuating the negative stereotypes. When people from other regions (or within the South) automatically negate the South and prevent any chance of positivity being seen, we can struggle to share of our work. I have never understood putting a group of people down in any way, and these regional hierarchies form power struggles. How is it helpful to put the South down without offering some form of positive possibility for a situation? So while I want us to push these progressive works out into the rest of the country, I also want the rest of the country to listen to us. For far too long, Southerners voices have been ignored, silenced, or discounted, and we have been left out of the conversation. Listen to us and see all of our work down here, y’all.

Drafting a Narrative as Sweet as Sweet Tea: Progressive Work with Education in the South

The interweaving of education and poverty ring through in perpetuated stereotypes of the South, which I hope to tackle in future blog posts. It is important, though, to get our stories out about our educational institutions that produce great research, our minds that have breakthrough ideas, and our progressive work that is completed. I am not dismissing the stark realities of regional differences. I am not analyzing various arguments about why the South’s realities are what they are in comparison with other regions. I am simply making the case that despite these realities, we must not forget about the beautiful research, education, and progressive work being done here. We must build our progressive narrative from the grassroots, just as we have built the narratives of the glory of sweet tea or a crawfish boil or moonshine.

The Tapestry of Southern Progressivism: Why we must embrace the politics of diversity for a new South.

I love being a Southern progressive.

I was born and raised in the South. My family on both sides originated in northeastern North Carolina, and many relatives still reside there, as well as in my home state of Virginia. I drank well water until I was twelve, and spent many afternoons playing at the Sessoms Produce Stand that my grandmother worked at until her death in 1997. And, unfortunately, I came up with an….intimate knowledge (and hatred) of the Confederate flag (if you ever meet me, I will regale you with a particularly hilarious story about the time I brought home a magnet with the old Georgia state flag from a field trip).

My progressivism is shaped by my experiences and the things that I have seen. It is shaped by being a Black man in the South. It is shaped by having grown up in a working-class family. It is shaped by driving around places like Alabama and Mississippi and seeing human beings living in apartment buildings and houses that appear to be on the verge of collapse. It is shaped by witnessing the shunning of GLBTQ people in communities simply for being who they are. It is shaped by the constant war against women’s agency being waged in statehouses throughout the South and elsewhere. It is a tapestry of humanity and life that forms my progressivism, and fortifies it.

As Flavia Dzodan once said, “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit!” The same should go for our progressivism as well.

Our Geography, Our Diversity, Our Narrative

I have been doing a great deal of traveling throughout the Southeast region this year, primarily between Alabama and North Carolina. As I was traveling recently, I began to think about the diversity of geographic features in our region. Invariably geographic features assist in the cultural production of an area. In the South, we have mountain ranges, beaches that span the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, swamps, marshland, farmland, foothills, and a range of geographic essences within each state, county, and town. In these thoughts about geography, I started wondering why people continue to paint the South as a monolithic entity when our population is as diverse as our geographic environment.  

People Over Politicians: Why a shift in labor’s priorities is needed.

Ashley Byrd, News Director for South Carolina Radio: We are going to stay on the topic of job creation. And, uh, let’s start with this: Boeing is bringing more than 8,000 jobs into South Carolina. So here is a two part question first to Ms. Colbert Busch: Did the NLRB overstep its bounds when it tried to block Boeing’s approach to expansion in South Carolina? Yes or No, and why?

Elizabeth Colbert Busch: Yes. This is a right-to-work state, and they had no business telling a company where they could locate.

If the first thought that ran through your mind was, “Sounds like a standard Republican answer to a question like that,” you would be right. But, of course, Elizabeth Colbert Busch was the Democratic nominee for Congress in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District. In response to the Republican candidate, former Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC), stating that Colbert Busch “wants to be the voice for labor unions in Washington, DC”, she said the following:

First of all, um, Mark, what you’re saying is just not true. Things can be taken out of context, and everybody knows that. I am proud to support and live in a right-to-work state, and I am proud of everyone who has supported me.

Incredible, huh? Here is something even more incredible: the person who said those things, and who did not mention “labor” or “unions” once on her economic issues platform, received at least $32,500 from labor, with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers being her second biggest contributor at $10,000.

Labor also gave $68,000 in 2009-2010 to U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR). Yes, that would be the same Blanche Lincoln that played a large role in blocking the Employee Free Choice Act and who now works for Wal-Mart as a “special policy advisor” (read: lobbyist). You know, the same Wal-Mart notorious for its anti-union policies. It is not altogether surprising, though, given that Wal-Mart gave her $83,650 in donations over the course of her last term in the U.S. Senate.

Something is not adding up here.

The Cartoon Parade Comes To Town

I’ve been living and organizing in the South (mostly around LGBTQ issues) since 2008.  My friends and family from various parts of the country don’t visit much.  It’s difficult to entice folks to come to Mississippi or Alabama.  It’s not really on the way to a major destination, so folks don’t just pop by.  Interest from family and friends in my work has waxed and waned over the years.  When the work was highly visible (say, a major legal case that made national news) or easy to understand (such as organizing something concrete like a conference or an event) there was interest.  More long-term and difficult to describe work, like youth development and community-building that’s less concrete, doesn’t seem to garner much interest from my loved ones.  That’s perfectly fine with me.  I love my work, and if communities rally around and behind it down here that’s all that matters.

The Westboro Baptist Church and their circus of hate came to town on May 18.  All of a sudden, folks I don’t hear from much were flooding my inbox.  Did I know the group was coming?  What was I planning to do about it?  Did I know of a protest that would be organized?  Was there a place to send money to fund the protest?  Judging from the swell of interest, you’d think that something important was about to happen in my community.