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America's unions will rise to the challenge in the South

Jeremy Sprinkle
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A workers' movement here can change the nation

As the South goes, so goes the nation.

As our region grows in population and political influence, the future of America's middle class will be decided in the very place most hostile to the concept of organized workers struggling to claim a bigger slice of the economic pie. So what does that mean for America's unions and her workers?

"Is our future one of greater worker exploitation, continued decline in union membership and increasingly hostile laws?" asked MaryBe McMillan, NC State AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer, in her essay challenging the AFL-CIO and national unions to Organize the South or Die:

"Or is there a brighter future? If we look closely at the South, we see all the strategies that national labor leaders now seek to embrace. We see a labor movement that has long valued coalition building and community engagement. We see lasting partnerships between labor, faith, and civil rights leaders. We see innovative, non-traditional organizing. And we see how changing demographics have forged a new solidarity between black, white, and brown workers."

No longer can we just battle the symptoms of having allowed to exist in the South a stronghold of anti-worker, anti-union, regressive policies - symptoms including the passage of so-called Right to Work (for less) in Michigan or the repeal of collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin. 

No, if you want to kill a weed, you have to pull it out at the root.

The weed of anti-unionism and regression grows strong in the South, like the weed of Jim Crow once did. And like the champions of the Civil Rights Movement who knew the battle against Jim Crow would have to be fought and won in the South, so too must this generation of labor leaders and progressives realize that defeating the power of organized greed requires taking it on in the place where it is most entrenched.

America's unions seem to be waking up to the challenge. The AFL-CIO adopted a resolution to develop a strategy to organize the South at its convention in September. Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, opened offices this year in Texas and North Carolina, introducing the power of collective action to tens of thousands of workers without a collective bargaining agreement. And international unions like the UAW are publicly staking their future on the winning union representation for workers at foreign auto plants in the Southeast.

"When we think of the American South, we don’t typically think of an organized labor stronghold," said David Bonior, Jobs with Justice board member and a former congressman, writing in the Detroit Free Press:

"Despite aggressive right-to-work laws and anti-union politicians, the labor movement is making serious strides below the Mason-Dixon line.

"In fact, Volkswagen employees at a plant in Chattanooga may soon choose union representation with the United Auto Workers and gain a seat on VW’s Global Works Council."

Something remarkable is happening in Chattanooga. At every other Volkswagen plant in the world is unionized, workers sit on a works council, actively engaged with management in the decision-making process about how to operate in the best interests of both the company and its workers. IG Metall, the union which represents German Volkswagen workers, has demanded that the Passat plant in Tennessee also have a works council, so Volkswagen is cooperating with UAW to unionize its workforce in the South.

Right-wing politicians and special interest groups fear this because if unions can win here, unions can not only survive but turn around the decline - not only of our membership but the decline of the middle class.

The fate of unions is the fate of the middle class. Period.

The fate of unions is the fate of the middle class. Period.

Workers are strongest when we work together. Collective bargaining gives workers - all workers, even those in non-union shops - the leverage needed to reclaim our share of the economic gains that for the last 30 years have flowed almost exclusively to executives and shareholders. The hollowing out of the middle class, the result of income inequality, created an opening for the takeover of our economy and our politics by organized greed. Only organized workers can stop them. Unions, progressives, and those in the business community who recognize what's good for workers is good for them must be willing to rise to the challenge where the challenge presented by organized greed is the greatest - here in the South.

Special event at Duke on Jan. 29, 2014

Want to offer your ideas and find out why now is the time to organize the South? Come to a special event at Duke University next month. Picture: Supporter of the Fast Food Strike in Durham, NC on December 5, 2013.