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Labor Goes South | The American Prospect

Jeremy Sprinkle
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Moving from resolution to action

The need for unions to get serious about organizing in the American South is urgent and ongoing. The American Prospect covered the story of how labor is - and isn't - responding to the need in its winter issue.

With corporations moving production here to take advantage of low wages and low unionization, with a growing population increasing the clout of anti-union right-wing politicians in Congress, and with the weeds of "right to work" and collective bargaining bans spreading into states once considered safe harbors for labor like Michigan and Wisconsin, the situation is, as NC State AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer MaryBe McMillan puts it, "organize the South or die."

At the national AFL-CIO convention in 2013, delegates adopted Resolution 26, which committed the federation to developing a new "Southern Organizing Strategy" and growing the labor movement in the place that needs us the most.

"The resolution emerged from years of frustration," writes Justin Miller:

But this time the national movement responded, passing the resolution, making a commitment to a new “Southern Strategy” one of the AFL-CIO’s priorities. Also at that convention, Tefere Gebre, an Ethiopian refugee and California labor leader, was elected AFL-CIO executive vice president and has since become one of labor’s foremost proponents of a new Southern strategy.

“As trade unionists, if we have to fix what ails us, we have to go where it’s the hardest to function,” says Gebre, who now spends much of his time traversing the South. “Unless we raise wages and fight in the South, I don’t think we’re safe in the North or the Midwest or anywhere else. What happens in the South sooner or later comes to the rest of the country.”

Since that 2013 resolution, some signs of life have emerged from the Southern labor movement—not so much in workplace organizing, but in political victories at the municipal level. The AFL-CIO has targeted five Southern “mega-cities” as starting points for building up progressive power hubs. From the Piedmont to the Gulf Coast, emboldened by the surprising momentum of the Fight for $15, Southern cities are passing local wage ordinances in states that have no chance of getting the wage hiked at the state level. (Indeed, the five states with no minimum-wage laws are Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee.) Labor strategists, accordingly, are looking toward the future, thinking carefully about how to translate rapidly shifting demographics into a new Southern political paradigm.

To be sure, the current state of organized labor in the South is bleak. With “right to work” the law of the land in the South, and government employees stripped of collective-bargaining rights in most Southern states, the region has the lowest union density, with the rate of union membership bottoming out at 1.9 percent in North Carolina and 2.2 percent in South Carolina. A small number of unions persist in workplace-organizing campaigns, most prominently the United Auto Workers in the factories of German and Japanese automakers. But what’s new in labor’s approach to the South is its focus on cities.

"Labor Goes South" is a long but important read for everyone who agrees that - decades after the failed Operation Dixie - shifting demographics, changing politics in southern cities, and the growing number of workers here who have hit their resistance point and are looking for an alternative to the status quo make now the time for unions to answer the call and organize the South.

Read Labor Goes South by Justin Miller in the winter issue of The American Prospect.