Skip to main content

MaryBe McMillan: We can provide hope in the South

Jeremy Sprinkle
Social share icons

Change is possible, but we need your help

"Organize the South - that's my mantra," says MaryBe McMillan with the NC State AFL-CIO, one of seven panelists Feb. 17 at Duke who talked about how a southern workers movement can change the nation. "It's what I say over and over again because I believe that for the labor movement and for worker justice, it is 'Organize the South or die'."

Why should New Yorkers and Californians care about the South? Whether it's low wages, high poverty, or exploitation of workers, "Unfortunately, the problems of the South are quickly becoming the problems of the nation," explains McMillan.

"This is the birthplace of the Tea Party and right-to-work (for less). Our low wages drive down wages everywhere. Our southern Tea Party conservatives block legislation in Congress. And because of ALEC, our union-busting laws are spreading across the country to places like Wisconsin and Michigan."

Look closer, and you'll see the potential for a bright future in the South. "If you look at the South, you see the fastest growing, most diverse movement for economic justice in this country."

From Moral Monday to Fast Food strikes sweeping the region, southern workers, increasingly pushed to their resistance point, are hungry for change and for hope that things can be different.

"If unions make investments in southern states, if we grow this movement, we can change the South and by doing so, we can bring economic justice to every corner of this nation."

Last fall the national AFL-CIO adopted Resolution 26, committing itself to developing a new southern organizing strategy. AFL-CIO affiliates like UAW and other unions are already blazing the way. "Because of increased organizing here, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Virginia were the states last year with the highest growth in union membership," says McMillan. "Folks, that's significant for those southern states to be the ones with the highest growth."

The fierce interference by right-wing politicians and corporate special interests during the union election at Volkswagen shows that workers here need the visible and vocal support of the community.

"They need messages of hope, not fear," says McMillan. "That's why all of us need to stand up for workers' right to organize, and all of us need to stand up and challenge the anti-union rhetoric of the other side."

"We need to quit treating 'union' like it's a four-letter word. And folks, I am not just talking about conservatives.

"Too many progressives avoid talking about unions. Lots of folks now are talking about poverty, inequality, problems in public schools, but they aren't talking about the underlying cause of these problems, which is that families don't have enough income.

"If we want to end poverty, let workers organize and bargain for a living wage.

"If we want students to succeed in a classroom, let their parents be able to work one job and earn enough to support their families.

"We need to spread the word that a union card is the best anti-poverty program around."

Changing the balance of power in our economy will also boost participation in our democracy. Declining union membership is directly correlated with declining voter participation. "If union density in 2000 equaled what it was in 1954, there would have been an additional 17 million votes cast in the 2000 presidential election."

"Think about that," urges McMillan, "because I can guarantee you that Art Pope and the Koch Brothers have thought about that."

"Unions give workers power. They give workers power not only in the workplace, but also at the ballot box and in the policy debate. And that is a very scary prospect for Corporate America."

Organized greed is scared by the prospect of an organized opposition in the South

Organized greed is scared by the prospect of an organized opposition in the South

Full remarks by MaryBe McMillan at the Organize the South panel at Duke University are available on YouTube.