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Panelists discuss labor's future in the South

Jeremy Sprinkle
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North Carolina workers, supporter won't wait to Organize the South

Worker organizing in the South was the focus of a panel discussion and public Q&A session attended by nearly 150 activists and scholars on Presidents Day at the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies.

Speakers talked about how to turn the resolution adopted by the national AFL-CIO convention last fall calling for a new southern organizing strategy into concrete actions, as well as discuss the region’s labor history, current organizing campaigns, and the growing political influence of the South on the nation.

Watch the recorded live stream of the panel on YouTube.

Speakers included Chris Kromm, Executive Director, Institute for Southern Studies; Bob Korstad, Professor of History, Duke University; MaryBe McMillan, Secretary-Treasurer, NC State AFL-CIO; Keith Ludlum, President, UFCW 1208; Justin Flores, Vice President, Farm Labor Organizing Committee; Zaina Alsous, Union Organizer, NC Raise Up; and Angaza Laughinghouse, President, NC Public Service Workers Union (UE 150).

Photo by Richard Chady via Twitter

Organize the South: Duke panelists. Photo by Richard Chady via Twitter

Instead of letting the low-wage, anti-worker culture of the South pervade the rest of the nation, America’s unions have resolved to adopt a new southern worker organizing strategy that will change the South by organizing its workers and growing the movement for economic justice. "Whether or not organizing labor in the South will be easy, the fact is unions have no other choice," says Chris Kromm.
"The center of political gravity in the country is shifting South; today, one-third of the Electoral College votes needed to elect a president are held in 13 Southern states. Just like Democrats increasingly need a Southern electoral strategy, unions need a Southern labor strategy." -- Chris Kromm, 2/21/14
Read Chris' great recap of the Organize the South panel at Duke.

Unions are doubling down on the South after Volkswagen loss

"Workers don't give up," said Larry Cohen, president of the Communication Workers of America and chair of the national AFL-CIO Executive Council's organizing committee, speaking at a press conference in Houston on Wednesday, days after workers at Volkswagen came just 44 votes short of organizing their Chattanooga plant with the United Autoworkers.
"The commitment of this labor movement is to organize in the South and across this country and to present the spread of collective bargaining rights as the fix for our broken economy." -- Larry Cohen, 2/19/14
Indeed, other union organizing efforts are underway in states all across the South, including by tobacco farm workers in North Carolina, who have been locked in a years-long struggle with Reynolds American to end widespread human rights abuses in tobacco fields. Writing for People's World, John Wojcik covered the AFL-CIO press conference in Houston, where newly elected AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre offered a powerful rationale for labor's dedication to organizing the South: "In those five months [since his election] I have traveled to 15 states in the South," Gebre said, "meeting with unions, workers centers and community organizations. As a labor movement we have to focus where people are suffering the most, where children are living in poverty. If we don't do this, if we don't focus on the South, what are we in business for?"
"As we speak, right now, somewhere in the South right wing lawmakers are conspiring with corporate backers about how they are going to take away workers' rights. We have to fight down here because what happens in the South doesn't stay in the South," Gebre said. "And that goes for winning too. Victories here spread all over the country." -- Tefere Gebre, 2/19/14
Read the People's World coverage of union organizing in the South. "The problems of the South are quickly becoming the problems of the nation," said MaryBe McMillan at our panel. We can change that, and we are beginning to do just that. "If you look at the South, you see the fastest-growing, most diverse movement for economic justice in this country," McMillan said.
"If unions make investments in Southern states, if we grow this movement here, we can change the South, and by doing so, we can bring economic justice to every corner of this nation." -- MaryBe McMillan, 2/17/14
You can help us organize the South. Text SOUTH to 235246 to join our campaign!