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Workers Who Win the South Change the Nation

Jeremy Sprinkle
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MaryBe McMillan, Sec-Treas, NC AFL-CIO

"I believe that workers can change the South and, by doing so, change the country. If only I could get the leaders of the union movement to believe it, too."

By MaryBe McMillan, Secretary-Treasurer

Forty-seven years after the 1963 March on Washington, the union movement and our allies are preparing for our own march in October. Under the banner of One Nation Working Together, union members, civil rights activists and other concerned citizens will rally in support of good jobs, a quality education for every child, immigration reform and workers’ freedom to form a union. Our rallying cry is that we must reverse the dangerous trend toward greater income inequality and finally create an economy that works for all.

To achieve that goal and to become a truly united nation working together, leaders of the One Nation coalition partners—particularly our nation’s labor leaders—could learn a valuable lesson from that earlier march on Washington: The road to justice and equality must go through the South.

During the 1963 march, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. eloquently illustrated this point when he said:

“Let freedom ring from the mountains of New York…Pennsylvania….Colorado….California. But not only that: Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia….from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee….from every hill and molehill of Mississippi….let freedom ring.”

Civil rights leaders knew the only way to win freedom for people of color everywhere was to win it first in the most difficult place—the segregated South. That’s why community activists boycotted buses in Montgomery, college students staged sit-ins in Greensboro and sanitation workers walked out in Memphis. Dr. King and other leaders understood that if they could change policies in the heart of Jim Crow, then they could change laws nationally. And they did.

More than four decades later, national labor leaders should heed Dr. King’s prophetic words. If we want to strengthen the rights of workers everywhere, then we must organize workers in the South.

The southern United States is the center for exploitation of workers of all colors. Employees in the South have the lowest wages, the fewest worker protections and the least union representation. And nowhere are the harmful effects of globalization and flawed trade deals more evident than in the South.

My hometown of Hickory, N.C., has lost more jobs due to trade than just about anywhere else in the country. Laid-off workers there can receive free tuition for re-training at the local community college. But many question the point. The furniture factories and hosiery mills are all boarded up, casualties of NAFTA and CAFTA. Why enroll in training if you’ll just end up working at Wal-Mart or the local mall?

One would think that workers in Hickory and other southern towns have been shortchanged for so long that they would stand up and demand that elected officials finally look out for their interests. But instead, the South keeps re-electing policymakers who support trade deals that harm workers, who oppose wage protections and who vote time and again against workers’ interests. Keep in mind that these votes hurt all workers, not just Southerners.

If we want a more worker-friendly Congress, then workers in the South need to believe that change is possible. That’s hard to do in places like Hickory, where there is no voice to counter what folks hear on talk radio. There is no union organizing workers. There is no central labor council mobilizing people for collective action. There are no canvassers from Working America talking to folks about taking our country back from the CEOs and Big Banks. Unions have largely chosen not to invest in the South, and as a result, there is no labor movement in many areas to challenge the status quo.

I have heard national labor leaders say that we are at a critical moment in our movement, and that to grow, we must convince the public that we are the voice for all workers. If that’s true, then we must win the hearts and minds of workers in my hometown and small towns across the South. Because if we don’t, we will see the violent union-busting and repressive laws of the South spread throughout the country.

The good news is, with the will and the resources, we can change the South. Thanks to an influx of resources in 2008, North Carolina elected a pro-worker U.S. senator, and our state went “blue” in the presidential election for the first time since 1976.

Workers at the world’s largest pork slaughterhouse, Smithfield Packing Co. in Tar Heel, N.C., felt so empowered by our electoral victories that one month later, in December 2008, they finally won their union after 16 long years of struggle. The workers, the majority of whom are people of color, had a slogan leading up to the union election: “We won the White House so we can win the hog house.” And they did.

That victory was possible because 1) a union was willing to make a long-term investment in organizing and 2) the workers believed that change was possible. We could have many more victories like the one at Smithfield. But first, national labor leaders have to invest in organizing campaigns throughout the South.

During the 1963 march, Dr. King outlined his dream of racial equality. I too have a dream—a dream that one day, even in North Carolina, the least unionized state in the country, all workers will have good jobs and the freedom to organize and bargain collectively.

I believe that dream can come true. I believe that workers can change the South and, by doing so, change the country. If only I could get the leaders of the union movement to believe it, too.