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Zaina Alsous: Forging a New Path in the South

Jeremy Sprinkle
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Community and civil rights unionism

"The reality is labor has changed in America," says Zaina Alsous with the fast food workers campaign Raise Up for 15, one of seven panelists Feb. 17 at Duke who talked about how a southern workers movement can change the nation. "We are in a national low-wage crisis."

"Workers are stuck in extremely high-intensity, highly productive and profitable industries but are paid poverty wages and given little-to-no path for advancement."

Most of these workers get paid at or near the minimum wage, the value of which is at a historic low. "This is not just a fast-food worker issue," says Zaina. "This is a worker issue."

Southern states reacted to successful, mass-worker organizing in the 1930s and 1940s in typical fashion for the Jim Crow era - by adopting right-to-work (for less) laws to weaken unions and banning public-sector collective bargaining.

Because of the obstacles to traditional worker organizing, fast food workers are not waiting for a vote or for laws to change.

"Fast food and other low wage workers have decided to forge a new path," says Zaina. "We are not voting or waiting on a vote to establish a fast-food workers union."

"The right to unionize is a constitutional right; it's your freedom of association. So fast-food workers are simply declaring themselves a union throughout the South, and as a union, they are employing their right to strike - first!"

The wave of fast-food strikes that hit the South in December 2013 was just the beginning. Strikes, walkouts, and demonstrations will continue until companies meet workers' demand for $15 and a union.

Meanwhile, thanks to the determination of fast-food workers to strike first, the national conversation about low-wages continues to shift in favor of raising wages.

The fast-food campaign is also changing how labor sees itself and how building a new southern workers movement is possible.

"Myths about the impossibility of organizing in the South or organizing poor workers are increasingly being put to rest," says Zaina.

Full remarks by Zaina Alsous at our Organize the South panel at Duke University are available on YouTube.