Duke Grad Student Union member urges labor to look to the South for inspiration
Unions have always provided working people a path to the middle class, but the Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME threatens to worsen income and power inequality in the United States by expanding state “right-to-work” laws to the public sector nationwide, thus increasing the power of corporate CEOs to further rig the economic rules to benefit the wealthy and powerful at the expense of everyone else.
Jess Issacharoff, a Ph.D. candidate at Duke University and member of the Duke Graduate Students Union, SEIU, in an op-ed published by the News & Observer, says labor unions ought to look the the South for inspiration in the fight to secure fair wages and our freedom to organize.
“In North Carolina, throughout the South, and across the nation, graduate worker unions and our allies have been fighting with the tools we have – direct action and worker power,” says Issacharoff. “So again, when you ask how labor can continue to fight under increasingly adverse conditions, look to the South.”
As a member of a graduate student union in the right-to-work South, I am familiar with the obstacles that face workers who unite for respect and dignity despite anti-union laws and hostile employers. Graduate workers, who perform labor crucial to the mission of the university through our teaching, research and other forms of service, won that right just last year; and yet it could be taken away any day by Trump appointees on the National Labor Relations Board.
This is why my union, the Duke Graduate Students Union, decided against fighting our university in the courts for years to gain recognition from the NLRB. Instead we look to alternative models of union organizing in our home state of North Carolina, like the Fight For Fifteen, a movement of thousands of low-wage workers, primarily led by women of color, fighting for a living wage and a union under the banner of the Service Employees International Union. Like our partners in the fast food industry, we’ve made major improvements at work through bold demands, creative direct action, and strength in numbers.
The attacks on graduate workers and public-sector workers are part of a broad attack on labor rights that include a further expansion of state “right to work” laws, which seek to make it harder for workers to unite for power in our workplaces and in our communities. But these laws are not new; parts of the country have been laboring under right-to-work legislation for years. Rather than lamenting judicial decisions, it is time to ask what comes next. The expansion of anti-worker legislation means that it is time to look to workers and unions who have been operating, and winning, under these conditions for years. Namely, it is time to look to the South.