It is funny. I had this blog post written out about how progressive communities in the South should support labor in all of these different ways, and why we must do better in our advocacy of working families. I had listed out all of these great ways that progressive communities could get involved in the labor movement, and that we should be more proactive and vocal in our support for better wages, better benefits, and a safer workplace.
Then I talked to my father.
“So one thing that I suggest is that progressives could have house parties to discuss labor issues in their community.”
“Oh. Well, who is going to be there to discuss the labor issues with the group?”
“Well, I just figured that the people would discuss it amongst themselves.”
“But didn’t your last post talk about the lack of communication in Southern labor? So you expect people to go from not having any information at all about the things that labor is doing in their area, to being able to host house parties? Is that realistic, son?”
He then kept asking me that same question: Who is going to discuss labor issues with the people at the house party? It is a perfectly good question to ask, so I did some cursory digging.
Working America is the AFL-CIO’s community outreach arm. They boast a membership of 3 million members spread out across the country, and as they say:
“we use our strength in numbers to educate each other, mobilize and win real victories to improve working people’s lives.”
So I decided to go to the portion of their website where state action is detailed. The map that they present shows the following:
Alabama is an “online” state, so I did not expect to find much. However, I must say that I at least expected to find something about what’s going on here in Alabama. When I clicked on Alabama, I got a page that talked about national efforts, some of which are over a year old. That means that if you went to the Working America page, you would not know about this. Or this. Or this. In fact, clicking on all of the Southern states where Working America claims to be active or have an office yields only three articles about things specific to individual states, which means that you probably also missed this and this. By contrast, Minnesota and Pennsylvania have four stories each about activities happening in their respective states. While Working America plans to expand to all 50 states in the next five years, it is clear that, as of now, they would not be able to talk to the folks at my prospective Southern labor house party.
Streetheat at It’s About Power, Stupid! talks about the lack of attention paid by international labor federations to their Southern brethren:
“For the most part is is easy to see why labor continues its historic weakness in southern states. Most unions have responded to the lower memberships among their affiliated southern structures with a ‘you’re on your own’ approach to organizing, contract negotiations and political action.”
This is not a new phenomenon: when Florida labor federations were fighting a referendum on right-to-work legislation that was placed on the 1944 ballot, the head of the Tampa labor federations wrote to the President of the American Federation of Labor, William Green, about sending help to fight the measure. Green’s response was to chastise Florida’s organized labor for the defeat of a liberal member of Congress, stating that the defeat harmed labor’s chances of beating back the referendum. There would be no help forthcoming, and Florida voters would pass the nation’s first right-to-work law in November 1944. Not only that, but leaders elsewhere used Florida’s example to pass laws in Arizona, Arkansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas amongst other states before the end of the decade (Gall 1984; Ellwood and Fine 1987; Shermer 2009).
Today, labor faces both threats and opportunities in the South. If union density (which is at an all-time low in the South) is to grow, the way forward has to be community involvement and mobilization. It has been about this since the beginning:
“In the 1944 Florida election, the Miami Citizen noted that the principal backers of the bill ‘come entirely from the backward, low-wage sections of the state, where the lumber and turpentine interests rule their workers like barons of old, and laborers receive little or nothing in groves and on the farms.’” (Shermer 2009)
The opponents of an unionized South have always been able to marshal their forces for their cause. Here are some ways that we might be able to do the same:
- The hiring of more community outreach staff. I have found in my travels that many progressives know that labor unions are good for workers, but they do not know why or how they are good for workers. The folks who could best explain the why and how are the people who are involved in the labor movement on a day-to-day basis. The South simply needs more labor organizers on the ground talking to people about why they should demand better working conditions, and why labor unions are the vehicle for that. This should be done at political meetings, neighborhood/city/county/state fairs, and any other community gathering. They should identify key people, train them on the basics of why union membership is good for workers and the economy, and unleash these new labor activists on their communities. They can help labor organizers plan Lobby Days, assist in picketing, and even….host house parties!
- The publicizing of associate union memberships. Many labor unions have associate memberships, which allow for people in non-unionized workplaces to get constant information about the activities of the individual unions. Individual unions should publicize these memberships at community events across the South, and develop them as local support groups for labor. Some union associate members have already banded together and formed local chapters as a focal point for organizing; we should encourage this across all Southern labor unions.
- The publicizing of labor’s charitable endeavors. Ever heard of the Guide Dogs of America? It is a fantastic organization that provides guide dogs to visually impaired people in the United States and Canada. The best part? They do so FREE OF CHARGE. Here’s something else you probably did not know about this organization: it was founded through donations from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in 1948. They continue funding through charitable events such as Hawgs for Dogs, amongst many other events. How many people know about any of this? If the answer is anything short of “everyone”, then labor has some work to do. Showing that labor unions are truly about community betterment for all would go a long way towards combatting anti-union sentiment, particularly in the South.
Communities are the lifeblood of movements. The Civil Rights Movement succeeded because of them, and the Democratic Party has faltered in the South because they have not been able to mobilize them. If the labor movement is going to breakthrough in the South, then a strategy that engages communities 365 days a year must be implemented posthaste.
The livelihood of Southern workers depends on it.
Gall, Gilbert J. “Constant Vigilance: The Heritage of the AFL’s Response to Right to Work Legislation, 1943-1949.” Labor Studies Journal 9.2 (1984): 190-202.
Shermer, Elizabeth. “Counter-Organizing the Sunbelt: Right-to-Work Campaigns and Anti-Union Conservatism, 1943–1958.” Pacific Historical Review 78.1 (February 2009): 81-118.
Douglas Williams originally hails from Suffolk, Virginia. He is a third-generation organizer, having a grandmother who worked to integrate the schools in his hometown and a father who continues to be active in labor organizing. He is currently a doctoral student in political science at the University of Alabama, where his research centers around public policy as it relates to disadvantaged communities and the labor movement. This post originally appeared on the excellent new group blog The South Lawn.