Labor's Forgotten Land

Organized Labor Has Neglected the South for Two Generations. Here's How to Reverse the Trend

Recently I found myself discussing grassroots labor organizing in the South with my father, who has spent his entire career as a labor organizer.

I was full of suggestions for new ways to organize in a region notorious for its anti-worker “right to work” laws. My father kept asking me that same question: Who is going to run all these discussions about labor issues?

He had a point. There is very little actual information available about labor issues in the South.

Take Working America as an example. 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 see what information they have available for workers in the South. Here’s what I found.

I live in Alabama, which the map says is an online state. I didn’t expect to find much, but I did expect 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.

The information vacuum is part of a broader abandonment of Southern workers, as unions have largely responded to low Southern membership with a "'you’re on your own' approach to organizing, contract negotiations and political action."

This is not a new phenomenon. In 1944, the first referendum on right-to-work legislation appeared on the Florida ballot. When the head of the Tampa labor federations wrote to the then-president of the American Federation of Labor, William Green, asking for help fighting the measure, Green responded by chastising Florida’s organized labor for the defeat of a liberal member of Congress. The AFL would send no help, and Florida’s voters would go on to pass the nation’s first right-to-work law.

Florida’s success in squashing unions emboldened anti-union forces. By the end of the 1940s, similar legislation had passed in Arizona, Arkansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. Today, the entire Southeast has right-to-work laws on the books.

Today, labor faces both threats and opportunities south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The opponents of an unionized South have always been able to marshal their forces for their cause. 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. Here are some of the ways union organizers might be able to do the same:

Hire 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. 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.

Aggressively advertise associate union memberships.

Many labor unions have associate memberships. These programs allow 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.

Publicize 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. The union continues to fund the program through charitable events such as Hawgs for Dogs. Showing that labor unions are truly about community betterment for all will 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.

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