Storm Clouds Over Southern Labor

Sanitation Workers strike in Memphis in 1968

Atlanta   After the a two-ringed circus in Atlanta where I met with our the four graduate social work school interns who are working with the ACORN Home Savers Campaign for the next semester and the screening of The Organizer at the Andrew Young Center on campus, I got to visit with several veteran union organizers for a bit. It was cold, windy, and rainy outside, and that pretty much characterized the reports I was getting of the current labor organizing progress in the field. It was all uphill and in the teeth of the wind, both from outside forces and increasingly internal inertia.

One film watcher was an old veteran of the textile wars as an organizer for the legendary ILGWU, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. I asked him when he had worked them and when he said the late 1970s and early 1980s, I couldn’t resist mentioning Art Martin who had run a local in Arkansas earlier in the 70s and then later in the Carolinas. Sure enough, he had worked for Art in Charlotte, and was shocked to hear of his passing some years ago. I asked if he had noticed Art in several frames of the movie, and he laughed, saying he thought someone looked familiar, but didn’t place the context since the picture was of Art during the Quorum Court effort in Pulaski County 45 years ago. As for any talk about organizing in what’s left of the textile industry in the South? Not much to say there.

Ben Speight, who many claim is the best labor organizer in the Atlanta area and a former ACORN organizer as well, told the story of his efforts to organize 500 sanitation workers in a neighboring county with the Teamsters. Their effort over several years had won a couple of raises of the workers and a number of other improvements, but despite repeated efforts organizationally and politically, had failed to win either dues deduction or recognition for the union, so the effort was waning. He had been at a Martin Luther King breakfast before coming to the screening. He was surprised among all of the political speakers at the event that there had not been one speaker from the labor movement or any union, despite this being the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination while in Memphis supporting the strike of the garbage workers in that city.

Visiting with my old friend and comrade, Ken Johnson, who not so long ago retired as regional director of the AFL-CIO in the South, there wasn’t much good news from that quarter either. We spent time talking about the Southern Regional Council where he had worked before the AFL-CIO, because we couldn’t find much to say about big, new organizing either one of us was hearing about in the south. Going through the list of names we had in common, many of them had moved far afield to even find organizing or union work. Any discussion of developments at the NLRB or the Department of Labor was short shrift. No good news there.

One question that had come up after the screening asked about how social media was changing the organizing. The brother said he had observed people were more than willing to “post” something, but seemed to have no interest in hitting the streets or shops. The work and workers are here, but the connections aren’t coming together.

People still like to talk about organizing in the south, but not too many unions are doing any of it.

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Meeting the Challenge of Organizing Immigrant and Domestic Workers

Rabat   We got a good look at alternative strategies to meet the demand of immigrant and domestic workers in Morocco, one from an NGO project with the African Cultural Center of Morocco and the other from a feisty, political union of 18,000 members that had created a “section” for immigrant workers, domestics, and others, like street sellers.

Rose Monde and the NGO

Rose Monde and her colleagues were sharp as tacks and very articulate. They had narrowed their focus within the outlines of a European Union grant over recent years to the sub-set of domestic workers who were from sub-Saharan countries, like the Congo, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, and Senegal. Their estimate of the total numbers of domestics in the country and in Rabat, the capital, were huge and in the six figures, but their target was only a couple of thousand. Their main strategy had been education and training in various conferences over the years of the project. The butcher paper on the walls, looked like they had a good understanding of the issues and abuse, but might not have succeeded in forging tactics for effective response. They touted the law that would protect some workers from some of the more extreme abuses, but it still had another year to go before implementation, so it was unclear what their options might be now.

They agreed with the ODT, the Democratic Organization of Workers, and its leadership on several issues, one of them being the fact that Morocco has become less a transition stop for migrant workers moving to Europe, than a destination location now. The ODT was a younger union and touted its inclusiveness and openness to various workers. They ran what they called parallel structures with the formal workers and then the various sections of informal and immigrant workers running semi-autonomous programs within them. They were proud of being the first to welcome immigrant workers.

The legal framework for immigrants is fraught. The law allows a process of receiving registration that allows the ability to work. In a provision that only President Trump could love, they have to re-register annually and certify that no native Moroccan is interested in the job. If not, all good. If so, away you go!

With such a far-flung membership and several offices around the country, the fact that ODT opens its ranks is a smart strategy for growth in the future with limited investment or capacity in the present. Ali Lotfi, the General Secretary, of the union was proud of his international labor contacts, and mentioned having been at the SEIU convention and heard Hillary Clinton speak. He said they had also helped on the McDonalds’ campaign.

The ODT is worth watching. They are doing some interesting work, even if we were sometimes struggling to put our arms around it. The ACM project has some good staff, research, and skills, but lacks some of the innovative instincts and aggressiveness of the ODT.

Immigrants and domestic workers with a clear view of their plight are probably wishing there was one plan to build a real organization so that they could win their rights and protect them. Hopefully we’ll hear about that in the next stage.

Please enjoy David Bowie’s Suffragette City.

Thanks to KABF.

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