December 26, 2020
Pearl River Ben Speight is a seasoned labor organizer based in Atlanta. I’ve known him for a while, initially as an organizer with the Teamsters locals there. More recently he ran a team for AFGE that focused on getting hundreds of thousands of their members ready for terrible contract negotiations with the Trump Veterans’ Administration. Now, he’s working with the Stagehands on a new project connected to the burgeoning Atlanta film industry where they have members. In short, Ben is one of a smaller number than we would like to admit of committed union organizers who have made it their mission to see workers organized in the South.
I was talking to Ben on Wade’s World when we were in Atlanta recently with our union team helping the Voter Purge Project make sure tenants were up to date on the dates, times, and procedures of the coming senatorial runoff election. Ben remains optimistic about the future of workers in the South if states like Georgia continue to show signs of hope.
He was also clear that the obstacles were immense, citing the example of the competition that union represented workers with UPS and the US Postal Service faced from Amazon delivery drivers. He knew from the Teamsters that Amazon delivery truck drivers, in what is becoming their ubiquitous grey vans, were only being paid a flat, day rate of $140. If they were lucky enough to only work an eight-hour day, that would be $17.50 per hour, but in the holiday season where the hours are more often twelve or more, they are lucky to make $11.50 per hour. Meanwhile, union represented workers are making $25 or more with benefits. How does the post office and UPS compete with that? When Trump was complaining about the post office giving Amazon a good rate, he never seemed to understand that was about survival for them as they tried to head off Bezos and his gang from developing their own delivery system.
The answer, Ben feels, is the recognition by more and more workers that only through collective action do we have any hope. He cited the inspiration many had found in Senator Bernie Sanders different runs for the White House. He felt that had do have something more than a trickle-down impact. It encouraged workers to act, organize, strike, or do whatever it took to get a fair deal.
Life for workers in the pandemic seems to underscore Ben’s advocacy. 60% of professionals could work remotely and even more than that saw no loss of income during the recession triggered by the virus. On the other hand, only 10% of workers making less than $40,000 per year, and in all likelihood essential, were able to work remotely.
Ben’s right. Workers are going to notice the differences more starkly now. Once they do, there’s little choice but to either grin and bear it, and starve while doing so, or organize. Let’s hope we see more and more workers come to that conclusion in the coming year.