Talking about Organizing Unions in the South

Labor Organizing Strike Unions Workers

            Chicago           In the array of workshops, panels, and ballroom presentations there were some about organizing in the South, which has been the holy grail for the future of US unions ever since companies poured into the region to take advantage of cheap labor and abundant resources.  Hearing what was on union activists’ minds made sense to me, so I found a chair early in a big ballroom, which filled easily.

The panel included activist organizers from a call center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a Hyundai plant near Montgomery, Alabama, a nurse from a hospital in Austin, Texas, a service worker from Columbia, South Carolina, and a teacher from Durham, North Carolina, all moderated and queried skillfully by a central body officer and labor podcaster from northern Alabama.  The nurse had been part of a successful drive in Texas that took years to percolate with the National Union of Nurses.  The UAW activist seemed feisty and reportedly at ”least 30 percent of workers have signed cards authorizing the U.A.W. to represent them at a Hyundai plant in Alabama,” although she didn’t really talk much about that.  Hattiesburg was a Maximus call center organized by the CWA.  Later in the afternoon I met a worker with the company in Bogalusa, Louisiana, where I knew they had a location.  There had been a strike there last fall, but I was unclear if they were under contract or what the status was there.  The worker with the Southern Service Workers, SEIU, in South Carolina also talked about strikes at a Dollar Store and a Waffle House, I think she said, and the North Carolina teacher gave a detailed report on how she and others organized over a month for a walkout in Durham.

It was all inspiring.  If you listened carefully to Austin and Durham, the template for organizing campaigns or actions was clear and methodical.  The other speakers were all the kind of leaders that organizers would dream of having on a drive and in a workplace, and the crowd went wild over their stories and exploits, deservedly.

This was Labor Notes though with its own brand of eclectic views of unions.  Some time at the very beginning of this Southern organizing panel was given to a German VW worker to make some solidarity remark.  At the same time, when Shawn Fain, the president of the UAW stood at the back of the room, still wearing the same coral colored UAW sweatshirt he had on in one of celebratory pictures in the New York Times, for 15-20 minutes, he was neither recognized, nor asked to speak, even after having husbanded the biggest organizing victory in the South in decades.  To his credit, he had obviously flown directly from Chattanooga to Chicago to stand silently in solidary with union troublemakers, because he had been one. You figure?  Maybe these activists didn’t recognize him?  Maybe because they were all seated before a crowd of hundreds unable to see them clearly, they couldn’t see him, as I could from the middle of the room along the aisle.  Who knows?  If he keeps it up, he won’t be anonymous in any crowd in coming years, even though I was surprised that he was now, when he could be the Pied Piper of a Southern organizing strategy.

On the other hand, this is a rough crowd where no one stands very high on a pedestal, and that’s a good thing, I guess.  I had just finished reading Hamilton Nolan’s Hammer, part of which is a long fan letter to Sara Nelson, the firebrand leader of the flight attendants’ union.  I had listened to her and other union leaders address a group on organizing the day before.  At lunch, she was standing in the back encircled by some of her team as they went table to table asking folks to hit a QR code seeking strike authorization via Congressional intercession.  She stood there looking around, eventually taking off her mask, ready to be approached, but still unapproachable.  I was at a table full of LIUNA members with a public school local in central Missouri.  Only tables away, she was also as invisible to them, as they were to her.

Lost opportunities or just a different culture?  Hard to say, but listening and keeping your eyes open for any break that comes you way are also good traits for an organizer.