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Seize The Moment: Organize The South!

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On April 19, hundreds of autoworkers gathered in Chattanooga, Tennessee for a watch party of Volkswagen’s union election. This was the first vote to be held since the United Auto Workers (UAW) launched a national organizing drive in November. Workers, alongside UAW President Shawn Fain, cheered as the results of the landslide victory came in – 73% of workers voted “yes” to a union at the 4,300 worker Chattanooga Volkswagen plant, making it the first auto plant in the South to unionize through a vote since the 1940s. 

The labor movement has been on the upswing in the US, with 2023 being met with the most strikes since the 1980’s. But new organizing remains low compared to what is needed, and the South is no easy nut to crack. Decades of the abandonment of labor leaders and Democrats in the South has further opened the doors for profitable industries, deepening economic inequality, racism, and sexism. Now, carrying the momentum of the last several years, UAW, and the labor movement as a whole, is squaring up for a new organizing offensive in the South.

Autoworkers Lead The Charge

One of the most significant strikes of 2023 was the 40-day strike of the “Big Three” automakers – General Motors, Stellantis, and Ford. By hitting these companies in their profits and taking them on all at once, workers won important gains in their contract, including 25% raises and an end to the hated “two tier” system. Unfortunately, the weakness of Fain’s “stand-up strike” strategy, which evaded an all-out strike by sending only a few plants out on strike at a time, left more on the table to be gained, including pensions and COLA pay. In a way, perhaps the most important victory of the strike was what came after – the announcement of a national organizing drive, turning the momentum of the auto strike into a launching pad for new organizing. 

The $40 million organizing campaign has set a goal of 150,000 new unionized autoworkers. Already, 10,000 autoworkers have signed union cards, and the Volkswagen workers of Chattanooga are a beacon for what is possible. This is a departure from the decades-long business unionist approach of partnership with the bosses and top-down organizing that diminishes the rank and file. Instead, workers are being called to organize themselves. Workers create the wealth of the bosses, and thus need to lead the charge in wielding the heaviest hammer to take a blow to the bosses’ profits.

Union Approval Record High, Union Density Record Low

The workplace has changed drastically since the start of the pandemic, and the labor movement has started to heat up. Two years ago, Starbucks union drives spread like wildfire. Workers won their first union election against Amazon at JFK8, catalyzing more drives at Amazon nationwide. Over 140,000 SAG-AFTRA writers and actors went on strike for over 100 days throughout 2023’s “hot labor summer.” Academic workers, healthcare workers, autoworkers, and more made up the 464,410 workers who hit the picket lines in 2023. 67% of Americans approve of unions, Black workers are the fastest unionizing group, Gen Z is the most pro-union generation, and yet – union density (the percentage of workers in unionized workplaces) in the US is at a historic low of 10%.

The picture becomes bleaker when looking towards the South. Texas, Arizona, Louisiana, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia all have union densities below 5%. South Carolina, whose lucrative auto industry churns out $10 billion in profits a year, sits at an abysmal 2.3% union density. It is no small feat that three active UAW union drives in South Carolina are seeking to challenge the rule of the auto bosses. In Alabama, which has a marginally higher union density, five auto plants are hot, including a 5,000 worker Mercedes plant whose union election will take place this month from May 13-17. A victory at Mercedes would be an enormous boost, but is not a guarantee – a loss would be a setback and point to the need for stronger organizing at other facilities. 

Ripe For Industry

While the UAW organizing drive is taking on the nation from coast to coast, its main concentration of organizing is in the anti-union South. Between a low union density, fierce state government-backed union busting, limited worker’s rights, and “right-to-work” laws, the South is hostile terrain for workers trying to fight for better working conditions. The Business Council of Alabama (BCA) is on a warpath of union busting to protect and expand corporate interests in the state, coordinating its slandering of the UAW organizing campaign with other anti-worker attacks, such as blocking initiatives to raise the minimum wage.

The stripped-down labor protections of the South make it attractive to new industries looking to extract maximum profit from the workforce, further perpetuating capitalism’s parasitic relationship between the boss and worker. Joe Biden, the supposed most “pro-labor” US president since FDR, is taking advantage of this opening for big business. The Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and CHIPS Act promise the future of “21st-century industries” and job creation. Under the guise of fighting emissions and inflation, this legislation aims to take on electric vehicles and semiconductor production, a chest-thumping signal to China in its tech war with the US. Of these “21st century industries,” the South has received twice as many investments as the Midwest. The Southeast has the cheapest energy in the country, critical for battery plants. Ironically, the energy powering these “green” industries remain cost-effective because of the region’s reliance on coal.

Sowing The Seeds Of Labor Struggle

The roots of the South’s anti-labor rule lie in the violent legacy of slavery, and intrinsically bound up in it, the belated development of industrial capitalism in the South. Even after slavery’s abolishment in 1865, the following century of Jim Crow and segregation was weaponized to maintain division between Black and white workers. The threat of multi-racial solidarity has been tempered again and again by the racist tools of the state and their political servants, including in the workplace. Taking up struggle in the workplace cannot be won without actively taking up the fight against racism.

In 1931, the Communist Party USA took on these divisions, supporting the founding of the Alabama Sharecroppers Union to fight for better pay and working conditions for Black farmers. Their demands went further than wages, including the right to cultivate their own gardens and the right for their children to attend 9-month public school. That same year, the CP launched a national campaign to defend the “Scottsboro Boys,” nine Black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women. This landmark case in the face of racist terror exposed the deep inequalities in the judicial system, in which Black people were not granted fair trials, and could not serve on a jury. The CP provided legal help for the case, and won over large sections of the Black working class by exposing the class nature of racism.

These acts of committed solidarity between Black and white workers in the Jim Crow South set a powerful example for militant unions and multiracial struggles to come. This includes setting the ground for the Civil Rights movement in the 50s and 60s, where 40,000 union workers were bussed in for the March on Washington. Unfortunately, the CP’s later alliance with FDR’s Democratic Party against fascism – part of its disastrous “popular front” policy – meant also supporting the segregationist southern Dixiecrats. This led to a certain erosion of the support it so arduously built among many Black workers, undoing important contributions to the cross-racial labor movement.

Organizing The Unorganized & Operation Dixie

Off the momentum of the transformative 1934 general strikes in Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Toledo, eight unions representing one million workers broke away from the conservative, craft unionist American Federation of Labor (AFL) to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Their goal during the postwar boom period: to organize all industrial workers, both high-paid skilled workers and low-paid unskilled workers, a historic task for the US labor movement. Focusing on low-paid workers meant organizing Black workers who were segregated into these jobs. However, this project faced a serious barrier – the industrialized North was more union-heavy, while the South was largely unorganized. Thus in the spring of 1946, the CIO launched Operation Dixie. 

250 organizers, both Black and white, skilled and unskilled, were recruited to go into the South with the task of uniting the workforce and building a labor movement that opposes racism. Their organizing model was to start with the largest industries first, including the textile industry throughout the South, which included some of the lowest paid workers. This strategy was opposed by the outdated and red-baiting AFL, whose approach to organizing higher paid, technical workers meant orienting primarily to white men. In Winston-Salem North Carolina, there was already a union, Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco and Agricultural Workers, whose workers were 80% Black women. But it was in poor shape and deeply divided. Addressing the racial hostility between workers took a patient approach of building a strong integrated union, with both Black and white elected representatives, over the course of a year. Despite violent attacks from the police, their three-month strike won pay raises and paid holidays, and demonstrated racial solidarity on the picket lines.

Tragically, Operation Dixie did not create the tidal wave of organizing that the CIO had set out for. The hostility of police violence, the Jim Crow South, the Ku Klux Klan, and the red-baiting pressures of McCarthyism led to a purging of the most talented organizers. The CIO caved to these very real pressures, throwing back the project of organizing the South in a way that is still felt today.

Organizing In The South Today

For as long as capitalism remains, racism, and other forms of oppression, cannot be fought as a separate battle. This means taking on racism and sexism in the workplace, as well as linking up the labor movement with social struggles. The clearest example in recent history is the 2021  Amazon union drive in Bessemer, Alabama (BAmazon), which gained steam in the aftermath of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement. The brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of police exposed not only the racist nature of the state, but also the fundamentally broken system we live under that relies on the exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few. 20 million took to the streets in the largest protest movement in US history, in the middle of a global pandemic, no less. The slogan “Black Lives Matter at work” was taken up by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RDWSU), correctly connecting the Black Lives Matter movement in Birmingham to the 75% Black workforce at BAmazon. 

Black workers in Alabama waged an important battle against billionaire Jeff Bezos, one of the richest men in the world. RWDSU needed to connect BLM to a clear set of demands, and over-estimated the favorability of the union amongst the workers. Because of this, they failed to build the strong support needed to take on Amazon’s dirty and illegal union busting, and lost the union vote. Had the BLM movement as a whole pointed more clearly towards unifying demands and unionization as a way to advance the needs of the Black working class, this could have been an enormous opening to organizing in the South. Instead, the union’s vague calls for “equality” and “a voice in the workplace” allowed Amazon to pay lip service to BLM while co-opting the movement away from the union drive. Now, workers in Northern Kentucky at Amazon’s largest air hub in the world are picking up the mantle to take on Amazon. Translation rights have been central to winning over primarily African immigrant workers over to the union, and to link up with other workers in the fight for $30/hour, 180 hours PTO, and more. Strong, worker-led shop-floor organizing around unifying, concrete demands is what is needed to bring Amazon to its knees. A victory here would have huge implications not only for the South, but for the labor movement nationally. 

Autoworkers, service workers, and airline workers are at the forefront of organizing the South today. Together with Amazon workers, they have the potential to create an urgently needed watershed moment in 2024 as ordinary people continue to be worn down by the cost-of-living crisis. This means navigating not only anti-worker labor laws in the South, but also the broader right-wing political climate. The Democratic establishment has no faith in workers in the South, instead concentrating their focus on their bastions of liberalism. This failing, defensive strategy is actively fueling the growth of the far right, which uses racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia to divide the working class. However, deep contradictions play out every election cycle where ordinary people in red states vote for progressive measures. For example, Floridians in 2020 voted for Trump, but also overwhelmingly voted for a $15/hr minimum wage ballot measure. In 2022 after the overturn of Roe v. Wade, red state Kansas voters rejected to remove abortion measures from its constitution in a landslide. Unions have an important role to play in taking on fighting demands to unify ordinary people against the reactionary right.

Labor & Abortion Rights

Going into the November elections, abortion rights are again at stake, although layers of the right-wing establishment are wary of making too many oversteps. Since the overturn of federally protected abortion rights, 13 states, largely concentrated in the South, have seen trigger bans go into effect. These include full bans on abortion, and even criminalization in states like Tennessee, Louisiana, and Texas. The labor movement in the 60s and 70s played a large role in strikes, occupations, and walkouts alongside the women’s movement to win abortion rights. With the women’s movement significantly thrown back today and weakness of the left broadly, the union movement must step up not only to fight for abortion rights in the South, but against sexism in the workplace. Since the 70s, women flight attendants have been at the forefront of airline worker struggles, including leading campaigns for pregnancy leave and against sexualized dress codes. 

Today, Delta Airlines, which earned $4.6 billion last year (more than United, American, and Southwest combined) is facing the pressure of three unions taking on the task of organizing all 50,000 Delta workers, more than half of whom live in the South. At the largest Labor Notes Conference in history this last April, which brought together over 4,500 workers and activists from across the country, airline workers addressed the question of labor and abortion rights. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, took the floor at a workshop at Labor Notes to declare that the labor movement needs to fight for everyone and take up the fight for abortion rights. It was met with a roomful of applause and cheers. 

Labor Needs A New Party

The growing tide of labor cannot be a “blue wave.” Biden’s 87-second lap around a UAW picket line outside a General Motors plant in Michigan was a symbolic rubber stamp at best, and a distraction from the Democrats failing workers time and time again at worst. The Biden administration was eager to throw away its campaign promise of a $15/hr minimum wage, shamefully blocked the 2022 rail strike and sold out rail workers to the billionaires, and have failed to lead a serious fight back against the right. In fact, with many right populists posing as pro-labor, there’s a high risk of ceding ground to the right.

Big business has its own political parties. Working and young people need a new party that gives real teeth to the labor movement, and serves as a home for social movements. Shawn Fain’s support of a UAW Gaza ceasefire resolution and call for a 32-hour work week alongside Bernie Sanders are both progressive measures, but cannot be concretely fought for by turning around and endorsing Joe Biden. In fact, UAW’s endorsement has actually hurt some of its Southern organizing, among workers who rightfully see Biden as a president who has done nothing for them. Unions of course shouldn’t be neutral on Trump either. Working people are ready to take on organizing the South and beyond, but both the Democrats and Republicans are not on the side of workers, and will not help in building fighting unions. Approaching November elections, labor, alongside the uncommitted and #AbandonBiden campaigns, urgently needs to take up the task of building a new party fully accountable to working people.

Solidarity with Southern Workers Rebuilding A Fighting Labor Movement!

  • Stop the attacks on labor in the South! No to union busting, anti-labor laws, and threats to workers’ rights
  • Support the national UAW organizing drive and autoworkers fighting to unionize in the South! We need mass unionization campaigns everywhere
  • No to Biden, no to Trump! For a new worker’s party that fights directly for workers’ interests
  • UAW President Shawn Fain’s call for a general strike against all the bosses on May 1, 2028 won’t happen without a mass mobilization. Union workers should fight to line up contracts, and UAW should host organizing meetings to mobilize the wider working class. 
  • For a fighting labor movement to take on capitalism! Workers and young people must build a multi-racial, multi-gender, multi-national movement 

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