Creating a culture of unionism in the South

To build a culture of unionism, solidarity must be non-negotiable, with an attack on any union viewed as an attack on all unions.

By Douglas Williams and Cato Uticensis, The South Lawn

One of the difficulties of organizing in the South is that the struggles here frequently occur under a veil of invisibility due to the lack of pro-worker media down here. Barring major fights like the United Food and Commercial Workers' (UFCW) fifteen-year long trench war against Smithfield Foods, where everything from cops on the company payroll to enterprise corruption lawsuits were used against the union, most of our battles do not gain much in the way of attention outside of the communities where they occur, and when there is coverage it is almost always skewed against the union. Even when unionized businesses hit hard times or close, the workers are never part of the story.

This cannot be entirely blamed on the media: Southern workers are trained by everything around them to see unions as a threat. Some of this is the fault of labor: The failure of Operation Dixie, the weak response by both the AFL and the CIO to the first right-to-work law in Florida in the early 1940s, and the ongoing lack of investment in organizing in the South by all unions feed this notion, but it's only part of the story. The fact of the matter is that Southern workers tend to be culturally conservative. The CIO's Operation Dixie and the fear of what the African-American community in the South would look like if it was organized drove the passage of Taft-Hartley and allowed right-to-work laws to proliferate rapidly across the former Confederacy. This was a successful attempt to weaken the labor movement, as it was a key ally to the Civil Rights Movement when it was gaining in momentum.

Another element of this is right-wing leaders in the South tarring even the most tepid neoliberal welfare state program as "socialism," which is a tradition that continues to this day. This is part of what alienates people from working towards collective action as a way to address issues they are facing on the job. Even when we do have a strong union presence with members who take a great deal of pride in their union, there are many members who do not engage with the unions' larger political effort due to it being almost solely identified with the Democratic party. For many people, political affiliation is a function of personal identity and not simply an ideological exercise. Ultimately, all of this can be summarized in one sentence: "There is not a culture of unionism in the South."

By "a culture of unionism," we are referring to the shared mindset necessary to build and exercise collective power on behalf of working people. This should be thought of as distinct from "union culture," which is the art and stories surrounding organized labor, but not necessarily separate, as music and art can play a powerful role in building this kind of mindset.

We have identified eight principles to building a culture of unionism. By no means is this an exhaustive list, nor is it limited to use in the South. To be honest, it's of use any place where the idea of the collective development and exercise of power has waned:

1. Develop your culture carefully. A culture that values success only risks moral drift and struggles to adapt when it faces losses and reversals. A culture that values only purity of ideology is ill-equipped to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. A dynamic tension between these two extremes must be maintained if labor is to remain both relevant and principled.

2. Solidarity is non-negotiable. An attack on any union has to be considered as an attack on all unions and must be reacted to as such. The two most recently successful organizing drives in North Carolina were carried over the line by other unionists showing solidarity with Farm Labor Organizing Committee and UFCW and holding the line on boycotts. Additional actions that unions can do to show solidarity with other workers engaged in labor struggles include contributing to the strike funds of fellow unionists, turning up to protests organized by other unions, and engaging in joint community awareness campaigns to let neighbors know why supporting the union is also supporting themselves.

3. No permanent allies, no permanent enemies. With politicians and special interest groups, our engagement with them must remain wholly dependent on whether they provide adequate support to our cause. For instance, a state senator doing labor a solid ten years ago is no reason to support him now if he is pushing policies that are actively damaging to the lives of working people. Likewise, if the executive director of an environmental group that your local has been at loggerheads with for years approaches with an idea for a joint project that would be beneficial to the members and to working folks, work with her. This collaboration could mean a new way forward for both groups and the chance to build power and put pressure on elected officials.

4. Right-to-work doesn't prevent union organizing; it prevents shitty union organizing. The labor movement should always be engaged in an effort to repeal right-to-work laws at the state level, and the effects that those laws have on unions and organizing have long been documented elsewhere. But until that happens, the struggle for worker justice must continue to be fought, even where it seems to be the most difficult or intransigent. To that end, visibility is an absolute necessity, as there are people in Southern states who think that they can't form unions because of right-to-work. Taking the time and energy to demystify the jargon and give a worker the information she needs to make an informed decision is, in a word, organizing. As an example, there are UAW-organized plants in North Carolina with membership levels rivalling those of plants in Michigan, and even in the explicitly open-shop federal government, where the union has to provide support to non-members, the American Federation of Government Employees' locals representing the Bureau of Prisons have very high rates of organization. How these two very different unions manage this feat is similar: they are very proactive at getting new hires on-board the first day. When it comes down to it, servicing your members and showing people that there is power in a union can go a long way towards increasing union density, no matter where you reside.

5. Cultivate member-to-member relationships as much as possible and across multiple unions. Isolation is corrosive to solidarity within a union and with other unions. As such, labor must work to create a network of people who will have each other's back in the face of corporatist aggression, such as layoffs or bargaining in bad faith. The central instrument for creating these networks should be central labor councils, which are federations of labor unions within a certain geographical area who typically have their meetings in one central location. This makes them the perfect place for events that will build solidarity across various trades, and not just the kind of events that are directly related to the work that goes on there. Social events like concerts and barbecues can build the kind of social ties necessary to form such a network. All workers benefit when the House of Labor has a strong foundation; using the central labor councils to build these connections between workers is a great way to do just that.

6. Labor has to work for the broader interests of working people. An isolation from the community makes it much easier for our enemies to vilify the union and attack it using the political process. There is no better example of this than Wisconsin, where labor was isolated from the community and an ultimately successful campaign was waged against public sector collective bargaining by hardline right wing politicians. When labor works in the broader interests of the working public, it serves as a force multiplier. There is no better example of this than Chicago, where the Chicago Teachers Union has successfully changed the conversation about education in the city through a careful and deliberate strategy of community outreach combined with on-the-job action. In the end, what's good for the broader community is good for labor, and working towards that can bring people who would otherwise be skeptical of organizing around.

7. Success breeds success. When starting out from very little or nothing in the way of density, your power and your options are limited, so even minor successes can be used to build power and bring more people into the fight. Simply winning grievances and arbitration decisions can bolster a contract and make it more ironclad for the next round of negotiations. When you do the all of the little things that make a union run cohesively, it can pay off in a big way for workers on the shop floor. As we mentioned above, this can be particularly useful in states that bar union security clauses from employment contracts.

8. If an action does not build power, you must seriously question whether or not to do it. This is a key to building union strength anywhere that union density is low, but especially in the South. When you get right down to it, unions are about power for working people. There are a lot of other things that get attached to them, but that is their original and main purpose: to serve as a defense against the exploitative characteristics of corporate power. No matter how noble the action or good the cause, if it does not build power, you must think critically about whether it is necessary and whether those resources can dedicated to another project that does build power.

Working folks in this country are under a sustained and deliberate assault, but it isn't impossible to turn back these attacks. The desire to retrench to previously secure places and industries is an understandable if wrong-headed notion: it rests on the idea that there are certain regions or industries that are safer from attack than others. The ugly fact is that any state or industry where there is a high rate of organization will come under attack by corporate power in its ongoing war against working people, and the places and industries that have maintained their high levels of union organization have only done so through sustained and difficult struggle.

This notion should have been dispelled by the bill signing that made Michigan the twenty-fourth right-to-work state in America. It should have been dispelled by the bill signing that made Indiana the twenty-third right-to-work state. It should have been dispelled by Wisconsin gutting public sector collective bargaining rights. It should have been dispelled by putative political allies of labor trying to break the teachers union in Chicago. There is no one safe place left for labor anymore, and the only way we can preserve what we have is by going on the offensive and building power in places where we do not have a strong presence.

If we are serious about increasing union power and building a fair and democratic society where workers can make a life with dignity and economic security, then we must make sure that working people see collective bargaining as a solution for righting wrongs on the shop floor. By engaging workers and the community in the ways that we have listed above, labor unions can build a culture of unionism that will work towards helping workers claim the fruit of their labor.

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A native of Suffolk, Va., Douglas Williams is a third-generation organizer and a doctoral student in political science at the University of Alabama; he can be found on Twitter at  @DougWilliams85. Cato Uticensis is the pseudonym of a union organizer working in the South; he can be found on Twitter at @Cato_of_Utica.