By Joe Atkins, Labor South
Delegates at the 2013 convention of the AFL-CIO in Los Angeles this week adopted a a resolution proposed by the Savannah (Ga.) Regional Central Council "to develop a Southern organizing strategy" as "one of its top priorities" and one that will "include a long-term commitment to organize the South."
Resolution 26 decries the fact that the U.S. labor movement "has never successfully developed a concerted and coordinated effort to organize workers in the 11 Southern states" of the Southern Region, thus "allowing the most conservative political forces in the South to operate without effectively being challenged by organized workers."
The South today is "a major player in the new global economy," the resolution says, "and has become a haven for US manufacturing, foreign investments and finance capital, and because of this reemergence is now playing an integral role in shaping US labor and social policies."
Yet "corporations in the South have not only exploited Southern workers but have also been responsible for the negative environmental impact on many working class families, especially the African American, Latino, Native American, Asian and poor white communities."
Conservative Southern politicians have okayed "billions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives” to corporations “at the expense of these struggling communities."
Even as convention delegates adopted this resolution, however, much work is already underway to, indeed, organize the South, an effort tracked closely by Labor South.
The United Auto Workers, in a do-or-die effort to rebuild, is actively working with the IG Metall union in Germany and even some company officials to establish German-style works councils at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., and the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala. Despite opposition from political leaders in both states, VW officials are talking with union leaders about the move, and Mercedes-Benz officials say they're neutral to the idea.
In fact, in a major breakthrough, Gary Casteel, UAW regional director for the South, said this week that a majority of workers at the VW plant in Chattanooga have now signed cards supporting a works council. Casteel told Associated Press that the cards are the legal equivalent of an actual election. He declined to say when the union would seek formal recognition.
Besides its work at the German plants, the UAW has helped build a wide-ranging grassroots campaign over the past eight years to organize the 5,200 workers at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss. That campaign has taken activists around the country and as far away as Brazil and South Africa to make the case for a union vote in Canton. Hundreds now attend union-related events, even as Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and other state leaders lock arms in opposition. Bryant attacked a recent study showing Nissan will receive up to $1.33 billion in government incentives over a 30-year period despite never living up to all the promises that came with its arrival in Mississippi. To counteract the UAW, Nissan has waged a high-stakes campaign to endear itself to the area black community -- an estimated 80 percent of the workforce at the plant is black -- offering hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to local schools and civil rights organizations.
Even back in 1946, when the original "Operation Dixie" was launched, labor leaders recognized the crucial importance of the South to labor's future, the potential for Southern-bred anti-unionism to spread to the rest of the country. The campaign ended in failure in the early 1950s, but the predictions that prompted it have proven true. The South has to be organized, or the U.S. labor movement will eventually shrink into nonexistence.
By Joe Atkins, Labor South
Joe Atkins is a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of "Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press." A veteran journalist, Atkins previously worked as the congressional correspondent with Gannett New Service's Washington bureau and with newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi.