How can labor organize the South?

This week nearly 150 activists and scholars gathered at Duke University to take on the question: What will it take to organize labor in the South? (Photo: AFL-CIO)

The recent union vote at Volkswagen's plant in Tennessee wasn't just a defeat -- albeit a very close one  -- for the United Auto Workers in their bid to organize the Southern industry. The closely-followed election has sparked a broader conversation about the future of the labor movement in the South.

Given the deep hostility of many Southern leaders to unions -- in full display this month among Tennessee Republicans who aggressively fought the UAW's campaign, despite VW's neutral stance -- what will it take to boost labor's strength in the region? What unique approaches and strategies will be needed if unions are to succeed in the South?

These were among the questions nearly 150 organizers, scholars and community leaders grappled with at "Organize the South," a panel at Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies this week.

Using North Carolina as a focal point, the event hosted by North Carolina's AFL-CIO and other groups opened with a look at the political and historical context of union organizing in N.C. and the South, followed by perspectives from organizers involved in a variety of labor campaigns. See below for a full video of the event:

In my opening remarks, I noted that the outcome of the auto workers' campaign at VW wasn't surprising, given the political pressure Tennessee officials exerted -- in many ways typical of efforts by Southern politicians for decades to keep states "union-free." But the fact that the UAW would have emerged victorious if just 44 workers had changed their votes from "no" to "yes" suggests labor may be closer to winning victories in the South than many realize.

But whether or not organizing labor in the South will be easy, the fact is unions have no other choice. The center of political gravity in the country is shifting South; today, one-third of the Electoral College votes needed to elect a president are held in 13 Southern states. Just like Democrats increasingly need a Southern electoral strategy, unions need a Southern labor strategy.

A New Southern Strategy

What might a new Southern strategy for labor look like? Given the range of legal, political and cultural obstacles unions face in the South -- and, increasingly, the rest of the country -- unions will definitely need to be creative.

There's also a growing opportunity in the changing demographics of the South. The growth of African-American, Asian-American and Latino communities in the South not only promises to change the region's political landscape -- what U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called a "demographic death spiral" for Republicans -- but also the Southern workforce. And as National Journal found in a recent poll, African-American and Latino workers view unions more favorably than their white counterparts.

All of the organizers featured at the Organize the South panel were engaging these new realities for Southern labor. Justin Flores with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee spoke of the union's unique strategies to organize farmworkers who have limited legal protections, seeking multi-party contracts between the workers, farm owners and the corporations that buy the product (most recently tobacco giant R. J. Reynolds).

Zaina Alsous spoke of the growing success of the Raise Up campaign, a bold new effort to organize fast food workers and push for a $15 wage. The group has successfully led widely-covered strikes in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and other Southern states and nationally among a diverse workforce.

Groups like Black Workers for Justice have been calling for new strategies for labor in the South since the 1980s, including exchanges with workers in Germany and Mexico. Angaza Laughinghouse, a BWFJ member and leader of the N.C. Public Service Workers Union, noted that, as with teachers and other groups, the attack on workers in the South often goes hand-in-hand with larger assaults on government.

"One of the sharpest points of attack by [the] 1 percent ... is attacking the public sector," said Laughinghouse. "Don't forget, they're not just hitting public sector workers. They're cutting the programs, they're cutting the services, they're hurting all working people."

Because of the sharp opposition Southern workers face in their efforts to organize, it's especially important that workers build support in the community by connecting what's happening in their workplace to such broader issues.

A 'Movement for Economic Justice'

Building community support, viewing unions as just one piece of a broader social movement -- by keeping these principles in mind, unions have been able to succeed in key organizing drives. Keith Ludlum of the United Food and Commercial Workers described the union's 16-year struggle to win representation at pork giant Smithfield Foods in Tarheel, N.C. Despite organizing in an infamously hostile climate, the UFCW was able to win support among the Latino and African-American workforce with the help of local and national allies.

The ability of labor to adapt to the South's changing landscape and engage new people through innovative campaigns like Raise Up will be critical to creating more success stories. Labor has also worked closely with efforts like the Moral Monday movement, which launched in North Carolina and has since spread to Georgia, South Carolina and other states, to ensure workers' rights are central to the message.

As MaryBe McMillan of the North Carolina AFL-CIO noted, national labor leaders seem to waking up to the fact that organizing the South is central to labor's success nationally. At the national AFL-CIO convention last fall, unions passed a resolution calling for a Southern organizing strategy, and many have backed it up with investments in new union organizing. Last year, McMillan said, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia led the country in the number of new workers joining unions.

"If you look at the South, you see the fastest-growing, most diverse movement for economic justice in this country," McMillan said. "If unions make investments in Southern states, if we grow this movement here, we can change the South, and by doing so, we can bring economic justice to every corner of this nation."