Tefere Gebre: How labor can win the South

Since being elected executive vice president of the national AFL-CIO in 2013, Tefere Gebre has preached the need for labor to step up organizing efforts in the South — and to commit to the region for the long haul. "Anybody not committing until 2020 ... is just looking for a photo op," he says. (Photo: AFL-CIO)

Tefere Gebre is an evangelist for labor organizing in the South. When he was 14, Gebre fled war-torn Ethiopia, walking for weeks to a Sudanese refugee camp before arriving in Los Angeles as a political refugee. He got involved with labor while working as a night shift loader at UPS, and became active in a variety of unions and campaigns, rising to be executive director of the Orange County Labor Federation in 2008. In 2013, he was elected executive vice president of the national AFL-CIO, where he has been a staunch advocate for experimenting with new forms of organizing as well as the need to steer resources and energy to a place he believes the labor movement is needed most: the U.S. South. Institute for Southern Studies Executive Director Chris Kromm spoke with Gebre at a recent meeting of the International Labor Communications Association in Raleigh, North Carolina.

CHRIS KROMM: Tell me about why you think organizing the South is important, and why the AFL-CIO has made a commitment to organizing in the South?

TEFERE GEBRE: From a deeply felt sense of — even just looking at your research [at the Institute for Southern Studies], Chris — if we're not in areas where workers need us the most, what are we for? The selfish argument to that is if we don't care about what happens in the South, then what happens in the South [for workers] will sooner or later become a reality all across the country.

From an American pride perspective, the South has become a dumping ground for the global multinationals. As Americans, we feel offended that multinationals are seeking the South for cheap labor and unregulated labor and profiteering when they come and set up here.

KROMM: As you often say, if we don't confront what's happening in the South, it will come back and bite us in the rest of country …

GEBRE: My saying is, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but what happens in the South sooner or later comes back and gets you."

KROMM: It seems there is growing awareness that the South is important nationally. What do you think are some of the ingredients for what it's going to take to really gain ground in the South?

GEBRE: I spent a lot of time in the South ever since I got elected to this office [in 2013]. I am more convinced than ever that it's not the spirit we lack in the South. It's not people not wanting to work hard for a movement in the South. I think what we're clearly lacking in the South is capacity for people to do what they want to do. The lack of capacity to organize — whether it's political organizing, or shop-labor organizing — the progressive side has no capacity in the South, and the other side has over-capacity. And that's just a bad match.

That's what we're trying to do right now in the five Southern cities that I'm spearheading. We're just building capacity. People ask me "what for?" and I say "whatever the hell we want to." We're just building progressive capacity.

In many places [labor is] the center of gravity. I think we can help set up hubs in places like Houston, in places like Dallas and Miami. We see a little bit of that capacity being created. And then it's up to Southerners to take it and run with it.

KROMM: I know one thing you've said is that labor has to experiment, and think about creative ways to tackle these problems. That seems like a creative way tackle it — that we want to build capacity, and we'll see what comes. Tell me a little more about what kind of creative thinking, and why we need creative thinking, when organizing in the South.

GEBRE: Because it's what's required. You have an imbalance of power here in the South. You have very organized groups on the other side [that have spent] 30, 40, 50 years building the walls. It's going to take a long time to take down those walls. It's going to take a while.

You can't just be having events in the South. We're organizers, not event planners. I have been to great conferences in the South, but … I want to get out of hotels like this, I want to be on the street, and do things. Less intellectualizing it, more activating it.

KROMM: In a lot of Southern organizing campaigns, one of the biggest issues is that it's not only the resistance of the companies, but it's also the political culture. You have Gov. Nikki Haley in South Carolina with Boeing, or with the UAW fight in Tennessee, politicians coming out and fighting unions tooth and nail. That's true in other parts of the country, but [it] definitely is turned up a notch in the South. What's the strategy for addressing that?

GEBRE: That's not a Southern thing, that's a national thing. The reason Nikki Haley is bold enough to use her State of the State address for union-bashing and worker-bashing is because it polls well. Politicians are going to do what politicians are going to do. Politicians are going to follow what polling numbers tell them.

As an organizer, my thinking is, how do we change those poll results? You don't change those poll results by calling names and by saying Nikki Haley is evil. You do that by organizing the voters themselves.

I've been talking about this notion of agenda-driven politics. Either we let politics organize our agenda, or we lead with our agenda, and our agenda organizes our politics. If [we lead with our agenda], people will see the value that unions bring.

There are a lot of African Americans in the South. And sometimes in primaries, decisive votes. We have a tendency of going and talking to them around elections, and telling them that [a candidate] is going to come on a white horse and save you from the predicament you're in. I think instead, if we have a year-round political and organizing program, it would organize your politics also. That would be a lot better. Resources would be spent in a better way.

For example, what do I tell someone — that North Carolina turned "blue" in 2008, but they double-checked their paycheck and there was no difference? There's got to be an agenda added to our politics.

KROMM: That seems to be part of what Working America tries to do. Tell me about Working America and how you see it as an asset in the South.

GEBRE: I think Working America can be an asset everywhere. Working America believes in the value and power of the canvass. The value and the power of talking to people on their front porches, talking to people in their living rooms, talking to people at their level.

Look, I lead a labor movement, and I'll be the first to tell you that we're too small to win on our own. We're mighty big if we actually speak for anybody who gets up in the morning to work. It doesn't matter if you have a union card or not. That's what we're trying to do through Working America. There are states where we actually have more Working America members than union members, and that's good.

KROMM: So that's a shift …

GEBRE: Yes, it is. You know, we're always invited to play whack-a-mole. And sometimes we're good at it. But sooner or later with whack-a-mole, you're going to lose. We can't be just running around and putting fires out, this challenge here and this challenge here. That doesn't just happen by accident, that happens by plan from the other side. [They] make you play defense all the time. And you could become good at playing defense, without ever having the ball to score a victory. What Working America and this out-of-the-box thinking allows us is having victories.

KROMM: One thing I notice in North Carolina is that unions, even with 2 percent density, they've become a bigger part of the progressive conversation in the state due to their involvement in things like Moral Monday and because of work like Raise Up/Fight for $15 and Working America. Because it's coming from all these different places and not just plant-by-plant organizing campaigns, it's become a bigger part of the progressive conversation. Even with the relatively small union membership, unions have members on the ground, ready to action. Talk a little about how labor can be a part of the broader social movement in the South.

GEBRE: Thank you for that, but it's not enough. We're still not doing enough, we're not leading enough.

But that being said, that's what is unique about the labor movement … That is power based on members. This is unique to the American labor movement. It is dependent on people who, even with diminishing returns on their paycheck, giving us a little bit of money and saying, "Go fight my fight." That is irreplaceable.

Sometimes I hear dangerous conversations from progressives. They tell me the days of collective bargaining are over, and we've got to find another formula. Yes, we should find other formulas, but I don't want to lose the bread and butter of workers leading their own organizations. That's why you see a lot of union workers on the street. They come through their organizations. They know it's their organization, their union.

Just imagine, with 2 to 3 percent union density in North Carolina, what labor has been trying to do. MaryBe McMillan [secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina AFL-CIO] and others, what they do is really fight above their weight class, every day. Just imagine how much better the entire progressive movement would be if union membership started inching up in this country.

I think the progressive movement should understand the venomous attack on workers and their organizations is not just only about workers and their organizations. It's about the entire progressive movement.

KROMM: I want to go back to the Union Cities effort. At the Institute, we've done a lot of research about how cities in the South are really a growing base of power. That's where a lot of the [demographic] changes are happening in the South, so it makes a lot of sense, economically and politically. Tell me a little bit about what labor is trying to do with the cities approach.

GEBRE: We feel the vacuum of progressive infrastructure that I talked about. We want to build capacity to fight in the biggest Southern cities. Houston, Dallas, Miami, Orlando and Atlanta. We've been working for about a year and a half there. We're genuinely creating a space for progressive organizations to sit at the table and conspire with us.

Look, places like Houston, if you look at their demographics, they look more like Los Angeles than the Deep South. Yet politically, they function like the Deep South. They have no business functioning like the Deep South. In Houston, you don't have a problem of electing Democrats, because Democrats control the city council, they always win the mayor's race. We just want to have the mechanics behind it, to make them do things that deliver for the constituency that got them elected. They can then start thinking and talking and being a disciple for shared prosperity in those municipalities. The power in those cities is huge; we can become a critical mass.

KROMM: A lot of those cities are gateways to the broader areas of the state and region. Any plans to expand [on those five cities]?

GEBRE: We've seen good progress, so we've expanded our cities program. We're looking at some other Southern places, like Nashville and North Carolina. I'm a very impatient person. I can't do a lot of conference calls and meetings. I just like to get the ball rolling.

KROMM: At the same time, both urgency but also a long-term commitment. You've been talking about this for a while, so I know you're focused on the long haul.

GEBRE: Yes. If anybody's not committing until 2022, coming in from outside of the South, they're just looking for a photo op.