A new union is born in the South
Within minutes of the formation of the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW) earlier this month, Quadtrell Adams lay helpless on the walkway outside the Levi C. Chavous Conference Center in Columbia, South Carolina. Moments earlier, Adams had stumbled from the building upon sensing the onset of a seizure likely triggered by the flash of cameras and the carnival of shout and song inside. Having assisted Adams through previous episodes, fellow union members went into action. Russell Smalls, a convenience store employee, rubbed his friend's chest with turquoise stones, while others spoke to Adams softly and watched over him until his fits had passed.
The 34-year-old Adams and the 150 cofounders of the USSW are among the South's floating army of retail, food service, and care workers. Though they comprise the largest segment of the region's workforce, they are also its most marginalized, their lives defined by their low wages, transience, and invisibility. Adams — or "Gas" as he his more commonly known — has worked in fast food restaurants for years, but is unable to maintain a regular schedule due to the seizures he has suffered since childhood. In recent months, he has worked intermittently as a lumper for a friend who is an over-the-road truck driver and as a hype man at parties and concerts. He rations the costly drugs he needs to properly manage the seizures, and his lack of steady income keeps him reliant on friends and family for housing in his native Charleston.
USSW workers and staff are bullish on their new union, believing that its fusion of labor and human rights organizing will help them secure livable wages, stronger safety protections, control over their work schedules, and new respect for the African Americans and Latinos who make up the majority of their members. They are encouraged by the growing public approval for labor unions and the increase in worker protest during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially among essential or frontline workers. They are also building off of nine years of organizing through Raise Up — the Southern expression of the Fight for $15 and a Union and an affiliate of the sprawling Service Employees International Union.
Raise Up veterans like Gas and Smalls, and the Durham, North Carolina-based Ieisha Franceis and Jamila Allen, will be critical to the USSW's success. Beginning in September 2020 and continuing over the next year, Franceis and Allen led three walkouts that forced their employer, Freddy's Frozen Custard and Steakburgers, to agree to their demands for raises, paid leave for employees in quarantine, and new sanitation procedures. Franceis was initially hesitant about striking, but she trusted the much younger and more soft-spoken Allen, who had been meeting with Raise Up organizers for a year and gently prodding her coworkers to take collective action.
"That first strike did something to me," said Franceis, recalling with pride the walkout that left customers unattended and burgers burning on the grill as panicked managers pleaded with them to return. "I felt empowerment, and I'll go to my grave with that sense and pass it to my children and grandchildren."
For Franceis, whose recurrent carpal tunnel syndrome forced her to leave Freddy's in May for a job in a clothing store, the transition from Raise Up to USSW is a welcome change. The new union more closely aligns with the realities of workers like herself who move frequently between retail, health care, and food service jobs depending on pay, scheduling, school, transportation, health, and family needs.
"USSW will give us the representation we need to transform these jobs that most people frown upon into high paying union jobs," she said. "That's going to give us a new sense of dignity."
Allen, who still works at Freddy's, agrees with her former coworker. "This is the big union I've been waiting for," she said, noting that, while their protests at Freddy's led to company-wide policy changes, she believes the movement needs to be even more boldly ambitious. "My CEO came down from Kansas to our store to announce the changes, but that's Freddy's and not Walmart, Starbucks, or Dollar General. We need a bigger movement to demand those same changes for all service workers."
Whether heightened workplace protest translates into organization and sustained worker power remains to be seen. USSW is focusing its initial efforts on Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas — states that have among the lowest rates of union density coupled with the highest levels of animosity for organized labor among business and political leaders. Partly in recognition of these special challenges as well as the realities of a federal labor bureaucracy that has delivered very little for workers despite promised changes, USSW has embraced an expansive definition of union, which they posted around the conference center: "Union — Workers coming together to use our strength in numbers to get things done together we can't get done on our own."
Such a broad definition includes workplace and community struggles, as well as acts of collective care and solidarity, like the love shown for Gas when he lost consciousness outside the conference center. In this regard, USSW leaders feel they have plenty to offer the labor movement and the larger U.S. left.
Labor leaders on hand to witness the birth of USSW agree. South Carolina AFL-CIO President Charles Brave Jr. was overcome by the fighting spirit he recognized immediately as he entered the conference center. In welcoming remarks, Brave — who is also president of the powerful longshore union local in Charleston — encouraged the service workers to understand the historic significance of their efforts.
"The voices you raise in the next few days will be echoed across this state" for many years to come, he said.
Russell Bannan, a Spartanburg native and organizer for the United Steelworkers, drew excited parallels between the USSW gathering and W.E.B. Du Bois's address to the Southern Negro Youth Congress in Columbia in October 1946. "I can't think of anything in South Carolina since the Du Bois event that compares to this," Bannan said, adding that he wished every young labor organizer could have been in attendance.
The Steelworkers have already involved USSW members in their campaign to organize the GITI Tire manufacturing company in Richburg, South Carolina. For its part, USSW has worked carefully to frame its new initiative within a long tradition of struggles that join labor rights and civil rights in the South, such as the movements of tenant farmers in the 1930s and the wave of organizing drives by Black health care and public sector workers in the late 1960s.
In the final hours of the Columbia meeting, workers met as state delegations to discuss strategy before signing union cards during an extended celebration and farewell. They traded hugs and phone numbers and, as if it were the last day of school, they signed laminated posters that were distributed to commemorate the birth of the USSW.
Kerry Taylor is a board member of the Institute for Southern Studies, the nonprofit that publishes Facing South, and directs the Charleston Oral History Program at the Citadel: The Military College of South Carolina.