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Unions seek gains in hostile territory: ‘If you change the South, you change America’

“The innovation that service workers in the South are showing us is a very important way to create a future where unions thrive,” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said in an interview.

Even in what is arguably the most union-friendly national climate in decades, these efforts face daunting obstacles.

The South has what a dozen organizers and pundits have called a regional culture that has long proven resistant to collective bargaining. Workers lack deep union ties and companies often relocate south to avoid organizing drives. Many political leaders are openly hostile to unions. The region is a bastion of so-called right-to-work laws, which make it harder for unions to root since employees cannot be required to pay dues, as well as laws that make it harder or even illegal, for public sector workers. negotiate.

The Southern Workers Assembly and its allies oppose all state laws that make it harder for workers to organize. But so far, Michigan has been the only state to repeal a right-to-work law in decades.

This hostility has caused some unions to focus their efforts on direct engagement with workers rather than seeking legislative changes that would make it easier for workers to organize.

‘We don’t have the density, or the clout’ in the South as in northern cities, said Edgar Fields, president of the Southeast Council of the Resale, Wholesale and Department Stores Union. , which represents workers in Florida, Georgia. North Carolina and South Carolina.

The union is behind the organizing campaign at an Amazon factory in Bessemer, Alabama, and Fields said he’s seen increased interest from workers in the South in expanding campaigns such as those targeting REI – which has seen success in a handful of northern stores recently – in the region.

So far, there’s little evidence that these nascent efforts are undoing decades of high-profile setbacks in the region, including two recent failed unionization votes at this Amazon plant in Alabama and the defeats of the United Workers of America. automotive at the Volkswagen and Nissan plants in Tennessee.

Union skeptics like Patrick Semmens, vice president of the National Foundation for the Right to Work, say unions should look to themselves to explain low unionization rates rather than blame legislative or regional factors.

“If union membership is such an attractive product – and union officials claim it is – then they shouldn’t have such a hard time convincing workers to choose it,” Semmens said.

But while labor rights victories are rare, labor organizers and their allies point to other indications that low-wage workers in the South are more receptive to their arguments in the current climate. The Southern Workers’ Assembly, for example, has gone from seven active local assemblies to 12 since April.

In recent years, unions have won high-profile victories over national retailers long hostile to organizing drives like Starbucks and Trader Joe’s. In addition, this summer has seen a sharp increase in strikes: More than 200,000 workers at large companies participated in work stoppages in July, compared to 126,500 for all of 2022, according to data from the Bureau of Labor. Statistics.

Yet this comes after decades of decline. Unionization rates fell in the second half of the 20th century and have hovered below 11% since 2016, according to the BLS. Of the 11 states with unionization rates below 5 percent last year, seven were in the South; no southern state was among the 20 with rates above 10 percent.

Organizing service workers presents particular challenges. US labor law is generally structured around a model in which workers must unionize on a plant-by-plant basis; that’s why Starbucks workers must hold votes at individual stores that sometimes involve fewer than a dozen employees.

Service jobs, which are often low-paid, also experience high turnover rates that can far exceed the time needed by the National Labor Relations Board to facilitate union contracts and combat unfair labor practices.

“Time is not on the side of workers,” said D. Taylor, president of hospitality union UNITE HERE, which successfully organized 12,000 service workers in the South in the mid-2010s and is continuing those efforts. . “They have to pay rent.”

This is why labor groups are trying new tactics to convince workers of the benefits of collective bargaining. For example, workers can remain members of the Southern Service Workers Union, even if they change jobs.

“What excites me the most is the vision,” SEIU’s Henry said of the USSW. By uniting fast food workers, home care workers and retail workers, the new union challenges “the legacy of racism and corporate power” that is “the dominant theme in these states for far too long,” she said.

Naomi Harris, one of the co-founders of the USSW and employee of Waffle House in Columbia, South Carolina, went on strike with her co-workers in July for better working conditions. Waffle House workers did not run for union elections with the NLRB, but simply demanded changes like better equipment and an end to a policy that automatically deducted meal expenses from wages.

“The spotlight is on this company, and now you have the public eye,” Harris said of the campaign. “So you have no choice but to do what they have to do: meet our demands. »

But it remains to be seen whether Waffle House will eventually accede to the workers’ demands. The company has accepted at least one request — to repair the site’s air conditioning system — and negotiations are ongoing, a USSW spokesperson said.

In a statement, Waffle House spokesperson Njeri Boss said the company was proud to address workers’ concerns.

“Our leadership team met with our associates in the Columbia, SC unit, some who participated in the short strike and some who did not,” Boss said. “We have already worked on most of the issues discussed and are working on others.” (USSW disputed that Waffle House had moved on a request other than AC.)

The challenges of organizing retail workers are compounded in the South by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws, said Jennifer Sherer, senior state policy coordinator at Economic Policy. Institute, from left. Successful efforts by Southern industrial interests to exclude agricultural and domestic workers from federal labor relations law have had an outsized impact on black Southerners, Sherer said.

This meant that these workers were excluded from minimum wage and overtime protections. While domestic workers must now be paid at least the minimum wage, home-based workers still do not enjoy overtime protection.

“Domestic workers were intentionally removed because at that time it was mostly black women,” said Hillary Holley, senior director of civic engagement at the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Among the recruitment tactics employed by the NDWA: talking with nannies in parks and courting home helpers from bus stops. The organization is advocating for a domestic worker “Bill of Rights” that guarantees minimum protections, including benefits afforded to employees under federal labor law.

Washington, DC, recently became the latest city to adopt such protections, while national legislation will be reintroduced this month, NDWA spokeswoman Daniela Perez said.

The pandemic has also caused service workers to make collective decisions as business closures have given them time to reflect on their terms, organizer Jen Hampton said. A three-decade veteran of the restaurant business, Hampton today serves as the head of Asheville Food and Beverage United and the Western North Carolina Workers’ Assembly.

Hampton said he met local food service workers who believed it was literally illegal for them to organize in North Carolina. She attributes this mistaken belief to widespread anti-union sentiment in her community and a state law restricting bargaining among public sector employees.

“We just stopped saying the U word for a while,” Hampton said of the early organizing efforts. But now, after more than two years of organizing, her efforts have grown from a local Facebook group to a union affiliated with Restaurant Workers United, she said.

Union organizers have expressed optimism that bringing in workers from places least favorable to unions could have an impact on workers nationwide. A Treasury Department report released late last month indicates an increase benefits of union power the middle class and the economy in general.

National labor laws — including the Democrat-backed Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would make it easier for more workers to unionize and allow the NLRB to fine employers — is blocked in Congress. UNITE HERE’s Taylor said this means it’s time for unions to take bigger risks on larger groups of workers and new sectors in the South.

“If you change the South, you change America,” Taylor said.