Magazine article Dissent

A Southern Strategy for Unions

Magazine article Dissent

A Southern Strategy for Unions

Article excerpt

[T]he hospitality of southerners is so profuse, that taverns are but poorly supported. A traveler, with the garb and the manners of a gentleman, finds a welcome at every door. A stranger is riding on horseback through Virginia or Carolina. It is noon. He sees a plantation, surrounded with trees, a little distance from the road. Without hesitation he rides to the door. The gentleman of the house sees his approach and is ready upon the steps.

-Jacob Abbott, 1835

ALTHOUGH Jacob Abbott traveled the South in the nineteenth century, my experience in twenty-first-century Texas was eerily similar. Except instead of riding a horse, I drove a Honda Civic. And rather than stopping in for lunch at a plantation, as a union organizer I knocked on doors in suburban developments looking for leaders who could help unite their co-workers and fight the boss. But today, as in Abbott's time, the workers kindly let a complete stranger into their home, where we would sit down on the couch, drink iced tea, and talk union.

My reception in Texas stood in stark contrast to the incredulity, profanity, and door slams I sometimes encountered during house visits back in Los Angeles. Still, when Texas workers lamented their low wages and rising health care costs, I was quickly reminded how this "hospitality" masks the harsh realities workers face in the South. Clearly, this "Southern hospitality" doesn't extend into the field of labor relations. Laws here are vehemently antilabor, and so are most politicians.

Facing this hostility, most unions have long steered clear of the South, contenting themselves to operate where more favorable political conditions exist, primarily on the east and west coasts. But in 2004, as George W. Bush prolonged his disastrous presidency by carrying every Southern state, it became clear that unions would never be able to enact positive changes for working families without gaining a foothold in the South. And so the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the union I came with to Texas, made a bold move to start shifting a huge bulk of its resources from the coasts, where most of the union's members reside, to what it calls the SouthSouthwest region, the seventeen southernmost states that stretching from Nevada to Virginia.

As Eliseo Medina, SEIU's leader in the South-Southwest, has written, "For too long, most of us in the labor movement acted as if the Mason-Dixon Line was a border we could not cross. But while we retreated to union islands like New York and California, the nonunion sea kept rising around us and we grew more and more isolated from workers . . . who so desperately needed our help." Indeed, as this non-union sea kept rising, so did the conservative forces that crushed labor's growth. This sea brought waves of anti-union legislation like the Taft-Hartley Act, right-to-work laws, and state constitutions that banned basic rights like collective bargaining for public employees.

One need only look at the numbers to see why the South is crucial to building political strength. Already, 41 percent of Americans live in these seventeen states, seven of which are among the ten fastest growing in the nation. But within this exploding region, only 5.7 percent of the population belongs to a unionless than half the national average. It's no coincidence that these labor-light states are deep red while almost all of the blue states are union states as well.

In What's the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank made a keen observation about the relationship between union participation and political participation:

Take your average white male voter: in the 2000 election they chose George W. Bush by a considerable margin. Find white males who were union members, however, and they voted for Al Gore by a similar margin. The same difference is repeated whatever the demographic category: women, gun owners, retirees, and so on-when they are union members, their politics shift to the left. This is true even when the union members in question had little contact with union leaders. …

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