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At MLK Conference, Unionists Strategize On Organizing The South

Above photo: Worker fighting to unionize at the Bessemer, Alabama Amazon plant. Jay Reeves/AP.

Unionists at the AFL-CIO’s annual Martin Luther King conference, held January 12-14 in Montgomery, Ala., tackled what one panelist called a decades-long problem for the labor movement: Organizing the South.

And that means both for more union victories, and members, and politically, too.

The conference, in a birthplace of the modern civil rights movement, preceded the first actual voting of the 2024 presidential campaign: The January 15 Iowa Republican caucuses, pitted former GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump—a self-professed authoritarian who’d rip up the U.S. Constitution—against the rest of the field.

The AFL-CIO has already endorsed President Biden for re-election. Iowa’s Democratic caucuses were not held yesterday and are not in person, but by mail-in ballots, running from January 12 through Super Tuesday, March 5.

Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su extolled Biden’s pro-worker record while sharply criticizing the capitalist system’s repression and exploitation of workers of color. But neither Biden’s nor Trump’s name came up in various panel discussions.

White nationalist threat

By implication, federation President Liz Shuler discussed the Trump/white nationalist threat to both the Constitution and to workers’ rights, which it protects and which are intertwined, in her opening address.

“Dr. King said, ‘Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ Together, we are building a multiracial labor movement that fights for ALL working people to dismantle structural racism, protects our democracy, and defends our right to organize!’” Shuler said.

“All over this country, there are people who are determined to drag us backward. But workers are doing the opposite—surging forward and challenging inequity across the country. Together we are building a modern labor movement that is ready for the future and breaking down historic barriers through our collective power.”

Such coalitions are what the labor movement is trying to construct in Tennessee, Georgia, and elsewhere through the states of the former Confederacy. To help that coalition drive as well as union organizing, the federation has established a special Southern Worker Opportunity Fund unions can draw on for the effort, said Carlos Jimenez, the federation staffer who moderated the Southern organizing panel.

“Workers in the South are in motion. They’re hungry to see this,” he said of organizing.

The panelists talked nuts and bolts of organizing the South, which is the fastest-growing region of the U.S., and which, for decades has overall been the most anti-union and anti-worker, with its politicians and business leaders using right-to-work (for less) laws and other tactics to pit black against white workers, blocking multiracial coalitions.

Bianca Cunningham, of Bargaining for the Common Good, detailed what a new coalition of labor, community, and faith groups, Tennessee for All, is building in the Volunteer State, especially in 91 of the state’s 96 counties that are either rural or suburban.

Tennessee for All is recruiting and paying community-based organizers to go door-to-door to discuss issues the coalition agrees upon and collect workers’ and voters’ reactions: Strengthening public education, increasing union jobs, and increasing corporate accountability.

“We’ve also been able to collect hundreds of (union) organizing leads through our voter registration campaigns,” she added. “When we did union organizing, we did it by school district mapping,” and by building relationships with education union locals. “Everybody has a school district.”

Added Alex Perkins of the Steelworkers: “USW is having people that look like the people they’re trying to organize. If you’re in Alabama, they”—potential union backers—“can say ‘I can hold that person accountable.’ What helped USW” in its recent success in organizing the Bluebird School Bus company in rural Georgia “is that we had people who have lived in middle Georgia all their lives.

Can’t spin it

But in an indication of the hostility unionists and their allies still face, Cunningham said state officials back constructing a 6,000-worker Ford electric vehicle plant in Mason, Tenn. But they want “to ram this down without any community involvement” by Mason residents, most of whom are Black. The GOP governor’s device: Revoking Mason’s town charter.

What the governor may not realize, though, is the new contracts all three Detroit automakers, including Ford, signed with the Auto Workers, require the EV plants to be union.

But there’s another blockade unionists face, and not just in the South: Weak federal labor law.

So said two speakers on another panel: Jennifer Bates, a lead local worker activist in the Amazon campaign to organize Amazon’s Bessemer, Ala., warehouse for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, and RWDSU Organizing Director Adam Obernauer.

There have been two NLRB-run union recognition votes at Bessemer. The labor board tossed out the results of the first one because of Amazon’s pervasive labor law-breaking and ordered a rerun. The board has yet to issue a decision on that vote’s outcome. Amazon trails by just over 100 votes, but there are 300 contested ballots.

“Within the last four years, I realized how corrupt the” current labor law “system is and how far a company would go to stifle the voice of working people. Amazon keeps breaking labor law,” Bates said. “One thing we can do is tear down” that system “so we can rebuild the law.”

Obernauer said Amazon’s voluminous appetite is another reason to rewrite labor law. “Amazon is coming after every section of the economy,” he said of the behemoth, which union-hater and worker-oppressor Jeff Bezos, one of the nation’s richest people, owns.

The AFL-CIO pushes for just such a wide-ranging pro-worker rewrite of labor law, the Protect The Right To Organize (PRO) Act. But though panelists didn’t say it, the right-wing MAGA Republicans blocked the ProAct, too. And Dr. King himself made the connection in a 1961 speech to the AFL-CIO convention—a quote mentioned several times at the conference.

“As I have said many times, and believe with all my heart, the coalition that can have the greatest impact in the struggle for human dignity here in America is that of the Negro and the forces of labor, because their fortunes are so closely intertwined,” King said then.

“The labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”

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