After Nissan: Can We Organize the South?
“Southern” conditions are fast becoming the new normal; right-to-work is the law in more than half the states, including those in labor's Midwest heartland.
The South's low union density, “right-to-work” laws, government hostility to unions, and severe limits on rights for public workers are a magnet for companies, who can either browbeat Northern union members into concessions or make good on their threats to pack up and leave.
After the United Auto Workers garnered only 37 percent support in last month's vote at Nissan in Mississippi, Labor Notes hosted a discussion about what labor in the South is up against—and some useful counter-examples.
Kate Bronfenbrenner is a labor researcher at Cornell University and co-author of Blueprint for Change: A National Assessment of Winning Union Organizing Strategies.
Tiffany Flowers is organizing director for United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400, which represents 35,000 workers in Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
Cassie Watters is lead organizer for the United Campus Workers (UCW-CWA), a non-majority union without collective bargaining rights. It represents public higher education workers across Tennessee and is affiliated with the Communication Workers.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What examples of organizing in the South would you hold up as examples, and what makes them work?
Flowers: I would point to last year’s victory for UFCW Local 400 at the only Lipton Tea plant in the U.S., in Suffolk, Virginia. We ratified our first contract there this July.
Lipton was forcing all employees to work 12-hour shifts for 13 days in a row, with only one day off every two weeks. The workers were frustrated and exhausted. One was forced to choose between attending their child’s graduation or a very important doctor’s appointment for a terminally ill child. Families and relationships were suffering badly and the company was unresponsive.
They were so excited about the prospect of change that 27 people out of 200 showed up to the first meeting. They demanded to sign cards and launch their campaign. They immediately took ownership in hopes of creating a better working environment.
Within 72 hours of the first meeting, the company held its first anti-union meeting, complete with the plant manager showing a PowerPoint with a picture of himself pointing in the mirror and taking all of the blame for the terrible working conditions. He begged for just one chance to make it right. He cried. He announced that he might be able to “do something” about the mandatory overtime if they rethought their position on the union.
From their first taste of opposition from management, they never cowered. Our committee demonstrated interracial and interdepartmental solidarity from the beginning to today. When confronted by blatantly racist workers who were not union supporters, we witnessed black and white workers stand together and proclaim that there was equal suffering among black and white and “black and white workers are going to benefit from us forming a union.”
Bronfenbrenner: One of the examples that many people don’t know about is the CWA organizing public sector workers at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, a state with no public sector labor laws. In the 1980s, the CWA was organizing 156 public sector employees, all Black, in the food service department.
These workers had been working with the NAACP on a civil rights lawsuit they brought against the university after noticing that Black workers were exclusively hired to work in the housekeeping and food service departments.
During the lawsuit, the NAACP discovered that administrators would circle one of two letter “N”s on the top of the application if the applicant was Black, which would lead to their being put in specific job categories. The NAACP had won their lawsuit years earlier, but the university refused to hand over the court-mandated back pay the workers were due for the discrimination they suffered.
The NAACP and CWA joined together to organize the food service workers, expanding the civil rights struggle into a workers’ rights struggle. The university subsequently contracted them out. So the food service workers became private employees contracted with a public employer.
At the time, under this arrangement, neither federal labor law nor state law covered these workers; they were in a gray area. The union didn’t stop, though. The workers went and visited all the unions in the area, all the churches, the Board of Regents, and developed an incredible community and labor campaign to pressure the National Labor Relations Board. They brought down union members from all over the state of Texas and CWA members from all over the region to march on Nacogdoches. They marched from one end of the town to the other.
They knew the university is dependent on state government, so they visited the legislature. They understood all the power players—the Regents and state government—and they understood that the NLRB ultimately is a political organization subject to political force—so they brought it all to bear on Nacogdoches with thousands of people marching in the streets. Suddenly, the NLRB said, “We’ll find a way for these workers to have an election.”
It was constant activity on multiple fronts. So Stephen F. Austin University is not only unionized but it’s possible for Blacks to get jobs in all areas of the University. The outpouring of activity served as a deterrent to future attempts at privatization and helped kick off organizing drives at regional manufacturing plants.
Some people see workers in the South voting against unions and voting for Republicans and write them off as backwards or ignorant. What is the reality?
Flowers: When I hear folks paint Southern workers with such a broad stroke, I often wonder how much time they’ve invested on the ground. Being Southern, Republican, and a union supporter are not mutually exclusive.
The man who called UFCW to find out how to start a union at Lipton is a white, 50-something, loud and proud Trump—and union—supporter. He’s lived in Suffolk all of his life. He is an avid hunter. He makes sure to wear Trump or MAGA paraphernalia everywhere he goes because he’s “waiting for a son a bitch to get froggy” so that he can put his black belt in karate to use.
He was the first to outfit his locker and toolbox with union stickers. He was a leader throughout the campaign and was elected to the bargaining committee by his co-workers, who also refer to him as “piss and vinegar.” He routinely refers to anti-union workers in unpleasant terms and narrowly avoided several shop floor disputes, as he is not shy about vocalizing his opinions.
Conversely, we had a Black leader whose desire to organize was born out of what he saw as a “lack of consistency.” He saw the union as the only way to balance scales and ensure that there was one set of rules for all workers. He was a huge Jill Stein supporter, said he’d even contributed to her campaign. He’d lament the ignorance of the average American voter and the futility of the two-party system.
Once during a house call, he lectured me about the importance of research and knowing the facts. He said he was as skeptical of unions as he was of the Democrats, but after much research he found that UFCW was a credible organization with relationships with Unilever [which owns Lipton] in other parts of the country. He said that if his “dumb-ass co-workers would pick up a book or utilize Google, they’d realize that organizing is the only answer.”
I say all of this to say: the idea that the South is a monolith is lazy. To suggest that we can write organizing the South off because it is full of unredeemable “deplorables” is a cop-out. Southern workers are complicated. If we are going to create different outcomes, we are going to have to abandon our misgivings and talking points about the South and make it the epicenter of the movement.
Watters: This is part of a larger problem, the serious divide between North and South, urban and rural, red state and blue state, coastal and landlocked. And there is a real blindness to how the Democratic Party failed us by abandoning policies that would have stood up to corporate power—for example, people have forgotten totally about the Employee Free Choice Act and the party’s refusal to make it a priority during Obama’s first term.
The determination of the ruling class to keep unions from gaining a foothold, coupled with an inconsistent at best investment by national unions in organizing in the South, plus the fact that offshoring is a more recent phenomenon here, so many perceive it as the inevitable result of demanding more, all these are factors in explaining the weakness of unions here.
I recall talking to a custodian at East Tennessee State University. Despite having lost two previous jobs to plant closings, ending up at ETSU only to face two attempts at outsourcing, she was planning to vote for Donald Trump because of his supposed stance on trade and doing away with NAFTA.
But meanwhile, organizing is happening. For the last two years, UCW-CWA has fought a billionaire governor. In our “Tennessee is NOT for Sale” campaign, people across the state have spoken their bitterness about Governor Bill Haslam and the inhumanity of his attempt to outsource all state facilities to a corporation—Jones Lang Lasalle, based in Chicago—in which he was invested when he ran for office and who has enjoyed a no-bid contract on previous outsourcing. Workers and supporters have participated in various kinds of actions in Johnson City, Knoxville, Cookeville, Chattanooga, Murfreesboro, Nashville, Clarksville, and Memphis.
The Fight for $15/Show Me $15 campaign in Tennessee also showed there are many low-wage workers of color willing to take action and risks on the job, and inspired many in organized labor to stand with them. Standing with workers in the Tennessee Is NOT for Sale fight is an investment in building relationships with many who feel abandoned. The possibility is being built to then get in the room together about other, more divisive issues—race, gender, voting rights for ex-offenders.
What are some of the specific obstacles to organizing in the South and what will it take to overcome them?
Bronfenbrenner: For one, the leadership of existing unions in the South tends to be white while the workers that most want to be organized are not white. Additionally, there are a lot of racist and anti-immigrant attitudes in the labor leadership which keeps them from building bonds between immigrant workers and union members.
For another thing, employer opposition is aggressive everywhere, but in the South the opposition from the political establishment and the community is stronger. The political establishment as a whole will intervene in elections in the South; that is not common in the North. They would be afraid of losing clients, of losing contracts with visiting groups—but in the South they are willing to risk that. So you see the situation in Chattanooga [home of the Volkswagen plant] and Canton [home of the Nissan plant] where the entire business community gets involved in keeping the union out.
Another obstacle is that many Northern labor leaders just believe that it’s not possible to organize in the South. They tell themselves it is “too hard” and imply that unions that win there are cheating somehow. So when they hear that CWA or AFT [Teachers] have been able to organize private or public sector workers in the South, they don’t believe it. It doesn’t make sense to them, it must not be real or they must not face the same opposition as manufacturing or other industries. Of course they face the same kind of business threats and even violence, but they organized effectively and intelligently and they won.
Lastly, if you’re going organize the South, you can’t do it top-down. You have to involve the members because they aren’t going to take the risks to organize if you don’t involve them in the campaign.
If you do what it takes to win in the South, workers aren’t going to come into the union and then just be told they don’t have any say. These workers are going to have trial by fire and they are going to have expectations and they will challenge authority. Many leaders don’t want that. They don’t want to adopt an organizing model that involves workers in every step of the campaign because it is very threatening, even though in the long run it’s better for organizers and leaders and all of labor.
Flowers: One of our biggest challenges is our failure to confront right to work as a tool used to divide and conquer workers in the South. Right to work must be framed in much more radical terms as a tool designed to keep the working class disorganized and poor.
One strong example of how this can be done was the 2016 campaign to battle right to work from becoming part of Virginia’s constitution. That fight energized more members than our Democratic presidential candidate did. We had record numbers of volunteers. More Virginians voted to keep right to work out than cast a vote for Clinton.
Eighteen months of consistent labor-to-labor outreach and member education paid off and demonstrated a couple of things to me: Member education and politicization must become a priority in right to work states, and part of our strategy to organize the South must include recruiting and electing local candidates who are active union members. I believe that labor’s biggest chance at rolling back these laws is by presenting new leadership at the political level.
Watters: As public sector workers in Tennessee, we don’t have union recognition, collective bargaining, payroll deduction (with a few exceptions), agency fee, or robust representation rights. We have had right to work since the ‘40s. But that same right to work law also says that you cannot be discriminated against for belonging to the organization of your choice.
It will take a movement and building independent political power in order to prepare, run, and support candidates who will stand up for workers’ rights and change state laws. It will take workers who don’t currently have many rights taking risks together. That’s what UCW, [worker center] Workers' Dignity, and other groups are doing.
It will also take a social justice unionism that is willing to stand up on race and gender in and out of the workplace. This can look like many things—for example, supporting workers facing court dates with tactics like community defense, in which community members train themselves to participate as advocates with those facing unjust charges. Today, UCW-CWA will meet with two members—a woman in a precarious situation with a family member having brought an unjust charge against her and an African-American man attempting to get custody for his kids, both custodians in different departments—about upcoming court dates to help them get prepared and see if there are ways they can build their defense. We write letters in defense of their character, providing the judge with the details of their personal story.
And it will take creativity and a political will to take risks. This includes finding ways to talk with members about what’s happening in the world—for example, Charlottesville and the issue of Confederate monuments on public grounds. The statement put out by CWA President Chris Shelton on Charlottesville, coupled with the various attempts around Tennessee to confront Confederate monuments on public grounds, opens the door for us as a local to engage on racism and white supremacy with our members.
"Right-to-work" laws prevail in all Southern states. To what extent are Southern labor's challenges and problems due to these laws, and how much is due to other factors?
Bronfenbrenner: Right to work is a product of the Southern climate, it’s part of it. The threats, the intimidation, the discharges, all the worst tactics that employers use to fight the union during an organizing campaign continue in a right to work setting, because employers want to scare workers away from the union. In agency fee states, where workers must join the union or pay a fee, those threats stop because they have no purpose, but in the South the employer campaign never stops. So unions have to be constantly fighting to keep workers inoculated and strong and reminding them that the employer’s strategy is to scare them away from being active in the union.
Watters: Right-to-work has been law in Tennessee since the ‘40s. It makes achieving density and securing resources a much more uphill battle. Despite this, locals like CWA 3805 in East Tennessee see density in some shops of above 90 percent with telecommunication workers in AT&T and UVerse. They have a well-trained group of stewards who make the best of their access to employee orientations to sign up new employees.
It is precisely this kind of access, however, that public workers are largely excluded from having, so instead they are being creative and partnering with students and community organizations in order to be visible and reach workers through different means—doing joint events with student organizations like fall cookouts, tabling, holding happy hours for adjuncts, registering voters at work with the League of Women Voters and student groups, petitioning for early voting locations to be open on campuses, marching in the MLK Day Parade, or holding a Juneteenth event.
Right to work is just one tool in the anti-union arsenal. We saw the lengths that Governor Bill Haslam, U.S. Senator Bob Corker, and State Senator Bo Watson were willing to go to interfere with a democratic worker election at Volkswagen—threatening to withdraw $350 million of tax incentives, lying that a new product line may not come to the plant if a pro-union vote prevails.
The reason why public workers are so excluded from any rights, however, is also about racism. When public jobs were desegregated, it was racism that prompted the Southern power structure to prohibit and restrict the rights of workers in those jobs. There are racist roots to right to work, where a campaign equating union growth with race-mixing and communism succeeded at establishing the first “anti-violence” laws that attacked public worker picketing, followed by right-to-work laws.
All across the country, conditions for unions and workers in the public sector are quickly deteriorating as Republican majorities take over state governments and enact anti-union legislation. What lessons can be learned from public sector unions in the South, many of which have decades of contending with fewer legal rights?
Watters: The need to take risks, the need to take action without official protection—such as organizing actions like rallies, sign-holdings, or speakouts at the workplace without a contract or hope of recognition—this builds the confidence of workers and those who support and see them.
The importance of organization-building—asking people to join an organization, doing it over and over and training more and more workers to do so, despite conditions that make it difficult, and seeing growth as a result.
The importance of coalition-building—in addition to just those times when unions are working to win a contract, building awareness about fights that impact the broader community such as privatization (Tennessee Is NOT for Sale), taking actions that make asks of other organizations and their members like coming to the state Capitol on the same day for a public action or contributing funds to bus transportation to actions, and of elected leaders.
The importance of developing members as leaders to organize their co-workers—a dedication to practicing asking people to join, taking assignments, looking at charts, reporting back, troubleshooting, and doing it all over again, outside an election campaign.
Many companies pit nonunion workers in the South against union workers elsewhere in the country. How can unions connect the struggle of union workers to maintain standards in one area to the need to organize workers in the South?
Bronfenbrenner: We have almost twice as much domestic outsourcing as foreign. We hear about jobs moving to the South, but companies are moving all around the country. Lots of states are saying “come here, we’re deregulating” or “we’re offering incentives, we have a high-skill workforce and low taxes.” It’s not just a Southern phenomenon.
More and more unions need to do company-wide issue campaigns that affect all workers, both union and non-union. That means that the organizing of today needs to be done, not unit by unit or workplace by workplace, but across the company. So the way that the SEIU is organizing McDonalds is by organizing all the workers. They aren’t organizing just one McDonalds. I don’t think that organizing Nissan works by organizing one Nissan facility. There needs to be a global strategy. Now, there are only a few Nissan locations that are not organized, but that drive needs to involve the organized Nissan workers and fight on issues that impact all the workers. If you are organizing a company it has to affect the organized and unorganized workers and lift them all up.
Flowers: When we were organizing Lipton, the Hellman’s mayonnaise plant in Chicago was a hot topic. Unilever is the parent company of Lipton, and Hellman’s is represented by UFCW Local 1546. The Lipton workers had never seen any concrete information about pay, benefits, etc., but the rumors were flying and we were being faced with innumerable questions about Chicago.
We organized a phone call between four workers from the Hellman’s plant and any Lipton card signer who’d like to join.
There was instant worker-to-worker solidarity on the call. The Hellman’s folks talked about how happy they were that other workers under the Unilever banner were getting organized. Without prompting, the members in Chicago told the Suffolk workers that their win was more necessary than ever. They recognized that there was “safety in numbers” and their instincts told them to affirm and encourage the Suffolk group. They credited the union with improvement in morale, cleaner working conditions, better pay, higher overtime differentials, and health care plans that cost a fraction of what Lipton workers were paying. They were honest about the fact they were still struggling with mandatory overtime. The call ended with Hellman’s workers offering support and solidarity.
When we got off the call, one of the Lipton workers suggested that we create an infographic comparing the current conditions at Lipton to those in Chicago. We created the flyer, gave it to leaders, and watched our card count grow by almost 20.
What should union internationals be doing to support Southern organizing?
Watters: Permanent organizer positions, long-term planning, real coalition-building, not just around contract fights, overhauling the way electoral politics happens in the established labor movement by creating a new set of pro-worker, pro-community standards to which candidates will be judged and held accountable when members’ dues money is involved, holding elected leaders accountable for issues outside members’ immediate job interests such as expanding, not limiting voting rights, and the ability for ex-offenders to have a fair shot on job applications (banning the box).
Flowers: I’ll never forget being at a Fight for 15 action at a Kroger Marketplace and chanting about “15 and a union” with a group of young women. When we were walking back to the car, I asked everyone where they worked and one of them actually worked at a Kroger that my local represents. I asked her if she’d joined the union, and she had no idea that hers was a union shop.
That was such an eye-opening moment. If labor plans on being relevant and trusted in the South, then we’re going to have to dedicate time and resources into embedding ourselves in communities and work closely with groups like the Black Youth Project, the Movement for Black Lives, Southerners on New Ground, and Mijente to name a few of my favorites. These groups are providing political education, creative spaces, and they have chapters all over the South.
Labor unions should recruit, train, hire, and promote local Southern leaders, not just use them as faces for their campaigns. Southerners are exhausted with out-of-towners swooping in and offering their perspective. We need to build community before we can build campaigns.
Finally, labor needs to do a very good and hard assessment of itself and right its wrongs before it's too late. Labor is silent when Black people are killed by the police. Labor is silent as millions of undocumented folks suffer through this evil regime. Labor is silent as our Muslim brothers and sisters come under attack. Labor is silent when transgender rights are under attack. Labor unions are failing to demonstrate the values that they purport to hold and their slip is showing.
U.S. labor has a combined membership of 14.5 million people. We should be mobilizing our members and helping to lead the resistance, not sitting this one out. I am proud that I work for and am a member of a very politically and socially progressive and active local union, but we need international unions to make it a mandate.