Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What Unions Must Understand To Organize The South

It seems that since UAW's defeat at the VW plant in Chattanooga last week, big labor has finally decided to embrace the task of organizing the South.  The situation at VW drew a lot of media attention, although none of it came close to the on the ground reporting of In These Times' Mike Elk.  (You can read his in depth dissection of UAW's missteps and the outright sabotage from conservative groups and politicians here. )  Elk did a fantastic job of showing how the anti-union political culture coupled with the top-down management style of the UAW created a perfect storm of sorts.  However, I believe that Chattanooga was just one of countless situations in the south that could have happened on any given day in any southern city.

While you can surely point to mistakes in the way unions handle specific campaigns, I believe that big labor has failed that the reason their efforts have been largely fruitless in the south has much more to do with a fundamental lack of understanding of culture and social class in the south than it does with strategy.  Allow me to throw a few suggestions that the labor movement could implement to truly make a push to organize the South:

1. Train Rank-and-File Organizers from the South - I started noticing 7-8 years ago that unions were heavily recruiting organizers fresh out of college rather than from the rank-and-file.  While there is definitely a technical aspect that comes along with organizing, especially understanding labor law, sending in a field organizing staff that is comprised almost entirely of college grads will not amount to a hill of beans in the rural south.  Have you ever heard the term "carpetbaggers"?  The folks I grew up with are more likely to trust health advice from their pastor than their doctor, which is why I have pushed Salting as a viable organizing strategy in the past.

2.  Stop Wasting Money On Hopeless Political Races - I attended the first Next Up Workers' Summit a few years ago, and I used my only time at the podium to direct a statement at Richard Trumka that if he was serious about organizing in the south, that it would be a better use of PAC funds to spend on local school board races, etc to influence things like teaching trades in school and woring with trade unions.  This brings me to my next point.

3. Push For More Building Trade Education in High Schools -  Trades have always been popular in the South, and labor could utilize that to train a generation of pro-union tradesmen.  The organization is already there, and many schools are open to working together to develop apprenticeship programs.

4. Invest More Resources in Community Groups Like Jobs With Justice -  Why do I like Jobs With Justice so much?  Because they build coalitions, and that's what it takes to win a union election in hostile territory.  As Mike Elk pointed out so well, one of UAW's biggest blunders was not working with community groups.  If labor takes the time to build up JwJ chapters in the South, and really pushes the Student Labor Action Project(SLAP) on southern college campuses, the benefits could be enormous.

These are just a few suggestions to start off with.  We can keep plugging away with the same strategies that don't play well with southern culture, or adapt our message to fit the audience.  The South can be organized, but it must be homegrown.

In Solidarity,

Joseph Riedel

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Department of Labor Raids Ironworkers Headquarters

At least ten arrests have been made during a Department of Labor raid at the Philadelphia Headquarters of the Ironworkers Union. Charges involve violence and intimidation.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Lessons From Chattanooga

As I watched the situation at the Volkswagon plant unfold last night, I was in a state of not so utter disbelief.  I am from Texas, and have a lifetime of experience watching people vote against their own self interest.  While last night was a tough one to swallow for the labor movement, I believe their are some valuable lessons from this defeat that can be applied to future attempts at southern organizing.

I believe that labor organizations have a complete fundamental lack of understanding of southern culture that has been a major obstacle in attempts to organize there.  Often, labor does not understand that the only experience that many southerners have with unions are the hyperbolic, cartoonish mob influenced figures seen in movies.  This is exacerbated when unions have out of state staff run organizing campaigns.  I've previously proposed the salting approach at Wal-Mart, but every time I see a failed organizing drive in the south I am more convinced that salting might be the only approach outside of the Employee Free Choice Act(EFCA) that will work.

Speaking of EFCA, the loss at VW might be the best example you'll ever see on why labor must focus its attention on passing EFCA.  In Chattanooga, you had a situation in which the employer was fairly neutral.  And by neutral, I mean that they did not run a viscous anti-union campaign.  Although they did not recognize the union via card-check, they were much more friendly than you usually see, especially in the south.  Even with somewhat friendly management, without card-check, politicians and outside groups were able to influence the election. 

We are allowed to enter into legal contracts by signing our names on everything from gym memberships, to buying a house.  Why are we as workers not allowed to do the same when it comes to joining a union?  This system of double jeopardy when it comes to forcing unions to organize twice, while allowing corporations and politicians several months to scare people into voting against their own self interest has to stop, and EFCA could do just that.    I just don't see a logical path forward for the American labor movement without substantial labor reform.  The system is that broken.

I spoke to my stepfather, Scott Noon, who worked at the GM plant in Spring Hill, TN that is represented by UAW.  He was saddened by the loss in Chattanooga, and thought that the heavy-handed anti-union stance taken by local and state politicians played a big part in the result of the election.  He also believed that Senator Bob Corker was likely pressured by Grover Norquist and other top GOP donors into taking a public stance against the union. "Nobody looks out for the little guy anymore," he added.  "It's all about the big money and corporations." 

Can unions win in the south?  I still believe they can, but it will take combined legislative and social change to make it happen, and it could take a little while.  Don't give up on us yet.

In Solidarity,

Joseph Riedel