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

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