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Labor Organizing: A Struggle in the South

by Malcolm Goff


Housekeepers in the UNC system and the administration are currently involved in a struggle for decent wages, dignity, health, and safety. The UNC Housekeepers Association, which now affiliates with the United Electrical Workers Union Local 150 (UE150), has consistently fought for these issues for many years. To better understand this struggle one has to look at the historical and political conditions in which they have occurred.

Imagine a place inside the national borders of a major world power, where corporations and other businesses operated with workers who have been kept historically unorganized, segregated, and in underdeveloped communities. Dynamics such as these work out wonderfully for the corporate bosses and CEOs. However, these dynamics are at best miserable for the workers whose lifeblood keeps the companies in business and capital flowing. Imagine no longer, the place referred to is the southern region of the United States.

Too often working people are conditioned to think it is better to deal with a situation at work alone or "grin and bear it." The concerns and grievances of these unorganized workers are not being formally addressed. All workers need a union to make their voices heard and needs met in the workplace. In the South this basic principal has been undermined for centuries. Historically the South has had the cheapest labor, the most divided working class, and oppression and exploitation of workers is the most severe. In essence the South is treated like a domestic colony inside the United States. This legacy still thrives today. The South has more runaway shops, relocated in order to find the cheapest labor and best conditions for the company, than anywhere in the world. This usually means the worst conditions for the workers. Such conditions have serious implications on how the issue of globalization is viewed. Transnational corporations view the south in the same way that they view and operate in the third world.

Examples of southern underdevelopment can be seen in a recent report by the Institute for Southern Studies stating that the South leads the nation in "fatal on the job accidents...work related disease...(very little) worker protection... providing substantially less unemployment benefits and worker's compensation funds." The South also has fewer laws "to make employers responsible for informing workers about exposure to hazardous substances and unsafe working conditions."

The South has always been the weakest link in the world of organized labor. By design the divisions of race and gender have structurally weakened the southern working class. The roots of these divisions can be traced back to the times of chattel slavery. Rather than unite with black workers (slaves) response to their living conditions, white workers blamed the slaves. They should have united on class lines and targeted the slave owners and the institution of slavery for their poor working conditions and low wages. This lesson still has not been fully learned, even today.

State and local governments give corporate incentives such as tax breaks, and guarantee an unorganized work force with the so-called right to work laws. These laws were passed to weaken the labor movement, allowing employers to fire workers at will. An example of this legacy is the fact that public employees do not have the right to collective bargaining, inhibiting their ability to satisfy demands.

It is important to note that the Taft-Hartley Act, which gives states the ability to establish right to work laws, was passed in the 1940's prior to the emergence of the civil right movement. Equal representation under the law did not exist for black people at this time. Therefore the political process was off limits to Black people, the majority of whom were (and still are) located in the South.

Breaking the chains of oppression in the southern workplace takes time and dedication. Unions tend to form in areas ripe for organization and the south is still wary. Black workers in the south understand the dynamics at work. There is vast unemployment and a lack of jobs paying a living wage. Employees can be replaced quickly and easily due to these severe living conditions. To lose a job because of organizing a union could mean that one would not easily find employment again.

Considering all of these factors, the trade union movement has chosen not to focus its attention on organizing the South, which in turn has become its weakest link.

On a more positive note, the South could prove to be one of the trade union movement's most shining achievements if successfully organized. Take for example the most recent achievements of the Housekeepers of UE 150. They have gained public support and have been well documented in the local media and abroad. Along with vast layers of organizing and strategic benchmarks, the stage is now set for the Housekeepers of UE 150.

In the southern labor organizing, risks are high and must be approached slowly. The trade union movement must develop new strategies that will help workers build organizational infrastructure in the workplace and communities. This will create an environment in which the working class will be empowered to bring its issues to the forefront.

  Malcom Goff is a teacher in Durham and member of the NC Association of Educators, and UE 150 brigade member. Special thanks to UE 150 organizer Solidine Muhummad for his invaluable assistance with this article.  

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