Don't Drink the Tea. Think With the WE.

Organized Labor’s New Southern Strategy: Don’t Hate, Replicate

As unions pursue an updated strategy to brighten their 21st century hopes, some speculate that the South is showing signs of revival.

The South has traditionally been anti-union and, effectively, all Southern states have had “Right-to-Work” legislation in tact for decades. The fight to reorganize the South is and will be costly, but Eric Robertson of It’s About Power, Stupid thinks a reorganization of how resources are used is central to a renaissance:

An alternative approach would be the pooling of resources to allow unions in the south to staff up as needed to increase capacity and stabilize their organizational existence. Some unions have created funds that are contributed to by locals in high union density areas to subsidize unions with less resources to increase their capacity to organize. Grants provided to local unions or affiliated bodies to underwrite large scale campaigns and increase staff and capacity in other areas have been used in some unions, increasing the size, scale and availability of such grants would be necessary to meet current needs.

Shifting resources to win in the south necessarily means taking funds from other projects and revenue sources. In many cases this could create an internal struggle over the allocation of funds.There is no doubt feathers will be ruffled and fiefdoms will be threatened, but making a choice between labor’s survival and comforting the sense of official entitlement will require political will that hopefully can be summoned.

Throwing money at the problem will not be enough, Robertson writes. The entire landscape for union members in the South must be changed.

Increased resources will not lead to winning campaigns without significant deployment of education and training resources that can assist local leaders in developing effective strategic plans that can lead to growth and organizational strength. Examples of best practices as well as the assistance in the development of regionally specific strategies that are tailored to the reality of the south must be made available and local leaders could be offered assistance in implementation.

As in all cases there will be local officials who will be hostile to any attempt to shift out of the present arrangement. Many have learned to exist in a weakened state (see “Right to Work: A Body Blow not a Death Blow”) and some have carved out areas where they already exercise some degree of power. Every union has its own internal norms of the degree of local autonomy enjoyed by its affiliated bodies and will have to determine the degree to which new organizational norms might or can be imposed from without. It is pretty clear however that the current reality of laissez-faire federalism in many unions is at least part of the current problem. Coming to terms with the fact that aspects of local autonomy may need to be reconsidered in order to implement a broad based and effective approach will be essential.

Key to building public support is to organize among the overwhelming majority of working people in the south who have yet to join a union. Working America has shown great promise in its ability to conduct grassroots organizing and political mobilization of non-union working families. A broad campaign among non union workers in southern states educating them on working families issues would be of great benefit. One encouraging sign is Working America’s recent announcement that it will expand its operations into all fifty states within five years. When the decision is made to make the move into the southern states hopefully it will be done with the need for supplemental consideration of the southern reality.

Robertson explains that the South has not been without recent encouragement. Perhaps this is why he feels the time is now with regards to a shifting in strategy:

This does not mean victories don’t happen in the south. UFCW’s decades long organizing campaign that was ultimately victorious at Smithfield, Teamster organizing of school bus and sanitation workers and at UPS Freight (formerly overnite), UAW’s renewed campaigns among foreign southern based automaker transplants like Nissan are bright spots where it is shown that successful organizing is possible in the south. The Struggle of the Coalition of Immokolee Workers, the recently initiated Teamster/Change to Win campaign to organize port truckers in Savannah, Georgia, and various campaigns among southern public sector workers who lack the right to collectively bargain show the possibility of campaigns directed at workers who are misclassified and excluded from traditional collective bargaining.

Roberton admits, however, that “these are exceptions, and campaigns like these would have to be replicated on a massive scale for labor to turn around its fortunes much less reverse its decline.” Step one towards that end is deciding to replicate. Step two is replicating.

Don’t hate, replicate.


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