Greater participation in local politics brings labor unions to Southern cities

Kathleen Lantto |

Daxis/ Flickr

Daxis/ Flickr

From The American Prospect:

By: Justin Miller

At the AFL-CIO’s 2013 convention in Los Angeles, the Savannah, Georgia, Regional Central Labor Council offered a resolution with a rather simple message: Quit messing around and get serious about organizing the South. Global corporations were flooding into the region, the council argued, paying workers wages so low they were bringing down pay in the North as well as the South. It was time, they said, for the labor movement to come up with a concerted effort to rebuild power in the South.

The resolution emerged from years of frustration. With organizing in decline across the nation, and with the traditionally anti-union South becoming only more so, American labor had largely abandoned the South—even though the region was becoming more ethnically diverse and its cities more liberal. Across the South, labor “was not there, and we felt it needed to be,” says Brett Hulme, president of the Savannah council.

But this time the national movement responded, passing the resolution, making a commitment to a new “Southern Strategy” one of the AFL-CIO’s priorities. Also at that convention, Tefere Gebre, an Ethiopian refugee and California labor leader, was elected AFL-CIO executive vice president and has since become one of labor’s foremost proponents of a new Southern strategy.

“As trade unionists, if we have to fix what ails us, we have to go where it’s the hardest to function,” says Gebre, who now spends much of his time traversing the South. “Unless we raise wages and fight in the South, I don’t think we’re safe in the North or the Midwest or anywhere else. What happens in the South sooner or later comes to the rest of the country.”

Since that 2013 resolution, some signs of life have emerged from the Southern labor movement—not so much in workplace organizing, but in political victories at the municipal level. The AFL-CIO has targeted five Southern “mega-cities” as starting points for building up progressive power hubs. From the Piedmont to the Gulf Coast, emboldened by the surprising momentum of the Fight for $15, Southern cities are passing local wage ordinances in states that have no chance of getting the wage hiked at the state level. (Indeed, the five states with no minimum-wage laws are Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee.) Labor strategists, accordingly, are looking toward the future, thinking carefully about how to translate rapidly shifting demographics into a new Southern political paradigm.

To be sure, the current state of organized labor in the South is bleak. With “right to work” the law of the land in the South, and government employees stripped of collective-bargaining rights in most Southern states, the region has the lowest union density, with the rate of union membership bottoming out at 1.9 percent in North Carolina and 2.2 percent in South Carolina. A small number of unions persist in workplace-organizing campaigns, most prominently the United Auto Workers in the factories of German and Japanese automakers. But what’s new in labor’s approach to the South is its focus on cities.

All have rapidly shifting demographics that are representative of what the future American workforce and electorate will look like.

The AFL_CIO's new Southern effort isn’t an attempt at mass organizing. Rather, it’s more about clearing away the rubble that obstructs Southern unions. As a starting point, the plan is to target five major Southern cities—Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Miami, Orlando—which combined are home to 4.5 million people, with millions more in the surrounding metropolises. All have rapidly shifting demographics that are representative of what the future American workforce and electorate will look like.

Urban centers all over the country have increasingly diverse populations, making them ideal laboratories for the progressive agenda. Four out of five of the AFL-CIO’s Southern target cities have Democratic mayors (Miami’s mayor is a Republican, but the mayor of Miami-Dade County is a Democrat). And each of the five cities’ counties voted for Barack Obama in 2012—all, except Houston’s surrounding Harris County (a notorious swing county that Obama only carried by 1,000 votes), with resounding majorities.

Though the cities are home to the new Democratic majorities, labor leaders argue that too many of their elected officials are still acting like old-school Southern Democrats. The Southern cities lack the kind of cohesive political coalitions that progressives have built in Northern cities to keep elected officials accountable.

The AFL-CIO is working to build those coalitions, in the hope that progressive change will emanate out from the cities and shift the center of political gravity in the South from the Republican rural areas to the blue cities. “It doesn’t matter how much the demographics are changing if we don’t pay attention and organize … unless we bring in new energy,” Gebre says.

In a pilot run of the five-city strategy, the AFL-CIO campaigned in Atlanta to bring back public transportation to the majority-black, working-class suburbs of Clayton County. For many of the county’s residents who work in Atlanta—including at the bustling Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, the busiest hub in the country—getting to work was a challenge after the county commission cut the area’s transit system in 2009—a casualty of years of public disinvestment coming from the state’s Republican statehouse.

So in 2013, labor joined with faith, environmental, and civil-rights groups to help pass a ballot measure in the county that would raise taxes to fund the transit expansion. It was an ambitious effort, particularly since similar measures had failed in other Atlanta metro counties. The AFL-CIO launched a local Working America affiliate (Working America is the federation’s political arm that reaches out to non-union working-class members) to lead on-the-ground canvassing, knocking on a total of 20,000 doors and talking to working-class voters about the benefits of the measure.

Despite resistance from some county commissioners, the initiative resonated with residents. In the 2014 election, 74 percent of voters approved the measure. Building off labor’s display of power, unions are using the campaign’s momentum to organize workplaces. The Amalgamated Transit Union is working to unionize the bus drivers in Clayton County. At the airport, UNITE HERE is in the midst of an organizing drive for many of the lowest-paid service workers. The win was just a taste of what the AFL-CIO is aiming at in the South. “We found when you put people together, things happen,” Gebre says. “The question is, How do you get that to scale?”

The federation has been working hard to take such victories to scale in Houston—a city with numbers that suggest it’s ripe for progressive change. Fueled by its lucrative oil industry and a steady influx of Latino immigrants, the Gulf Coast metropolis of more than two million (with a total metro area of six million) is on pace to overtake Chicago as the country’s third-largest city by 2025. In 1970, Hispanics were 11 percent of the population; in 2010, they made up 44 percent.

The city’s demographics—and its electoral outcomes—have more in common with Los Angeles than with anywhere in the South. Yet progressives have struggled to translate the growing potential into substantive change.

“There isn’t a mechanism underneath to make those election results actually do the work for workers and communities,” Gebre says. “That is what we want to build. … To do that, you need permanent, well-functioning labor councils and well-functioning community organizations to come together, hand in hand.” That will take some doing. In many Southern cities, decades of both attacks and neglect have made the local labor movements badly weakened, without resources, and often lacking a clear sense of purpose or path forward. So the AFL-CIO is sending resources down South and offering guidance to labor councils on how to build up the capacity for progressive politics.

In Houston, that has meant linking labor organizations to like-minded faith and community groups—as local labor leader Zeph Capo puts it, to get rid of the old artificial boundaries and find a single, collective voice. Particularly with labor so small, “we can’t afford to be separated into fiefdoms,” says Capo, who is both president of the Houston Federation of Teachers and secretary-treasurer of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation. 

Some progressive initiatives were already in the works. In 2013, labor advocates pushed the city council to pass an ordinance that combats wage theft and keeps violators off the city contractor payroll. A band of young Houston progressives started the first Texas chapter of the New Leaders Council, an organization that recruits and trains potential progressive leaders from outside the traditional political networks. They hope this will create a pipeline for more young Hispanics to get active in the local political scene.

Read the full article from The American Prospect.