These Southern Workers Are Organizing – And Speaking Up
This summer I went on strike at Dollar General in Holly Hill, South Carolina. My coworkers and I were standing up for our rights and fighting back against a company that put our safety at risk, stole our wages, and made it impossible for us to take care of our families.
Our organizing started when my coworker Tara Thompson called us to a meeting at her house. I said, "I don't feel safe at work," and everyone nodded. The store had been robbed three times since I've been here. One day a customer came into the store with a gun, having some mental health problems and talking about how he can't trust anyone. I called the police for help, but they never came. And my Dollar General manager reprimanded me for calling them. My coworker was robbed at gunpoint, and just 10 minutes later management was pushing her to reopen the store.
At that first organizing meeting, we all agreed that Dollar General was not protecting us. We decided to draft a petition and make safety a top demand.
Wage theft is also a big issue at our store. I've had hours taken off my check — my Dollar General manager actually changed the record of my hours to say I'd worked less than I really had. And Dollar General expects us to work off the clock. It's our job to take cash deposits to the bank at the end of our shift. This means a 15-minute drive each way to the bank, and we don't get reimbursed for gas money. On top of that, management often clocks us out as soon as we leave the store, so we aren't getting paid for that half-hour of work.
We agreed that ending wage theft needed to go in the petition, along with demanding a $15 hourly minimum wage, health care benefits, and a voice for workers. And I want to point out that we are not the only Dollar General workers standing up to demand changes at our store. There has been a rise of Dollar General worker organizing happening across the country, especially here in the South. Dollar General workers in North Carolina, Virginia, and Oklahoma held strikes this spring. Back in May, Tara and I went with fellow Raise Up members to protest the Dollar General shareholder meeting in Tennessee, where the company is headquartered. All this activity gave us momentum to push forward with our own petition.
We delivered our petition to Dollar General and threatened to strike if they didn't respond. Within a few days, we had won a couple of our safety demands. Management cleared the fire hazards from the store aisles and cut down the bushes that hid our store from the street, so we're not such an easy target for robberies. We'd been asking Dollar General to do this for months, but when we threatened to strike we finally got the company's attention.
On July 16, five days after delivering our petition, we decided to go ahead with our strike to push for the rest of our demands. We wanted to let Dollar General know that we weren't playing around.
The Saturday we went on strike was a powerful day for me. We chanted and made speeches in front of the store. Lots of our regular customers saw us in the parking lot and decided not to go inside, because they supported our demands. I felt like we were standing up for ourselves and for all the other underpaid, unappreciated workers who needed a change. I knew that my voice was going to make a difference.
I had the same powerful feeling when I stood up in a room full of other low-wage workers and shared what I had learned about the best way to organize your workplace. This is what I did at the Worker Power Trainings that I and other members of Raise Up — the Southern branch of Fight for $15 and a Union — held in Durham, North Carolina; Columbia, South Carolina; Mobile, Alabama; and Atlanta this summer. These trainings were organized by Raise Up to give workers a chance to learn from each other and get the basic tools to start talking to your coworkers. At each training, we had a worker speak out where I shared how we took action at my store. My organizing partners, Tara Thompson and Keshia Brown, also spoke at the trainings and helped tell our story of winning some demands but deciding it was not enough.
The best part of the Worker Power Trainings was the solidarity in the room, even though we all work for different employers and different cities. We are all unified by the fact that we work in some part of the service industry and we aren't being respected or paid enough. Most of all, we know that we won't have a voice on the job unless we speak up together and demand it. The other thing that we all had in common is a vision of what we want for the future. We don't want our children to have to go through the same struggles we are going through. We are building our union so we can fight together for ourselves and those who come after us.
Here are reflections from some of the workers who came to the Worker Power Trainings.
Naomi Harris is a MOD Pizza worker from Columbia, South Carolina, who attended the Columbia Worker Training a week before taking her coworkers out on strike: "When I went to the training, I was already in the middle of organizing my store because we were tired of the racial discrimination by management and the low pay. Black workers were being treated differently than white workers — it was constant disrespect. Speaking up to our managers wasn't getting us anywhere, so we had to take the harder steps. We created a petition to go above our management and get some changes.
"At the training I learned some things about organizing my coworkers. I've learned to be more strategic with who I speak to and how I go about it. Now I really watch people and understand where different workers stand, so I know who is on our side and who could move to our side. You also have to know who not to approach because they will turn around and tell management about our plans. There's strategy to organizing in your store.
"This Worker Power Training came at the right time for me. It gave me the push I needed to take the next step at my store. I felt ready to lead a strike at MOD Pizza after listening to the Dollar General workers talk about how powerful it is to stand up for your rights. They're an inspiration to me, not just as workers but as women standing up for themselves. I'm going to have my eyes open from now on, at every job I go to. I'll pay attention to the work conditions, and I'll always be ready to organize. I know that if I just quit, it's going to stay the same in the store. But if I speak up and get a union started, then it will be better for whoever comes in after me."
Antonio Patton, a Walmart worker from Atlanta: "I came because I was interested in becoming more of an organizer in my community and learning how to get people together to fight. I make $12 an hour. I have a child; I'm depending on my paycheck to support my daughter. If I could talk to the CEO of Walmart, I would tell him, 'Hey man, y'all make enough money, Walmart is worth billions. Are you really telling me you can't pay each employee $15 an hour? Is it really gonna cost you that much to pay us enough to live?'
"I always worked at a job that never had a union, and I've seen the detriments of what low pay can do. I've seen people struggle, I've seen people lose homes, cars, everything because the pay wasn't enough. For me this is personal, because I'm not only fighting for me, I'm fighting for the next man behind me."
Nina Bailey, a McDonald's worker from Burnsville, North Carolina, who during the trainings shared stories about her involvement in past strikes at Wendy's and Bojangles: "Everybody has problems about safety at work, everyone has low wages. It's not just happening in one area, it's across the South. Doing these trainings in the South will make a difference and reach more people who are waiting for this kind of knowledge. Strength comes in numbers. We've got to reach workers and tell them they're not alone, there's someone to back them up.
"I want to spread the word that when you're up against something at work, there's a way to make it better. First, talk to your coworkers, take notes on what's going on, then reach out to a Raise Up organizer and start having meetings to work on fixing it. Organizing is a slow process sometimes, but it's the only way to win."
Cathey Poole, a South Carolina fast food worker: "I came here to learn instructions on how to organize. I used to have a union job when I was living in a different state. I know the difference a union makes. In a union, you get a little more respect, and those that don't show you respect — I could speak up for myself and call them to the carpet. Someone has your back and you feel more confident to speak up for yourself. Management is actually held accountable. I want workers to stand up for themselves, don't be afraid of management. I came to this training to learn the facts and then go share the good news with others."
Alex Blocker, a worker at Chick-fil-A in Columbia: "I wanted to organize Chick-fil-A to start a union, just seeing problems within Chick-fil-A with management and with wages. I thought it was important to help other workers understand what their rights are. I wanted to teach others the power that they have. At the Worker Power Training I learned the steps to form a union, specifically how to talk to workers and how to set up your workplace committee. It's my hope that every store would have a union, that every worker gets their rights valued and their demands and their needs met.
"Knowing that there's a team of people fighting alongside me, this gives me the motivation and purpose to do everything that I've learned today — talking with coworkers, outlining the steps for a union. That's something that, maybe before, I didn't want to do just out of fear of retaliation, but now that I know that there's people behind us."
Samuel Pond, a worker at Quality Restoration, an emergency water and fire damage restoration company in Atlanta: "I came in for the immediate lessons on how to organize. For me it didn't seem possible to organize a workforce and call a strike, even though the discussions have been had at different employers I worked for. I've seen firsthand the benefits of unions on the back end. My father did 22 years in a union before he had to retire due to medical issues. He's now able to collect a pension and stay afloat. He's relatively young, he's 55, so to be able to have that security with his handicaps is crucial. I really wish more people had that opportunity to join a union or at least knew they have the option to unionize."
Oniya Jenkins, a Family Dollar worker from Eutawville, South Carolina: "I work in 87-degree heat at my Dollar General store, and I've been trying to get the air fixed for 7 months and nobody is trying to do anything about it. Along with fixing the heat, I would like to see higher wages, because $9.25 is not enough to live off. We need to get to $15 or higher. I know most jobs could pay it, but most jobs don't.
"I learned a lot at the Worker Power Training. I learned about mapping out the workplace and how to bring people together on the job. What brought me here today was the desire to help people with similar problems, to bring them together to organize. I know that there are a lot of people out there who are afraid to lose their jobs and I understand that, because I was like that at first. But I'm not scared anymore."
Peyton Hayes, a restaurant worker from Atlanta: "The worker power workshop helped me recognize the immense strength of united working people. Listening to other workers talk about their strikes and taking action together, it reminded me that organization is the vehicle that allows us to collectively fight for our demands."
Nova Hodge, a worker at Crown Beverage Distribution in Orangeburg, South Carolina: "I learned a lot today. I've been wanting to speak out about our rights at work, but I didn't know the facts. Now I feel armed with enough information to teach other workers what they need to do."
Coming out of our strike and these Raise Up Worker Power Trainings, I have made connections with many powerful workers across the South. We are a growing movement of workers sharing skills and supporting each other, even though we work at different companies and in different cities. We won't win all our demands overnight; this is a long fight. But if we keep organizing, teaching new workers what we know, and learning from each other, I believe that we will win.
Taiwanna Milligan is a low-wage worker and longtime leader with Raise Up and Fight for $15 and a Union. She began organizing to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour when she worked at McDonald's, earning $8 an hour. Taiwanna is a committed mother, outspoken activist, and community leader, fighting for living wages and unions for all workers. She lives in Santee, South Carolina.