labor Union of Southern Service Workers Is Organizing Low-Wage Workers Across Industries
If you truly want to understand the history of organized labor in this country, you must look to the South — specifically, to what Black workers and other workers of color have accomplished there despite every conceivable obstacle. Nowadays, states such as Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and North Carolina are home to antiunion “right to work” legislation that makes it extremely difficult for workers to organize. Corporate-friendly politicians have actively worked to disenfranchise and oppress poor and working-class people, especially the most marginalized. A century ago, things weren’t much different, but like today, those workers fought back. They protested, picketed, formed unions, and went on strike. Many of them were considered “unorganizable” by labor leadership and labor opponents alike, a status pinned to various groups of workers — typically casual, low-income workers of color, recent immigrants, or both — throughout the centuries
In 1935, when the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) — a landmark labor law that gave most workers the legal right to organize, bargain, and strike — was passed, it included several glaring omissions. By excluding domestic workers and agricultural workers (many of whom were Black, particularly in the South), the NLRA made it clear that, for all its New Deal-era progressivism, the politicians who passed it had decided that some workers simply weren’t worth fighting for. Fortunately, those workers took matters into their own hands and organized anyway, from the Communist tenant farmers in Alabama, described in historian Robin D. G. Kelley’s classic Hammer and Hoe, to Dorothy Lee Bolden and the National Domestic Workers Union of America in Atlanta. Now the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW) is determined to follow in their footsteps by organizing today’s “unorganizable” Southern workers.
The union was cofounded by over 150 retail, fast food, restaurant, and care workers who live and work throughout the South. USSW went public in November, but it has been built on a decade of prior organizing work by Raise Up the South, the Southern branch of the Fight for $15 and a Union campaign, and backed by the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU. Staff organizers provide support when desired, but the new union is an entirely worker-led effort, and did not bother filing for recognition from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) before going public. As far as USSW is concerned, a union is a group of workers organizing collectively, and that is exactly who they are.
“The Ignite Committee — a group of workers from different jobs and different states who were deeply involved with Raise Up — helped create the vision of the new union,” 25-year-old Jamila Allen tells Teen Vogue. She is a founding member of USSW, has been involved with Rise Up since 2018, and currently works at the Durham, NC, location of local fast food chain Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers. “Our goal for our union is to get our voices on the job and make sure workers are heard. A real voice on the job means that we would have the power to discuss with the bosses and negotiate terms about things like pay raises, health insurance, and safety conditions.”
The USSW is unique among American labor unions for several reasons. First, it is far more focused on direct action and building worker power on the shop floor than in winning union elections or dealing with the NLRB. (In this way, USSW has far more in common with the anticapitalist union Industrial Workers of the World, founded in 1905, than it does with most other traditional labor unions in the US.) In the USSW’s view, that system is simply not set up to serve its goals, and there is no time to waste.
Though USSW is young, its members have already led multiple strikes and coordinated actions, most recently a two-day strike at a Dollar General in Columbia, SC, that was led by 23-year-old USSW member TyBrianna Shaw. As Shaw tells Teen Vogue, “If no one stands up, it’ll be an endless cycle. I went on strike to break the cycle and fight for what we need: safety, fair pay, and respect from Dollar General.”
“We focus on strikes and actions because how else are you going to get anything done if you don't act?” Sarah DeArmon, 23, adds. She lives in Cullowhee, NC, a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and works in the bakery section of a local Walmart. DeArmon holds a degree in sociology and international studies, but has remained at Walmart due to a lack of decent-paying job opportunities in her area.
“When workers strike, the company loses money," DeArmon continues. "It reminds them that workers are the ones actually running everything and making the profit. Plus, strikes catch the public's attention. Living in this country, where everyone expects everything to be on demand all the time, when you go to a drive-thru and you can’t get your favorite drink because they’re on strike, it reminds the public that workers run things.”
The second difference is that the USSW is focused on organizing across multiple industries, an approach that recognizes the economic realities that many low-wage service workers face and the deep commonalities between various job types. The USSW's community-based approach emphasizes connections between economic, racial, and gender justice and works to tear down artificial divisions between members and their neighbors.
“We’re the workers that a lot of people look down on,” Allen says. “A lot of people don’t treat fast food workers, gas station workers, or other service workers with respect. Everybody struggles on the job — whether it’s fast food, retail, care work. Everybody is underpaid. All these are things we have in common. We all need change. That’s why we’re organizing across the service industry. There’s high turnover, and workers usually move to different jobs, from retail to being a server in a restaurant to home care…." Allen adds, "And a lot of our members work two jobs at the same time. So when you switch jobs, you can still be part of our union and have the union protecting you at all these jobs.”
Finally — and arguably, most important — the USSW is a loud, proud, explicitly antiracist union. Many other unions claim to be the same, but this one places the issue front and center, drawing clear connections between how the legacy of slavery, the region’s Jim Crow past, and its fundamentally unequal present impact Black and brown workers.
“USSW is a multiracial and antiracist organization,” Allen says firmly. “There’s a long history of workers organizing here in the South. There is history of Black workers organizing. And there’s also been a history of Black and white and brown workers coming together and organizing here in the South. A lot of people never learn this history. Our union is going to be like those workers before us who weren’t afraid to fight. We are going to come together and fight for our demands.”
Beyond that, USSW ensures that its members who have intersecting marginalized identities have the space and support to bring additional issues to the fore. Ashlyruth Eckels, 31, currently works at Macy's in the Mall of Georgia in Atlanta, and as a neurodivergent worker and stroke survivor, she is particularly interested in ensuring that workers in her position feel empowered to organize. “I want them to know their rights if they’re being treated unfairly at their jobs and help others know the tools they can use to organize and demand fair treatment,” she says. “I want to tell neurodivergent people that there are resources, there is help, there’s a space for them regardless of what anybody tells them."
The union that Ashlyruth, Sarah, TyBrianna, Jamila, and dozens of their fellow workers are building together may have gone public only months ago, but the goals they are all working toward have been centuries in the making. Their demands are simple but extraordinarily important for the well-being of the workers they represent. The USSW is fighting for dignity and equal treatment on the job; proper health conditions and safety at work; fair and consistent scheduling; a livable wage upon which workers can survive and thrive; the right to organize; and a seat at the table. “We are going to keep doing blitzes, canvassing, community cookouts — whatever it takes to reach more workers and get more workers organized and signed up as members of USSW,” Allen says. “Our goal is to transform our underpaid, unlivable, unsafe service jobs into good union jobs.”
At a time when public support for labor unions is at its highest since 1965, and thousands of workers in a vast array of industries are organizing, striking, and winning, the Union of Southern Service Workers seems right on time. Members' vision of one big union for the entire service industry is revolutionary in scope, but it also makes perfect sense: Without workers, nothing gets done. Their demands are not only reasonable, they may even be a little modest.
“I want workers to realize, it's a system that was made by people,” DeArmon says. “We can unmake it. It’s possible to do that. It’s possible to make huge changes, but we have to come together. It's never going to change unless workers organize and demand it.”