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labor Unions Must Seize the Moment To Organize the South

After a victory in Tennessee and a loss in Alabama, the UAW is pressing onward in its fight to organize the notoriously anti-union South. The fate of Southern workers — and all workers — depends on the movement’s willingness to think big.

United Auto Workers members celebrate after winning their union election at Volkswagen on April 19, 2024, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. ,(by Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images)

In late April, Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, delivered a staggering defeat to their employer. At the same time, they struck a blow to the racist political establishment that has long sought, with much success, to make the US South an impenetrable fortress girded by anti-labor laws. The third vote in ten years at the facility was won in a landslide, with 73 percent of the workers voting to join the United Auto Workers (UAW) with 84 percent turnout.

Several weeks after the Chattanooga victory, workers at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama, came up short in their election. Workers lost in a close contest, with 44 percent in favor of the union and 56 percent opposing. The Mercedes vote was a loss on paper, but the final tally is still a remarkable outcome. It comes after a blistering monthlong, multimillion-dollar union-busting campaign by Mercedes, and countless interventions against workers by Alabama politicians.

Given the company’s numerous labor law violations, the UAW is currently petitioning the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to toss the results and rerun the election. But vote counts aside, the audacity and ambition of the UAW to undertake this drive in the first place has thrust the question of building working-class organization and power in the South back onto the national stage. The question now is whether the UAW drive can turn the tide and inaugurate a new period of organizing in the South.

As the South Goes

Southern workers have long paid the price for the inability and unwillingness of the US labor movement to build durable organization in the region. Beset by stereotypes of workers’ general backwardness and unable to contend with the solidarity-breaking racism that permeates Southern society, the labor movement has often looked at the South and thrown up its hands. Without a serious challenge from labor, the forced and unpaid work of slavery has been replaced by the cheapest labor in the country. The white power structure that shaped the region has never been fully overthrown, leading to domination by reactionary forces that facilitate the super-exploitation of labor by capital, and whose rule runs counter to the aspirations of the workers who live and make their lives here.

According to a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute, seven out of ten states with the highest levels of poverty are in the South, and the region has the highest level of child poverty in the country. Wages are low, and public services are woefully underfunded. Life expectancy is the lowest in the United States. Many communities are ravaged by extreme pollution, leading to higher levels of illness and disease. These impacts are magnified among black workers and the region’s growing migrant worker population, while women workers often hear the brunt of poverty at home.

The “economic model of the South” — which Alabama governor Kay Ivey recently described as under attack by the UAW organizing drives across the region — is one characterized by low wages. Corporations have long scrambled to take advantage of this model, draining resources from the region to line the pockets of the rich on Wall Street.

Sixty percent of black workers in the United States live in the South. The origins of right-to-work and other anti-labor laws are directly linked to the efforts of the big landowners and industrialists in the region to deprive black workers of power on the job, and thus political power. These laws are additionally meant to instill fear in workers and demoralize efforts to organize. Labor struggles in the South are inherently political struggles against the entire system of exploitation.

But though the cards are stacked against Southern workers, the region is home to some of the most militant worker struggles in the country. The first general strike in this country was led by enslaved Africans, who led a mass revolt against slave owners and joined the war against the Confederacy. From sharecroppers in Alabama to textile and tobacco workers in North Carolina and mine workers in West Virginia, there is a deep history in the region of rebellion and struggle.

Today, organizing drives led by migrant poultry workers in Arkansas, education workers in North Carolina (where public sector collective bargaining is still illegal), service workers across the region, and others are shining examples of the vibrant, combative spirit still alive in the South.

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A Link in the Chain

The Right’s ironclad grip on political power in the South is intricately linked to the region’s lack of working-class organization. And the consequences reverberate far beyond the Mason-Dixon line, allowing employers to pit workers elsewhere against workers in the South, driving down conditions across the board. Indeed, many corporations have relocated operations here in the past several decades and capital investments are currently flowing into the region, largely in manufacturing but in other sectors as well.

According to a report by Investment Monitor, six of the eight states that overperform with regards to attracting foreign direct investment — meaning the state brings in more capital investment than would be expected given its GDP — are in the South. Camoin Associates additionally reports that battery production tops the list for foreign capital expenditures across the board, largely concentrated in Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia.

2019 study by Site Selection Magazine showed that South Carolina leads the country in the percentage of jobs linked to foreign firms at 8.2 percent, besting the national average by three percentage points. In Greenville County, South Carolina, more than one hundred firms from twenty-two countries have operations, dominated by suppliers to BMW’s massive eleven-thousand-worker plant and Michelin Tires. The BMW plant ships more than 60 percent of the vehicles produced at its South Carolina plant to more than 120 countries around the world.

Additionally, the South is home to six of the ten largest military institutions in the country. Lockheed Martin — which received nearly $45 billion in US military contracts in 2022, a sum nearly twice that of Raytheon, the second largest recipient — produces all of its F-16s in South Carolina. In late 2023, Raytheon announced it was constructing a missile production facility in Arkansas that would produce weapons for Israel’s Iron Dome, as well as the United States’ version of the same system, SkyHunter. These are just two among numerous examples of the concentration of military armaments production in the region.

In this context, the question of building working-class organization in the South must be viewed as one that has bearing not only within the national boundaries of the United States but across the global capitalist economy. Organizing the South is key to cultivating international bonds of cooperation and solidarity — particularly now, as the Palestine solidarity movement grows and the workers’ movement increasingly confronts questions of how to exercise power to stop the genocide.

Tidal Wave or Splash in the Pond?

The Volkswagen election victory is nothing short of monumental and is a boon to workers’ efforts across the region to build power on the job. The Chattanooga win was followed soon after by the victory of seven thousand workers in North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee who manufacture trucks and buses for Daimler Truck North America (DTNA), who won a record contract just hours before they were set to strike. And while the Mercedes results are disappointing, workers led an inspiring struggle. A workers’ movement that takes no risks and shies away from hard fights cannot succeed in the long run. Regardless of how things unfold with future campaigns, the UAW drive and the renewed commitment to the region has significantly opened space and given confidence to Southern workers.

The Volkswagen campaign victory was the culmination of an effort carried out across ten years and three elections. And while conditions have changed in some dramatic ways during that time, Southern workers can’t afford to wait that long again to begin to build organization and change conditions in our workplaces and communities.

Shawn Fain, recently elected president of the UAW, has placed consistent emphasis on positioning the UAW fights in the context of a broader struggle of the working class versus the billionaire class, rather than confining these fights to the walls of a given facility. Fain’s ability to popularly raise and inject working-class consciousness into all of his public speeches and position the UAW drive in opposition to the entire “economic model” of the South is a welcome departure from the typically narrow trade union consciousness that pervades the leadership of many major unions. This opens a tremendous amount of political space — not only to advance a broader consciousness among various strata of the working class, but to more readily provide an avenue for workers to identify and stand in solidarity with the UAW drive.

The promise of these developments, significant as they are, is not guaranteed without the active intervention of other workers throughout the region and serious efforts to develop a broader movement around the UAW’s march through the South. The UAW — or any one union, for that matter — cannot organize the South alone.

Workers across the region and around the country are watching the UAW’s direct confrontation with the Southern ruling class and some of the world’s biggest multinational corporations with interest and are themselves looking to organize.

For example, the organization I work for, the Southern Workers Assembly — a network of rank-and-file worker cadres in sectors and workplaces across the region, with local chapters that develop networks on a citywide basis — regularly sends leaflet brigades out to unorganized workplaces. The objective of these brigades is to bring the energy from the broader workers’ movement into an increasing number of workplaces and identify worker-leaders in these shops who want to organize. The local assembly serves as a vehicle to connect these workers with others who are organizing on the job, supporting them in taking the first steps to develop a committee and take on issues. In my experience, the response is often overwhelming, with many workers sharing contact info and expressing enthusiasm to join the struggle.

Southern states have some of the lowest union densities in the country, but the picture isn’t much brighter elsewhere. In 2023, the share of workers who are union members once again dropped to an abysmal 10 percent. If the workers’ movement is to rise to the task of organizing the South and the tens of millions of other unorganized workers in this country, we can’t restrict ourselves to a shop-by-shop, NLRB election–only strategy.

Building a Workers’ Movement

Alook back to the formation of the UAW offers some instruction. After the Flint Sit-Down Strike in 1936–37, committed cores of workers dug in at many of the big auto factories. They learned about the operations of the factories and strategic choke points. They built networks of cadres in other plants, exchanging lessons and observations. They established a militant minority around them by demonstrating themselves to be consistent fighters for the class, taking on issues on the shop floor. When conditions changed and an opportunity arose to seize a breakthrough moment, these networks were already practiced, linked together, and had the support of militant coworkers, even if not from a majority in their plants. They were therefore able to strike at the opportune time.

William Z. Foster’s Trade Union Educational League and Black Workers for Justice’s forty-year history of work in North Carolina provide similarly instructive examples.

It is critical that the workers’ movement in the South not let this current opening go to waste. The labor movement must find any and every way to take the UAW drive momentum, and the fighting spirit of the period, into as many workplaces as possible. We must deepen and broaden the drive currently unfolding and transform it into a workers’ social movement.

One does not need to only look back to the period prior to the passage of the National Labor Relations Act to find examples of this methodology in practice. Plenty of contemporary examples exist today.

The North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, UE Local 150, comprised of state and local government workers, is legally banned from collectively bargaining with their employer. Despite this, they’ve been able to build a strong statewide organization that emphasizes rank-and-file leadership and collective action to fight around issues, winning fairer disciplinary procedures, pay increases, and more.

The Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW) organizes workers across the service and retail sector, regardless of employer, engaging their primarily black membership to fight the boss in their workplaces and identifying common issues to mobilize broader collective action. USSW in many ways embodies the type of movement-building approach that is needed to seize the opportunities presented by this period, focusing its organizing in the workplace and developing militant fighters, while at the same time linking them together with other parts of the broader social movement and workers’ communities.

The National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC) over a span of twenty years (and still ongoing) has organized from scratch a South-wide hospital registered nurse (RN) union division. It now numbers thirty-two RN unions in seven states, including the first-ever RN unions in Texas, Louisiana, Kansas, Arizona, and North Carolina. Rather than focus on single-union NLRB elections, the NNOC — founded, funded, and supported by the California Nurses Association — patterned its organizing approach on the class-wide strategy of the early Congress of Industrial Organizations.

In the above models, NLRB elections and collective bargaining agreements are not the immediate or even intermediate objective. The focus is placed on developing leadership and working-class consciousness, cultivating shop-floor militancy, connecting workers’ immediate workplace demands to a broader movement, and moving workers to take on struggles that allow them to build and exercise power along the way.

That isn’t to say that NLRB elections shouldn’t be part of the strategy of unleashing such a movement across the South. But expanding workers’ and our movements’ conception of what organizing and building power can look like is key to taking advantage of the moment autoworkers are ushering in.

Abandon the Fortress

Other major unions can and must follow the lead of the UAW, which has made a historic $40 million commitment toward organizing in the South over the upcoming two years. Unions must support these movement-building efforts to develop worker cadres and networks, mobilize workers to take action on their own issues, support other workers’ social struggles, build pre-majority unions, and ultimately run and win concentrations of NLRB elections.

report published in 2022 by Radish Research titled Labor’s Fortress of Finance demonstrated that the labor movement as a whole had $38.1 billion in net assets. It stated that this figure “would rank [organized labor] as the second largest foundation in the United States, trailing the $48 billion Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”

It continued, arguing that the labor movement could “hire 20,000 new organizers at an annual cost of $1.4 billion,” making hardly a dent in the huge sum of assets now locked up in union coffers and otherwise being underutilized (or misdirected) to meet the tremendous opportunities of this political moment. Devoting union resources to large-scale organizing could prepare for the challenges that lie ahead, including the 2024 elections and the rise of the right wing, or the specter of the complete gutting of the NLRB from legal challenges by Tesla, Starbucks, Amazon, and others.

The critical work happening in workplaces big and small to build working-class organization and power can, must, and will continue. The approach advocated here is one of many routes that could help to harness the potential of the moment. The big question is: Will the labor movement rise to the occasion or let the opportunity pass us by once again? The future of Southern workers, and indeed all workers, hangs in the balance. We can’t afford to wait any longer.


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Ben Carroll lives in Durham, North Carolina, and is the organizing coordinator for the Southern Workers Assembly.

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