Labor Unions Battle for Working-Class Georgians
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Author: Eli Day
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The American Prospect

At a recent labor rally ahead of Monday’s first day of early voting in Georgia’s January 5 Senate runoffs, Yvonne Taylor Brooks, secretary-treasurer for the Georgia state AFL-CIO, delivered a simple message. Electing Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock isn’t simply about running up the score for a political party. Instead, victory preserves the chance for “a brighter future where all of Georgia workers have safe working environments” and “a voice on the job,” and where “right to work” is just a terrible memory.

Just two days earlier, at a UNITE HERE rally, Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, wrapped her greeting in similar demands: “I wanna say good morning to the ‘$15 and a union’ voters. I wanna say good morning to the ‘one job should be enough’ voters. I wanna say good morning to ‘the South got something to say’ voters.”

With the coronavirus crisis running in our shared national background like a yearlong disaster movie, Brooks and Ufot weren’t speaking of electoral politics as an end in itself, but as a gateway for making concrete improvements in the lives of working people.

“We’re not giving a gift to the candidates,” Ufot said. “We are voting to build the world that we wanna live in. Voting is a tool we use to protect ourselves.”

Being a working stiff in the United States was already wickedly uncertain before a global pandemic swept the land, creating an enormous dogpile of avoidable suffering. Ten million people remain unemployed due to COVID-19. Forty million may see an eviction notice before they do a loved one, as a preventable “homeless pandemic” looms. And nearly 15 million have lost health insurance, because the United States ties coverage, which you always need, to employment, which people are constantly shifting in and out of.

During the presidential election, unions became a vital resource for Joe Biden’s victory.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 has been a money cannon for the country’s billionaires, and employers are happily throwing “essential” workers into the pandemic’s teeth while literally betting on how many of them will contract the virus. And in the Senate, whose balance hangs on the outcome of these elections, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has insisted for months that the next round of aid include liability shields for employers who recklessly expose their workers to the virus.

All of this has put a battery in the back of labor unions, history’s most reliable tool for improving working people’s lives. During the presidential election, unions became a vital resource for Joe Biden’s victory. UNITE HERE knocked on millions of doors in key states. And Service Employees International Union (SEIU) members put up crazy numbers, making 39 million calls, sending twice as many texts, and knocking on two million doors.

Now, a constellation of unions are promising to keep that fire burning in Georgia. SEIU has pledged to make three million calls. The Georgia AFL-CIO, according to President Charlie Flemming, has made over 107,000 phone calls to Georgia union members already, visited thousands of doors, and sent 50,000 text messages. And just last week, UNITE HERE launched a group of 500 canvassers that “aims to knock on one million doors in Georgia.” That includes their Get Out the African Vote Initiative (GOTAVI), mobilizing “a team of 25 former African refugees” to canvass “in the heavily African communities of DeKalb County outside Atlanta,” with the goal of reaching 40,000 immigrant

Victory in Georgia depends in large part on activating this army of working-class people. As Daniel Blackman, a progressive candidate for Georgia’s Public Service Commission whose runoff is also January 5, put it at the rally, “Georgia can’t win without labor. We can’t win without standing up for our working families. We cannot win if you guys aren’t organized … Gone are the days of people forgetting that we’re here because of labor.”

Labor no doubt agrees, and is asking its Senate hopefuls to put it in writing. Every speaker, for instance, drew tight and explicit links between union support and the candidates’ willingness to champion policies that stand to improve both working people’s lives and unions’ bargaining power. Again and again, the headlights fell on the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act as one necessary step along the way.

Between making it easier for workers to join unions, actually punishing employers for setting labor law on fire, and strengthening workers’ hand against right-to-work laws, the PRO Act, which the House passed earlier this year, would represent a massive expansion of labor rights. And after being pummeled by the country’s business class for decades, it would also be a badly needed win for a labor movement learning to counterpunch again. Union membership has been pushed off a cliff, falling from one-third of workers in the 1950s to barely 10 percent today. That fall tied weights to the ankles of wages, and they haven’t gone anywhere meaningful since.

“For the last 40 years, working people in America have been crushed,” Ossoff said at the rally. “Crushed by corruption. As corporate power in our country has grown, wages for ordinary working people have declined. There’s been a war on collective-bargaining rights and the ability to organize workplaces.” Ossoff has been hammering this theme throughout the campaign. Political corruption not only eats away at the integrity of institutions; it devastates the lives of everyday people by funneling the country’s enormous wealth to those who already own most of it.

“Nowadays in the United States of America,” Warnock said toward the end, “too often the only folk making a lot of money are the folks who play with money.” That’s no exaggeration. As Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project shows, 30 percent of the country’s annual income flows to the tiny slice of people who own capital. That means around $4.8 trillion appears in their bank accounts “not because they work for it, but merely because they own income-generating assets like real estate, equity, and debt,” leaving a shrinking slice of the nation’s wealth for people who, as Warnock describes, “actually make things, who build things, who keep the economy roaring.”

This is true for all workers. And because discrimination soaks every corner of our economy—remember that half the country ran a regime of explicit economic apartheid within recent memory—the labor market is especially brutal for Black and Latino workers, who face persistent wage gaps with their white counterparts.

Which brings us back to the way to close that gap: a robust labor movement. Unions, unlike “rising tides,” actually do a pretty good job of lifting up everyone. Research consistently showsthat labor unions boost wages and benefits for all workers. And since the labor market is just a photocopy of the U.S. caste system, this is especially true for Black workers, who benefit most from union defenses against workplace exploitation. These workers know this better than anyone, and large majorities of them rightly see union decline as “mostly bad.”

Luckily, organizers here aren’t starting from scratch. The South’s labor story isn’t just a grisly tale of worker humiliation and exploitation at the hands of Southern aristocrats. It isn’t just the story of struggle amid vicious anti-union repression in recent years, including several lost elections at auto plants. It is also bursting with labor militancy. From slave revolts and small acts of everyday sabotage, to the brief but powerful glow emitted by the Knights of Labor, to the vital role unions played in the civil rights struggle, working-class people have turned the Southern landscape into a stage for progressive change countless times. Just since March, Payday Report has tracked over 1,000 workplace strikes across the country, with many of them concentrated in the South, evidence that as human pain rises, workplace militancy goes with it.

That “over our literal dead bodies” spirit has left its mark on the electoral arena. Sandra Williams, executive director of the Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council, describes the election as a tool rather than a destination, one that can help clear away the hurdles to union organizing and, ultimately, material progress for working people. With a Democratic-controlled Senate, Williams tells The American Prospect, there’s a much greater chance for passage of things like the PRO Act, and with it the “opportunity to educate people on their rights in the workplace.” That goes for “the labor movement” everywhere, “but particularly here in the South and in Georgia,” where unions are making the argument that “you have a right to live and you have a right to a certain quality of life.”

The hope is that a victory for Democrats on January 5 will bring that world within closer reach. Still, while every union leader stressed that electing Ossoff and Warnock is absolutely necessary, their words also reveal that a better world requires relentless public pressure based on working-class unity. “We are building our solidarity for the fight ahead,” UNITE HERE International Secretary-Treasurer Gwen Mills said last week. ‘We are building the power and organization to take back what working people deserve.”

[Eli Day is a Detroit native and investigative reporter whose work has appeared in Current Affairs, Mother Jones, The New Republic, Vox, and In These Times, among others.]

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