Summer has long been the season of revival for Southerners. This summer is different in only one way: Under the tents filled with fried chicken and gospel hymns, workers are signing union cards.
All around the South, workers are organizing, and they’re not alone. Clergy and community leaders are supporting workers’ efforts to gain fair wages and union representation.
Witness what has happened here in the past month alone. Scores of farmworkers in the fields of Eastern North Carolina signed union cards. Actor Danny Glover traveled to Lumber Bridge to rally support for poultry workers trying to organize. Dozens of congregations across N.C. talked about the value of unions as part of the first annual Labor Sabbath. Workers and civil rights leaders toured the state on Labor Day with rallies for higher wages in Raleigh, Greensboro and Charlotte. And then last week, hundreds of fast food workers in North Carolina participated in a nationwide strike for a wage of $15 per hour and a union.
When ministers preach about unions and workers take to the streets in the least unionized state in the country, it’s clear that the labor movement is far from dead. It’s being reborn in the unlikeliest of places – the once union-averse South.
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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the five states last year with the most growth in union membership were all in the South.
Workers are rejecting the old South politics of divide and conquer and embracing a new strategy of unite and triumph. Workers have long known the power of our solidarity. CEOs and corporate-funded politicians have long known it, too. That’s why they’ve passed so-called right to work laws in state after state, hired legions of union-busting consultants and made sure that companies receive little punishment for violating workers’ rights.
But workers have had enough. We’re tired of waiting for wages to catch up to productivity gains. We’re tired of waiting on Congress to give us a raise. We’re tired of companies trampling on our right to organize and then waiting decades for appeals to go through the National Labor Relations Board.
Workers are not waiting any longer. Employees at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, servers at fast food restaurants and farmworkers in North Carolina are not waiting on their employers, the National Labor Relations Board or state politicians to tell them whether they can have a union. They’re organizing and taking collective action anyway.
And the labor movement is not organizing just in the workplace. In North Carolina, Texas and Kentucky, Working America – the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO – is growing the labor movement one door at a time through its neighborhood canvass operation.
This Southern revival of the labor movement has a distinctly evangelical zeal. Labor leaders together with clergy are claiming the moral high ground for economic justice. We’re opening the doors to all workers. And we’re spreading the good news far and wide: Together we can create an economy that works for everyone – not just the rich.
We’ve watched for decades as the South’s low wages and repressive laws have spread around the country. If the South foreshadowed the inequality now plaguing the nation, it can also prophesy its solution.
By bringing workers together with people of faith and community leaders, by organizing around a message of hope not fear, we’re creating a working people’s movement that is not limited by the walls of the workplace or the inadequacies of our nation’s labor law.
This summer workers signed union cards; this fall they’ll sign voter registration cards. Working people in the South are organizing to win victories not only in the workplace but also at the ballot box, the courthouse and the state capital.
Inequality didn’t just happen. Inequality is the result of policy choices by our elected officials. But the gospel of this working folks’ revival is that together we can change it.
Welcome to the new labor movement. I hope you’ll join us because when we change the South, we will change the nation, and finally workers will get their fair share.
MaryBe McMillan is secretary-treasurer of the N.C. State AFL-CIO.