Labor Goes South

Labor Goes South

Can the movement rebuild itself below the Mason-Dixon line, and change Southern politics in the process?

January 25, 2016

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This article appears in the Winter 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazineSubscribe here.

At the AFL-CIO’s 2013 convention in Los Angeles, the Savannah, Georgia, Regional Central Labor Council offered a resolution with a rather simple message: Quit messing around and get serious about organizing the South. Global corporations were flooding into the region, the council argued, paying workers wages so low they were bringing down pay in the North as well as the South. It was time, they said, for the labor movement to come up with a concerted effort to rebuild power in the South.

The resolution emerged from years of frustration. With organizing in decline across the nation, and with the traditionally anti-union South becoming only more so, American labor had largely abandoned the South—even though the region was becoming more ethnically diverse and its cities more liberal. Across the South, labor “was not there, and we felt it needed to be,” says Brett Hulme, president of the Savannah council.

But this time the national movement responded, passing the resolution, making a commitment to a new “Southern Strategy” one of the AFL-CIO’s priorities. Also at that convention, Tefere Gebre, an Ethiopian refugee and California labor leader, was elected AFL-CIO executive vice president and has since become one of labor’s foremost proponents of a new Southern strategy.

“As trade unionists, if we have to fix what ails us, we have to go where it’s the hardest to function,” says Gebre, who now spends much of his time traversing the South. “Unless we raise wages and fight in the South, I don’t think we’re safe in the North or the Midwest or anywhere else. What happens in the South sooner or later comes to the rest of the country.”

Since that 2013 resolution, some signs of life have emerged from the Southern labor movement—not so much in workplace organizing, but in political victories at the municipal level. The AFL-CIO has targeted five Southern “mega-cities” as starting points for building up progressive power hubs. From the Piedmont to the Gulf Coast, emboldened by the surprising momentum of the Fight for $15, Southern cities are passing local wage ordinances in states that have no chance of getting the wage hiked at the state level. (Indeed, the five states with no minimum-wage laws are Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee.) Labor strategists, accordingly, are looking toward the future, thinking carefully about how to translate rapidly shifting demographics into a new Southern political paradigm.

To be sure, the current state of organized labor in the South is bleak. With “right to work” the law of the land in the South, and government employees stripped of collective-bargaining rights in most Southern states, the region has the lowest union density, with the rate of union membership bottoming out at 1.9 percent in North Carolina and 2.2 percent in South Carolina. A small number of unions persist in workplace-organizing campaigns, most prominently the United Auto Workers in the factories of German and Japanese automakers. But what’s new in labor’s approach to the South is its focus on cities.


THE AFL-CIO'S NEW Southern effort isn’t an attempt at mass organizing. Rather, it’s more about clearing away the rubble that obstructs Southern unions. As a starting point, the plan is to target five major Southern cities—Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Miami, Orlando—which combined are home to 4.5 million people, with millions more in the surrounding metropolises. All have rapidly shifting demographics that are representative of what the future American workforce and electorate will look like.

Urban centers all over the country have increasingly diverse populations, making them ideal laboratories for the progressive agenda. Four out of five of the AFL-CIO’s Southern target cities have Democratic mayors (Miami’s mayor is a Republican, but the mayor of Miami-Dade County is a Democrat). And each of the five cities’ counties voted for Barack Obama in 2012—all, except Houston’s surrounding Harris County (a notorious swing county that Obama only carried by 1,000 votes), with resounding majorities.

Though the cities are home to the new Democratic majorities, labor leaders argue that too many of their elected officials are still acting like old-school Southern Democrats. The Southern cities lack the kind of cohesive political coalitions that progressives have built in Northern cities to keep elected officials accountable.

The AFL-CIO is working to build those coalitions, in the hope that progressive change will emanate out from the cities and shift the center of political gravity in the South from the Republican rural areas to the blue cities. “It doesn’t matter how much the demographics are changing if we don’t pay attention and organize … unless we bring in new energy,” Gebre says.

(Photo: AP/Cody Duty/Houston Chronicle)

Sylvester Turner speaks to the media during his Houston mayoral campaign on November 3, 2015. Turner narrowly defeated Republican Bill King in a December 12 runoff election.

In a pilot run of the five-city strategy, the AFL-CIO campaigned in Atlanta to bring back public transportation to the majority-black, working-class suburbs of Clayton County. For many of the county’s residents who work in Atlanta—including at the bustling Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, the busiest hub in the country—getting to work was a challenge after the county commission cut the area’s transit system in 2009—a casualty of years of public disinvestment coming from the state’s Republican statehouse.

So in 2013, labor joined with faith, environmental, and civil-rights groups to help pass a ballot measure in the county that would raise taxes to fund the transit expansion. It was an ambitious effort, particularly since similar measures had failed in other Atlanta metro counties. The AFL-CIO launched a local Working America affiliate (Working America is the federation’s political arm that reaches out to non-union working-class members) to lead on-the-ground canvassing, knocking on a total of 20,000 doors and talking to working-class voters about the benefits of the measure.

Despite resistance from some county commissioners, the initiative resonated with residents. In the 2014 election, 74 percent of voters approved the measure. Building off labor’s display of power, unions are using the campaign’s momentum to organize workplaces. The Amalgamated Transit Union is working to unionize the bus drivers in Clayton County. At the airport, UNITE HERE is in the midst of an organizing drive for many of the lowest-paid service workers. The win was just a taste of what the AFL-CIO is aiming at in the South. “We found when you put people together, things happen,” Gebre says. “The question is, How do you get that to scale?”

The federation has been working hard to take such victories to scale in Houston—a city with numbers that suggest it’s ripe for progressive change. Fueled by its lucrative oil industry and a steady influx of Latino immigrants, the Gulf Coast metropolis of more than two million (with a total metro area of six million) is on pace to overtake Chicago as the country’s third-largest city by 2025. In 1970, Hispanics were 11 percent of the population; in 2010, they made up 44 percent.

The city’s demographics—and its electoral outcomes—have more in common with Los Angeles than with anywhere in the South. Yet progressives have struggled to translate the growing potential into substantive change.

“There isn’t a mechanism underneath to make those election results actually do the work for workers and communities,” Gebre says. “That is what we want to build. … To do that, you need permanent, well-functioning labor councils and well-functioning community organizations to come together, hand in hand.” That will take some doing. In many Southern cities, decades of both attacks and neglect have made the local labor movements badly weakened, without resources, and often lacking a clear sense of purpose or path forward. So the AFL-CIO is sending resources down South and offering guidance to labor councils on how to build up the capacity for progressive politics.

In Houston, that has meant linking labor organizations to like-minded faith and community groups—as local labor leader Zeph Capo puts it, to get rid of the old artificial boundaries and find a single, collective voice. Particularly with labor so small, “we can’t afford to be separated into fiefdoms,” says Capo, who is both president of the Houston Federation of Teachers and secretary-treasurer of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation. 

Some progressive initiatives were already in the works. In 2013, labor advocates pushed the city council to pass an ordinance that combats wage theft and keeps violators off the city contractor payroll. A band of young Houston progressives started the first Texas chapter of the New Leaders Council, an organization that recruits and trains potential progressive leaders from outside the traditional political networks. They hope this will create a pipeline for more young Hispanics to get active in the local political scene.

This year’s mayoral election was a major test of the new coalition. Early in the process of selecting a successor to incumbent Annise Parker, Houston progressive organizations came together to host forums and decide on a candidate who’d champion their collective agenda. They found that candidate in Sylvester Turner, who grew up working-class in a predominately black part of Houston and has served in the Texas House of Representatives since 1989. In a December 12 mayoral runoff election, Turner narrowly defeated Bill King, a Houston businessman and Republican who vociferously opposed the recent Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, the anti-discrimination ballot initiative that was struck down by voters in November.

Even with low union density in the area, organizing is not absent. In just the past few years, the American Federation of Teachers has launched several new locals in Harris County, which has about 25 school districts. Capo sees new teachers, who are often burdened with student debt, as far more receptive to union membership than previous generations. Still, with an antagonistic statehouse, and with bargaining rights limited by a “meet and confer” state law that restricts unions’ ability to influence pay scales, the union has mostly been stuck in what seems like perpetual damage control. In Texas, “wins are in how much you’re able to limit harm,” Capo says.

Still, he’s optimistic about Houston’s prospects. “We already have the majority; it just hasn’t been activated,” Capo says. “We’re starting to gain traction, to gain critical mass. Then the dominoes start to tumble. We’re on the precipice of getting there in the next few years.”

Two hundred and forty miles north on Interstate 45 is Dallas, another mega-city organizing target for the AFL-CIO. With the city’s labor movement in disarray, the national organization came in with resources and expertise on things like community benefit agreements and power mapping. “We started by getting back to basics and opening up our doors to all our community partners, ... getting us all under one roof so we can communicate better across lines on common ground,” says Mark York, secretary-treasurer of the Dallas AFL-CIO.

Since then, organized labor has redefined its participation in Dallas’s local politics. No longer just rubber-stamping endorsements of all Democratic candidates, it now has an endorsement process that puts candidates through the wringer on everything from mass incarceration to living wages. “We have a more pro-worker progressive agenda in Dallas,” York says, because the vast majority of labor’s endorsed candidates have been winning their races on both the city and county levels.

In November, after a long push, the Dallas City Council passed a living-wage ordinance that requires all contractors and subcontractors hired by the city—largely in sanitation, janitorial, and groundskeeping—to pay its employees a minimum of $10.37 an hour, with future increases tethered to MIT’s living-wage calculation for a single adult in Dallas County.

(Photo: AP/Mark Humphrey)

Wolfgang Lemb, right, of the German trade union IG Metall, speaks during a new conference announcing the opening of a join office of IG Metall and United Auto Workers in Tennessee. Gary Casteel, the secretary-treasurer of UAW, is on the left.

The Workers Defense Project, a worker center focusing on Texas’s largely immigrant construction industry, also pushed the city council to require the industry to give outdoor laborers a ten-minute rest break every four hours. Advocates say such a break is crucial in protecting workers from potentially deadly work conditions in the Texas sun.

With the changing demographics of Southern cities, many policies that have long been routine in Northern cities that have substantial union presences—prevailing wages for construction work, living wages for city contract workers—are now coming to Dixie. In Miami, labor leaders have worked to ensure that the city’s construction boom of recent years is benefiting not just wealthy developers but also construction workers, many of whom are black and Latino. In March 2015, they successfully lobbied the city commission to unanimously pass a Responsible Wages ordinance, including a prevailing wage for all city construction projects. “Look, construction is lucrative,” says Andy Madtes, president of the South Florida AFL-CIO. “Paying someone $10 an hour on a construction site is not right. A prevailing wage levels the playing field.” Labor activists are also trying to figure out the legal pathway forward to expand the Miami-Dade County prevailing wage beyond just contractors, particularly to include airport workers.

Next on their radar is a campaign to address rampant worker misclassification in the Miami construction industry—a practice where contractors will call their workers independent contractors, and thus avoid paying into Social Security, workers’ compensation insurance, or payroll taxes, while forcing many workers to seek government assistance. “Contractors are getting away with murder,” Madtes says, “and taxpayers are on the hook for health care.”

There are indications of increased pressure on cities elsewhere in the South, too. In Greensboro, North Carolina, a community effort in which Working America played the key role persuaded the city council to raise the minimum wage for city employees with the goal of reaching $15 an hour in 2020. Up till now, says City Councilmember Jamal Fox, many city employees have been working two or three jobs to make ends meet. “If they can’t take care of their families and take them out of poverty, what kind of government entity are we?” Fox says. “We have to be a leader on this.”

Both Lexington and Louisville, Kentucky, have increased their minimum wages in recent months. Down in the Deep South, Birmingham, Alabama, raised its minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. There’s been talk of additional hikes in Tuscaloosa and Montgomery.

However, the ability of cities to unilaterally improve workers’ rights is severely confined by hostile Republican power in the statehouses. Two weeks after Birmingham passed its minimum-wage increase, Alabama State Representative David Faulkner, a Republican, introduced legislation that would prohibit cities from dictating minimum wages for the private sector. Democrats were able to filibuster the bill at the end of the legislative session, but Republicans are expected to push its passage when the next session starts back up.

“The pattern is that opponents of economic populist measures will always go to the state to strip cities of the power to act,” says Paul Sonn, general counsel for the National Employment Law Project. “You see this most frequently in the South. Typically there’s the veneer of keeping the state regulatory framework uniform. That’s pretty clearly not what’s driving this. It’s naked power politics.”

Still, there are limited measures that can be passed within the confines of various preemption laws. Even if they’re constrained from across-the-board minimum-wage hikes, some Southern cities, like New Orleans and Dallas, have passed living-wage ordinances that require city contractors to pay employees a heightened minimum wage. Wage theft enforcement ordinances have been enacted in Houston and El Paso, as well as in a number of Florida counties, including Miami-Dade. Ban-the-box measures, which increase job access for former felons, are also gaining traction in Southern cities.

“There’s a lot of momentum nationally, but especially in the South where there hasn’t been a lot of populist activism in years,” Sonn says. “There’s a more recent wave and a real pattern.”


THIS IS FAR FROM THE labor movement’s first rodeo in the South. From the late 19th century through the entire 20th century, there have been several iterations of a “Southern Strategy.” Some have met limited success. Most, however, have not—often to the detriment of the broader labor movement.

Take, for instance, Operation Dixie, the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ last-ditch effort to gain a meaningful presence in the South after World War II. The campaign was a massive undertaking, stretching across 12 states and lasting seven years, draining the labor federation’s resources, and, when it ultimately failed, forcing the CIO to merge with the American Federation of Labor.

The CIO’s pivot to the South was a necessity. Key CIO industries, particularly textile and clothing manufacturing, were steadily moving from the North, where labor was well established, to the South, a region that posed many challenges for a Yankee-led movement. Absent a vibrant labor movement promoting a more liberal politics, Southern elected representatives, in coalition with Northern Republicans, would block any progressive reforms and enact anti-labor legislation—as they did in 1947 by passing the Taft-Hartley Act, which enabled states to fight unionization through right-to-work laws.

Had the CIO’s campaign succeeded, the implications for the South—and the labor movement broadly—could have been tremendous. “[A] CIO victory in the South might have hastened the civil-rights movement by at least a decade,” Barbara S. Griffith writes in her seminal account of the campaign, The Crisis of American Labor: Operation Dixie and the Defeat of the CIO. “A successful Operation Dixie could have dramatically altered the predominance of conservative Southern politicians in state and national legislatures. And certainly, union membership for Southern workers would have created the potential for shifts of economic power to those in the South who had never known any.” The CIO’s failure and the Southern states’ enactment of right-to-work laws, however, eviscerated the region’s unions: 18 percent of Louisiana’s workers were union members as recently as 1964; today, just 5 percent are.

In its current Southern campaign, the AFL-CIO seems to have learned from past failures and recognized current shortcomings. “This is not Operation Dixie,” Gebre says. “This is really more about capacity-building, looking at a long-term turnaround. You have a huge imbalance of capacity. Whereas the other side has its biggest capacity in the South, we have negative capacity in the South—we just have a wish list.”

“Operation Dixie required a huge amount of the CIO’s resources. But people were sent [from the North to organize]; Southerners weren’t organizing Southerners. It just didn’t work,” Gebre explains. “What we’re trying to do now is scaled back. It’s very incremental, but that’s what we want it to be, because previous organizing campaigns weren’t. Previous campaigns have been ‘let’s put millions of dollars into a two-month campaign,’” he says, and then see what happens.


DESPITE THE WELL-recognized failures of Operation Dixie, there are still some strategic vestiges that remain, echoing the CIO’s emphasis on organizing the biggest textile factories in the hope that such symbolic victories would trickle down through the industry and the region.

As European and Japanese corporations have flocked to the South to take advantage of the low-wage buffet promised by Chamber of Commerce Republicans, industrial unions have devoted a tremendous amount of resources and political capital to gaining footholds at some of the most prominent new plants.

Since 2011, the United Auto Workers have been trying to form a union at Volkswagen’s two-million-square-foot plant in Chattanooga, with varying degrees of support from Volkswagen itself, only to face continual attacks from the Republicans who used tax-incentive carrots to get the factory.

The announcement of an impending NLRB election angered prominent Tennessee Republicans. Leading up to the election, Grover Norquist’s Center for Worker Freedom rented out 13 billboards displaying anti-UAW messages. Governor Bill Haslam and former Chattanooga mayor and current U.S. Senator Bob Corker also sounded the alarms against unionization. Even with tacit support from VW management, the UAW effort came up short, with 712 workers voting in opposition and 626 in support. The loss was a gut punch to the UAW, and stunned the labor movement. If a union can’t win an election with company support, can it win any election?

(Photo: AP/Erik Schelzig)

UAW supporters hold signs outside Volkswagen's Chattanooga factory on the day its skilled-trades workers voted to unionize.

But organizing in the South is as much a necessity for the UAW today as it was for the clothing and textile unions in the 1940s. The Southern foreign-owned factories pay lower wages than those made by the UAW workers at General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler; they pull down wage and benefit levels throughout the industry, including at plants with UAW contracts. Accordingly, the UAW has been pursuing novel organizing and representational strategies since its defeat at Chattanooga.

A week before Thanksgiving, in Spring Hill, Tennessee, UAW and IG Metall, the German labor union that represents Volkswagen workers in Germany, announced the opening of a joint venture to explore new models of worker representation, such as work councils, which are ubiquitous in Germany and allow workers and managers to regularly meet to resolve workplace problems. The unions are also hoping to use IG Metall’s established presence in Germany to pressure German auto manufacturers and parts suppliers to welcome UAW representation.

The union hopes that a public pressure campaign on German companies like Daimler, BMW, and Volkswagen, in addition to the roughly one hundred German-owned parts suppliers operating in the South, will force companies to improve working conditions. “It’s not about an organizing strategy to build mass numbers,” UAW Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel says. “These companies that come in here have social doctrines that say they respect worker rights. Then they land here and invariably wind up with American management and are acting like any other company going to extremes with union avoidance.”

In recent months, the union has shifted its strategy by organizing the roughly 150 skilled-trades maintenance workers in VW’s Chattanooga factory, a group that had been vocally supportive of a union during its plant-wide organizing campaign. VW management, surprisingly, has appealed the result to the NLRB on the grounds that the unit is too small, but the UAW is likely to win the appeal. Plainly, the organization hopes that gaining even a small union presence in the factory could help ease the path toward broader unionization.

In Charleston, South Carolina, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) has been trying to unionize Boeing’s manufacturing plant, while Governor Nikki Haley has made it her personal mission to thwart any sign of union life in her state. The union believes Boeing could serve as an important bellwether for organizing efforts at other aerospace companies, like Airbus’s Alabama facility, that have found refuge from unions in the South. IAM Organizing Director Don Barker likens the South to “a bargain bin for employers to get tax incentives from the states.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union is reportedly taking a new approach to organizing in the Southern poultry processing plants, which have long exploited the deportation fears of their Latino immigrant workforce so as to keep wages low and thwart union drives. The union hopes to build off its underdog win at the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina. Smithfield had repeatedly called Immigration and Customs Enforcement on its own employees when organizing efforts surfaced, and allegedly employed company strong-arms to intimidate workers inside the factory. After multiple attempts, the UFCW finally succeeded in winning a union election at the plant.

Now the union is making it a point to team up with local immigration groups to educate workers about their rights during organizing drives and combat the culture of fear created by employers. It is also seeking to leverage its presence in Northern plants and pressure the giant poultry companies (five corporations control 80 percent of the market) on a national level, rather than trying to gain footholds at individual factories. “With any company that has multiple locations, they leverage their size with their clients,” says UFCW organizer Eduardo Pena. “We’re going to be doing the same thing. We’re going to stop looking at the process as a single location in the rural South.”

A similar company-wide strategy informs the campaigns of UNITE HERE to organize hotel workers across the South. Focusing on hotel workers in Texas, casino workers in Louisiana and Mississippi, airport workers, and Disney World employees, the union has been able to leverage its density and corporate relationships in other markets when organizing in the South. For years, the union had a troubled relationship with Hyatt, which had fought unionization efforts at some of its Southern hotels. In 2011, the union called for a boycott of the 17 Hyatt locations (all in Northern cities) where its contracts had expired, eventually expanding that to a worldwide boycott. Two years later, the union and Hyatt came to an agreement that set a framework for future bargaining agreements and pledged company neutrality in future drives at non-union hotels. The union used that neutrality agreement to organize the employees at two San Antonio hotels in 2014. The contract—which includes annual raises, reinstatement of outsourced jobs, and protections for immigrant employees—is the union’s first at a Southern hotel.

“It’s a combination of the work we’ve done locally and the history that we have in these industries nationally that contributes to some of the successes we have had,” says UNITE HERE Communications Director Annemarie Strassel. “It’s easy to point to limitations, but it’s important to look at successes, too. The successes are incremental but show lots of possibility.”


DESPITE INCREASED TRACTION in blue cities, there’s still the elephant in the room: Republicans run the Southern states, and through years of gerrymandering, their statehouse and congressional seats are entrenched. 

“We’re playing a game designed by the other side,” AFL-CIO’s Gebre says. “That always puts you on the defense.”

Gebre says it’s futile to pour labor’s limited political resources into winning costly governors’ races in states where Republicans control state legislatures, and would politically handcuff a Democratic governor. Labor is now looking at putting measures on the ballot wherever possible that would create independent redistricting commissions, which could theoretically open the door for a resurgence of Democratic power. At the same time, Gebre reiterates the importance of ensuring that the candidates backed by labor’s progressive Southern coalitions will carry out their objectives. “I have no interest in re-creating Southern Democrats,” he stresses. “Our solutions will come by people getting elected on our values.”

In Texas, there’s increasing optimism about the potential for the state to turn purple over the next few election cycles. The rise of progressive coalitions in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio means change for a large slice of the state’s population. Additionally, both Georgia and North Carolina appear primed for political shifts in coming years. But while 2016 is demanding attention now, labor is also looking ahead to 2018 and 2020, and identifying ways to win back both statehouses and congressional seats. That’s when the politicians who will control the next redistricting will be elected, thereby shaping the political landscape of the next ten years.

It’s a long road ahead. There won’t be a slew of minimum-wage laws passed next year. There likely won’t be a domino effect of union election wins. But there’s an emerging sense of excitement from Southerners in the labor movement who are eager to build what they can on recent victories. The challenge will be to keep the national labor movement invested in the Southern project, and to build and strengthen urban progressive coalitions over the course of the next several years. It’s a political project of the largest scope, to which Gebre is deeply committed.

“I’m gonna stick to this. … If anybody is saying they’re going to organize in the South and they don’t have a plan to stay till 2022, it’s just a photo op,” Gebre says. “We have to have the staying power … to get the high-hanging fruit; there’s no low-hanging fruit in the South.”