On February 21, The Century Foundation hosted a Twitter chat about ways that the labor movement can be strengthened (it was inspired by a series of articles in The Nation). It was a fun chat within the #u1nation Twitter hashtag, with people throwing out many ideas, including me:
Now, I know that there are campaigns going on down here; I am not so foolish as to think that organized labor is completely absent in the South. But the struggle for collective bargaining down here is largely invisible, outside of stories about foreign automakers locating here because of the lower union density here. To that end, the folks at The Rick Smith Show, which is a pro-worker radio show in central Pennsylvania, responded with this:
The rest of the conversation goes as follows:
That last response floored me. I had never considered what the lack of a pro-worker media infrastructure was doing to perceptions of union activity here in the South. I decided to go look up whether there were blogs that focused on the labor movement in the South. I found . . . this and this. That was it. I looked for labor news here in Alabama, and this was the only recent thing that I could find. In other states, the news has centered around policies and legislation, but nothing about the actual labor movement. It starts to make you wonder . . . who is telling the story of labor unions in the South? You hear a lot from people like Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC), who said in her State of the State address from 2012:
Finally, I love that we are one of the least unionized states in the country. It is an economic development tool unlike any other. Our companies in South Carolina understand that they are only as good as those who work for them, and they take care of their employees. The people of South Carolina have a strong work ethic, they value loyalty, and they take tremendous pride in the quality of their work. We don’t have unions in South Carolina because we don’t need unions in South Carolina.
But it seems that you do not hear much from the workers. You do not hear from the unions that are working to organize people. You do not hear from the activists on the ground, and what they are up against when they seek to lift up workers in areas that are very hostile to that sort of activity. When the pain and struggle of grinding poverty is so clear and present in the South, why is the one movement that could have a direct impact on that so invisible?
We need more pro-worker media here in the South. Whether it is blog posts like this, or newsletters, or radio shows like Rick Smith’s in Pennsylvania or Workers Independent News, or e-mail listservs, or activists’ conferences, we need to be more visible to working people. Hell, I would be fine if there were lists like this one that told people where they could shop and support their local unionized businesses. The benefits of creating a pro-worker media source in the South are evident: coverage that escapes the framing of a corporate media more interested in kowtowing to sponsors than providing information, giving voice to activists and the challenges that they face in organizing workers, and, most importantly, giving voice to those workers who recognize the benefits of collective bargaining and want a piece of that for themselves, their families, and their communities.
I come from a family of labor and community organizers. My father has been a member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers since 1983, when he started working at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia. He would tell me stories growing up about the importance of labor and the need for solidarity amongst workers from all background. Even after he was laid off from the Shipyard in 1993, he continued to be an advocate as he moved through a private sector that did not feature the same protections for workers that he once enjoyed. The stories that he has told me have stayed with me all my life, particularly as I have honed my research focus on public policies that affect pro-labor organizing.
Storytelling has been an important tradition in labor organizing. I came of age in my late teens reading books such as From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend and Strike! and visiting places such as the Union Miners’ Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois, where labor organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones is buried. My father took me on his trainings throughout the Midwest when he became a labor educator for the IAMAW, and I heard the stories of those people who were on the ground, representing workers in disciplinary hearings and grievances on the shop floor. The labor movement was made real for me by hearing these people talk about how they were fighting a system that seemed to place productivity and profit over people more and more everyday.
The debate over collective bargaining in the South has been very one-sided. That has to end if we are ever going to see any progress towards better working conditions and a more humane standard of living for working people down here.