RALEIGH, N.C. – Speaking here today at the International Labor Communications Association (ILCA) convention, MaryBe McMillan, secretary treasurer of the North Carolina AFL-CIO, said: “The movement for social and economic justice is growing faster in the South than anywhere else in the U.S.”
That’s exactly why the leadership of ILCA chose to hold the group’s 2015 convention in North Carolina, which has lower union density than any other state in the U.S.
ILCA President Kathy Cummings explained that the group, whose members do news, public relations and member communications for unions and their allies, aims to spotlight the fact that in North Carolina and other Southern states, the union movement has joined with the civil rights movement in leading a broad-based uprising of working people who are fighting for economic and social justice.
McMillan told the convention of labor journalists that in the past, the labor movement was “short sighted” in not devoting enough resources to organize the South.
“The South was considered too stuck in the past,” she said. “But in reality, the South is a predictor of the nation’s future.” Anti-union tactics that are perfected in Southern states soon spread across the nation.
With its right-to-work laws and laws against collective bargaining for public workers, the South, McMillan said, has been a haven for employers trying to escape unions. Southern politicians lure companies to the South by assuring them of the availability of non-union, cheap labor.
The appeal to corporate greed works, McMillan said. Manufacturing and other industries are growing in the South and shrinking in the Northeast.
“Low wages in the South bring down wages everywhere,” she explained. The wage gap between workers in the North and workers in the South is shrinking” because everyone’s wages are plummeting.
“Let’s organize the South,” McMillan said, “and change the nation.”
In fact, organizing has begun. McMillan said that in North Carolina, unions are bringing together white, brown and black working people and older and newer workers. “We are fighting against bosses who want their workers to work cheap and be meek and docile,” she said.
“We are working with the Moral Monday movement, and have adopted its slogan: ‘Forward together, not one step back!'”
Until recently, the Moral Movement was called the Moral Monday Movement because, under the aegis of the North Carolina NAACP, it initiated huge demonstrations each Monday calling for economic and social justice. Today the NAACP has expanded its efforts, organizing people across the state to fight on many fronts for a better quality of life.
Following McMillan, The Rev. Nelson Johnson, pastor of the Faith Community Church in Greensboro, N.C., told ILCA members that the strength of today’s uprising in the South is that it is based in the community.
“Domination pushes back against justice by trying to separate people,” he said. “But if we frame our efforts as community-based, we will win.”
Rev. Johnson stressed the need, especially in the South, for unions to build coalitions with ministers and others in the faith community. Such a coalition, including the civil rights movement, recently scored an impressive win in Greensboro: the city council passed an ordinance setting the pay for public workers at no less than $15 an hour.
“We’re working to get a $15 an hour minimum wage across the country,” said Zaina Alsous, an organizer with the AFL-CIO Raise-up campaign. “We can learn from the people of Greensboro.”
Alsous urged ILCA members to answer the question: “what are unions for?”
“Unions must be about more than just negotiating contracts,” she said. “We must join with other groups, like the NAACP here in North Carolina, to become a real movement again.
“We can’t wait for the laws to change before we organize in the South.”
Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, pointed to polls showing that there is a great potential for union organizing in the South. Forty-seven percent of white workers have favorable view of unions, he said, as do fifty-four percent of Latinos and seventy-three percent of African Americans.
Carolyn Smith, executive director of Working America North Carolina, ended the ILCA convention session by describing how her organization, a unit of the AFL-CIO, is “organizing door by door.”
She said Working America organizers knock on doors and talk to people. “We bring workers to unions by listening to them, seeing what’s on their minds.
“We can organize the South,” Smith said, “if we are inclusive, creative and persistent.”
Photo: Demonstrators at the first Moral Monday event. | Chris Seward/AP
Video by Rossana Cambron, People’s World.