Labor’s Southern strategy finds a focus in Texas

HOUSTON – Houston has been an important focus for Southern organizing because of its size; the fourth largest city in the U.S. and its demographics: 44 percent Hispanic, 24 percent African American and high poverty levels (based on the 2012 Census survey).  Approximately 34 percent of Houston’s children live in poverty. Overall, 22 percent of the people live below the official poverty level, with racial minorities the hardest hit: 28 percent of African Americans live below the poverty level and 29 percent of Hispanics live below the poverty level.  This poverty exists in the midst of plenty, with Houston having one of the largest concentrations of millionaires in the world.

There is also a concerted effort to turn Texas from a red state into a blue state.  An impediment is the racial gerrymandering done under the leadership of the GOP’s Rep.Tom Delay in 2003, gerrymandering that violated the Voting Rights Act. The new Texas voter ID law cementrs voter repression even more firmly in place now throughout the state.

None of this has prevented labor, progressive allies, Democrats and others from working hard to turn the state around.

The AFL-CIO Executive Council met here the week of Feb. 17 in Houston, Texas.  At a press conference, federation president Richard Trumka reaffirmed the AFL-CIO’s continuing commitment to union organizing in the South. The 2013 AFL-CIO Convention passed Resolution 26: Resolution to Develop a Southern Organizing Strategy:

  • the AFL-CIO adopts as one of its top priorities a Southern Strategy that will include a long-term commitment to organize the South
  • the AFL-CIO strongly impress upon every one of its affiliates to adopt the same long-term commitment necessary to sustain a strong and viable workers’ movement in the Southern Region of the United States.

The reasons it makes sense to organize in the South are many.

The U.S. labor movement has never successfully developed a concerted and coordinated effort to organize workers in the 11 Southern states making up the Southern Region, allowing the most conservative political forces in the South to operate without effectively being challenged by organized workers.

Corporations in the South have not only exploited Southern workers but have also been responsible for  negative environmental impacts on many working-class communities, especially the African American, Latino, Native American, Asian, and poor white communities.

Billions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives are being given to corporations at the expense of these struggling communities. The main strategy of these corporations in the South has been to divide the working class and the oppressed peoples in every way possible.

In addition, the South has emerged as a major player in the new global economy and has become a haven for U.S. manufacturing, foreign investments and finance capital. Because of this new role it is now playing a more important role in shaping U.S. labor and social policies. Anti-immigration bills are being introduced and are rapidly moving through Southern legislatures for the purpose of creating another source of worker exploitation based on race, ethnicity and fear.

Understanding that there have been shortcomings in labor’s effort to organize the South in no way suggests that workers and unions in the South have been doing nothing about organizing.

Organizing campaigns in the South have too often been localized and not connected to a broader Southern or national movement, thius leaving workers more open to dicouragement.

A successful Southern organizing strategy must include Southern people familiar with local culture and customs.

Much  discussed at the executive council meeting was the recent narrow loss of the UAW bid to represent workers at the Chatanooga, Tenn. Volkswagen plant.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Grover Norquist threatened the workers with job losses and blamed unionized workers for Detroit’s woes.  One important lesson here is the need to address labor union struggles in the South as a movement, where the full collective efforts of all union affiliates and the broader progressive movement, work in concert to overcome the right wing anti-union forces. 

Here in Texas there have been quite a few successful union organizing efforts:

  • Thousands of ATT Mobile workers have been organized in the Houston area.
  • The Service Employees International Union’s Justice for Janitors campaign won a major battle against efforts to misclassify and underpay janitors. The same union has been fighting for the rights of non-union low-wage fast food workers. The Teamsters successfully organized ramp workers at what was then Continental Airlines, now United.
  • The Texas State Employees Union has successfully signed up thousands of new memebers.
  • Some 4,000 nurses have been organized in the state by National Nurses United.
  • Working America, the AFL-CIO affiliate for non-union members, has signed up some 40,000 workers in Texas, including 23,000 in the Houston area alone.
  • Fe y Justicia, a Workers Center for low wage workers, led the passage of the Wage Theft Ordinance by the Houston City Council.
  • The Texas Organizing Project has mobilized thousands of people in support of Medicaid expansion in Texas and support for immigration reform with a path to citizenship. (Republican Governor RickPerry is denying more than 1 million Texans the right to Medicaid available under the Affordable Care Act.)

Mi Familia Vota has register thousands of Hispanic families to vote.

Registered nurses at Houston’s Cypress Fairbanks Medical Center voted unanimously to approve a new collective bargaining agreement with the hospital, extending the only private union contract for nurses in America’s fourth largest city.

Photo: Cypress Fairbanks RNs at contract ratification meeting (NNU photo)


Álvaro Rodriguez
Álvaro Rodriguez

Álvaro Rodriguez is a long-time labor and community activist. He writes from Texas.