Organize the South! Arkansas workers make the case

This article won Third Place Saul Miller Award — Organizing,  2015 International Labor Communications Association’s Labor Media Awards.

For decades, the South has been the Achilles heel of the labor movement. While unions took root and thrived in places like the industrial Midwest and Northeast, or in the ports and plants of West Coast states in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, Dixie remained a tough slog. This is the place where right to work was born over seventy years ago. Where reactionary politics have often been the only kind of politics. And where the “color line” dividing Black workers from white ones long defined all aspects of life—including in the workplace. In too many ways, it still does.

There were major organizing campaigns and big strikes in the South over the years, of course, and they shouldn’t be forgotten. From the battles of Harlan County and the Great Textile Strike of 1934 to Dr. King and the Memphis sanitation workers and the lesser-known fights of more recent decades, Southern workers have never shied away from a fight when backed into a corner. They haven’t always come out on top, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

But eventually, many of the mines closed, the textile and furniture factories shut down, and lower-wage, non-union companies like Walmart came to dominate the regional economy. Even the South’s relative lack of strong unions and its abundance of right-wing politicians servile to business couldn’t save it from de-industrialization.

But it’s a new era for the Southern economy. Things are beginning to change, and the labor movement as a whole would do well to pay closer attention.

The South, already home to 35 percent of the country’s population, is growing rapidly. Of the ten U.S. metropolitan areas experiencing the fastest job creation rates in 2016, six of them were in the South. A third of electoral college votes are here. In 2010, the region got eight new seats in Congress, with another six likely coming in 2020. More than half the U.S.’ African-American population resides here, and counties in the South account for the biggest share of the country’s Latino population growth.

Labor regularly takes note of the importance of organizing in the South, but has yet to develop a coordinated approach to tackling the special challenges and rapidly shifting economy there. At its last convention in 2013, the national AFL-CIO pledged itself to developing a Southern organizing strategy. As of 2017, it’s not clear that there’s much progress to point to.

That’s something the Arkansas AFL-CIO sought to remind delegates of at this year’s national labor confab in St. Louis. In a resolution that again appealed to the country’s biggest gathering of unions to devote itself to organizing the South, workers from the Natural State were blunt in their assessment:

“…[T]he American labor movement has never developed a long-term, successful, coordinated effort to organize working people in the states comprising the Southern region, which has allowed anti-worker political forces to operate in the South without being effectively challenged by an organized working people’s movement….”

There have been some successful organizing campaigns over the last four years, but workers from Arkansas and other Southern states are looking for more than just support in particular workplace sign-up drives. They envision concerted efforts to elect labor-friendly candidates and pass pro-worker legislation.

But before you start thinking that this is just a Southern affair with little importance for workers in other places, consider the fact that forty-five percent of Republicans in Washington are sent there by Southern states. As the resolution makes clear, the possibility of passing any pro-labor legislation at the national level depends on changing the political and legislative climate below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Though they are trying to grab more attention during the debate in St. Louis, organized labor in the South isn’t waiting around. In Arkansas, they are preparing for a possible avalanche of investment heading their way.

State labor federation president Alan Hughes, who hails from the Steelworkers, says, “There’s never enough organizing going on.” Labor, he argues, has got to go South because that’s where the people and the money are moving. In a discussion on the sidelines of the convention, he checked off a list of new industrial investments already in the works for his state.

In Pine Bluff, a mostly African-American town in south-central Arkansas, America’s first-ever natural gas liquefaction plant, a $3.5-billion-dollar alternative energy super project, will be built over the next several years. It is being billed as the biggest economic development endeavor in state history. Only six of the operations exist in the world, and Hughes estimates the Pine Bluff plant could create as many as 5,000 construction jobs up front, and around 500 permanent jobs after that.

Similar stories are playing out in other towns, too. A Chinese company, Sun Paper, has chosen Arkadelphia as the site of its first investment in the U.S. It will pour over a billion dollars into opening a new pulp mill. In Forrest City, another Chinese giant, the Shandong Ruyi Technology Group, has announced plans to spend $410 million to convert an old Sanyo TV factory into a new spinning yarn mill big enough to consume all the annual cotton harvest of the Arkansas Delta region. Another 800 permanent jobs. None of them union.

Those are the projects announced in just one state over the past year or so. But it’s happening all over the South. And Jessica Akers, secretary-treasurer of the Arkansas AFL-CIO, says unions need to be getting ready now.

“There should be community organizing efforts going on right now,” she argues, “so that there is already buy-in to the union on day one when the plant opens its gates for the first time.” The state fed and the local Building Trades Council are exploring pre-apprenticeship models that have been tried in other places to see what might be replicated in Arkansas.

The idea of having a union has to be a positive in people’s minds before the company comes to town, not just associated with the negative things that happen on the job later on. In a right to work state like Arkansas, Akers says the way you sell the union to workers is by focusing on the concept of a contract.

“Where we live, people are supposed to stand behind their words. If there is an agreement, and we’ve shaken hands on it, then it gives people confidence in each other. That’s how we have to pitch it.”

On having to work with Republicans and the union members who vote for them: “Economics is what we can move together with. Like charter schools, right to work isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. So we can say it’s bad all we want, but it’s the world we live in. So we have to maneuver around this reality to benefit our people as much as possible.”

It’s a pragmatic, real-world approach to advancing labor’s issues. Surveying the South’s fast-changing political economy, the Arkansas delegation and other unions in the region spent considerable time at the convention making the case for a specially tailored organizing strategy.

And their resolution? Passed over, essentially. By the time it made it to the convention floor, it had been chopped down to a single “Whereas” in a longer, more generic promise to organize everywhere and realize the promise of collective bargaining.

It was a lost opportunity. Special challenges call for special strategies. If labor doesn’t give sustained attention to the particularities of organizing workers in the most anti-labor atmosphere in the United States, someday—and maybe not long from now—it will wake up to realize that the whole country has gone South.


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.