Solidarity forever, y’all
A 2020 roundup of good labor news in the American South
It’s year-end list-making season and I have questionable taste in music, so instead of a Best Albums list, I made this list of labor victories in the Southeastern United States.
If, like me, you have lived your whole life in the region, there is a good chance you don’t know anyone who’s represented by a union. You might have heard some anti-union propaganda from your local officials, bosses, or teachers. The most common lie I’ve heard in South Carolina is that it’s illegal to form a union here.
The labor movement in this country is at a low ebb, particularly in the place I call home. That’s well-documented, and I won’t dwell on the bad news. Instead, here’s a look at some workers who took action to protect themselves this year.
Bessemer, Alabama: Amazon workers push for a union
The first Amazon warehouse to unionize in the United States might be the one in Bessemer, Alabama. Workers there have called for a vote to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). If successful, their bargaining unit would cover 1,500 employees, including “all hourly full-time and regular part-time fulfillment center employees including leads and learning ambassadors,” according to their NLRB petition.
The workers leading the organizing drive are calling themselves the BAmazonUnion, and their website highlights the dangerous working conditions at Amazon fulfillment centers across the globe:
Working at Amazon is supremely dangerous. The record on Amazon’s deadly and dehumanizing working conditions is well established. Nineteen workers have died at Amazon facilities since 2013. Amazon warehouse workers face outrageous work quotas that have left many with illnesses and lifetime injuries.
The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) has named Amazon to its list of “Dirty Dozen” employers twice. We won’t stand to be subjected to abhorrent labor practices that land us hospitalized or injured for life.
The Bessemer warehouse is one big cog in a global machine that has kicked into high gear this year. The company claimed during construction last year that this one fulfillment center would contain 22 miles of conveyor belts and be able to ship more than 100,000 items in a day.
According to AL.com, Amazon is trying to stall the union vote by complaining to the National Labor Relations Board that this is the busiest time of year for shipping. Meanwhile, across the country, Amazon has also been hiring Pinkertons and spying on its workers in an attempt to crush organizing efforts.
This isn’t a victory yet, but it’s a battle to watch. A win in Alabama could mobilize workers across the world.
Nashville, Tennessee: Restaurant workers band together
Food and beverage workers were among the first to feel the pain when the pandemic arrived in the U.S. this year. They faced layoffs, restaurant closures, and unsafe working conditions as local governments dithered about mask mandates.
In Nashville, F&B workers started a chapter of Restaurant Opportunities Center United called ROC Music City. In lieu of a traditional union, the worker center model allowed them to quickly mobilize and notch some victories.
According to a Labor Notes piece from September, the group used the threat of a picket to win one worker’s reinstatement at a local chain called Puckett’s. The group also won back pay for workers at a downtown restaurant who had been forced to quarantine.
Asheville, North Carolina: Nurses win a historic union vote
In September, nurses at Mission Hospital won the largest union vote at a nonunion hospital in the South since 1975. And they did it during a pandemic, while understaffed, despite their employer hiring professional union-busters to talk them out of it. About 1,800 nurses there are now represented by National Nurses United.
One longtime nurse at Mission Hospital, Kelley Tyler, joined me on the Brutal South Podcast to talk about the landslide victory. She shared practical insights into the organizing process and even gave a little bit of history: Her father was a union worker himself, having led the union drive at a paper mill in her western North Carolina hometown.
Like many nurses in the crumbling U.S. healthcare system, the Mission Hospital nurses have been stretched thin by low staffing and high census numbers. By forming a union, they are fighting for the safety of themselves, their families, and their patients.
Beaufort, South Carolina: Good news for local news reporters
In a victory near and dear to my heart as a former newspaperman, journalists in the South Carolina Lowcountry successfully unionized the first local newsroom in the state (technically the Associated Press has union representation nationwide, but I count this as the first win for a proper local newsroom).
The reporters and photographers work in the combined newsroom of the Beaufort Gazette and Hilton Head Island Packet, which are owned by the McClatchy newspaper chain. In an unusually easy win, the parent company agreed to recognize the union voluntarily after a landslide vote by the newsroom.
Two of the journalists from that newsroom, Lucas Smolcic Larson and Stephen Fastenau, joined me on Episode 9 of the podcast to talk about their experience and share what they learned. They were delightful guests, and they even sent me a spiffy sticker with their union’s turtle logo to slap on my laptop.
Elsewhere in the state, journalists have taken furloughs, lost their jobs to layoffs, seen their entire newsrooms close permanently, or been forced to return to the office during the pandemic. I was glad to see one ray of light in the middle of all that gloom.
San Antonio, Texas: Students fight alongside their teachers
Teachers at Luther Burbank High School in San Antonio were stressed about the return of students this fall. The school district’s safety precautions were incomplete and vague, but they were told they could either report to work or lose their jobs.
So the teachers and staff drafted a letter urging district leaders to follow medical advice, raised their voices at a faculty meeting, and prepared to make their case to district leaders if necessary. But before they could go public with their concerns, a teacher and union steward at the high school, Luke Amphlett, was placed on administrative leave.
The San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel saw this as a clear act of retaliation meant to crush dissent. So they filed a grievance and went public. Student activists at the high school joined with a radical caucus of the local teachers’ union called PODER to demand Mr. Amphlett’s reinstatement.
Outside the school, community groups rallied to the cause as well. The local DSA chapter, the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, and an immigrant coalition called SA Stands all spoke up to back the union.
In an interview with Jacobin’s Meagan Day, Amphlett said his union had built solidarity with community activist groups for years. Ultimately he won his job back, but the fight isn’t over. Amphlett told Day:
The most obvious manifestation of that power we exerted is me being reinstated. But what we have also seen is a bunch of teachers from my school who’ve never stood up for themselves in their lives standing up for themselves now. There’s a large group of people on my campus who are now on an email chain talking consistently about what the next steps are. And while it’s hard to quantify, I think our reopening was much safer than it would have been before this happened. Additionally this fight has emboldened a bunch of people at my campus to join the union who weren’t members before.
The historian Chris Wright did a provocative interview in Labor Notes recently. He wrote a book arguing that the current failures of U.S. neoliberalism and the resurgence of overtly racist conservatism can be traced back to the failure of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to unionize Southern workers in key industries in the 1930s and ‘40s.
Wright said this:
In Detroit, where I am, bus drivers have struck over the lack of safety. It seems to be a generalized phenomenon that’s taking place, but I don’t know how to gauge it. I read Labor Notes and I subscribe to it, but its reporters are always seeing a new upsurge taking place. The United States is a big country and there are always strikes happening somewhere, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that a large movement is in the offing.
Still, we’re seeing people in places that were historically difficult to organize getting more upset and taking action. Many of the logistics hubs, for instance, are in the South. One of the biggest in the country is in Memphis, there’s a big one in Louisville, etc. These are urban, interracial workforces.
The South, of course, is very different now than it was in the 1930s and 1940s: it has much more economic dynamism, including a significant percentage of the auto industry, particularly transplants (foreign plants that have their production facility in the U.S.). While Detroit still has more auto production and more parts, there are huge parts corridors in states across the South …
So I think that the possibilities for a Southern upsurge, as well as in the country as a whole, are real. On the other hand, there isn’t the same insurgent, radical leadership that there was in the 1930s.
It’s been a hell of a year and we’ve lost so much. But I don’t want to lose sight of the possibility of radical change, even in the belly of the beast.
So cheers to the workers standing tall together. Cheers to us. Solidarity forever, y’all.
If you would like to give money to a good cause, my DSA chapter in Charleston is raising money for the Lowcountry Mutual Aid Fund. You can make a donation by clicking here. The fund provides emergency and direct aid to people facing evictions, unemployment, food insecurity, and utility shutoffs, among other needs.