Southern labor hosts assembly: ‘Build a workers’ alliance!’
and Justin Flores
Tom Smith and
Assembly, Sept. 3.
By Dante Strobino
September 13, 2012
Charlotte, N.C. — Over 300 Southern workers, trade unionists and
community allies gathered for the Southern Workers Assembly on Sept. 3, Labor
Day, the opening day of the Democratic National Convention. The Wedgewood
Baptist Church was packed and supporters had to stand beside the pews. There
was a feeling in the air that Southern labor was uniting to forge a historic
new direction, towards rank-and-file-led social justice trade unionism,
particularly to challenge right-to-work (for less) laws and combat racism.
“Southern workers cannot wait for the Democratic Party and certainly
not the Republican Party, to enact some progressive labor laws before we can
begin a serious effort to organize ourselves into a labor movement,”
stated Saladin Muhammad, director of the United Electrical Workers
Union’s Southern International Worker Justice Campaign, in his opening
remarks. “Unfortunately, this has been a serious error on the part of the
U.S. labor movement for too many years.”
Donna Dewitt, retired former president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, also
helped co-host the meeting and added some remarks.
The Democratic National Convention was being held in North Carolina, the
least unionized state in the country, and one of only two states that outright
denies public workers the right to collectively bargain. Many in the union
movement, particularly those from northern and more unionized states, have been
saying that the convention should have never been held in a right-to-work
state. In return, labor did not invest the millions of dollars of funds that
they typically make available for the DNC. The International Brotherhood of
Electrical Workers and the AFL-CIO organized a major counter rally in
Philadelphia in August, yet there was little to no discussion about a strategy
to unionize the vastly unorganized Southern region.
Ashaki Binta, who organizes public workers with the United Electrical
Workers union in North Carolina, and Justin Flores, organizer with the Farm
Labor Organizing Committee, gave opening presentations. They focused on four
main obstacles that work to impede the struggle against racism, sexism and
working-class exploitation in the South and that also severely inhibit the
growth of unions: 1) the Taft-Hartley Act, which directly undermines the growth
and consolidation of unions, 2) the fact of the U.S. South being the number one
region in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI), 3) the prohibition of
collective bargaining rights for public sector workers and 4) the unjust
Immigration policies targeting undocumented workers.
They pointed out that 32 million workers in the U.S. do not have collective
bargaining rights. Additionally, they noted that the Southern states incentive
packages offer companies, domestic and foreign, a nonunion environment. The
Southeast has received the highest dollar amount of foreign investment of any
region. The Southern states’ tax policies have changed within recent
years to impact FDI decisions.
A clarion call for solidarity
The powerful lineup of speakers included three panels. The panel of workers
who represent labor formations excluded by the National Labor Relations Act
included Baldemar Velazquez, president of FLOC; Victor Alvarez, with the
National Day Labor Organizing Network currently on a cross-country tour with
the Undocubus; and a formerly incarcerated man from All of Us or None, speaking
on ex-felons having the right to a job.
The panel addressing private sector workers included Lisa Cline, a food
service worker and president of UNITE-HERE Local 23 at the Charlotte airport;
Jim Wrenn, an autoworker and president of Carolina Auto and Aerospace Workers
Union, UE Local 150, from Rocky Mount, N.C.; Leonard Riley, a longshore worker
and member of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422,
Charleston, S.C.; Harry Whitaker Sr., a meatpacking worker at a Smithfield
plant and shop steward, United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1208,
Tar Heel, N.C.
During the open discussion following this panel, Clarence Thomas, an
executive board member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers
Union Local 10 from Oakland, Calif., made very stirring comments referencing
Harry Bridges, an Australian-born leader of the ILWU and notable as a leader in
the fight against racism on the docks.
Thomas also asked panel member Riley about the ILA’s East Coastwide
contract negotiations, which are currently taking place. It appears that the
negotiations may be reaching a standstill around the technology questions
relating to automation that could eliminate thousands of jobs on the ports.
Thomas called for support for the ILA brothers and sisters. Saladin Muhammad
then stood up and addressed the crowd, calling for a resolution to be passed to
support the ILA. The assembly adopted the proposal unanimously.
The final panel, which addressed conditions faced by public sector workers,
included Angaza Laughinghouse, a state government worker and president of UE
Local 150, N.C. Public Service Workers Union; Tom Anderson, a university worker
and president of Campus Workers United — Communication Workers of
America, from Tennessee; Nathanette Mayo, a city waste water treatment worker
and recording secretary of the Durham City Workers Union, UE150; Donna Morgan,
UE Local 170, West Virginia Public Service Workers Union; and Eleanor Bailey,
retired American Postal Workers Union member and a leader of the 1970′s
postal workers strike that resulted in collective bargaining for postal
During the intermission and during dinner, cultural performances by Jaribu
Hill from the Mississippi Workers Center; the Fruit of Labor Singing Ensemble;
the band from the Undocubus; and Sergio Sanchez, son of a farmworker, helped
keep energy high.
The UFCW brought a powerful delegation of between 20 and 30 workers from the
Smithfield plant, who brightened the room with their yellow shirts. UE also
brought about 20 workers from North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia,
Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Earlier in the day before the assembly, a few dozen FLOC supporters went as
a delegation to a Kangaroo gas station that sells RJ Reynolds-produced
cigarettes. This action was to continue to keep public pressure on the company.
FLOC is currently engaged in organizing a major campaign to win collective
bargaining for migrant farmworkers who pick tobacco for the RJ Reynolds Tobacco
Company across North Carolina.
After the panels, workers convened breakout sessions to discuss how to
concretely build towards a Southern Labor Alliance. One of the tactics
discussed was using a Rank-and-File Workers’ Bill of Rights to help unite
certain sectors and win better working conditions. UE150 has done this in North
Carolina and was able to unite state mental health workers into a major
campaign that drew in many allies over the last three years and got a bill
introduced to the state Legislature.
“The Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights gives a core of standards to
provide us a safe working condition, benefits and all things that impact us as
workers,” stated Larsene Taylor, a healthcare technician at Cherry
Hospital in Goldsboro, N.C. and Vice President of UE local 150. “It is
like a binding contract without collective bargaining.”
UE150 is also fighting for the passage of a Municipal Workers’ Bill of
Rights for city workers across the state. This most recently has helped tie
together Charlotte city workers that have struggled for union recognition for
the past six years and have been leading a weekly picket, the last four weeks,
in the buildup to the DNC.
The United Campus Workers-CWA have also recently followed suit and created a
Campus Workers’ Bill of Rights that has helped them to establish a
political fightback program for their members, even without a union
Workers vowed to meet again at the Southern Human Rights Organizing
Conference at the ILA union hall in Charleston, S.C. on Dec. 7-9 to continue to
develop the Southern Labor Alliance. Additionally, workers have vowed to
publish a quarterly newsletter to help report on campaigns and struggles of
Southern workers to help develop consciousness and tie struggles together. To
learn more, visit http://southernworker.org
These states were represented at the Assembly: Tennessee, Virginia, North
Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and West
The writer is a UE150 organizer and facilitator of the
Southern Workers in the Private Sector panel.
photos by Bryan G. Pfeifer and Monica Moorehead