December 8, 2023
I joined the labor movement 45 years ago, and ever since I have been witness to hundreds of speeches, pleas, demands and shouts that “The labor movement must organize the South!” The entire U.S. left wing, the progressives in the unions, our allied media, and without exception the academic left all make repetition of this demand a veritable obligation required of leftists. You are expected to say it, want it, daydream of it, tell others to do it, the works. But there is no requirement that you actually have to try to do it. A high percentage of those playing this political game seem to start their speech with some reference to their grandfather having been a union member someplace – but not them. These folks are not going to organize anything.
Only a rare few ever try to seriously conduct union organizing in the South, and they should be commended and celebrated. But for those who do take a crack at it, obscurity awaits. Even if there is a measure of success “Organize the South!” remains just a slogan, a hollowed-out slogan at that. The left becomes infatuated here and there with union organizing in the South as part of this exercise. But it rarely lasts. Let’s instead consider some facts and identify some of the real sources of the crisis.
THE U.S. SOUTH
As defined by the U.S. federal government, the United States “South” includes the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. That’s almost one-third all states in the entire country. The highest levels of job growth have been in this region for decades, with many of the employers arriving after fleeing unionized states in the North and West. European and Asian companies increasingly locate in these states, attracted to abysmally low wages and of course the lack of any union organizing threat. Union membership density in these states is led by the state of Maryland at 11.6%. It’s all downhill from there, until you reach the absolute abyss in South Carolina where it is 1.7%. Astonishing, so read that again: only 1.7% of the entire workforce in the fast-growing state of South Carolina belongs to a union.
All the jumping up and yelling about “Organize the South!” has had more than 77 years to have some effect. The CIO’s much ballyhooed “Operation Dixie” halfheartedly took on the task in 1946. Not surprisingly, the results were few. Today, in 2023, it’s time to sober up; despite all this rhetoric and posturing the fact is that union organizing in the South may today be at its lowest ebb in the entire history of our labor movement!
There are of course occasional drives and union elections in the South, and some do succeed. A few are even big enough to catch corporate media attention, as was the case with the big Amazon union election in Bessemer, Alabama, several years ago. Bessemer: No Organizing Effort Is Ever Wasted – MLToday But overall, the number of NLRB union elections and the number of workers participating in them continues to fall year upon year as NLRB statistics show. And in the public sector, all forward progress has ceased towards legalizing public sector unions in the many Southern states banning basic unions rights for their state and local workers. The one Southern state that did provide some official union organizing structure for the public sector via state legislation – Florida – is now systematically dismantling that apparatus and decertifying the existing unions by the score.
UNION ORGANIZING IN THE SOUTH TODAY
There are a number of ways to measure union “organizing” in the South today. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections are conducted by the federal government in private sector workplaces but only where a union has first battled its way forward to get that election. Always in the face of furious and illegal employer resistance. Despite the lack of public sector legal machinery at the state and local level many tens of thousands of these workers are in unofficial and as yet unrecognized unions, seeking any immediate gain that can be made and defending themselves from attacks as best they are able. Federal government employees can organize – and sometimes do – in the array of federal agencies scattered across the region. Unorganized railroad and airline workers who work in the South periodically move to organize using the Railway Labor Act/National Mediation Board machinery.
Airline worker organizing campaigns can be very large, even in the South. Currently three unions: Teamsters (IBT). Machinists (IAM), and Flight Attendants (AFA) are making a push to organize the gigantic Delta Airways with big Southern operations. More than 50,000 workers may organize with a huge slice of those workers based in the South. This will be a tough and multi-year project, and should it succeed it is likely more Southern workers will be organized in one swoop than in the entirety of recent decades.
NLRB ELECTION CRISIS IN THE SOUTH
NLRB elections would be one of the most significant measures of Southern union organizing levels, and the simplest for observers to track. Covering all private sector workers trying to unionize and getting far enough to win an election, the NLRB process enables you to track day by day the success or failure of unions across the country. Southern union elections can be easily identified by state. See: Recent Election Results | National Labor Relations Board (nlrb.gov)
Don’t worry if you are strapped for time. If you venture a look at the ongoing NLRB elections in the South today you won’t have to spend very much time on it. For instance, during the last week of November in the entire U.S. South, there was exactly one NLRB election. The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) was the winner, managing to organize 48 bus operators and other transit staff who work for the bitterly anti-union French multinational Transdev company in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Not every stretch of time is this dismal, and sometimes the record- keeping of the NLRB is imperfect and an election is omitted for some reason from the list. A union here and there also manages to win voluntary recognition from an employer. The week before, from November 17 until 25, the situation was a little better, as reported by The Valley Labor Report; The Valley Labor Report (tvlr.fm) A number of elections were won and several were lost, but overall the total number of workers participating in the entire U.S. Southwas at best a few hundred. A few hundred workers with the chance to vote for a union in the most populous region in the country with a total of 115 million residents! There are good weeks and bad, but the trend over the decades has been for fewer and fewer elections in smaller and smaller workplaces. It is becoming more and more rare for a union to even lose an election in the South because there are so few happening at all!
There is no way around this. We face the catastrophe of a virtual lack of union organizing in the South. The employers run riot and routinely crush union drives, yes. But that is nothing new. The more basic problem here today is that organized labor – the unions – have largely withdrawn from the battlefield. They have abandoned, with only a few exceptions, any pretense of even trying to organize in the Southern states.
I began my trade union career in the State of Florida, in west Florida, the deep South, as a rank-and-file organizer in 1979. There was no greater challenge in that Southern state than for the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) to organize in Florida shortly after the passage of the law legalizing state and local unions. As a transit craft union we were forced to organize thousands of non-transit public employees – in addition to the transit workers – a situation forced on the union by the imperfect state legislation. But legislation that at least enabled official union organizing and recognition.
As a young worker and volunteer organizer in those drives I had no idea how possible – or impossible – union organizing would be. Our small ATU local outpost and some dedicated International Union leaders at that time pushed forward and organized on a big scale. Four elections were run, and won, totaling more than 4,500 workers in just several years. Our herculean efforts re-established ATU in Florida after it had been shattered in the 1960s, when private transit companies fled and stripped ATU members of their legal union framework.
Nothing we did was pretty, or high tech. We used index cards to keep track of the huge number of workers, ran hand crank printers to produce thousands of primitive union flyers, went to the gates before dawn, called every number we had ten times, searched the neighborhoods and bars to find the workers, and ran union meetings too numerous to count. What we lacked in sophistication we made up for in enthusiasm. We had the union organizing spirit, we had a righteous mission. We were organizing the unorganized!
I left ATU after five years to return to the North with my wife. I returned to ATU in 2013, after a gap of almost 30 years, returning as the International Union Organizing Director, responsible for among other things all new ATU union organizing in the U.S. and Canada. With only a skeleton crew, and over 7 years, more than 150 new transit units were successfully organized. And half of those wins were in the states designated as “the South.” More than 40 units alone were organized and won in or around the greater Washington, DC area, all falling in the Southern geography. A total of 16 new transit units were won in Virginia alone, with another concentration being found in Texas with 10 new units being organized into ATU during that span of years. Since my retirement from ATU in 2022 their success in the South continues, as the recent Baton Rouge win attests. At this point almost 4,500 workers have been organized by ATU in “the South.”
ORGANIZING, NOT SLOGANS
I do not recall a single instance when we heard – or said – “Organize the South!” We approached our organizing on a go-where-the-action-is basis. With only a few leftists scattered in ATU it was unlikely that we would have heard that cry anyway. We went North to revive organizing in Canada after a break of more than12 years, adding 10 new units to ATU’s ranks. We went to the West, the Northeast, the Midwest, wherever we could generate organizing activity. And over and over, and over again we were drawn to the South. We ran as many elections as we could sustain. We went back to units where we had previously failed, or where interest had been crushed, or petered out.
As with many industries in the South, African-American workers were there in large numbers, sometimes majorities. These workers readily talked to the union, and frequently had the courage to do their part in the face of the constant employer pushback. Together we did the work that allowed these workers to vote, to actually organize. We didn’t over-think it, stall, wait for perfect conditions. We went forward wherever we could. Never did we wait for enough of the resources that we thought we needed. We were not afraid to lose. In fact, our lost elections and fizzled campaigns are a roadmap today for the union to return – sooner or later.
CONFRONTING LABOR’S LETHARGY
No matter how you slice it, if a little known craft union like ATU can experience this degree of organizing success in the South, with a bare handful of organizers on hand, only a few local unions geared to organize, and with the ATU leadership at best only sporadically interested in new organizing, then there can be no doubt that other unions could follow and perhaps repeat some of this example – and repeat it in the South! The bogus and defeatist notion that “You can’t organize in the South” was proven false over and over.
This example by ATU would be best considered by the labor movement as a whole, but it remains unknown. Even ATU itself is unable to recognize this remarkable progress. The AFL-CIO is well-aware of the ATU success in the South, but so paralyzed and inert is the current federation that the example has no meaning, will not be examined, or learned from – let alone imitated. Few of the folks shouting from the housetops “Organize the South!” apparently bother to spend any time studying the real situation on the ground.
Are other unions experiencing similar success? For starters, the fact that more than 75 Starbucks stores have organized in the South should be a wake-up call. The Workers United union and its Starbucks Workers United Starbucks Workers United (sbworkersunited.org) movement are creating a true organizing miracle that continues two years after its launch by a mere handful of young socialists. When was the last time that a chain company in the South faced this scale of union organizing? Both Workers United and ATU would find themselves out of the limelight as unions, proving that large scale organizing can be initiated even by unlikely unions. These workers and unions are in motion, demanding and winning elections, and are not frozen by sloganeering or defeatism. They want to organize, Now!
WILLIAM Z. FOSTER ON ORGANIZING
Legendary union organizer and strategist William Z. Foster confronted this problem over and over again during his decades-long labor organizing career. In his collected works, American Trade Unionism, International Publishers (intpubnyc.com) Foster exposes and denounces the repeated failure of the predominant business union leadership to seriously address the organizing crisis. His formula for the problem was simple. The union leadership had to be pushed into action one way or the other.
Were Foster alive today I am sure he would be proud of the ATU and Workers United examples, as they have been accomplished against-all-odds and in unions largely unknown at large. Foster would applaud the progress so far, but he would quickly remind us of the need to immediately address the bigger organizing questions. How do the unions build the real capacity and stimulate their leadership to launch massive new organizing campaigns? And do it NOW! How can the union leadership at all levels be pushed to embrace organizing as the primary mission of labor, and not just an annoying side project? How can the unions be compelled to redirect huge amounts of resources – currently stuffed into investments or squandered on obscene salaries and perks for top leadership – into new organizing.
Foster would implore the left elements to take the debate over this crisis of new organizing into the unions, raising it in every way imaginable. The rank-and-file naturally embrace the need to organize on a wide scale when even rudimentary education is carried out to point out its necessity and benefits. Militants must ask these difficult questions and continue to push and challenge the otherwise moribund and sometimes corrupt union leadership standing in the way of any progress on this basic task. William Z. Foster referred to the crisis of new union organizing as “A life and death question for the labor movement.” That remains the case today to an even greater degree.
NEW ROLE FOR THE LEFT REQUIRED
The broad left is generally the only force even occasionally raising the crisis of union organizing in the South today – or anywhere for that matter. And it’s time for that left to learn some lessons; sloganeering about the need to “organize the South!” and related feelgood gamesmanship must end, and the difficult work of coaxing – and forcing if necessary – the unions to take real action is the order of the day. It also must be re-learned that trade union “agitation” is not the same as “organizing”, as one leads to a momentary activation of some supporters while the other leads to actual trade union membership, winning of real gains, and possible strengthening of the unions. The myriad of academic theories of union organizing – some quite sound, but just as many so much absurdity – must be subordinated to an ethic of actual organizing and not just talking about organizing. Elections must be run, not just by the dozens, but eventually by the hundreds and thousands.
Workers by the thousands – and eventually tens or even hundreds of thousands – must be set into motion even in campaigns facing a steep climb. The deadly “fear of failure” virus must be confronted at every turn. Swift and real campaigns of union organization can and must be initiated, and the menace of endless “labor social work” must be redirected to support this goal. Capable organizers must be trained, deployed, and supported, with an emphasis on bringing forward rank-and-file members. The early work of the new auto union (UAW) Autoworkers Stand Up! | UAW leadership in expanding dramatically the new union organizing of tens of thousands of unorganized auto workers is a step in the right direction. With enormous numbers of those workers located in the South, the UAW today is leading the way in tackling this crisis.
Workers across the U.S. can be organized, and organized in substantial numbers, even against today’s steep odds. Even in the South. But it will not materialize absent left trade union forces making it happen both in the workplaces and in the unions themselves. Don’t tell me to “Organize the South!” Talk to me instead about what needs to be done so we can begin to do that. Let’s discuss how it is we are going to win over some of the labor leaders that can be won over, and how we are going to compel sleeping labor leadership to seriously take on new and big campaigns of new organization. It’s time for them to lead or be shoved out of the way.
-Chris Townsend is a 44-year union member and leader. He was most recently the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) International Union Organizing Director. Previously he was an International Representative and Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE), and he has held local positions in both the SEIU and UFCW. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org