The election of Donald Trump has led to a lot of soul-searching on the left. In particular, the narrative since the election has focused on Trump’s appeal to working people, and whether this reflects an inherent racism among the so-called “white working class” or a failure of liberals and the left to speak to their economic concerns.
While the divide between “red” and “blue” states is often overstated (just ask the Republican governors of Massachusetts and Illinois), the Deep South has always lagged behind in union organizing. The failure of the CIO’s “Operation Dixie” in the late 1940s and concerted campaigns to divide black workers from white workers in law and on the shop floor left southern workers with fewer rights, lower wages, and, without unions to press their case, with less political representation. Yet there have always been exceptions, unions and organizations that have fought against great odds to build power for workers in the South, and with the accession of Trump, they can offer us advice for how to move forward when workers’ rights are under attack and racism being fomented from the highest levels of government. Dissent’s Sarah Jaffe spoke with three labor organizers from the South about their experiences and what can be learned from their successes.
Sarah Jaffe: To begin with, can you give a short introduction to who you are and the work you do, and answer the question: what’s the number one lesson from your work for organizing under Trump?
Juan Miranda: I am twenty-seven years old. I am originally from Ecuador but I have lived in the United States since 2000. I am a labor and community organizer in Greensboro, North Carolina. I have organized with the Fight for $15 for over three years now. I started with the fast-food campaign and I am now organizing home healthcare workers. I am a co-chair of the Central Carolina Worker Justice Center and I also help support various movements directly connected to the struggles of workers—from immigrant justice, to LGBTQ rights, to transparency and accountability in local law enforcement.
Organizing in the state with the lowest or second-lowest union density in the country and where an extreme right wing has been in power since 2013 has provided me with a more or less smooth transition into the Trump era. One thing that I have learned is the importance of injecting a politics of solidarity into our organizing. By this I mean helping activate people around their personal concerns while challenging them to see common material interests with others, even those who they have traditionally been pitted against.
I think that for too long, we have settled for organizing different groups of people separately to avoid friction, approaching each group’s needs as if they were not connected to those of others. So we have avoided topics such as reproductive justice, immigration, and police brutality as they can be divisive. But this often means that some groups are alienated or excluded altogether. On the other hand, those in power are unified and have gotten really good at keeping the labor movement atomized and on the defensive.
In North Carolina we have seen attempts to bring together these struggles by the Moral Monday movement and most recently the fight against the notorious “bathroom bill,” both of which have had significant success in mobilizing liberal segments of the population under a common banner. However, we still have a ways to go in building a movement capable of winning over large numbers of people who currently sit to our right.
Sandra Williams: I am an international representative for the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. The Southeast Council represents members in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida. I work with members on labor issues, voter education, the political process, and other topics that impact working people. We are very involved in immigration reform and assist our members in obtaining citizenship wherever possible.
The number one lesson that I’ve learned from my work under the Trump administration is that people are very anxious and frightened about their future. I believe that organizing in the South is particularly difficult. The phrase “right to work” is bandied about as if it is intended to provide opportunities to everyone, but in fact such legislation empowers corporations while stripping away the rights of working people. I work in a part of the country where some people believe it is illegal to belong to a union. Our biggest challenge is educating people on the benefits of union membership and helping them to realize that through solidarity, we can bring about change.
Eric Robertson: I’m a business agent and political director at Teamsters Local 728 and I am a vice president of the Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council. I coordinate political action at the local and represent workers in the sanitation and document storage and disposal industries as well as industrial laundries. I also negotiate contracts and help coordinate member education, mobilization, and communications for the local. Local 728 represents UPS Teamsters throughout the state of Georgia, along with freight, the movie industry, sanitation, school and transit bus drivers, and a number of smaller groups in Metro Atlanta and Savannah. I have worked at Local 728 for twelve years. When I first started working here, we had 5,700 members. Through aggressive internal and external organizing we have grown to about 8,800 members today.
The number one lesson I have learned from organizing under Trump is that the crisis of labor is deeper than anyone really acknowledges. In addition to the problem of organizing to turn around our decline, and the numerous attacks on organized labor over the last seven years in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana, labor’s inability to respond effectively to Trump’s election is an ominous sign of weakness.
But, the second lesson I learned is that organizing post-Bernie and post-Occupy has revealed a more fertile ground for a class-based politics than at any other time in my life. Working people, youth, women, and people of color are now open to left, populist, and social-democratic ideas on an unprecedented level and are mobilizing and finding ways to fight back despite most of labor sitting on the sidelines. The old adage of crisis and opportunity coexisting together is profoundly true today, and what we do in this moment matters a great deal.
Jaffe: The South operates under very unfriendly labor laws and under Trump, the NLRB is likely to be equally unfriendly to workers—we may even see a national right-to-work law. What’s something you’ve learned about organizing outside of the typical NLRB process that would be helpful for organizers across the country under Trump?
Robertson: At Local 728 we have organized public-sector workers in Georgia, who do not have collective bargaining rights. There are also other unions who have done this in Georgia and other states in the South with similar anti–collective bargaining laws. This type of organizing really forces unions to go “back to basics” in terms of organizing and representation. Since striking in the public sector is illegal in Georgia, workers that want to organize have to actually change the laws at the local, county, or state level to achieve even basic rights like dues deduction. And even when you win, your options for recourse in disputes is much more limited and “bargaining” for raises and improvements is actually “lobbying,” whether that takes place in private, at public meetings, or in the streets.
For many unions these campaigns are multi-year projects, so many develop alternate ways of collecting dues and have to organize in often very hostile environments with no legal protection until they are officially recognized, and even then you aren’t guaranteed protection from retaliation. What I learned from this is that workers in every circumstance want to organize, and it is our job to get outside our comfort zone and help them become part of a movement. This doesn’t just apply to public workers, but also misclassified workers and others in the gig economy with jobs that are very different from the American workplaces traditionally organized through the NLRB process. The chief barrier to all of this is employer resistance, typically facilitated by local and state governments, and the courts.
I’m often asked how our local organizes and grows in a right-to-work state. My response is always, “In no world does being union under right-to-work not suck. But there are a number of pretty basic things you can do to make it suck a lot less.” By that I mean there isn’t any magic to surviving and thriving under right-to-work. Obviously you have to put a lot more effort into internally organizing, but also it forces you to connect with your members on a fundamental level. When you see which unions bleed members when a state goes right-to-work, you know why it happened.
Miranda: Perhaps the most important advice for organizing in unfriendly territory is that no one needs to have a contract or to be recognized by the boss to start acting like a union. That is precisely what we have done over the past four years—we have organized workers around the idea that their power does not come from a law or a piece of paper but from their position as workers who do all the labor and therefore create all the wealth for the company. And that, especially in the South, where no rights are going to be handed to us, it is up to workers to come together to get what we want.
The most effective strategies for us have consisted of bold demonstrations of power and public support—from call-ins and walk-ins and rallies with the support of community, labor, and clergy to more militant actions such as store shut downs and one-day strikes. We have been able to fight and win cases of racial discrimination, wage theft, retaliation, and sexual harassment by being able to show bosses that a) workers are not afraid to stand up for themselves and b) there is mass community support behind them.
In one instance, a worker was being taken off the schedule because of his dreadlocks—he was forced to choose between cutting his hair or losing his job. This upset a lot of the workers who were already sensitive to the racial tensions that are common in the fast-food industry. We helped him file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) but we knew it would take months, which he could not afford. So we first organized a call-in followed by a delegation of faith leaders and community supporters to pay a visit to the manager. An hour later, the area director of the restaurant chain, whom the workers had never met, was in the store to offer the job back including back pay for the days of missed work. Not only did we win our demands but other workers who were on the fence saw what happened and were inspired by it. A month later, that entire strip of fast-food restaurants was shut down as workers went on strike.
One of the most powerful attributes of the Fight for $15 campaign has been its ability to join with other social justice movements at the local, state, and national levels. Beyond a strategic move however, this was a necessity in the South for two main reasons. The Fight for $15 organizes with poor and low-income workers who are predominately black and brown and women. It would have been fruitless and plain irresponsible to shy away from working with folks building the movement for immigrant rights, black lives, healthcare. Workers’ struggles don’t end once they clock out. Fighting on multiple fronts—against the “bathroom bill” or supporting Charlotte Uprising after the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott—has been essential for the success of the movement for $15 an hour and a union.
In a more practical sense, because of the shortage of a mass base organization in North Carolina we’ve had to rely on existing coalitions and grassroots networks. There simply isn’t a big local we can call upon to turn out 5,000 members to a rally. So it has been essential for us to work with other organizations such as the NAACP and the Fusion Coalition to build the support we now have across the state. The Fight for $15 has been a very active partner in the Moral Monday movement—dozens of our members participated in acts of civil disobedience at the North Carolina legislature. The influx of young working-class people of color helped show workers how their fight was way bigger than they originally thought.
Jaffe: Likewise, organizing in the South means that labor organizing has to extend beyond the shop floor into the community. Have you been involved in particular campaigns or drives that have successfully mobilized community support?
Robertson: Georgia’s union density is about 4 percent, which makes building relationships and having allies outside of labor a matter of survival, not just a good idea. Looking at who stakeholders are and building alliances with the community are part of our planning process in just about everything we do, from organizing campaigns to legislative fights. It also forces you to be open to potential allies who in other cases you may not consider. The best example I can think of is when we allied with the Georgia Tea Party in 2012 to stop a bill that was designed to attack labor but that also was a threat to basic free speech rights. That alliance helped split right-wing legislators and was essential to defeating that bill.
Williams: Considerable organizing is taking place in the community with organizations such as Jobs With Justice, 9 to 5, the Fight for $15, Change to Win, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and the A. Philip Randolph Institute, just to name a few. All of the groups work with and on behalf of working people and their families.
I have participated in the fight for equal pay and treatment with Nissan workers in Canton, Mississippi, with Change to Win. I have continued the fight for a living wage, immigration reform, and criminal justice reform with a number of community-based organizations.
Jaffe: Trump was elected on a platform that was openly racist but also that made an effort to appeal to some working-class people. The labor movement has had a long struggle around racism within its own ranks, so I’m sure folks would love to hear from the three of you how your organizing tackles this issue and about the divide-and-conquer tactics from bosses and politicians who mobilize racial resentment to break solidarity.
Robertson: As a union of truck drivers in the South, a certain amount of racism has always been present, but it has never been acceptable to openly support it except in the most isolated, overwhelmingly white workplaces. I feel lucky to belong to a local that historically has been willing to insist on human rights and civil rights. In 1958, James R. Hoffa issued a directive to all Teamster locals to support the struggle for civil rights. Weldon Mathis, our local president at that time, announced at the first meeting that the local was going to desegregate the seniority lists at all of the freight companies in Atlanta, Georgia. The legacy of Hoffa’s support for the civil rights movement is something that obviously carries a lot of weight. That being said, racism still persists in our locals on a number of different levels.
I have yet to see a workplace where the bosses don’t seek to divide white and black workers by fostering a sense of elitism among white workers in order to have a reliable group of anti-union employees. The workers who buy into this stuff “don’t need a union” because they are told that only the “bad” (black) workers need a union. I have seen this manifest itself as favoritism toward white workers for “lead” positions all the way to organizations of racist, anti-union workers employing outright terror to suppress support for the union.
Having a union leadership and staff that is forthrightly and visibly anti-racist goes a long way toward challenging racism among the membership and during organizing campaigns, but what we have always seen as the best antidote to racial division is good old-fashioned solidarity. During organizing, we are almost always able to convince a portion of white workers that they are better off sticking with their coworkers to get the changes they need on the job. Where the workers we organize with make that connection, pushing back against racism is more likely. The first action where workers have to get each other’s backs you literally see a transformation happen with white workers, that is, in addition to them understanding their power as workers. Seeing their coworkers as people with the exact same issues as them and working together to overcome those issues has a profound effect on workers. I have yet to see anything else be more effective at undermining racism.
Tackling racism in any southern union means acknowledging the structural nature of racism, not just the bigoted attitudes that are the most obvious. For us this means focusing on developing and promoting black leadership at all levels (my local has very few other people of color) from stewards to staff and officers. Being cognizant of how we are perceived by both our members and the workers we are trying to organize is essential to building the unity we need to win. If workers we are organizing perceive our union as reflecting the racism they experience in their day-to-day lives, they are much less likely to trust our organizers. If the workers in our already-organized shops perceive our stewards and business agents as having more in common with their boss (who is usually white) then that will be an obstacle to effectively working together to enforce their agreements. Taking this approach has risks for our officers who have to get reelected every three years, but it also builds the kind of solidarity we need for the kind of unions we want.
Miranda: The conditions that allowed for Trump to appeal to working-class people through an openly racist platform are the same conditions that are ripe for the rapid growth of solidarity, class consciousness, and mass action. As horrific as it was, Trump was able to inspire and mobilize many distraught and struggling people because he was able to deliver a simple message that spoke to what people wanted and gave them someone to blame. This is exactly what we should be doing, except we know who the real enemies are.
We are already seeing opportunities as many who hoped for Trump to bring desired changes are now learning that he was never really a friend to working people. With the potential for more war, fewer good jobs, and the gutting of the public school and healthcare systems, poor and working people are yet again being pinned down. These attacks present an opportunity to reach people who we have previously ignored.
If we can bring folks together around concrete demands while creating spaces where dialogue and education can take place to help dispel a lot of the myths used to divide and conquer us—we can build the mass movement we need.
Sarah Jaffe is on the editorial board of Dissent, co-host of its Belabored podcast, and the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt (Nation Books, 2016).