Seated around a table in the dimly lit auditorium of Atlanta-based non-profit Project South last weekend, two dozen union activists of all ages and races were trying to solve a problem – one that has vexed the southern states for a generation.
Longshoremen from South Carolina, nurses from Florida, campus workers from Tennessee, public workers employees from North Carolina, and fast food workers had gathered to discuss one issue: how could these members of the Southern Workers Assembly help a fellow union attempt to unionize a company scattered at dozens of locations across the south? It’s a growing problem for unions, and one their opponents are determined to make sure doesn’t get any easier.
As the US economy – and particularly manufacturing – continues to expand in the south with the relocation of the auto industry, unions see big opportunities to recruit workers into the labor movement. However, they find themselves stymied by anti-union intimidation campaigns backed by big money that often include firing, intimidation and threats of plant closures if workers unionize.
With that in mind, the first question posed to the group was one that union organizers across the south find themselves asking: how would they identify workers interested in getting to join a union at a particular company, and make them comfortable enough to get involved in union organizing?
Many workers in the room suggest that they print union flyers and handbill the plant to gather contact information of sympathetic workers. However, some in the group worried that by targeting the company directly, they could scare potential supporters away. Then, a 20-year-old fast food worker named Sha Drummond raised his hand.
Drummond is new to the labor movement. A little more than a year ago, he was inspired to get involved in the Fight for $15 campaign to raise hourly wages for fast food workers after he saw some union organizers kicked out of a fast food restaurant where he worked in Richmond, Virginia. He has already helped organize several strikes and learned a tremendous amount about organizing through taking action.
“We typically throw an event or house party and invite everyone,” said Drummond. “We just don’t invite people who work there, but we invite everyone in the community so that people know they have a lot of support. They know that people have their back.”
Donald Quick, a longtime veteran of the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union UE Local 150, quickly suggested that perhaps they could use social media to identify workers to invite to the event. While Drummond and Quick are separated by many years, they have one thing in common: they are both part of unions that lack traditional collective bargaining rights, and they are willing to think outside of the box about how to organize in the south.