New services union seeks to inspire labor movement in the South

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COLUMBIA, SC (AP) — More than 100 service industry workers gathered Friday in the capital of South Carolina, the state with the lowest unionization rate in the nation, to launch a new union and attempt in turn to stimulate unionization in the South.

The Union of Southern Service Workers hopes to find solutions to what it sees as a common set of grievances in a region historically hostile to unions. Its members cover a wide swath of the service industry, working in places like fast food chains, retail stores, warehouses and nursing homes.

“We’re all service workers, no matter what industry you’re from,” said Eshawney Gaston, a Captain D’s employee in Durham, North Carolina, who helped plan the union’s launch in Colombia. . “We have to defend each other.”

Gaston, a 25-year-old mother, said she faced the same issues in several service sector jobs, including wage theft, poor personal protective equipment and unsafe heat, among others. The problem is bigger than any business and requires a more widespread effort, she said.

Friday’s launch comes amid the highest US approval for unions recorded by a Gallup poll since 1965 and at the end of a bustling week of union activity.

Tens of thousands of college workers across the University of California system walked off the job Monday, demanding better wages and benefits. Starbucks workers seeking better pay and increased staff went on strike Thursday in over 100 US stores.

USSW organizers seek to complement rather than compete with existing movements like Starbucks Workers United. The group will join the nearly 2 million members of the Service Employees International Union, and its demands include better pay, fair grievance processes, safe workplaces, health care benefits and consistent hours.

A large group of union organizers attended the launch. Local groups, including the AFL-CIO of South Carolina, lent their support. Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, was on hand. And the California activists who fought for the state’s national measure Giving more power and protections to fast food workers rallied the crowd.

But the political and legal structure of the South has long hampered such organization. Many states passed laws in the mid-20th century prohibiting employment contracts that require workers to pay dues or fees to the union that represents them. This business-friendly reputation has helped southern politicians woo big employers and create jobs.

The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, which represents business interests and has opposed a $15 minimum wage, declined to comment when asked to comment on the union’s launch.

South Carolina had a union density rate of 1.7% in 2021, compared to 10.3% nationally, according to statistics from the United States Bureau of Labor.

Henry said the environment has also made the South home to the lowest wages and weakest protections in the United States. This new effort, Henry said, focuses on building power to deal with laws that limit the bargaining abilities of workers in the South.

Highlighting the work of the union is a decade of organizing by groups like Raise Up the South, the southern branch of the national fight for $15 and a union, which was started in 2012 by American fast food workers demanding a higher minimum wage.

“A multiracial, cross-industry movement committed to fighting for decent wages, fair working conditions and a voice at work has emerged from all the work happening in separate cities,” Henry said. “But now the workers want to unite across the city, across the industry.”

According to Jeff Hirsch, a professor of labor law at the University of North Carolina, the region’s low union density could make it harder to grow the effort in the South, compared to areas where people are more familiar with the job. organized.

Some workers described family members who mistakenly believed that Southern states had made union organizing illegal. While the region is more “repressive,” according to activist Brandon Beachum, an employee of Panera in Atlanta, he said, workers in the South have “much more of a fighting spirit.”

Other trends could work in favor of the union. Hirsch said the nationwide labor shortage has given workers leverage and employers may be less inclined to retaliate by firing union members. While general collective action theory suggests that it’s harder to organize units the larger they grow, Hirsch said, a large and diverse group among employers would be “quite powerful.”

“Widespread unionization in the South was for some time the holy grail of the labor movement,” Hirsch said. “I will remain skeptical just because of the story. But if they were able to make inroads, that would be a big, big deal.

The focus on the region comes from a desire to confront anti-union attitudes that organizers say are rooted in Jim Crow heritage. While previous efforts to achieve widespread unionization across the South have failed, supporters are encouraged by past multiracial labor movements.

One was a 1946 effort in North Carolina to organize tobacco workers that succeeded with help from black churches, said Dorian Warren, co-chair of the Center for Community Change, which hopes to build support for the USSW. among community organizations and churches.

And organizers pointed to the 1969 Charleston strikes in which African-American women won wage increases and a more transparent hiring system but failed to win union recognition.

“There’s actually a deep indigenous heritage in the South of organizing in a multiracial way to overcome anti-union and anti-black sentiment in particular,” Warren said. “I find this effort exciting because these workers and the organizers know this history, and they are rooted in this history.”

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James Pollard is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.

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