Sunday, January 24, 2016

Labor South Roundup: On the UAW in Canton, Miss., sooner or later you got to vote; At the vanguard of the "Fight for $15" in the Deep South

Expect some historical labor battles ahead in 2016 as the nation watches with fascination the Republican presidential campaign circus, and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders wrestle for the Democratic nomination.

Sooner or later you got to vote

Here in the South keep an eye on Canton, Miss., where the United Auto Workers is slowly, methodically moving toward a major showdown after waging a decade-plus-long grassroots effort that has contained elements both of a modern-era corporate campaign and old-fashioned union organizing.

I’ve said this before, and I’ve been wrong, but I have a feeling things are coming to a head in Canton. The UAW doesn’t want to lose another major vote like it did with Nissan in Smyrna, Tennessee, and with Volkswagen in Chattanooga. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn helped scuttle the vote in Smyrna in 2001 with his day-before-the-election threats to workers, and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, both Republicans, did much the same in Chattanooga in 2014.

That’s why the UAW has proceeded slowly, making the campaign one that is truly local and grassroots, not one of an outside union riding into town. Attendance at local meetings has grown from a dozen or two in 2005 to hundreds strong today. Proclaiming that “Labor Rights Are Civil Rights”, the campaign has tapped into a still-resilient and passionate civil rights community in Mississippi, including ministers from a wide range of denominations and students from several (historically black) universities. The UAW also recognizes the modern-day reality that major labor campaigns have to be global—just like corporations—and it has brought activists, students and workers in from as far away as Brazil to show international solidarity.

The UAW got a big boost in December with the skilled trades workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga voting to join the union. However, even at a plant where the company insists it is neutral toward a union, workers have complained of a pervasive fear there that their pro-union sympathies could eventually cost them their jobs.

Organizing in the South is not for the faint-hearted, and it probably never will be. Still, as one veteran labor organizer told me some time back, sooner or later you have to put it to a vote. I believe it’s going to be sooner rather than later in Canton.

Fighting for Fifteen in the South

“The love for the union, and the unity, that’s what drives me,” Shawnte Poynter told The Guild Reporter for its Winter edition.

The Little Rock, Ark.-based NewsGuild-Communication Workers of America (CWA) member and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) employee is an organizer for the “Fight for $15” movement in the Deep South. She’s one of more than a dozen organizers in the United Media Guild active in a region that stretches from St. Louis, Mo., to Nashville, Tenn, to New Orleans, La.

A former plastics factory worker, Poynter told The Guild Reporter that she has found 40 to 50 activists to help her serve as the vanguard of the regional effort to get fast-food workers and other low-wage workers a $15-an-hour wage.

Poynter said the movement has spread to include home health care workers and others on the low end of the nation’s service economy today.

“The people I meet, oh my goodness, so many circumstances that have gotten them where they are,” she told the publication. “They are not lazy, they’ve had bad luck. I really care about helping them have a better life.”

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