Monday, May 3, 2010

UNITE-HERE in the South, and a visit from a veteran of the textile wars

Here are a couple of related stories of recent visits by a national labor leader and an old vet of the textile campaigns in the Carolinas and deeper South:


"The South is where we've got to go," said John Wilhelm, president of UNITE HERE (the union for hospitality, gaming, food service, textile, and other workers here and in Canada), during lunch in Memphis last Friday after speaking to the regional meeting of the NAACP in nearby Tunica, Miss.

A handful of us met Wilhelm at La Teranga, a West African restaurant in a south Memphis neighborhood of immigrant workers from Mauritania and Senegal.

Wilhelm and labor organizer Scott Cooper talked about recent successes organizing casino workers in Tunica, one of the nation's leading centers for casino gambling, and the union's overall effort to reach out to immigrant workers, whether they're from Africa or Latin America or Asia. "That's where we started," Wilhelm said, referring to the huge role immigrants played in the beginning of the U.S. labor movement.

The history of UNITE HERE resonates in the South, where the union and its antecedents fought the good fight to organize the textile industry, succeeding with J.P. Stevens, Pillowtex, and others only to see the industry pack its bags and move to Mexico and China, where the workers will work even cheaper than in the South.

In its campaign with casino workers in the Deep South, the union hammered out agreements with owners in Las Vegas that allowed the card check elections in Mississippi, the fourth largest casino center in the nation, that have led to successful organizing campaigns in Tunica and on the Gulf Coast.

After joining the breakaway Change to Win coalition several years ago, UNITE HERE has now rejoined the AFL-CIO. Meanwhile, Change to Win and SEIU (Service Employees International Union) leader Andy Stern has stepped down from his old posts, with much conjecture as to his future, and Wilhelm's former partner and later rival at UNITE HERE, Bruce Raynor (a major figure in the Southern textile organizing campaigns) is facing questions regarding his handling of union finances.

The Public Review Board of UNITE HERE, an independent, court-appointed panel created in 1995 to serve as a watchdog over union finances, has called for a federal probe of Raynor and the alleged transfer of millions in union funds to Raynor-friendly locals within the union.

Despite all the internal politics within the labor movement these days, expect to see more UNITE HERE activity in the South.


I taught a course in labor, the press, and the South during the just-ended semester here at Ole Miss, and my students were fortunate to get a visit last week from Danny Forsyth, a veteran of the labor and civil rights struggles who worked as an organizer for textile workers in North Carolina and Mississippi in the 1960s, '70s, and beyond. He now lives on a farm near Water Valley, Miss., but he has tons of war stories to tell and plenty of insight into labor's struggles today.

"It's a calling," Forsyth said about labor organizing. "It's hard work. You've got to work door-to-door. You can't waste time sitting in your hotel room over beers and talking about it. You've got to get out and do it."

When an organizer wins a good contract for workers and sees on their faces what that's going to mean in their lives, "you know it's worth it," Forsyth said. "You know it's a calling."

Forsyth worked for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union of America (ACTWU), which was later reconfigured into UNITE (the Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees). He helped organize the textile workers in Kannapolis, N.C., in the late 1990s after a years-long up-and-down effort against intransigent owners, one of the greatest union victories in the history of the South. Years earlier, in the 1960s, Forsyth's activities organizing black workers in the Mississippi Delta brought down the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan.

He recalled being in the Delta town of Cleveland with an agent from the National Labor Relations Board in the mid-1960s. “The agent said, `Have you looked outside the window?’ I looked and saw four Klansmen sitting a car, fully clothed and everything. When the final witness was finished, the agent asked me if I had protection. He gave me a pistol, and we left. They came in behind us. We ran a hundred miles an hour across the cotton fields … then took the long way back. When you organize you know all the backroads. There’s not a county road in Mississippi I don’t know. We cut through the back trail and ran into them, and I said, `Here we go again.’ These were all gravel roads. I was very concerned. We created such a smokescreen of dust. We both bailed in a cotton field and let the car run on out in the field. They got out within 1,000 yards behind us. They had flashlights out and started shooting out across the field. I was laying on my belly in that cold field. They finally gave up. I didn’t know how we’d done it. We finally got out of there. I didn’t sleep any that night.”

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