Could This Be Labor’s “Southern Strategy”?

Not counting all the other bad things that have happened (e.g., Wisconsin public workers being denied collective bargaining, Michigan becoming a right-to-work state, Obama’s NLRB appointees hanging in limbo, the Democrats’ betrayal of EFCA legislation, etc.), two fairly recent AFL-CIO endeavors have failed spectacularly: (1) Organizing Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., and (2) gaining a significant foothold in the Deep South.

As for attempting to penetrate Wal-Mart, the House of Labor deserves credit. Even though they failed to organize even one of the company’s nearly 4,000 U.S. stores (with 1.3 million employees), they should be applauded for having taken on what they knew would be an horrendously difficult task. Besides the tens of thousands of man-hours dedicated to the organizing drive, the AFL-CIO was rumored to have spent a whopping $40 million on the effort.

Consider the challenge they faced. In order to get a majority of hourly Wal-Marters to vote to join the union, the AFL-CIO had to suppress two formidable employee fears: The fear of being fired if the company got wind they were interested in joining up, and the fear of being absorbed by a group of corrupt, money-grubbing Communist thugs, which is more or less how Wal-Mart’s propaganda machine portrays labor unions.

Which brings us to the American South. With all the Rust Belt and foreign industry relocating to the South (there are approximately forty automobile plants—including parts and assembly facilities—already in Dixie), it made absolute sense for unions to make a serious run at them. But even though, historically, unions and industry have gone together like bacon and eggs, organized labor has had little success in getting workers in the Deep South to join up.

You hear lots of reasons for it. Some say it’s old-fashioned Red State politics. Others say it’s the “Wal-Mart syndrome,” a case of working folks simply falling for the loathsome propaganda. Others say it goes all the way back to the Civil War, where you had the Union vs. the Confederacy, and that the word “union” still has a decidedly negative connotation.

Accordingly, when you approach someone and ask if they’d like to “join the union,” you are, in a sense, asking them to commit treason….asking them, symbolically, to join General Sherman in his march through Georgia. That may be a dumb theory, but I’ve heard dumber. In any event, you have working people down there who’d rather walk around with four teeth in their mouth than belong to a union dental plan.

Southern workers may be stubbornly proud and hard-headed, but they’re not stupid. If you could somehow demonstrate to them that unions provide undeniable on-the-job benefits and advantages, they would not only jump on board instantly, they would become some of the staunchest union supporters imaginable. So that’s what labor unions need to do: Demonstrate their good side.

Twenty years ago, the labor writer Tom Geoghegan suggested that organized labor move their headquarters from Washington D.C. and relocate to the South, set up shop in cities like Atlanta, Memphis, and Montgomery. You hire local people to work in your offices, give them union pay and union medical benefits, and let word-of-mouth do the rest. Think of the Teamsters relocating to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. What a public relations coup that would be!

Inspired by Geoghegan’s idea, here are some other things unions could do to gain a foothold in the South. One thing the AFL-CIO has plenty of is money; they can afford it.

Go to every high school that’s in need of new football uniforms, and offer to pay for them. Do the same with band uniforms and instruments. Offer to donate money to buy new school office equipment. Make sure they know who’s supplying the cash. Make sure they know it’s the Teamsters or the Longshoremen (ILWU) or the Carpenters.

Go to as many rural high schools as possible and set up scholarships in the name of the union. They don’t have to be thousands of dollars each; they can be a few hundred dollars. But offer as many as possible, because every scholarship, no matter what its value, is going to make the recipient feel terrific. The USW (Steelworkers) could set up something like the “High School Steel Boy or Steel Girl of the Year.”

Sponsor Labor Day picnics and barbeques. Pay for all the food and beverages. Pay for entertainment and things for the kids to do. Do the same on the Fourth of July. Make your union’s presence known by showing the community your good side. Undoubtedly, some will see this as trying to “buy” their goodwill. Fine, let them think that. But keep doing it. You have a great deal to offer. Pretty soon they’ll come around.

Finally, hire a big-name professional driver and sponsor a NASCAR entry. Call the car the “Proletariat Special” (I’m joking). But I’m serious about getting involved with NASCAR. It can be done. It’s all about high visibility and altering long-standing perceptions. Without that—without changing perceptions—unions have no chance whatever of making headway in the South.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.