In August, 20,000 Communication Workers of America workers from nine southern states walked off the job charging AT&T Southeast with bargaining in bad faith. It was the largest private sector strike in the south in a decade.
Despite spending four days on strike in the blistering North Carolina heat, the picket line this reporter visited in Morrisville, NC, was in high spirits. Some strikers cooked food, others contributed to morale through their playlists, while others supplied water and other refreshments. All brought with them solidarity for their fellow worker.
Only four scabs crossed the line the entire day, leaving managers to do the work of the linemen inefficiently and ineffectively, often having two managers do the work that is typically expected of a single lineman.
Many on the picket line mentioned working long hours well into the night, with one day off at the peak of their summer busy season. It was the long hours, along with a failure of the AT&T to send someone to table with the capacity to bargain, that took these workers off their job and onto picket lines across the Triangle, and the South more broadly. Due to the labor action, AT&T Southeast and the CWA reached a tentative agreement that includes a 5-year contract, a 13.25% increase in wages, and increased job security.
With the strike occurring in the solidly anti-union Southern states of Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, these workers have shown that not only can workers in the south organize, but they can also win. Their victory is a testament to the collective will of these workers and the optimism created by the successful strikes that came before it.
Teacher strikes paved the way
The CWA strike and win comes on the tail of a series of teacher strikes in traditionally right-to-work “red” states in 2018. It was initially ignited by the spark of a teacher walkout in West Virginia, a state where conservative politics dominate the political landscape. This wave of teacher strikes that virtually shut down schools shocked the anti-union establishment, especially in the south. After all, in the 15 states that make up the U.S. south, union membership is half (4.9%) the national figure. Here, more than any other region, courts, politicians and, legislatures have colluded to cripple labor organizing.
Long history of attacks on labor
In the 1930, the federal government major concessions southern capitalists that allowed them continue the super-exploitation of former slaves. At that time a very large proportion of African-American workers in the south were either domestic or agricultural workers. Protective federal labor legislation of the 1930s, such as the Social Security Act requiring employers to contribute to workers’ pensions and unemployment insurance, the National Labor Relations Act making it legal to organize a union, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, establishing a minimum wage and overtime pay were all denied agricultural and domestic workers. This gave an opening for to a direct attack on Black workers by employers.
After a wave of labor militancy in 1945-6, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act. This attempt to apply a break to the successes of a militant labor movement restricts wildcat strikes, mass strikes, and secondary boycotts. It mandates workers give an 80-days’ notice to an employer before beginning a strike. It also states ambiguously that the federal government can intervene to put an end to strikes that “imperil the national health or safety,” which can be used especially against public institutions like schools.
The reactionary ‘open shop’ and ‘right-to-work’
Before Taft-Hartley, workplaces with unions were a “closed shop,” with union membership and paying union dues being mandatory. Taft-Hartley allowed states to enact “right-to-work” laws requiring workplaces with unions to become “open shops” where union membership is optional. Thirteen of the fifteen southern states passed right to work laws.
Right-to-work eliminated the dues paid by non-members working under a union contract, thus limiting the unions ability to grow and take on new members by providing the benefit of that membership at no cost—simultaneously creating the “free rider” problem and shrinking the union coffers that are used to organize.
Political intervention against unions
In the atmosphere created by this anti-worker legislation, politicians have not hesitated to openly used their clout to keep unions out. For example, in 2015, Nikki Haley, then-governor of South Carolina, fought a union drive at a Boeing plant. She even told companies they were not welcome in that state if they brought unions with them.
In May, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee directly interfered in a United Auto Workers union drive At VW in Chattanooga, telling the workers not to vote union.
The last blow to labor was dealt by the U.S. Supreme Court a year ago. The Janus v. AFSCME ruling which overturned 40 years of precedent and ended compulsory union dues for public employees.
But those who thought this would be the deathblow to unions were in for a big surprise. An explosion of successful strikes have defied many of these legal restrictions. Workers, especially in the south, are fighting back against the imposition of capital into every aspect of their life through a newly invigorated labor movement.
Strikes defy reactionary laws
Many of the recent teachers’ strikes, including those in West Virginia and Oklahoma, have been wildcat strikes, or a work stoppage of municipal workers not sanctioned by union leadership– actions prohibited under Taft-Hartley.
West Virginia educators struck over poor pay and declining health benefits. In a state ravaged by economic health crises like the opioid epidemic, the teachers also demanded more and better resources for the children they teach and for their communities. The two week strike, which cited the militant history of coal miners and their unions in that state, won a five percent raise for public school workers, five times what they were offered.
The right of students to a decent education was such a key issue for the West Virginia educators that in February the teachers shut down practically every school again when the West Virginia legislature tried to pass a reactionary bill. This legislation would have with one hand raise their wages, only to have the other jeopardize the longevity of publics schools in the state by expanding funding for charter schools.
This inclusion of the issues faced by their students and their communities lead to overwhelming support from those communities. There was large community participation on teacher’s picket lines. And nationally, 6-out-of-10 people supported the teacher’s right to strike.
The solidarity between teachers and community stayed the hand of the state in enforcing its barrage of anti-union legislation. Inspired by the gains and the winning tactics of the West Virginia, teachers’ protests soon took place in seven more states, including Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina, using the same tactics.
In this reporter’s home state of North Carolina teachers faced even more restrictions. North Carolina made illegal any collective bargaining between labor unions and the state government. Even so, 20,000 members of North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) marched on Raleigh in May 2019. Learning from what worked in West Virginia they sought community support ahead of squaring off against a state that is so openly hostile to unions.
Prior to the walkout, the NCAE held a convention on May Day that determined teacher’s collective demands. These included not only a desire to increase the number of librarians and nurses, but also a pay raise for all school employees, not just educators, and importantly, a call to “expand Medicaid to improve the health of our students and families.”
The power of class-wide solidarity
These educators’ interest in addressing issues outside of the immediate material needs is reflective of the trends within the broader teacher strike movement in both “red” and “blue” states. For instance, United Teachers Los Angeles striking the Los Angeles Unified School District in January demanded not only more money in their wallets, but also smaller class sizes, more nurses, counselors, and librarians, and ending “over-testing of our students.”
By raising demands that applied to all working-class people, the teachers cut through the many barriers put up by bosses and politicians to divide workers, from racism to the union-non union divide.
With each victory, a new segment of the working class seemed to rise up to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by the previous section. The courage shown by teachers of the south made it possible for others to choose to strike. As one Arizona teacher put it, “The West Virginia’s strike opened our eyes to an empowering alternate reality of what is possible if we collectively organize and come together in solidarity.”
49,000 strike General Motors
These victories have put wind in the sails of the newly ascendant labor movement, one strike inspiring the next. It is with this wind at their back that 49,000 United Auto Worker members went on strike on Sept. 16 against General Motors, in the largest walkout there since 2007, and, at this point, longer than any GM walkout since 1970.
While most plants are in the Midwest, they are also in Texas, Kentucky, Kansas, Tennessee and Missouri. As with the other strikes, there seems to be a general feeling of optimism, one gained from the most uninterrupted string of labor struggles in decades. On strike in Tennessee, Adrian Mizell, a sheet-metal worker and labor activist, put this sense into words, claiming that “the tide is changing. You can feel it.”
Things are changing, and the UAW strike reflects those changes. While still concerned with the bread and butter of wages, this strike also demands pay parity for all workers doing the same job. Strikers are also demanding that GM hire and give parity to temporary workers, many of whom have worked for years doing the same job as union members at approximately half the pay with no benefits. On top of eliminating the precarity of those on temporary contracts, the union has sought to ensure low healthcare costs for members, and most importantly protect their jobs through preventing plant closures.
Seeing this show of solidarity has inspired workers at other automakers in the South. Take the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a plant where the motion to unionize was cast down by a margin of only 29 votes after the intervention of Gov. Bill Lee. Billy Quigg, a union leader at VW, said he saw the anti-union myths held by ambivalent workers “debunked right in front of worker’s eyes by this strike.”
Through the courage and solidarity shown by teachers, auto and telecom workers, along with countless others, the South is beginning to realize once again what power workers can have in unions.