On April 4, the Union of Southern Service Workers began a strike across the South to demand better, safer working conditions for all service workers. Workers took to the streets to proclaim that they will no longer accept substandard working conditions.
Continuing the fight against poverty and racism
This April 4 marked 55 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in Memphis, Tennessee, where he joined local sanitation workers on strike for safe working conditions. Workers of USSW honored his legacy by launching a one-day strike in three southern states for safer workplaces, and filing a historic civil rights complaint against South Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
In Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, workers rallied under the banner of the recently established USSW. USSW is a low wage-oriented labor union that was built by and for service workers throughout the South. It was born from the organization Raise Up the South, which has organized among the most exploited southern workers since 2013.
Low-wage exploitation in the South
In a recent survey of over 300 southern workers, the Strategic Organizing Center found that an alarming 87% of workers surveyed were injured on the job in the last year. The most common injuries reported were injuries sustained from lifting or from falling merchandise. Lacerations from knives, slicers or box cutters followed closely, along with heat-related illnesses due to inadequate air conditioning in workplaces.
In another shocking statistic, 42% of workers reported threats, verbal abuse and sexual harassment on the job. Of those surveyed, 72% believe that their employer puts profit over their safety and prioritizes customer satisfaction above worker safety.
These are the struggles service workers face while company owners rake in record profits. Company owners benefit from the suffering of their employees.
Workers fight back against racism in the workplace
The majority of USSW members come from the Black Belt, an area of the South that expands throughout 11 states with a majority Black population. Black workers make up the majority of the workforce in the service industry in this region.
“During the last hurricane, Hurricane Irma, that I worked at … it was thundering, there was lightning, and it was down-pouring … the power went out. We in the store didn’t feel safe” said Gerald Green, a Waffle House cook from Tifton, Georgia. Waffle House, a popular chain restaurant in the South, is known for staying open in even the worst emergencies. States of emergency are jokingly measured on the “Waffle House Index.” While this is often laughed at, the threat to Waffle House workers couldn’t be more serious.
Green delivered a copy of a civil rights complaint filed against the South Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Administration to the Department of Labor. The civil rights complaint charges SC OSHA with discrimination by “disproportionately excluding black workers from the protection of its programmed inspections.”
From 2018 to 2022, SC OSHA conducted no programmed inspection in retail/grocery with only one inspection in food service and the warehouse industry. According to the complaint, SC OSHA has neglected industries whose workforce is more than 42% Black while focusing the vast majority of its programmed inspections elsewhere.
By failing to inspect workplaces with majority Black workers, the complaint charges SC OSHA is exposing Black workers to unacceptable and inequitable risks of injuries and illnesses.
As said by USSW member and warehouse worker Marion Richardson,
“I have seen workers get hurt because Ryder Corporation doesn’t fix safety hazards or give us proper training. Last year, I heard somebody crying for help and found one of my coworkers crushed under a forklift, screaming in pain. She couldn’t feel her legs — I had to tell her both legs were indeed broken. After that, Ryder never added any proper safety training. And since then, two more workers have also broken their legs at our warehouse. More workers are going to be hurt if we don’t get some help from OSHA to fix this problem!”
These working conditions are deplorable, and working people are refusing to accept them any longer.
All progressive and revolutionary people should stand with striking workers!
Fifty-five years after Dr. King was slain while supporting downtrodden workers, service workers continue to fight for better wages, safe workplaces and dignity on the job. Like the sanitation workers who marched with picket signs in 1968, service workers still face exploitative, potentially deadly conditions. And like the courageous Memphis strikers, workers of the USSW are organizing with the community to demand safety, dignity, racial justice and the power to bargain.