Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Organizing the South

I am so excited to hear of University of Alabama bus drivers successfully winning a union contract with the university. The University of Alabama treated their bus drivers terribly. Like most universities, they subcontracted the work out. They paid the British corporation First Transit $55 a hour for each driver.

How much of that $55 ended up in drivers' paychecks? $9.50.

$9.50. That's a terrible wage. Just atrocious. The drivers organized themselves through the Amalgamated Transit Union and on March 1 organized a 1 day strike. This freaked UA out and the university caved. The workers didn't get a huge raise, but they will now make $12.48. That's a real improvement in their income.

Throughout the South, low wage work remains primarily African-American work. Most of these drivers are black. Racism, both institutionalized and personalized, pervades southern work. Their story is inspiring and the first step on a long road to living wages and collective empowerment.

I am particularly interested in southern organizing because of my own history as a founding activist of the University of Tennessee campus workers union, United Campus Workers-Communication Workers of America, Local 3865. Our union has grown significantly in the last decade, but it's a long struggle in the South, and we haven't yet achieved a contract. But knowing that the bus drivers forced UA to capitulate gives great hope!

More broadly, organizers have talked about organizing the South for a century. It was hard then and it's hard now. There are several reasons--right-wing politicians, spatially mobile capital, a lack of immigrant population with strong class sentiments (an underrated reason for the success of unions in the North), strong traditions of individualism in southerners, racism. The CIO attempted to organize southern textiles plants in the late 1930s, but they couldn't make it stick. The United Auto Workers strove to organize southern auto plants in the 1990s, and while they received significant support in each plant, they failed as well.

But organizing the South remains a key goal for labor and rightfully so. With the region's growth since World War II, it has become as important to the American economy as the union heartland of the Northeast. And while significant barriers remain, the success of the UA bus drivers shows that it can be done. Each brick builds a wall and we can hope that soon that wall will speak with a southern accent.