About 200 low-wage workers from five southern states—Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia—gathered last weekend at a baptist church in a quiet northeastern corner of North Carolina. Organizers called it “Solidarity City”—a nod to Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 and its six-week Washington, D.C., encampment for a living wage called Resurrection City. Street protests are one thing. But building community largely happens at intimate gatherings like this conference—one of many allowing low-wage workers time and space to learn about their common issues no matter the workplace. It’s emblematic of how low-wage labor in the South is coming together—amongst themselves, first, and largely away from the media spotlight.
On and off for the past four years, Maria Garcia, 26 (left) has worked in a North Carolina tobacco field. Originally from Florida, Garcia earns $7.25 an hour and says pesticides are sprayed when she and other workers are in the field. “I’m the only one who seems to get sick from it,” she says. But after meeting folks in other industries this weekend she says, “I see it’s also bad for fast-food workers. I used to work at McDonald’s a while back but the only problem I had was that my manager decided I’d be manager for the day while she did nothing.” (All color photos by Raise Up)
Workers belonging to UFCW Local 1208 representing 12,000 workers at the Smithfield Plant in North Carolina, the largest pig slaughterhouse and meat processing plant in the world. Smithfield workers are considered veteran organizers, after winning a 16-year fight to unionize.
Eddie Foreman drove up from Opelika, Alabama, with another fast-food worker, Shaniqua Norris. Foreman organized Opelika’s first fast food worker protest this past May before joining national protests at McDonald’s headquarters later that month.
Panelists (left to right) Nathanette Mayo (public sector), Lindsay Weir (fast food worker; Moral Mondays arrestee), Ty-Eisha Batts (fast food) and Keith Ludlum (slaughterhouse and meat processing) share personal stories of leading and participating in successful worker organizing.
In 1968, just weeks after Dr. King’s assassination an estimated 5,000 civil rights activists lived for six weeks in makeshift tents in what they called Resurrection City. Their demand: an Economic Bill of Rights. (Photo by Henry Zbyszynski/Wiki Commons/1968)
Ty-Eisha Batts, 28, has been on strike since the first fast-food protests in New York City, in November 2012. Because the cost of living was so high she moved from Brooklyn to Greensboro, North Carolina, four months ago. She now works at Hardee’s earning $7.75 an hour. It’s not enough so Batts is still fighting. “I moved down here, saw a flyer and thought, ‘Hey, this is the same thing that’s happening in New York,’” she says. “The South is the last to join the fast food strikes I believe but it’s really big here, too. It’s growing.”
Parents brought their children to Solidarity City, which also provided daycare.
Keith Ludlum, 43, president of the union at the Smithfield Plant in North Carolina drove an hour and a half to First Union Baptist Church with 12 other plant employees. A veteran organizer, Ludlum said he was pleasantly surprised by the number of young people attending Solidarity City. “That’s a real difference,” he says, “and it’ll give a shot in the arm to the labor movement.”
Solidarity City participants voting “yes” on a resolution to do “whatever it takes to organize the South and win $15 and a union for all workers.”
Demonstrators hold “Más dinero ahora” signs during a poor people’s march down Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C. in June 1968 (Photo by Warren K. Leffler/ US News & World Report/ Library of Congress)