Can Big Labor Organize the South?

Not without majorly including black workers, immigrants and women of color.

By Carla Murphy Feb 19, 2014

When autoworkers at a Tennessee plant vetoed union representation last Friday, many observers saw the loss not just as a blow to the United Auto Workers but to future organizing efforts in the region. If big labor is to take the South (and hope to be relevant nationally), experts say, it’ll need to get better at reaching workers of color.

According to Cornell labor professor Kate Bronfenbrenner in a New York Times op-ed this week, "The South has more manufacturing units with a majority black workers, immigrant workers, low-wage workers and women of colorthose most likely to choose unions — and fewer majority white male manufacturing units — those least likely to choose unions."

Prominent voices on the left like Timothy Noah and others allege that the UAW lost the Chattanooga plant because of stereotypical Southern racist undercurrents. One May op-ed in the Chattanooga Times-Free Press compared the UAW to "an invading Union army." But it’s difficult to assess that charge. Reporting in the weeks leading up to and after the vote rarely mentions the plant’s racial demographics or even, how race and gender shaped organizing tactics on both the pro- and anti-labor sides.

Going forward says African-American Kenneth Riley, head of a South Carolina local, big labor must factor this reality into their campaign strategies: "unions are most likely to be successful in units where the majority of the workers are minorities, people of color and women." And, says Douglas Williams, a PhD student at the University of Alabama, in order to make inroads, big labor must take organizing cues from worker centers and prioritize community engagement.