While the Obama sign waving and t-shirt wearing union members at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) creates a picture of a giant love-fest between unions and the Democratic Party, underneath this façade is a burgeoning labor movement in the South that is shaking the foundation of this relationship.
On September 3, on the eve of the DNC at an overpacked church 7 miles from the convention, 300 labor and community activists held a Southern Workers Assembly. This event was reminiscent of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 convention in which civil rights activists, led by Fannie Lou Hamer, confronted the racist and all-white party. In this case, though, activists are calling on what they call the corporate elite running the Democratic Party, at the expense of the working class.
Huh? You may be asking? Isn’t it the Republicans who represent the 1% more than the Democrats? Some rank and file unionists feel differently, and the long list of CEOs speaking at the DNC Wednesday night simply added fuel to their fire.
“Once the decision was made to hold the DNC here in Charlotte, I think labor should have converged here to bring attention to the labor issues that North Carolina represents,” said Ashaki Binta, an organizer with the Charlotte City Workers chapter of theUnited Electrical Workers Union (UE), “and the role that Charlotte has played to prevent collective bargaining in this state for public employees.”
North Carolina is one of a handful of states that does not allow public employees to have a contract, and it has the lowest level of unionization of any state in the country. For Binta and other Southern Worker Assembly participants, though, they are not simply upset with the party for having the DNC at the non-unionized convention center and hotels. They have been slowly building this grassroots labor struggle in North Carolina and much of the “Black Belt South” for the last 30 years, and, in fact, some at the Assembly called for a labor party separate from the Democrat to represent their interests.
“I’m hoping that since we’re protesting, and the Democrats are coming, I hope they’ll look at our conditions in the South…and they will speak out at them,” said Al Locklear, a Charlotte sanitation worker for 27 years and union leader, “We get out and keep the city clean. They should look out for the workers.”
The president of the United Auto Workers, Bob King, a featured DNC speaker on September 5 did say, “Strong unions and collective bargaining have lifted millions of people out of poverty.” But activists like Locklear want to know why the party hasn’t directly acknowledged their efforts to unionize, and no one from the DNC responded to their request for support they issued to Obama and the DNC.
The city of Charlotte had city employees working non-stop during the convention week, so none of the city union activists could attend the March on Wall Street South on the Sunday before the convention, nor the annual Labor Day parade the next day.
While some occupy activists came to the Southern Workers Assembly, this event was a different type of protest than the more visible actions at the DNC. It was led by groups ranging from Black Workers for Justice and the Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights to the United Electrical Workers Union and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.
The Southern Workers Assembly held a solidarity rally the first day of the DNC in front of the Sanitation Department in Charlotte to draw attention to their right to unionize as a human rights issue. And it is this type of organizing that emerged from the Assembly itself—[developing a campaign for a Workers Bill of Rights.
In this era of voter suppression, both voting for a union and voting at the polls have a bloody history in the South, as opposition to exercising these rights by those in power is strong. And it is the struggle for these basic rights that Binta framed as social movement unionism, rather than the business unionism of those unions aligned with the Democratic Party.
So it was an activist who, implicitly, directed scholars not to separate out the study of labor movements and social movements. They are intertwined. And studying non-traditional union movements such as this, is a concrete way in which researchers can address sociologists Jeff Goodwin and Gabe Hetland’s argument about “The Strange Disappearance of Capitalism from Social Movement Studies.” In essence, it is capitalism’s connection to the state that is the object of this grassroots movement.