Coalition-Building for a New Labor Climate

Coalition-Building for a New Labor Climate

By Kenny Johnson

Vol. 9, No. 3, 1987, pp. 8-9

The release last fall of the Southern Labor Institute’s report, The Climate For Workers in the United States, marked the first comprehensive look at our national economy from the perspective of those who produce the goods and services that fuel the economic engine. The document, sharply different from the usual business climate report, revealed that despite numerical gains in job growth that lead the nation, and despite recent improvements in state funding of education, the South has failed to keep up with the rest of the nation in almost every other way:

For example, the South has recorded the smallest gains in wages and per capita income, is home to the largest proportion of working poor, and maintains the highest incidences of poverty.

This report was followed in the spring by a conference focusing on the profound impact the South’s changing workplace is having on the region’s working people. Central to both the report and the conference was an attempt to sharpen the questions and stimulate answers about economic development in the South and the nation. The framing of such questions has traditionally been the province of government, chambers of commerce, and narrow business interests, and the resulting analysis has typically been slanted toward measurements of a climate pleasing to the managements of major companies. In the low-wage, low-tax South, that climate has usually been given good ratings.

However, it is ever more clear that what is good for big business is not always good for the South, and the considerable economic growth that has come to the region has hardly resulted in a comparable improvement in the lives of most Southern workers. To quote from the Labor Climate Report “The challenge and the task that face the South today and in the future is to create jobs with the income and benefits needed to bring the region’s workers above the poverty level–not just new jobs as in the past, but jobs that will significantly improve the standard of living for people who work full-time, year-round.”

With the Report as a starting point, the challenge of the recent conference was to develop strategies that could help improve the standard of living in the region. To accomplish this, the conference brought together leaders from the ranks of organized labor, local governments, religious organizations, and civil rights groups. The members of this broad-based and potentially powerful coalition were asked to re-examine state policies and practices on economic development.

In the articles that follow, several of the speakers from the conference share some of the insight and discussion from the valuable weekend of strategizing in Atlanta. As the Labor Climate Report had done, the conference challenged the basic notion that economic development depends on cheap land, unreasonable tax concessions to industry, and an unorganized, untrained, and undereducated labor force willing to work for less than elsewhere.

The Report attracted widespread publicity both to the concepts it addressed and to the Southern Labor Institute which produced it. The conference was an effort to build upon this attention while expanding participation in the examination of the national economy’s current transformation, and what world economic trends mean to most citizens.

One omission of the Report was a lack of specific policy recommendations–geared to the realities of the 1980’s and the 1990’s–of what the states should be doing to improve the standard of living. The conference helped in this respect by bringing together leaders who may only rarely concern themselves with long-term development policy and who, for the most part, may not readily see the links between their interests in economic development and the interests of others. Labor unions, religious denominations, civil rights organizations, and local governments tend to see only their own interests, occasionally becoming involved with state economic development policies that may affect them. They may never recognize the need to combine forces. This spring’s conference was a chance to unify a large number of organizations and agencies in the South whose common interests have not yet been combined for common activities.

One of the first steps of the conference was to provide a common knowledge base about problems, issues, past practices, and the status of the South today.

Then, discussion was sought. While unemployment, for example, was a major issue for labor unions and for black community leaders, representatives of the two groups approached the issue differently. A local leader from the Alabama Black Belt talked about the desperate need for jobs for his community. He was interested in job creation– whether those jobs were low-wage, unionized or not. But labor unions saw a shrinking job market that they felt a need to protect. The conference goal was to get the partici-

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pants to understand these differences and to focus on common needs rather than accenting differences.

An important aspect of developing this mutual understanding rests in the ability to get community leaders to understand that at the minimum wage full-time workers can still be stuck at the poverty level, unable to afford those things one usually thinks of as the rewards of working for a living–such things as decent housing, educating one’s children, and providing the family with adequate medical care. These things labor unions, too, viewed as important. In short, the conference brought to the same table people who do not ordinarily meet to discuss economic issues and policies.

The need now is to bring that same kind of regional discussion to the state and local level. As an example, the Southern Labor Institute is now working in Birmingham to bring unions together with the black community. The unions are interested in organizing health care workers, and, for the first time, prior to taking that kind of action, these labor leaders are sitting down with black leaders. The message of labor in Birmingham is that the service industry, and health care in particular, remains one of the fastest growing sectors in the city, increasingly becoming a larger percentage of the total job base. Black workers make up a disproportionate share of the orderlies, nursing assistants, maintenance workers, and other service workers who are finding full-time employment in this industry. However, the wage scale on these jobs is doing very little to improve their overall standard of living.

The low wages of service industries are especially significant to female heads of households, who, with their children, are the fastest growing poverty group in the country. On a purely economic basis, a single female with two children often cannot afford to take a minimum-wage job. The cost of transportation, day care, and housing costs exceeds what she can earn.

Cities like Birmingham have to do better in attracting jobs that pay better wages, and their workforces in the existing service jobs must be organized to increase wages and deal with other issues related to the workplace–issues like health care and job security. It is in the interest of black community leaders to begin forming coalitions with unions who are organizing the workplace.

The mission of the Southern Labor Institute and the Southern Regional Council is to sustain and accelerate this unification. The Council is currently studying the temporary workforce issue, which is probably the most serious threat to the workplace that has come along in a long while. Employers are moving away from permanent workers to whom they have to pay not only some sensible salaries but also benefits, and they are moving instead to a temporary workforce with lower pay and no job benefits. At one time, these temporary workers were basically day laborers, but temporary workers are now moving into skilled job categories.

These are some of the issues of the 1990’s that were on the minds of the participants at the recent SLI conference, of which excepts are offered in the following articles.

Kenny Johnson is director of the Southern Labor institute. Copies of The Climate for Workers in the United States are available for $20 each from the SRC, 60 Walton St., N.W., Atlanta, GA 30303-2199. An abridged version of the Labor Climate Report is contained in Southern Changes, Octember [sic] /November 1986, which is available for $5.