Unions Must Move Past the Plant Gates
By Bruce Raynor
Vol. 10, No. 2, 1988, pp. 22-23
The subject of the economic development of the South is never complete without some talk of the role of organized labor. Despite economic development, despite tremendous gains in other parts of the country, the South still trails the nation with the lowest wages and worst benefits for our workers. We still trail the nation with the fastest decline of high-paying jobs and the most rapid increase of low-paying jobs. Faced with the lowest wage-benefit structure in the country, the problems that Southern workers face are getting worse, not better.
You hear a lot of talk these days that new management strategies have made unions unnecessary. I think it’s important to point out that despite the newest personnel policies, the development of human resources as a theory and a science, progressive employment programs, job training, and new styles of management (including Japanese management), American management has always made unions necessary and I don’t see any change in that. A favorite story of mine involves a Japanese plant that was put up in Macon, Ga. When we organized that plant, the management hired American anti-union lawyers and used the very American arguments to the workers about why they don’t need a union:
You don’t need a union because we don’t want you to have the union. In Japan it’s different, those are good unions. In Georgia, they’re not good unions. If you support the union, we’re going to fire you.
This version of Japanese management didn’t work on the majority of the workers in the Macon plant; they voted for the union. Then we set out to bargain with the company, the American and Japanese managers. The Japanese manager didn’t speak very good English, but he was able to communicate very quickly to the union that the few Japanese things that they had imported to Georgia didn’t work. Things like sick-days. In Japan if the worker does not get sick, he does not use the sick days. In Georgia we give sick days and if workers don’t get sick, they can still take these days away from work. Well, the Japanese managers didn’t want to do that. They wanted to change the style of management and do away with sick days.
What it comes down to is a division of power and money between management and workers. Whether it’s Japanese style or American style, management will continue to make unions necessary.
So how do we establish a strong labor movement in the
South? Many of us have been at work for our entire adult lives trying to do this. It is widely understood that workers organize for better pay and benefits. But, in my opinion, that’s not why Southern workers or most workers join unions. Workers join unions not primarily to get more money and better benefits, but primarily to have a voice, some power, on their job. For democratic reasons. Organizing a union is the one time in our country where people actually stand up and put something on the line to fight for a right to have something to say. You don’t put much on the line to vote for a candidate in a political election, but a worker who wants to support a union in Georgia or South Carolina puts an awful lot on the line. And many times it is not for economic benefits, but for the right to stand up and look the boss in the eye and have some say. Even with a strong union, the bottom line remains: The power belongs to the companies. But with a union, workers achieve a measure of power. That’s why Southern management opposes unions as vigorously as they do. It comes down to the question of sharing power.
The other by-product of unionization is leadership. Unions create leaders. Workers develop leadership skills and abilities in their communities and their states. Political change in this part of the country needs to be aided by the power of a strong labor movement. We don’t have a strong labor movement in any single one of the Southern states, but I think labor with its allies has been able to achieve some significant progress in changing the social makeup of the South.
What does this mean for non-union people? Labor unions have tended to be our own worst enemy. The labor movement reflects society at large. And, when the South has in it a tremendous amount of racism, the labor movement has a tremendous amount of racism. When the South has conservatism, then that’s mirrored in the labor movement. You cannot change the South, you cannot change the labor movement, without changing the social makeup of our organizations and our beliefs.
Some things that unions are doing in 1988 are different than what has been done in the past. The only Southern state that has a law permitting public employees to organize is Florida. Traditionally labor has waited until it had the political power to achieve collective bargaining laws before it attempted to organize public employees. In Georgia, however, one of our service employees unions is attempting to organize the state employees without a collective bargaining law. It’s a very innovative kind of organizing, yet it is also the kind of organizing that unions did forty or fifty years ago. This is an attempt to organize workers as we build the political framework to change the law that would permit 50,000 Georgia state employees to join a union. Imagine the force that this group could embody with the progressive goals of affirmative action, of equality, of a just society. Such a union would become the single biggest force for social change in the state. I think this campaign deserves and needs the support of like-thinking people around the South.
Another area where people are organizing across broader lines is a campaign called “Justice for Janitors.” This is an effort to win recognition for the cleaning people in all the buildings in the growing cities across the South. In order to gain support for the janitors who clean the buildings for little more than minimum wage, the Service Employees Union is reaching out to the everyday person who uses the buildings.
If unions are to be successful organizing in the South, they have to move beyond the plant gates. Workers need to build ties with progressive elements in the community with whom they share a vision of a more just society. Millions of people here in the South have been economically, politically, and socially excluded from sharing power. I believe the labor movement offers an opportunity for people to break the barriers that separate the disfranchised.
Bruce Raynor is the Southern regional director and an international vice president of ACTWU.