More than 100 service workers rallied Friday in the South Carolina capital, the state with the lowest unionization rate in the country, to form a new union and in turn try to boost unionization in the South.
The Union of Southern Service Workers hopes to remedy what it sees as a common grievance in a region with a history of anti-unionism. Its members cut a wide swath in the service industry, working in places like fast-food chains, retail stores, warehouses, and nursing homes.
“We’re all service workers, no matter what industry you’re in,” said Eshawney Gaston, an employee at Captain D’s in Durham, North Carolina, who helped plan the union’s launch in Columbia. “We have to stand up for each other”
Gaston, a 25-year-old mother, said she faced the same issues at multiple jobs in the service industry, including wage theft, poor personal protective equipment and dangerous heat, among others. The problem is bigger than any single company and requires more comprehensive efforts, she said.
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Friday’s launch comes amid the highest American support for unions recorded by a Gallup poll since 1965 and at the end of a week of union organizing activity.
Tens of thousands of academic workers across the University of California system walked out of work Monday, demanding better pay and benefits. Starbucks workers demanding better pay and more staff went on strike in more than 100 US stores Thursday.
USSW organizers seek to complement, rather than compete with, existing movements such as Starbucks Workers United. The group will join the nearly 2 million members of the Service Employees International Union and their demands include better pay, fair grievance procedures, safe jobs, health care and consistent service schedules.
A broad group of union organizers attended the launch. Local groups, including the South Carolina AFL-CIO, supported the action. Mary Kay Henry, President of the Service Employees International Union, was there. And California activists campaigning for the state’s leading measure to give fast-food workers more power and protection rallied the crowds.
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But the political and legal structure in the South has long impeded such organizing. Many states enacted laws in the mid-20th century prohibiting employment contracts that require workers to pay dues or dues to the union that represents them. This business-friendly reputation has helped Southern politicians court big employers and create jobs.
The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, which represents corporate interests and has opposed a $15 minimum wage, declined to comment when asked for a response to the union’s formation.
South Carolina had a union membership rate of 1.7% in 2021, compared to 10.3% statewide, statistics from the US Bureau of Labor show.
Henry said the environment has also made the South home to the lowest wages and weakest protections in the US. These new efforts, Henry said, are focused on building power to tackle laws that limit the bargaining power of workers in the South.
Underscoring the union’s work is a decade of organizing through groups like Raise Up the South, the southern arm of the $15 national struggle, and a union formed in 2012 by American fast-food workers pushing for a higher minimum wage .
“Out of all the work happening in separate cities, a multiracial, cross-industry movement has emerged dedicated to fighting for a living wage, fair working conditions and a voice in the workplace,” Henry said. “But now workers across the city and across the industry want to unite.”
According to Jeff Hirsch, a professor of labor law at the University of North Carolina, the region’s low union density could make expanding efforts in the South more difficult compared to areas where people are more familiar with organized labor.
Some workers described family members who mistakenly believed that the Southern States had made unionizing illegal. While the region is “more repressive,” said activist Brandon Beachum, a Panera employee in Atlanta, workers in the South have “much more fighting spirit.”
Other trends could work in the union’s favour. Hirsch said the nationwide labor shortage has given workers some leverage and employers may be less inclined to retaliate by firing union members. While the general theory of collective action suggests that entities are more difficult to organize as they get larger, Hirsch said a large, diverse group of employers would be “pretty powerful.”
“Widespread organizing in the South was the holy grail of unionism for a while,” Hirsch said. “I will remain skeptical based on the history alone. But if they were able to make progress, that would be a big, big deal.”
The renewed focus on the region stems from a desire to counter anti-union attitudes that organizers say are steeped in Jim Crow’s legacy. While previous efforts at widespread unionization throughout the South have failed, supporters are encouraged by past mixed-race labor movements.
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One was a 1946 North Carolina attempt to unionize tobacco workers that was successful with the help of black churches, said Dorian Warren, co-president of the Center for Community Change, which hopes to build support for the USSW among community organizations and churches.
And organizers pointed to strikes in Charleston in 1969, in which African-American women fought for pay increases and a more transparent hiring system but failed to win union recognition.
“There is actually a deep, indigenous heritage in the South to organize in multi-ethnic ways, particularly to overcome anti-union and anti-Black sentiment,” Warren said. “I find this effort exciting because these staff and the organizers know this history and are rooted in this history.”
(CLOCK BELOW: Charlotte unions, organizations march in rainy Labor Day parade)