CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Unionized workers and progressive activists from North Carolina and beyond gathered at a Baptist church here Monday afternoon, using Labor Day and the arrival of the Democratic National Convention as an occasion to ponder the state of the labor movement in the South.
As Democratic planners just miles up the road were preparing for Tuesday's nationally televised speeches, the speakers at Wedgewood Baptist Church spoke not about party politics but about the need they saw to organize more workers in the South, a region that traditionally has very low unionization rates.
As for that weak union density, speakers at the "Southern Workers Assembly," as it was billed, put the blame for it on several causes: Southern politicians, who push labor-unfriendly laws; national labor leaders, who don't invest in the region; and themselves. They called on activists to push for the repeal of anti-union legislation and to "organize the South" in a way unions never have before.
"Both parties have failed the working class," said Saladin Muhammad, a retired union official with the Southern International Worker Justice Campaign. "Southern workers cannot break through the Democratic Party -- and certainly not the Republican Party -- to enact some progressive labor laws before we begin serious efforts to organize ourselves into a labor movement."
North Carolina itself now ranks as the least unionized state in the nation, with just 2.9 percent of its workforce belonging to unions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Like other Southern states, North Carolina has a so-called right-to-work law, which forbids contracts that make union membership a condition of employment and which serve to weaken unions' presence in the state.
Viewing the state as hostile to organized labor, many labor activists bristled at the very idea of a Democratic convention being held in North Carolina, given the close relationship between unions and the party. Several unions have opted not to send large delegations to Charlotte, and the AFL-CIO decided to limit its involvement in this year's convention, citing an effort to become more independent of the Democratic establishment.
But most of the talk at Wedgewood Baptist Church on Monday focused on how unions could boost their membership in states like North Carolina, as well as adjacent South Carolina, which also has extremely low union density and which many workers at the assembly call home.
As two speakers pointed out, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, like many other Southern Republicans, is no fan of organized labor. At her state of the state speech earlier this year, the governor cited the low unionization rate there as a badge of pride, declaring, "We don't have unions in South Carolina because we don't need unions in South Carolina."
"Coming from the North to the South, phew -- it shook me a little bit," said Lisa Kline, a Charlotte transplant who's president of Unite Here Local 23, a hospitality workers union that represents employees at the Charlotte airport. "I put the blame on us -- we've got to find more courage, we've got to develop more leaders."
"Down here, we're dealing with billion-dollar companies and workers being paid seven-something an hour," Kline added. "How do they make it? I don't know."
Among the attendees were members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, the International Longshoremen's Association and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union, among others. The assembly speakers also included Hispanic immigrants who were undocumented. One immigrant introduced himself by saying, "Good afternoon. My name is Victor Alvarez, and I'm undocumented," drawing applause from the crowd.
Alvarez said he'd spent the last four years in America working low-wage jobs in the restaurant industry.
"I wash dishes, I cook, I do everything -- and I realized that most of the immigrant workforce is abused in this state and in this country," Alvarez said through a translator. "Sometimes we do the work of two or three people for less money. And you don't have any choice."
Justin Flores, a coordinator with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, which represents agricultural workers, argued that the labor movement should be trying to organize workers like Alvarez, as well as immigrant farm workers employed in the South's tobacco fields. On Monday morning, Flores' group demonstrated outside a convenience store chain that serves as one of the South's major cigarette retailers, hoping to draw attention to what they described as harsh working conditions in the fields.
"There's no way anyone is going to convince me that brown, Spanish-speaking people coming to and from this country is going to create harm to this country," Flores said. "What is going to put a hurt on our country is the fact that workers are being exploited. The solution to that problem shouldn’t be to oppress those workers more. It should be to organize them and build our unions."