Unions draft expansive 'Southern Strategy'

LOS ANGELES — Labor will embark on an expansive organizing campaign in America’s union-scarce South that, if successful, could bring about serious political upheaval.

The AFL-CIO, at its quadrennial convention this week, adopted a resolution to come up with a “Southern Strategy” that includes “a long-term commitment to organize the South.” 

Union officials told The Hill that the labor movement needs to follow the workforce, which is moving down south, as well as learn how to better operate with right-to-work laws in the region designed to weaken union power.

Linda Bridges, president of the Texas AFT, a teachers union, said only bringing more workers into labor will lead to changes in the South’s laws that restrict labor’s influence.

“Just because most of the workers are in right-to-work states, it’s time that we have real strategies about how to organize, about how to bring them into the labor movement in great numbers. I think that’s how we eventually change the laws in the South, through organizing,” Bridges said.

Unions also see opportunity for political gain, which could benefit their traditional allies in the Democratic Party. Shifting demographics, including a growing Latino population, could shake up the electorate in the South.

“There’s huge potential in the South,” said Michael Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO’s political director, noting the rise of Hispanic voters in the region. “It’s Florida, North Carolina. That is changing the equation in all of those states.”

Democrats are eyeing Texas and will be working with unions to expand into the state. Snatching the deep red state from the Republicans would be a coup for Democrats, but union officials laid out timelines of several years — not 2014, the next election year — before one could expect to see blue victories.

“This is really the beginning of a long-term strategy of building union power in the South,” Podhorzer said, noting the AFL-CIO would invest political resources in the race against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as well as in Florida and Texas this campaign season.

Podhorzer and Bridges both said they have been working with Democrats on their plans for Texas.

“Most of the talks are really about finding the right candidates, finding the right message, positioning ourselves and giving people also the understanding that is possible if we identify with the right issues with people,” Bridges said.

A big part of the political effort in Texas will be bringing labor’s much-vaunted voter turnout machine to the state. That will be tough considering the state’s voter ID law, which has led to a Justice Department lawsuit.

“Right now, I do not believe Texas is a red or a blue state. I think we are a nonvoting state, and we have to got to create the interest, the culture of voting in the state. That is the most important thing we can do,” Bridges said.

Bridges said she wants her union, with more than 65,000 members, to double its membership by 2022. And by 2023, the Texas AFT wants to overturn the state’s right-to-work law and pass a collective bargaining rights act instead.

Texas has seen union gains already. In 2011, 5.2 percent of the state’s workforce belonged to unions. That jumped to 5.7 percent last year.

Labor is looking to organize work sites of all kinds — factories, schools, steel plants to name a few — throughout the South.

“For us, what we are doing is following where the companies have brought the work,” said Maria Somma, assistant organizing director for the United Steelworkers (USW). “We get contacts daily from workers in Southern states who say come in and help us.”

The USW official has often left her Pittsburgh base. Somma was in Texas three weeks ago and plans to go to Mississippi and Alabama later this year for organizing campaigns.

Growing labor’s ranks in the South will be difficult. Republican-heavy legislatures and state governors in the region go after unions constantly. In addition, several companies have moved south partly to avoid having a unionized workforce.

Mike Williams, president of the Florida AFL-CIO, said unions would have to be aggressive.

“I have used the term many times, and people don’t seem to like it sometimes. Right-to-work is a lazy labor leader’s best excuse. Because the fact is that you can organize. Right-to-work doesn’t stop you from organizing,” Williams said.

James Andrews, president of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO, said unions could move outside of the traditional organizing process.

“There are great opportunities in the South. You might have to approach those opportunities at a different way. It might not be, as we have heard here, a normal [National Labor Relations Board]-type election,” Andrews said.

Labor in North Carolina has used Working America, the AFL-CIO community affiliate that represents nonunion workers. The outside group has organized 25,000 new members over the last year, according to Andrews.

“Nowhere in our history that I know of in a single year we have organized 25,000 workers going through the National Labor Relations Act,” Andrews said. That growth could be a boon for labor’s endorsed candidates in the state.

“As we grow the movement, as we grow our numbers in North Carolina and other places, that means that it’s real likely that people that are with us on our issues and concerns are likely to have a better chance of winning,” Andrews said.

Union officials said they need to ensure the AFL-CIO follows through on the resolution after the convention closes this Wednesday.

“I think there are a number of us in Southern states that are going to keep the pressure on the national AFL-CIO to make that more than just a piece of paper because I believe there really does need to be a Southern organizing strategy,” said MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO.

Nevertheless, Yvonne Robinson, secretary-treasurer of the Georgia State AFL-CIO, believes labor is ready to take on the South.

“The South is ready and the federation is ready,” Robinson said. “This is a new day.”