AFL-CIO Now - Convention 2013

Gebre: South Can Rise Again for Workers


Mike Hall

Tefere Gebre meets with sanitation workers in September. Orange County Federation of Labor photo/Flickr..

Delegates to the AFL-CIO Convention in September approved a resolution declaring that one of the federation’s “top priorities [is] a Southern Strategy that will include a long-term commitment to organize the South.”

Recently, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) took a look at union organizing efforts in the South and talked to a number of labor leaders. Here are some excerpts. (The full story is available to AJC subscribers but is behind a pay wall for non-subscribers.)   

“The South is hugely, hugely critical for us,” said Tefere Gebre, the executive vice president for the AFL-CIO. “If we work smartly, and patiently, I believe the South would rise again for workers.”

Labor groups representing autoworkers, government employees, bus drivers and fast-food workers see the current economic climate as ripe for organizing. Georgia, Atlanta in particular, sits squarely in their sights.

The recession, which began six years ago, hit workers hard. The nation’s 7.3 percent unemployment rate is two points higher than before the recession. In Georgia, it’s 8.7 percent.

Employers cut hours and hired part-timers or contract workers. Salaries stagnated. Health benefits dwindled. CEOs at large Georgia companies earned on average 120 times more than the average worker in their industries last year, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis.

“The ground is fertile, but there’s still a lot of fear,” said AFSCME Southern Regional Director Dorothy Townsend. “There are not that many good jobs with benefits anymore. It’s all about what kind of America do we want to live in.”

UNITE HERE, for example, has signed up more than 550 retail and food-service workers at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport within the past year and a half. The Teamsters got DeKalb County’s permission last month to organize 450 sanitation workers. School bus drivers in Fulton and DeKalb counties are targeted by a government employees union.

“The airport is so big and important for Atlanta,” UNITE HERE organizer Lianna Schechter said, “that we know that if we can raise the standards in a major employer like the airport, then we can do the same for workers across the entire region.”

“Most every state in the South has right-to-work laws, and for too long they’ve been a stop sign for workers,” the AFL-CIO’s Gebre said. “We’ve got to find other ways of doing things. We’ve got to (attract) fast-food workers and cabdrivers and everybody else not traditionally considered the bread and butter of the movement. We need some little victories to build on.”

You also can read more on southern organizing efforts in an earlier article in The Hill.