On Labor Day, 2012, 300 trade unionists, workers and community activists  packed the Wedgewood Baptist Church in Charlotte, North  Carolina to partucipate in the Southern Workers  Assembly. The purpose of this gathering was to promote organizing the South,  repealing anti-labor legisltion, and strengthening the fight against racism.

By all accounts, this was an historic gathering and attendees left it  united and in high spirits. The event received wide media  coverage.

Below  are the opening remarks by Saladin Muhammad, Coordinator of the Southern Workers  Assembly, recently retired International Representative for the United  Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, and member of Black Workers  for Justice.

Southern  Workers Assembly:

A Call to Action for Workers to Organize Labor in the  South!

Why are we  here? And what is our charge as Southern workers? Are we here mainly as a form  of protest against the failed policies of the Democratic Party regarding worker  rights? Both parties have failed the working class in this regard and  more.

The  Southern Workers Assembly is a call to action by rank-and-file workers to unite,  organize the South and speak in our own name. Southern workers cannot wait for  the Democratic Party and certainly not the Republican Party, to enact some  progressive labor laws before we can begin a serious effort to organize  ourselves into a labor movement. Unfortunately, this has been a serious error on  the part of the U.S. labor movement for too many  years.

During the  1950s and ’60s, the power of an organized and united labor movement in the South  was needed to help fight against the racist system of Jim Crow, which greatly  divided and created deep wounds and lasting scars within the working class that  capital will always try to exploit. This is why a social movement is needed to  organize labor and the working class in the South. We want the Southern Workers  Assembly to be a launching pad that begins a process of building a South-wide  social movement to organize labor.

In an  economy and society where having a job is a requirement for providing ourselves  and families with the basic necessities of life, worker rights become human  rights. Thus a social movement to organize labor in the South must become a  major part of the human rights movement, and must be organized with the same  energy and sacrifice of the civil rights movement that helped to bring about  some progressive reforms for Black and working people.

However, a  human rights labor movement must also be a transformative movement that seeks to  reorganize the economic, social and political relationships that determine the  value of labor, the distribution of the wealth created by labor and technology,  and that protects the lives of the people and sustainability of the planet.  Capitalist globalization and its impact require that our labor movement have a  basic vision of transformation as we organize to build power.

History has  also shown that the failure of the U.S. national labor movement to make a concerted  and coordinated effort to organize labor in the South has been a major factor  allowing the most conservative political base within the U.S. from being  effectively challenged by the organized power of Southern workers.

This has  affected the class consciousness and confidence of Southern workers about our  power to challenge corporate power, which clearly dominates and dictates the  decisions and policies of the state and local governments throughout the South.

Corporate  power has not only super- exploited the labor of Southern workers, it is also  responsible for the underdevelopment and negative environmental impact on many  working class communities, especially African American, Latino, Native American  and poor white, because of the billions in incentives and tax breaks that were  diverted from community development and given to the corporations to locate in  the South.

The massive  disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina in parts of New  Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005 is an  example of what happens when corporate wants are prioritized over the  infrastructure and human needs of the people.

Now that  the South has reemerged as a major region in the global economy, where U.S. manufacturing, foreign  direct investment and finance capital is becoming concentrated — a Wall Street South — the South will be a  major force in the shaping of U.S. labor and social policies.  Efforts to pass anti-immigration laws are developing rapidly in the South, to  create another source of super-exploitation that is based on the race and  ethnicity of the working class.

The U.S. prison  industrial complex, in addition to jailing mainly the unemployed from the Black  and Latino working class communities, provides super-exploited labor for major  corporations. This is largely why there have been draconian laws such as  3-strikes, you’re out, and crime bills enacted over the past 20 years by both  Democratic and Republican administrations. The so-called “legal status” and  stigma permanently branding the formerly incarcerated forces many to have to  work for little or nothing, if they can get hired at all. This is a major reason  forcing many back into crime and the high rates of recidivism.

Dividing the working class and the oppressed peoples in every way  possible is the main strategy of corporate power. The U.S. labor movement  must not see the independent worker-led organizations and initiatives of the  oppressed peoples as something that divides the working class. They exist to  take up the struggles against the special forms of oppression and exploitation  that impact our lives, and that have not been taken up effectively within and by  many of the trade unions.

The  struggle to respect the right of these organizations to exist as part of the  labor movement — while they are also leading the fight for self-determination  as oppressed peoples — must be a main aspect of the struggle against racism to  be waged within the U.S. labor movement and the working class, if we are to  build a powerful and transformative labor movement inside the U.S.

Of the 100  million people living in the South, the largest region of the U.S., African  American and Latino together make up close to 40%. Fifty seven percent or more  than 20 million Black people, and 40% or more than 18 million  Latinos, live in the South. Black and Brown unity is therefore critical to  forging and anchoring the unity of a strong Southern labor and working class  movement.

Having  pointed out the weaknesses of the U.S. labor movement in failing to organize the  South, and the role of the South today in the global economy, it is important to  make clear that this in no way is meant to suggest that workers in the South  have not been organizing and resisting. Your presence at the Southern Workers  Assembly is a testament that we are organizing and fighting.

However,  our organizing and campaigns have been mainly local and unconnected to a broader  framework that projects a South-wide movement. This has made it difficult to  develop and promote a worker’s fight-back climate, and has weakened and  discouraged sustained efforts to organize unions in the South.

There will be many challenges in building this movement that we must  educate and prepare ourselves for. The crisis impacting labor over the past 30  years from the restructuring and globalization of the economy, and the attacks  on unions resulting in a loss of membership by many, has led to an unhealthy  competition between unions, which have divided the working class by fights over  union jurisdictions, raiding and splits in federations and national  unions.

A Southern  labor movement must build structures that unite workers within the same sectors,  regardless of the national unions or organizations they are affiliated with, to  democratically work out an independent plan for concentration and organizing  within those sectors. It is from this base of organizing that we must win the  support from national and international unions for organizing labor in the  South.

Organizing  in the South greatly needs the support of a strong rank-and-file movement within  the national unions who work to build support from their local and national  unions for the development and sustaining of a Southern Labor Alliance,  including actions of national labor solidarity as we saw with the Charleston,  South Carolina dockworkers struggle and the Wisconsin public sector struggle  that closed down the state’s capital. Organizing the South must become a clarion  call for the U.S. labor movement to go on the  offensive.

We want to  leave this Southern Workers Assembly with some basic framework in place that  allows us to move to the next step in holding meetings to begin to map out a  plan for forming a Southern Labor Alliance and launching a social movement  campaign to organize the South.

Let’s get  to work here today in our brief period at the Southern Workers  Assembly.

Onward toward a Southern Labor Alliance!

Issued  by the Emergency Labor Network (ELN)

For  more information write or P.O. Box 21004, Cleveland, OH44121 or call 216-736-4715 or visit our website at Donations  gratefully accepted. Please make checks payable to the ELN and mail to the above  P.O. Box.







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