A new generation of organizers is building union power in the South
Editor’s Note: The following is the transcript of a special live episode of the Working People podcast. It was produced in collaboration with the Action Builder / Action Network team on March 21 in Atlanta, Georgia. In this panel discussion, Max speaks with local organizers about the specific challenges workers in the South face in their workplaces and in their efforts to organize—and how they are finding creative ways to overcome those challenges today. Panelists include: Chris Daniel of the Georgia AFL-CIO; Melanie Barron of the Communications Workers of America / United Campus Workers; and Maurice “Mo” Haskins of the Union of Southern Service Workers.
Mariah Brown: Hi, everyone. Hello. There’s also some seats up here in the front, so you all don’t have to stand. But no pressure, no pressure. Hi, everyone. My name is Mariah Brown. I am the strategic partnerships manager here at Action Network/Action Builder. We want to welcome you all to Build Power Atlanta. So please give yourselves a round of applause. You made it out of rush hour traffic. We appreciate you. [applause]
This transcript was distributed by Economy for All in partnership with The Real News Network.
This transcript was distributed by Economy for All in partnership with The Real News Network. So, Build Power is where we connect with people in the labor movement, community organizing, who have a vision and goal of building power in their communities. I would like to introduce our executive director, Brian Young. And then, shortly after Brian speaks, we’re going to pass it along to Max, who is our facilitator and host for this evening. And I’m going to give a brief bio on Max before I pass it over to Brian. Max Alvarez is the editor-in-chief of The Real News Network, and he’s also the host of Working People podcast, and the author of the book The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke. And so, thank you.
Brian Young: Thanks, Mariah. And again, thank you all for coming. As Mariah said, this is Build Power Atlanta. It’s the third. We had DC, New York, Atlanta. Next is Montreal, maybe. So we’re going global with these. These are events, as the title says, about building power. We build technology. For those of you who don’t know, Action Network and Action Builder are the two tool sets. We’re a nonprofit, and we build technology in partnership with users. We all come from the progressive movement. And the idea was always the best way to build tools for the movement is to build it with the movement. So every feature, every piece of technology we’ve ever built, has been guided by organizers and activists. Because in the end, the goal is not to sell technology; we’re a nonprofit. It’s to build power, and we always keep the end goal in mind.
But technology is a tool. They don’t actually do anything. The people using technology are what does something, and getting people together to talk about how to build power is consistent with our mission. We build the tools for the end result. And conversations like this – This is now the third that Max has facilitated for us – Is a way to get people together and start sharing notes, start building community around building power for workers in our economy in the US. So I’ll turn it over quickly. Thank you again for coming, and I look forward to hearing from all of you. [applause]
Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Thank you all so much for being here. It’s really great to be back in Atlanta. I am Max Alvarez. I will be your host for this evening, and we are going to be hosting this panel as a live show of Working People. So a heads up that we will be – [to stagehand] Are we recording already? – Yep, we are recording. So please, before we get rolling, if you could silence your cell phones so we don’t pick it up on the recording. And during the Q&A portion, I want to encourage folks to use the free floating mic so that we can get your question on the recording. If you’re not comfortable being on the recording, please come up to us afterwards, and we’ll be available to chat if you don’t want to talk on the recording.
But thank you again for being here. And without further ado, we can get going. But first, let’s get the energy up. So we’re going to do formal introductions. Everyone’s going to introduce themselves, once we get the episode rolling. But to give some quick shout outs, I wanted to thank the Action Network/Action Builder team. Let’s give it up to them for hosting us. [applause]
[To stagehand] Thank you for running the audio for us. We really, really appreciate it, man over there in the booth. Let’s give it up for the support staff [applause]. And on our incredible panel, we’ve got Melanie from the Communications Workers of America, United Campus Workers. Let’s give it up for Mel. [applause] We’ve got Christopher from the Georgia AFL-CIO. Let’s give it up for Chris. [applause] And we’ve got Mo from the Union of Southern Service Workers. Let’s give it up for Mo. [applause] Alright, so let’s do this. So I’ll hop in with a little live introduction, and then we’ll get rolling into the discussion.
Welcome, everyone, to another special live show of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you.
So I am truly honored to be here with all of y’all here in Atlanta for our third collaborative live show with the great folks at Action Builder/Action Network. We are taking this national. We are going around to different parts of the country, talking to workers and organizers on the frontline to learn more about the struggles that they are engaged in, how they are winning, what we can learn from failures and missteps and setbacks. And, most importantly, what we can all do to better support one another and continue to grow as a labor movement and to continue to make connections with other social movements. And I want to pause on that for a second, because I’d be remiss if I didn’t say, up top, that, speaking for myself and on behalf of The Real News Network, we stand unequivocally with the people of Atlanta, and we condemn the actions taken against the protestors who are trying to stop Cop City here in Atlanta. [applause]
And make no mistake, to everyone listening to this, after the day’s events, this is all of our fight. SWAT murdered tree defender Tortuguita and lied about it. Police raided the six-acre property of the Lakewood Environmental Arts Foundation. Police also raided a peaceful festival, detaining over 30 festival goers and charging over 20 of them with domestic terrorism. Cops are swarming peaceful protesters around the city who are handing out flyers, giving information about Cop City. This is a serious crisis, and we all need to be invested in the fight against it. And I wanted to note that there has been a really positive development on that front. I was very pleased to see that The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades general president Jimmy Williams Jr. actually released a statement condemning the violence against Cop City protesters this week.
I wanted to read a quick passage from Jimmy’s statement, which reads, “The right to speak up and peacefully protest is fundamental to our union and to all working people. Since the protest began, we’ve seen violence; including the death of one protester, as well as dozens of arrests and incredulous charges of domestic terrorism, in some cases, stemming from the Defend the Atlanta Forest Movement. I believe these tactics are designed more to quell dissent and to dissuade working people from exercising their rights to protest and demonstrate than they are to legitimately uphold the law. It has to stop. Our rights as working people must be upheld, and we deserve to live in a society free from police violence.” Shout out to Jimmy and The Painters Union, and I encourage more folks in labor to join this necessary struggle and to speak out openly about it. And what Jimmy says about workers being able to express their rights is obviously what has brought us all here. And the right to not organize in the workplace, but to exercise our free speech, is fundamentally a labor issue.
I am currently wearing one of my two shirts from the United Mine Workers of America, this one featuring a great quote from MWA president Cecil Roberts about how the Constitution gives me the right to stand on a picket line and call a scab a scab. As great and as true as this quote is – The Warrior Met Coal strike in Alabama, as you all know, the longest strike in Alabama’s history, which came to an end or entered a new phase, with workers unconditionally returning to work without securing the contract that they hit the picket line for – Throughout this strike, workers have had their rights to speak stripped. Business-friendly judges have granted injunction after injunction, limiting their abilities to picket, thus curtailing their right to go on strike and to strike effectively. They’re not the only ones. As we covered relentlessly at The Real News and on my podcast, Working People, as I’m sure everyone here knows, railroad workers are among the class of workers who basically don’t have these rights.
We saw what that looked like last year when scab Joe Biden and Congress forced railroad workers back to work, effectively making their ability to strike illegal in late November. So again, this is fundamentally connected to the struggle against Cop City. It is connected to the struggle of workers here in the South, who have historically been really up against it – Both in terms of legal barriers to exercising our rights to extra legal barriers, violent barriers, racist, and sexist barriers, that have made worker organizing, particularly for poor Black and Brown people, incredibly hard, if not next to impossible – But that’s what makes this event so crucial. And what folks here in the South, like you all, like our incredible panelists, what you’re doing is so important. Because folks are banding together and finding creative ways to get around those barriers. We are thinking outside of the structures of laws that were written by racists and that enforce racist and sexist and classist policies.
And I really, really couldn’t be more honored to be joined by this incredible panel of folks, who are going to talk to us about how they – And the folks that they work with – Are doing that, here in the South, on a day-to-day basis. So without further ado, let’s get to the good stuff. I want to start by quickly having our amazing panelists introduce themselves to you, and then we’ll go back around and we’re going to talk more pointedly about how y’all got into organizing and what that looks like. Normally on this show, I get to sit down and talk with workers one-on-one about their backstories, how they came to be the people they are, work the places they work, and what that work entails. We’re doing a condensed version of that with these live shows, focusing specifically on how we got into organizing. So we’re going to do that in the second round. But first, let’s go around the table and introduce ourselves to the good Working People listeners. Melanie, why don’t we start with you?
Melanie Barron: Hi, my name is Melanie Barron. I’m a senior campaign lead with the Communications Workers of America. I work with United Campus Workers. We’re organizing public higher education workers all over the Southeast and increasingly out West as well. [applause]
Chris Daniel: Hello, everyone. I’m Chris Daniel. I work with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations here in Georgia. Nationwide, we are Democratic Voluntary Federation of 60 National and International Labor Unions, and we represent about 12.5 million working people. Here in Georgia, that number is about 200,000 working people that we represent. So I’m glad to be here and learn more about what everybody’s doing. [applause]
Mo Haskins: Hey, I’m Mo, I’m part of the USSW, The Union of Southern Service Workers. I also have a lot of experience cooking, serving for a decade now; between Zaxby’s, Waffle House, and now working over at EAV. I have a lot of experience in it. I’ve noticed a lot of discrimination, struggles, and abuse, and people taking advantage of workers for a long time. And through USSW, I really see an opportunity to learn and grow. [applause]
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. We have a real kick-ass panel here, and I am super excited to learn more about you all and the work that you’re doing and that your unions are doing and that the workers that you organize with are doing. Normally on the show, I get to do interviews that start with digging into people’s backstories, how they came to be the people they are, the path that led them to doing the work that they do, and I want to do a shortened version of that, specifically in regards to your organizing history.
So let’s start by going back around the table, and tell us about your own path into organizing. I imagine present company may be excluded, but most of us don’t grow up thinking, I want to be a labor organizer. There’s always an interesting story with how people get into the movement. So tell us a bit about your story, and tell us more about what the day-to-day work of organizing looks like for you. What did you originally think that work would look like? And how has your experience been compared to those expectations?
Melanie Barron: What a question. You are correct that I did not grow up thinking I would be a union organizer. I grew up in Dalton, Georgia, Northwest Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene’s district if anybody… I know. It’s very scary. We’re all very scared up there. There’s nobody there that cares about anything. No, it’s not true. There’s a lot of people out there, like me. We don’t have a very strong voice. And so, my path to organizing is long and winding. I’ll shorten it by saying that I graduated from Georgia Southern University in the midst of the recession. There were no jobs at that time. And so, I had the opportunity to go to grad school and I took it, because it paid me real money. It felt like real money at the time, and it was more money than I had ever made, making $17,000 a year as a graduate student.
And once I started working it, I realized how little money that really is, and I ended up taking out a lot of student loans. I really loved what I was doing. I really believed in it. I thought that there was a really important role to play working in a university, and I still deeply believe that. I believe in public education, and I feel that we are not given a fair shake. I started grad school in 2010, learned about my union, United Campus Workers, in 2012, and fell in love with the labor movement.
It is the most beautiful thing to be a part of, and especially where I joined my union at the University of Tennessee, there’s a long history of United Campus workers and people that have been organizing there since the early 2000s, who taught me how to do everything, who taught me the methods that it takes to change the world. And it starts right in your workplace. I became a Superunion member, got involved in a campaign called Tennessee Is Not For Sale, where we defeated our billionaire governor’s attempt to outsource facilities workers across the state. [applause]
That was the campaign that got me hooked, and I was able to join the staff of my local [UCW-CWA Local 3865] and continue to organize and continue to show people those methods in changing the world. And I get to do that now as an organizer with the Communications Workers of America, who’s continued to invest in United Campus Workers and organizing public sector, higher education workers, all across the Southeast. And so, on a day-to-day level, at this point, my life looks like training more and more people to do the work that we do. One of the most challenging parts of organizing in the South, but probably in a lot of parts of the US, is that people don’t know how to do any of this stuff. What do you mean? A petition? What do I do with my petition next? Where do I take it? How do I do…? Wait, will the person that needs the petition, can they get there? Wait, where…?
So there’s a whole series of questions and a whole series of things that you can show other people how to do. And that’s what I do on a day-to-day basis; whether I’m training other union staff who are like me, or I’m training people in the rank and file to do this work as part of their day-to-day life, challenging the boss in day-to-day life. And that rules. So I’m excited to hear from the other panelists. Thanks for the opportunity to be here.
Chris Daniel: Awesome. Well, we have a lot of organizers in the room, I’m sure. And every other week, I have a family member asking me, what in the hell is an organizer? And what do y’all do? And I don’t care how many times I explain what I do, it’s still hard to understand, but I tell them that we do whatever we need to do for working folks. So sometimes that means I’m stuffing envelopes. Sometimes that means I’m calling up 100 affiliates. Sometimes that means I’m talking to rank and file members. It means a lot. But I got into this work from my senior year in college. I really didn’t have a direction in where I wanted to go. I was always interested in what’s going on in the community. And I started with a group called Voices for Working Families, which was convened by Arlene Holt Baker, who was one of the first high-ranking African American females in the AFL-CIO, along with Helen Butler.
Helen came onto my campus, she plucked a few students. She said, look, y’all are going to be leaders here. And she went about and made it her business to train us on how to become a leader in community organizing. We did a lot of work around voting rights during that time. And from there it was a natural progression to start with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees as an international organizer. I did that for a good while. Long story, I moved to Kenya, came back, did some work with the UAW, and now, I’m excited to be able to be in Georgia at this time. Because we have a tremendous opportunity now to change what the face of the union looks like here in the South. So I’m excited to be here and learn more from our panels and talk to you a little bit more about what’s going on here in Georgia. [applause]
Mo Haskins: So I joined the union while I was working at my current job. I couldn’t get no [inaudible]. It was a weird experience. I never had any experience with unions. I never understood what it meant, but the whole thing was always foreign to me. There have always been bad things said about it. It hurts companies, hurts the economy. It’s bad overall. And it’s people being selfish. Once I joined the USSW specifically, they really showed me that it was a weird concept they’re forcing down your throat, which I always thought was weird. It’s people having power over the workplace. You come in every day, you make all the money every day, you do things your GM can never figure out by themselves. [audience laughter] And it is you working every day, day in day out, sweating, breaking your back, people working like 17-hour shifts, two jobs, and still getting the crumbs.
But yeah, that’s what brought it to me. But when I joined it, I expected to be doing strike after strike. I go from one strike, well, that’s done. Let’s go to another one. Wake up, going to do two this day. But it’s nothing like that actually. [laughter] It’s being down in the dirt every day. It’s talking to workers every single day, whether it’s at Zaxby’s, whether it’s at McDonald’s, whether it’s at your favorite restaurant, gas station worker, healthcare worker, it doesn’t matter. Everyone’s a service worker.
You pass them every day, you probably worked a service job, and it’s inescapable. But somehow, they’ve always been treated like dirt, less than people, machines, a cog in it. And if you’re broken, it feels like you get replaced, but no one understands that you are the machine. Without you, there’s nothing. And that’s really the purpose of worker power that I really appreciate and love.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Well, let’s drill down on some of the stuff that y’all already brought to the table. Because like Mo was saying, there are a lot of challenges and obstacles to organizing – Many of which are the perceptions that we have of ourselves as workers who even deserve to have a say in the workplace, that we deserve better than a $17,000 stipend a year, or that we deserve some regularity with our scheduling instead of having to figure out who’s going to watch our kids, how we’re going to get home, and accepting that we are as worthless as the system teaches us we are.
And that can look different in different sectors. I know in higher ed – Speaking from experience – On top of those other challenges, you have the additional challenges of convincing folks that they are workers in the first place in higher education and that, as such, they deserve the same rights as every other worker. You also have the arms race to try to get grants or try to get jobs or try to get noticed for your work, so you feel competitive with your fellow workers.
So that’s one example of the challenges to the organizing that you’re doing that I want us to dig into here, both to organizing workers in general, beyond the South. What sorts of challenges and obstacles do we face in labor organizing today? And what challenges are we facing in the South specifically? And since we’re fortunate enough to have such an incredible range of folks on this panel, let’s talk about what those challenges look like in different sectors, and then we’ll talk about how we get around them.
Chris Daniel: I’ll start, if y’all don’t mind. I’m talking specifically right now about the Delta flight attendants, the ramp workers, and mechanics that are organizing. And one of the major challenges that we are having right now is how big Delta is and the type of immense wealth that they have to fight our efforts. And the way that we are getting around that, we are creating this type of synergy here in this state where we’re not fighting each other about jurisdictional issues right now. What we’re doing is combining our efforts, and we are moving together on these huge employers like Delta. So the thing that I’m most encouraged about in Georgia and in the South right now is the way that these unions are coming together and forming these multi-union organizing spaces. There’s going to be a lot more of that happening here in the future. We’re going to do a lot more winning; we’re going to kick some butt in that way. [applause]
Maximillian Alvarez: Before we move on – For folks who are listening to this, maybe outside the South – Delta has its hub here for a reason. Could you say a little more about that?
Chris Daniel: Well, a lot of people don’t know. So Delta is the largest employer here in the state. They employ more than 30,000 workers. Pre-pandemic, there were more than 33,000 workers. The type of revenue that they bring into the state is immense. So they have the funds to fight us, but we have the manpower, we have the will, we have the synergy that we’ve created, and we have some really amazing organizers and worker committees that have been developed to kick some ass. [cheering] So we’ve got people power. They may have a little money power, but we’ve got people power. And that’s going to get us where we need to go.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah.
Melanie Barron: That rules, go Delta. I’m excited to see some of my coworkers in the back of the room, who showed up, who were organizing the campaign. [applause] It is huge, and I hope that all of us, in this city and across the South, participate in that amazing and transformative campaign. To build on what you were saying, part of one of the challenges that working people face in the South – And in many parts of the US, more generally – Is the lack of organization itself. The employers that we’re going up against have unimaginable resources, unimaginable resources compared to the everyday people who are working for them.
And so, the intervention that we are making in United Campus Workers, a lot of the time, is we lack organization as working people, period. We’re completely disparate. We’re not talking to each other. I was at the University of Alabama last night, and one of the things that strikes me about that institution in particular is how separate people are on a day-to-day basis. And it is a college campus, it is a unit, it is a geographic unit. You can walk around and talk to different people, but on a day-to-day basis, people don’t interact. And that’s by design.
So the union that workers there are building functions as this connective tissue to share information, to share struggles that they’re facing on campus; whether it’s people who are teaching college classes and don’t have health insurance, to people who are working in the dining halls or working in residence halls, who make very little money. It varies from campus to campus, but sometimes people are making way less than $10 an hour, very close to that $7.25 line. And so, that’s unacceptable. The amount of challenges that people have to face in their day-to-day life to get by in the US economy is enough to be a huge challenge to organizing.
And then, let’s say somebody gets fired up and wants to do something about it. Where do they go? Who do they call? Often there’s not anything there. What we’re able to do with organizing, outside of the traditional labor framework in the US, is to create a place where people can go and learn the skills and be with their coworkers to organize more. I feel like a broken record about it – And many of us in CWA probably do – But building organization in itself and the lack of organization among working people is the fundamental challenge that we face as the working class.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Let’s give it up. [applause]
Mo Haskins: In the South – Specifically the Black Belt – It’s known for its racism, its sexism. That’s been going on for… Yeah, it’s been existing for as long as the South’s existed. And there’s been laws created since back then that still hold up to this day, laws that are here today – Like the right-to-work law – Laws created to stop the raising of minimum wage. All these are based in racist and sexist origin. And there’s nothing being done about it still. Service workers have been struggling with this for, I don’t even know how long, but there’s always been a fight going on in the South for it, for as long as I can remember, since the origin of civil rights movements and the labor movements. And I’m happy that we, including the USSW, can carry on that fight today.
Maximillian Alvarez: So I want to focus even more on the specific campaigns that y’all are working on, are part of, and how, on a day-to-day level, you are working to get around these major obstacles. Because, Melanie, you said something that we should all take to heart, and Mo as well: even if we play by their rules, those rules are stacked in their favor, for very shitty historical reasons, that are meant to make it harder for us to actually win what we’re trying to win. So we know that, but even if we do play by their rules, they could always change them. And that has happened; we’ve gotten two object lessons in the span of a week.
I also produce this labor segment, occasionally, for Breaking Points, called The Art of Class War. The last episode I did was on legislators in the state of Iowa trying to roll back child labor laws. Here in the South, of course, there was the bombshell story about parts manufacturers for Hyundai and other car manufacturers having child labor. They should be a national scandal. And what does fucking Arkansas do? – Pardon my French – They changed the laws to make it easier for children to go to work, to do more dangerous jobs, to work longer hours. This is how craven the ruling class is in general, but this is also how they’re weaponizing that here at the legislative level in the South on top of that.
Like I said, we’re recording this as a live show of Working People. The episode that is going to be published this week is a panel that I recorded with campus workers, graduate student workers at Duke University, North Carolina, and faculty workers at Rutgers in New Jersey, who were prepared to go on strike as well. The Duke grad student workers played by the rules. Now, the Duke University administration is not only refusing to recognize the union, they are flipping over the chess board, and they are vowing to challenge the National Labor Relations Board 2016 ruling that basically solidified the right of graduate student workers at private universities to unionize. So what Duke is saying is, not only are we not going to recognize you, our graduate student workers, as a union, we don’t believe you have a place at the bargaining table with us. But we’re going to go to the national level and try to rip this right away from grad workers at universities across the country. That is what we’re up against.
But there are signs of incredible hope and struggle and folks who, like y’all, are working around that. One example I would give, before I toss it back to our great panel, last week, I reported at The Real News Network on the five-day march, led by the Coalition of Immokalee Farm Workers in Florida. I don’t know if folks heard about that, but they’re an incredible group that emerged also out of the fact that, for very explicitly racist reasons, farm workers were written out of the National Labor Relations Act a century ago.
So they don’t have a lot of the same rights that other workers do, and that opens the door for hyper-exploitation, especially of migrant workers who can have their immigration status held over them. There’s rampant sexual abuse and harassment in the field, so on and so forth. And yet, this group of workers in Florida that could not band together in formal capacity banded together anyway, and they have managed to get huge corporations like Taco Bell and Walmart to say they will not purchase produce from farms that do not abide by a certain code of conduct that the workers themselves have crafted. [applause]
So they did it again last week; they did a five-day march. They are demanding that other companies that have refused to sign onto that pledge, other companies that have refused to say, we will not source produce from producers and growers where slave labor happens, where rampant abuse and exploitation happens. Those companies have names. They are: Wendy’s. Wendy’s has refused to sign on to this pledge for many, many years; Kroger: Kroger has also refused to sign this pledge. And so, workers, at great risk to themselves and their families, marched five days through the South of Florida to demand that these companies sign that pledge. That’s one example of how we can still use people’s power to work around the racist structures and barriers that are put in our way.
So I want to go back around the table and ask a bit more about the different campaigns that y’all are working on. How, with the Union of Southern Service workers, with campus workers, how you are still harnessing labor organization, people power, infrastructure building, so on and so forth, to make gains, even with all of these ridiculous barriers that are put in your way? So who wants to go first?
Chris Daniel: I’ll take it.
Melanie Barron: Great, take it. There you go.
Chris Daniel: Sounds good. So I’m going to start by saying this: the South got something to say. You’ll hear people say all the time, nothing is happening in labor down in the South, y’all aren’t doing nothing down there. Density is decreasing. It is not labor friendly in the South. But the South got something to say, workers here have something to say. What they don’t tell you about that statistic is that, actually, in the South, membership is growing around – Especially in Georgia – Membership is growing. It’s that the pool of workers is also growing. So density may be decreasing, but that doesn’t mean we’re not growing our numbers. So the South got something to say, people are ready now to organize and get this thing done. And I’m going to go back to it. We are facing immense challenges from folks who don’t think the way that we do.
When I think about this state, in the next couple of years, clean energy jobs will be here. We’ve got electric vehicle plants coming. There are about 13,000 jobs coming in electric vehicles in the next couple of years here. And talking about those challenges that we have, our governor sent a letter during the last election cycle to our congressional delegates in DC, basically telling them, do not negotiate with unions about this new clean energy money that’s coming out. So those are the challenges that we face. We face immense challenges. But what we have – And you talked about it – We have the fact that all of our work connects us. And now, our unions understand that, and they’re taking this challenge on together. So we’re not fighting as one small union against these huge organizations. We’re coming together and doing this thing together.
So what I hope that you take away from my conversation today is that we don’t have to fight these battles alone. One thing that our team is doing right now, we’re reaching out to all of our community allies. Our community allies, they face the same issues. The issues that we face in the communities are the issues that we face in the workplace. So it’s time to create that synergy, together with community and labor, and start to fight these fights together. And that’s what we’re doing at the Georgia AFL-CIO: we are creating spaces where we can connect the community with labor, connect labor with the clergy. We want to make sure that we connect all of these different connective tissues and fight this fight together. So that’s what we’re doing, and that’s how we’re ganging up on the boss.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. [applause]
Melanie Barron: In United Campus Workers – For the most part, with very few exceptions – We have no collective bargaining rights, we have no pathway to that unless we change laws, and in some cases, change state constitutions. There’s a whole world of legal barriers. So we’ve been able to organize a union anyway, because a union is an organization made up of people who do things together collectively. One of the main ways around some of the challenges that we face is, like, what are y’all going to do to us? We’re talking about organizing with our First Amendment rights. If you’re going to take that away from us, then we have very big problems as a country, my friends. So we really lean on those rights, and we exercise those rights, in some ways to be able to protect them in the first place, in the political climate that we’re in.
But we also collect dues. Everyone who’s a member of United Campus Workers pays dues through a bank draft system. And with that, we’re able to build a serious resource base with which to fund ongoing organizing all over the place. That’s a really important angle of how we get around it. There’s also all kinds of fun campaigning that you can do, when you don’t necessarily have a lot of legal restrictions that you’ve got to call the legal department about all of the time. Usually, we can march on the boss, or have a picket, or do all kinds of tactics like that, because we’re exercising our rights as people who live in the US. We can do that, and it is effective.
There’s a lot of different campaigns active in United Campus Workers right now. Many places are fighting for a raise in the minimum wage, in particular, to match the real cost of living in our country right now, with the rising cost of living and inflation. So $25 by 2025 is a prevailing demand that’s being expressed in Atlanta, in Arizona, and lots of other places.
We also have grad students who are organizing. There’s a lot of energy in higher education organizing in general around graduate workers, and they’re routinely screwed over all the time. It’s so silly, not even being able to get paid on time. So workers at the University of Virginia this year rang in the new year by getting their paychecks sent to them on time. Workers at the University of Southern Mississippi made sure that they were going to get paid on time in the fall, because the university wanted to make sure that they didn’t. So there’s all kinds of different campaigns happening, and putting people in motion really does work over time. It’s good. [applause]
Mo Haskins: So the USSW really builds itself around being an anti-racist, multiracial union, which, in the South, is a very important thing to have. Honestly, It’s essential. And the five things we do are our five demands, which I really feel like gives us the basics that we deserve: higher pay; a fair schedule; being treated equally; a seat at the table; and very importantly, safety and concern at a workplace. I feel like safety is ignored at the workplace. You know how many times we walk to McDonald’s, you see them get into a fight with someone and right away, it’s McDonald’s. You go into these places and it’s a normalized thing that’s expected of them. They’re ghetto folks though. Doing what ghetto folks do.
[long pause] Sorry, I’ve got some points I have to make sure I get to… And what we do that’s very important is direct action. Instead of going through the NLRB, when we unionize, we prefer to unionize the individual instead of the store. Since you’re in a service industry, odds are their jobs can have a high turnover and you’re going to be working two jobs, at least. And by giving the individual a union, you can create consistency throughout all their jobs, and that’s really important. The way we do this is by worker power. We do have organizers there to help us with the tools that we need, but honestly, it’s the workers with the power.
So we’re out there every day. I’m out there every day. When I’m not working, whenever I’m going by a place, if I see that they’re not being treated the way they need to be, I’ll tell them about it. I’ll tell them they have options. I worked in the industry for almost a decade and I never knew this. I came in there, I worked as hard as I could, I got shitty pay, and then I went home. And I did it over again. That’s how it’s supposed to be. That’s a job. But it’s not right, it’s not right at all.
So I made sure I told people that, and it actually took me a long time to learn that. My good friend, Monica – I love you, Monica – For as long as I’ve been working, she’s been over there telling me, that’s not fair. You shouldn’t be dealing with that. Don’t deal with that. Say something. I’m like, that’s your job. I ain’t trying to get fired, it’s not worth it. Keep doing it. She said it every day, over and over again, for years actually, until it finally clicked to me. Maybe I should say something. So I finally decided to speak up and say something. And it made a difference, my voice was heard. And that’s the thing about it. Closed mouths don’t get fed. If you want something to happen, you gotta make it happen. And I’m happy I figured that out through this.
Chris Daniel: I want to circle back and acknowledge a few campaigns. I know we’ve talked about Delta, and we’ve got some amazing organizers here from the Delta campaign, from AFA, from IAM, as well as the Teamsters. But also, today, we, about 7 different labor unions, went to support our sister, Jennifer Bennett, and the IATSE 798. [applause] Today, we went down to the NLRB to support them as they voted to have their own union. Now, that has been a tremendous fight for them over the past couple of years, and I didn’t want it to get lost in the conversation, that they are now ready to take that next step.
With that being said, while they did vote unanimously for their union, [applause] you know the boss ain’t going to let this thing happen easily, so the boss immediately contested it. But what we do know is that same synergy that you had today, all of the unions are behind you, and we’ll be there fighting along to make sure that this thing happens. So I wanted to prop up that fight.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Give it up one more time. [applause] And I want to be clear that this is a live recording, this is a live show, so we’re playing by those rules. But when we’re talking about certain campaigns or certain actions coming up, we don’t want to put all our goddamn cards on the table. We don’t want to tell the boss everything that we’re doing. So again, if you have questions about that, you can talk to us afterwards, but I don’t want to ask any of our guests to talk about anything that’s going to compromise them or the campaigns, so on and so forth. So I wanted to make that disclaimer.
And speaking of one of the really common threads that I’m hearing from y’all, which again is so exciting, not just for the South, but something that organizers everywhere should learn, is that your enemy does not shape the rules for you to play so that you can win easier; they do it for the opposite reason. And so, if you keep playing by those rules, there’s only going to be so much that you can do. But there actually can be real moments of liberation and creativity and exciting power when we start looking beyond those restrictive protocols for, say, organizing a union in a single shop, or, how are we going to get this worker who’s having their wages stolen from them their wages back?
I would point people to connect this across the continent, one of the most exciting labor stories that we’ve reported on at The Real News in the past year is by a group called the Naujawan Support Network in Toronto. Has anyone heard of them by any chance? They kick ass. Go Google them. They’re doing what y’all are doing in a really exciting way, because these are primarily Punjabi immigrant student workers in – [cheering] Hell yeah.
…In Canada, because of their student visas, they can only work, say, 20 hours a week. But they’re working to not only live in Toronto, but send money back home. And so, because of their immigration status, because of the restrictions on how much they can work, they are a rife for hyper-exploitation, which happens all the time in Toronto, which is very sad and infuriating. But like you said, individually, they have no power. And even as a workforce, they don’t have a whole lot of power, because the hammer can come down on them, they can get deported. There’s so much at stake, and the bosses know that. And they’ve been exploiting that. And they also can’t unionize because of their immigration status.
So what do they do? They essentially turn the community into a union, and they have grandmas, aunts, uncles, kids marching with them on the boss en masse, with signs saying, this guy’s a wage thief. They’re publicly shaming, they are adopting tactics that the farmers in India used when they launched the most massive worker mobilization in the modern era. And they’re taking that to Toronto, and it’s working. The bosses don’t like being called out in their neighborhoods and having their neighbors see the chalk written in front of their house saying, this guy’s a wage thief. So I’m not saying you necessarily have to do that, but that people across the working class are figuring this stuff out. And it’s very exciting to be amidst others like you all here, who are doing that as well.
And I wanted us to round out on that point, before we open it up to Q&A, because like the other live shows that we’ve done in New York and DC, we ultimately want folks who listen to this, after the fact, to realize we’re talking about them too. We all have a stake in this. This is all of our fight, and we can all learn really valuable lessons from everything that y’all have been sharing here. And so I want to focus on that on our final turn around the table. We should talk about some of the practical points, tips, and stories that we can build on and learn from in our own workplaces and beyond.
How has Action Builder played into the organizing work that you’ve done? And what can others do with tools like Action Builder? But even more broadly, what lessons do you think people can learn from your successes, setbacks, and approaches to organizing? And lastly, what can all of us learn from each other about how to fight and win? And how can we better support one another as a labor movement that isn’t in competition with our brothers and sisters and siblings on the other side?
Mo Haskins: Well, my failure is what I spoke about earlier: how I ignored good advice over and over again. Someone kept telling me something, but I kept believing the lies I’ve been told before. I chose to be ignorant. I never decided to really look into it and understand it, and I’m happy I did. Educating yourself on what’s really out there, your other options, your choices. It’s so important to do.
And honestly, communicating with other people around you. Everyone here has the knowledge in the room that they need to change the world. Now, not every single person has it, but the room together, we all have what we need. Talk to each other, communicate with each other, share information, and solidarity. That shit’s real, people power. It’s an important thing that we all have, and I feel like we should really focus on it as much as we can. Really uplift each other. [applause]
Chris Daniel: Yes, I’m with you, Mo, that was basically one of the points that I wanted to make. Solidarity. Every day, we make calls to affiliate leaders and community leaders, and we want to figure out where those connective issues are. We want to make sure that we can connect our issues with the issues of folks in the community. One of the big failures that we have as an organized labor body is that we sometimes let these jurisdictional fights – And the belief that we can better serve these workers – Sometimes that gets in the way of our progress.
But what we really should be doing is fixing the jurisdictional stuff in the beginning, figuring out where we have some common ground, and moving that way. Because we’ve been talking about it – And I know this has been a common theme that I’ve been talking about – Is some of these fights that we’re fighting, it’s going to take faith-based communities, with labor, to win these things. We talked about the Delta fight, we talked about the opera. It’s going to be hard to win these things on our own, but we know the amazing work that these different organizations do. If we get together, there’s no way we can be stopped. So that’s my thing is, like you said, solidarity. That’s how we win. And lack of solidarity is how we lose a lot of the time.
Melanie Barron: Amen to all of that. Talking to your coworkers about the things that you care about at work, you can do it. So many people are afraid to do it and are afraid to break those social boundaries. And that is the most powerful thing that you can do in your day-to-day life is say no, fuck you, to the boss, together, with your coworkers. And that does make a difference. It adds up over time. And I will be on brand for this panel and say I love Action Builder. I think it’s great.
And those tools can help you make sure that the knowledge that you’re gaining on a day-to-day basis from those conversations with your coworkers and other people across your workplace actually gets saved somewhere, actually can contribute toward building something over the long term. If we’re serious about building working-class power, then we also want to be serious about – Even at these beginning stages – Dreaming about, what does it mean to have a majority of people on this campus or in this workplace agree with us?
And it takes a really long time to do that. The people who are organizing in Delta right now, those databases are gold. You really need to know how people think and shift and change over time. And those tools are really helpful. And to all organizations out there, this is a really important tool to be investing in. And I want to shout out to my coworker, Taylor Mills, who is the best data specialist ever, [applause] and has built Action Builder for our campaigns, to be extremely useful. And I’m training people on it all the time and really evangelizing about it. So don’t be afraid of the tools that are there to help you. You can learn it, you can do it, and it will help you. Don’t shy away from that stuff. It’s very helpful.
Chris Daniel: I’m going to circle back around to, I’ll be taking the Action Builder training in the next couple of days, so I’m excited about being able to take what – And I know that they have reworked Action Builder for the AFL-CIO – So I’m excited about the possibility of using it and getting our affiliates on board, to make sure that we are using data, to make sure our work is efficient. Because data is really important in the work that our affiliates do. And Action Builder, I’m chomping at the bit to learn more, and I’ll be calling you –
Melanie Barron: Call Taylor. Sorry, Taylor.
Chris Daniel: …I’ll be calling you, Taylor.
Maximillian Alvarez: And rapid-fire, final closeout round. For any working person who is in the South listening to this, what is your message to them about this moment and why they should get off the sidelines?
Melanie Barron: It can’t wait. Do it now. Do it today. Do it because your life is important. Do it because your coworkers’ lives are important. Yeah, do it now.
Chris Daniel: For me, the enduring point that I would leave with you is that work connects us all, and that’s it. Work connects us all.
Mo Haskins: I agree with both of them. Now is really the time. Ain’t no one got time to waste time. You really gotta do what you can. Communicate with everyone that you can. Create a community, because honestly, you already got a community. You got to bond it together.
Chris Daniel: I want to bring up one last point, and I’ll leave it here. For all of my folks who are seasoned labor folks, make sure you reach back and bring us some young folks, not to bring them in as grunt workers. Bring them in and let them lead. I remember a brother named the Rev. James Orange, and he was one of the folks that helped bring me up in this labor movement. And one thing that he would always do, I don’t care where we were, if you were with brother James Orange, he was going to prop you up into the forefront, and he was going to make you a leader that day. So the last enduring thought that I would leave you with is to bring up some young person behind you and make them a leader.
Maximillian Alvarez: Let’s give it up for our panel, everyone. [applause] All right, well, we have a floating microphone here. Let’s open it up to Q&A. If you have questions for our amazing panelists or struggles that you want to spotlight, things that you want to address, let’s go for it.
Shelly Anand: Hi, thank you so much for sharing all your knowledge. It’s so, so inspiring. My name’s Shelly Anand. I’m the co-founder and executive director of Sur Legal Collaborative. And we mostly work with poultry workers in Gainesville, Georgia, who’ve survived toxic chemical leaks. And I would love to hear the strategies that you’re using now, or strategies that you dream about using, to bring undocumented workers into the fold of this amazing moment in labor history.
Chris Daniel: I can speak a little bit to that. So the AFL-CIO is embarking on this new campaign. We are going to start naturalization clinics. So next month, my team will be going over to Austin to learn how to bring naturalization clinics here to Georgia. So if anybody’s working in that realm, please get at me, because we want to figure out how we can work together on that.
Speaker 1: [inaudible]
Chris Daniel: Yes. So I’ve been talking to IUPAT, I know they’ve been doing a lot around deferred action clinics. We’ve been talking about how we can marry those two clinics, so let’s get it done. It’s important. There’s some estimates that say 500,000 people in this state are eligible to naturalize. And you can imagine that could be a huge part of the electorate come 2024. So it’s going to be important for us, not because it could be an important part of the electorate, but because it’s the human thing to do.
Speaker 1: Hoffman Plastics will not apply anymore. They have a work permit. They have all the rights of [inaudible].
Chris Daniel: Yep, yep, yep, yep.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and I wanted to hook this back to our last live show, where we had Taf Sourov from Laborers Local 79, the Construction Workers Union in New York City. I’ve been very, very heartened to see the work that they are doing, because as we know, construction workers in NYC don’t have the greatest track record on this question. And unions in general have a pretty bad history – In terms of seeing their undocumented fellow workers, returning citizens, folks who are in fact the most exploited and the most ripe for exploitation, somehow, as their enemy, as the ones undercutting their wage – And the only one who wins in that situation is the boss, as we know.
And so, it’s really heartening to see unions like Local 79 in NYC, not really focus a lot of their organizing resources on workers at companies and contractors in the city, that are known to be the most exploitative of undocumented workers: like Alba Demolition – I interviewed some workers in Spanish for The Real News Network. You can check that out. It was posted in January – Who were working with the union to hold Alba accountable for its disgusting practices, from having workers remove asbestos with nothing more than some goggles and throwing it into some black bags, to workers falling through floors, because the foremen aren’t actually keeping things up to code.
Laborers Local 79 is really devoting resources, organizing resources, financial resources, to reaching out to undocumented workers. But also, one thing they really deserve a shout out for is that they have been instrumental in pushing to create the Excluded Workers Fund in NYC, which was designed during COVID to provide social aid for workers, domestic workers, undocumented workers, who were not eligible for the unemployment benefits and so on and so forth when COVID hit. So there are examples of unions figuring this out and correcting past mistakes, but we need more of it. Much, much more of it. Do we have another question? Okay.
Michael McClure: How are you guys doing? My name is Michael McClure. I’m an organizer for AFA, Association of Flight Attendants, working on the Delta campaign here in Atlanta. I would firstly want to let you all know I have buttons for everyone here. Chris will be mad at me if I don’t tell you. I have some buttons for you guys to sport. But my question is this. We live in a city that’s been heralded as one of the most progressive places in the South. It’s this city on the hill, where people look across the South about how progressive we are. But there have been so many labor abuses, so many abuses against working class folks, that are really based right here from this city. We are in a space where we’re creating this campaign, creating opportunities, creating conversations from scratch, because the fact is that Atlanta feels and says and uses a progressive messaging while also doing everything they can to tear down poor and working class people.
So my question for the folks on the panel, what are you doing to, firstly, broaden that narrative about what it means to really hold these labor ideals too highly and holding folks accountable? How do we build community around, not messaging, but around new realities for folks here in the South? And I definitely want to commend each one of you for the work you’re doing. Also, I want to add this point, the Georgia Democratic Party doesn’t even have a labor caucus. It shows how far we are away from the point where we work towards every single day as a group, but as a city, as a state, we are so far from the mark. So how do we work towards getting there?
Mo Haskins: I’ve said this before, I’m going to say it a hundred times again. I’m really sorry about that. But I’m going to say it a hundred times: worker power, people power. No one’s going to do a thing for us. We have to go out there, we have to force action. And USW loves to take direct action, between walkouts, petitions. We like petitions. We like to do strikes and media, a very important thing, media. Because honestly, sometimes you have to shame them into understanding that we’re out here too, that we exist.
Chris Daniel: Something important that we can do here, for instance, in the Delta campaign, it’d be dope if we had a CBA with the community. We had an agreement with the community that says, look, we need to hold these folks to a different standard, and this is that standard. So CBAs are a way that we can mitigate some of the ugliness from these folks. For instance, Fulton County, Clayton County, East Point, all of those folks, we have some friends that are in those cities. They’re on the board at the airport. We should be able to get a CBA that our friends help us get. So those are the types of things that we can do as organized labor to help move our organizing along here. So CBAs is something that I’m thinking we can prop up as a tool here.
Melanie Barron: And in regard to the labor conditions in Atlanta, tell the truth, tell it loud, say it over and over and over again. Georgia State University, down the street here, it blows my mind every time I’m on that campus and talking to people. Y’all thought my $17,000 at the University of Tennessee was low. Go talk to some of the workers there who make less than $10,000 a year today.
It’s unreal. It’s unreal. And they definitely get away with it. We need to keep building and we need to keep encouraging each other to be very brave and speak out against these institutions that get away with really, really horrible things on a day-to-day basis. And your organization is a place where you can find safety and community in that, and that’s really important. So building that organization, in regard to building more of a voice for working people in the political apparatus in this state, we need to build unity and get involved and make sure that we’re bringing all the right people to the table, to make a caucus like that happen. It needs to happen here. [applause]
Mariah Brown: Okay. We have time for one more question. Go ahead. [inaudible]
Speaker 10: Okay, that’s me. Thank you all so much for your work. I would love to hear from each of you. How would you describe the world that you are working for, the world that you want to live in? If we weren’t fighting day in, day out, for our lives, for dignity, for respect, for health, all the things. How would you paint the picture of what you’re fighting for?
Mo Haskins: What I’m fighting for, it’s a sense of respect. I like to feel like, when I help someone with something, which we’re doing, we’re helping a business grow stronger every day. I feel like I deserve some form of respect for it, some dignity. I want to feel like what I do matters, because it does matter. If I disappear today, it’s going to make a big difference. But in the right world, it wouldn’t be this obvious line in between what’s happening here and what’s happening there. That’s obviously some people are being run over and ran out, and I don’t know, my perfect world would be different. Yeah.
Chris Daniel: One of your questions was, what does that world look like? And then, what are we fighting for? So I have two daughters. I don’t know if anybody has children. If you have children in this room, you can probably attest to this. What I fight for is to make sure that they have a world where they can work with dignity. So that’s what I fight for. That’s it.
Melanie Barron: Fairness, at the end of the day, is the thing that I think about the most, in addition to the words you all said; respect and dignity and fairness. Our world is deeply, deeply unfair, and people deserve a fair shake day in and day out, no matter what circumstances they were born into. And that’s part of why I believe in public education and why I fight for it every day is because that’s one pathway to having some amount of fairness in our society. Worker power is the realest pathway that I can see.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, that seems like a great spot to end on. So thank you all so much. Let’s give it up for our panel one more time. [applause] Thank you to Action Builder/Action Network. Thank you for hosting us. And please, if you have more questions, want to come up, meet our great panelists.
Chris Daniel: Don’t forget those pins.
Maximillian Alvarez: Get those pins.
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