Service workers across the US South signed union cards on Saturday after a three-day summit in Columbia, South Carolina, where they agreed to join forces to fight the operating companies and the politicians who authorize them.
“Workers in every state and workplace in the South will become an unstoppable force.”
The workers – who are employed in fast food restaurants, gas stations, retail stores and other workplaces – have joined the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW), which is part of the Union Service Employees International (SEIU) and an affiliate of National Economic Justice. group fight for $15.
“With eyes wide open to the past and immense hope for a better future, we are building a union to fight for decent wages, fair working conditions and a voice at work,” said Brandon Beachum, a worker from Panera Bread of Atlanta. “We come together and commit to the long term as a union because collective action is the best way to improve our lives and support our families.”
The unionized workers waved their signed union cards chanting, “We’re screwed, we can’t take it anymore!”
The South has the lowest union density of any region in the United States, with only 6% of workers represented by a collective bargaining unit. In South Carolina, only 1.7% of employees are unionized.
Meanwhile, preemption laws — widely passed by white-majority legislatures in the South — have prevented cities from raising wages for decades, leaving workers across the region struggling to make ends meet while also earning as little as $7.25 an hour, even though more than 40% of the country lives in places where voters and lawmakers have approved a minimum wage of $15 an hour.
The USSW includes people from a variety of jobs and workplaces “because Southern companies employ a low-wage, high-turnover model,” the group said in a press release.
“It is virtually impossible for workers in fast food, care, retail, warehouses and others to join a union under existing rules,” the USSW said.
The union has launched several demands for employers in the region, including:
- A seat at the table for workers to make decisions about working conditions, establish corporate accountability for the treatment of workers, and ensure respect for the right of workers to organize without reprisal;
- Fair wages and an end to wage theft in industries;
- Dignity and equal treatment, including equal pay for all workers and protection against discrimination and harassment;
- Health and safety through healthcare benefits, sick leave and safe work protections and equipment; and
- Fair and consistent schedules, including the ability to work full-time with secure staffing levels and regular weekly schedules.
The summit came as high-level fights for workers’ rights continue in workplaces, including Starbucks, the University of California and HarperCollins Publishers.
Low-wage workers in the South face a deep-rooted history of racially discriminatory work practices. Farm and domestic workers were excluded by racist Southern congressmen from labor laws passed in the 1930s, including the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.
Given the region’s history of leaving the majority black workforce out of historic labor laws, said Terrence Wise, a fast-food worker and Fight for $15 leader, “there’s no It’s no surprise that nearly 80% of workers in South Carolina earn less than $15 an hour.”
At the summit, participants prepared to take collective action as a union. They discussed the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which included white and black farmworkers during the Great Depression; the 1969 strike by black Charleston hospital workers; and the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union, led by Fannie Lou Hamer.
“Black, brown and immigrant service workers in the South are leading the fight for a fundamental transformation of our economy and our democracy aimed at rewriting outdated laws that have always held back workers and prevented them from having their voices heard through the unions,” said SEIU President Mary Kay Henry. “Together in the Union of Southern Service Workers, workers in Southern states and workplaces will become an unstoppable force that no union busting company or racist politician will dare ignore.”