Charleston, S.C. — Labor leaders in Charleston, S.C., hosted a public meeting at the International Longshore Association union hall to build for the Southern Workers Assembly, to be held in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 3, the day after the March on Wall Street South. Organized by Donna Dewitt, retired former president of South Carolina AFL-CIO, and hosted by Ken Riley, president of ILA Local 1422 and SC AFL-CIO, this Aug. 9 gathering can be considered a huge step forward for the Southern labor movement.
Speakers included Saladin Muhammad, of the Southern International Worker Justice Campaign and retired United Electrical Workers (UE) international representative; Erin McKee, president of Charleston Central Labor Council; Benjamin Lewis, taxi driver and recording secretary with the S.C. Professional Drivers Association; and Chris Nelson, registered nurse at Medical University of South Carolina. Walter Smith, vice president of Mail Handlers Local 334, attended.
Speakers highlighted how “right-to-work-(for-less)” laws in the U.S. South make it difficult to organize. Yet workers continue to push forward and find innovative and powerful ways to overcome obstacles and win power on the job.
“We are caught in the crosshairs of global capital trying to eliminate our jobs. They are now trying to eliminate us with automation,” stated Riley, speaking about some of the difficulties the ILA is currently facing in negotiations across the eastern seaboard, particularly in the southern states. Speaking of the need to push the national leadership, Riley said, “I would rather be independent and fight the good fight that’s needed in the South. We need to get more involved in nontraditional organizing. We need to build independent, strong, fighting organizing campaigns all across the South.”
Solidarity with Southern workers needed
Muhammad spoke about how crucial it is that the entire labor movement understand the importance of organizing the unorganized in the South, a major region of anti-worker reaction — which is now spreading throughout the country. “When the U.S. labor movement fought against right-to-work laws in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, it did not project a demand to end right-to-work in the South.”
Muhammad pointed out the long history of struggle in the South against racism and the root of the problem with labor in this country: “It began with slavery [and then] Jim Crow that defined relationships of workers to capital.” Expanding on the current significance of the area for global capitalist markets and superexploitation with low wages, Muhammad stated: “We must understand the role the U.S. South plays in the global economy. Major companies from the United Kingdom, Japan and elsewhere all have concentrations here. Now even major banks are relocating to the South.”
Bank of America and Wells Fargo have headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. — what organizers are calling the “Wall Street of the South” as they prepare for a major march there before the Democratic National Convention on Sept. 2.
“We must organize a social justice union movement that is willing to organize agricultural workers, public workers, private workers, hospital workers, workers excluded from national labor protections, into the Southern Workers Assembly,” said Muhammad.
The Southern Workers Assembly on Sept. 3 will be the next step in forging a genuine Southern labor alliance. It is endorsed by dozens of unions and workers’ organizations from across the South, including the Food and Commercial Workers, UE and Black Workers for Justice.
To learn more about the Southern Workers Assembly, visit southernworker.org or call Saladin Muhammad at 252-314-2363.