From Sept. 18 to 21 dozens of working-class fighters from unions, workers’ centers, anti-gentrification organizations and academia attended the Southern Solidarity School in St. Helena Island, S.C., to build unity among Southern workers fighting for democratic, rank-and-file, struggle-oriented organizations.
According to the Center for Labor Renewal, which organized the school, “Some of our working class organizations are trying new approaches, but they remain small, mostly local in scope, and face contradictions of their own.
“The crisis demands bold initiatives that focus on transformation of existing worker institutions, building an all-inclusive movement, and powerful social mobilization for economic and cultural justice.”
Delegations came from Longshoremen’s Local 1422, the Charleston dock workers, home of the Charleston 5; Electrical Workers’ Local 150, the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union; the Food and Commercial Workers’ Justice at Smithfield Campaign; and the Freightliner 5, five fired members of Auto Workers’ Local 3520 in Cleveland, N.C.
Representatives of Black Workers for Justice, Power U from Miami, and U.S. Labor Against the War attended, as did several workers currently on strike at the Moncure Plywood factory organized by Machinists’ Local W369 in rural Chatham County in North Carolina. Other unionists came from Texas, Arizona and Georgia.
Workers were there to learn about labor history in the South. Kerry Taylor from the Citadel gave a powerful presentation about three critical strikes in low-country South Carolina. First was the story of more than 4,000 African-American laborers in the rice fields in Beaufort who struck in 1876 while the post-Reconstruction economy was in shambles.
Second was the 1945 strike in Charleston at the American Tobacco Company, led by thousands of African-American women, who were later joined by 200 white women. This strike inspired the song “We Shall Overcome,” which later became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Third was the 1969 Charleston hospital workers’ walkout against racism and being paid wages below the federal minimum.
The workers’ school was brought to the South by the Center for Labor Renewal, launched in 2006, which has set up similar schools in the Midwest and Northeast.
All 13 Southern states combined have fewer union members than the state of New York, making the region of strategic importance for labor organizing.
Participants heard a compelling presentation by the Institute for Southern Studies, which pointed out that the South has the largest-growing population in the country. South Carolina also has the largest-growing immigrant population, followed by Tennessee and North Carolina.
The Southern Studies speaker noted that Charlotte, N.C., is the headquarters of such finance capital giants as Bank of America and Wachovia, and housing foreclosures disproportionately affect home owners in the South.
The speaker also pointed to the South’s importance to the military-industrial complex, with 35 to 45 percent of troops coming from the region and 56 percent currently stationed there.
Among many other important discussions was one about race lead by Bill Fletcher of the Center for Labor Renewal. He went into the historical development of the “white” race and gave examples of why “race is never static.”
At another session on understanding Black and Brown unity, facilitated by Janieve Williams of the Latin American and Caribbean Community Center, workers were able to challenge ideas about immigrant workers which the bosses spread to create disunity. Participants also talked in depth about migration due to imperialism.
The conference ended with a long strategy session where workers shared their struggles and discussed how to build support for each other.
Saladin Muhammad, an organizer with the International Workers Justice Campaign of UE, described the Southern Solidarity School as “an important opportunity to bring workers and activists from around the U.S. South together to discuss critical and sensitive questions related to organizing the South.
“The presence and participation of rank-and-file workers and members of the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union UE Local 150 and IAM Local W369 from eight different workplaces in the state, and Charleston, S.C., dockworker members of ILA Local 1422 provided rich lessons, social bonding and a spirit of worker solidarity.”
According to Shannon Reaze, a community organizer in Miami with Power U, “The school was important for building new ideas and relationships that can take the social labor movement to the next level in combating neo-liberalism.”
Reaze added, “The global South and the Southern region of the U.S. must see their relationship to one another. Youth are the ones who can carry that torch the furthest. The Solidarity School was a great place for young community and labor organizers to take up that mission and have our elders there to guide us.”
The author is an organizer with UE local 150 and also a member of Raleigh FIST who attended the Solidarity School.
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