By CARL GREEN
SPRINGFIELD, IL – “If you want to know what it could be like for workers in Illinois, New York or California in 20 or 30 years, just take a look at the South,” MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO, told attendees at the Mother Jones Foundation’s annual dinner on Oct. 11.
“Contrary to the common view of the South as backwards, the reality is the South is a reflection, not of our nation’s past, but of our nation’s future.”
When she was elected to her post in 2005, McMillan was the first female officer in the North Carolina AFL-CIO. A noted speaker, she began organizing while a student, earned a doctorate in sociology from North Carolina State University and is a member of Operating Engineers Local 465.
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RAISE THEM UP!
McMillan said unions need to invest more money and effort into organizing the South because so much of American manufacturing has moved there in search of lower wages and workers who can be exploited.
Raising the status of southern wage earners will strengthen workers throughout the country, she said.
“I’ve got a gospel I preach, and I preach it everywhere I go, every chance I get,” she said. “If we want workers everywhere to get their fair share, we must organize, and especially, we must organize the South.”
Illinois is a good example of why, she said. “If your governor had his way, your state would look an awful lot like mine, with right-to-work for less, no public sector collective bargaining, no prevailing wage.”
McMillan said leaders of the Civil Rights Movement set an example that unions can follow, by fighting for freedom in the most difficult place to win it.
“They knew that to win freedom everywhere, you had to win it first in the most difficult place – the segregated South. That’s why Dr. King marched with sanitation workers in Memphis. That’s why community activists boycotted buses in Montgomery, and it’s why college students sat down at a lunch counter in Greensboro.
“They knew that if they could change policies in the heart of Jim Crow, then they could change the laws nationally – and they did. So for us in the Labor Movement, if we want good jobs and decent wages everywhere, then we have to fight the battle where it is most difficult for working people.
“That means we have to organize in the tough places like the South, and it means we have to organize for the long term, with an eye to the future.”
The Midwest has been losing manufacturing jobs for the past 30 years while the South has been gaining – up 200 percent in that time in Alabama, while Michigan and Wisconsin lost half, McMillan noted. The wage difference between the Midwest and South has declined, but only because of wage losses in the Midwest, not gains in the South.
Political influence has been moving to the South as well, gaining eight seats in the U.S. House of Representatives after the 2010 census while the Northeast lost five. The South is expected to gain another five after 2020.
“The South will determine the political direction of our nation, and it will determine the future of the labor movement wherever you are,” McMillan said.
SIGNS OF HOPE
McMillan sees hope in recent activism in her region.
“If you look at the South, you see the fastest-growing, most diverse movement for economic justice anywhere in this country,” she said, citing the Moral Monday protests, fast food strikes, and the UFCW’s organizing victory at Smithfield Packing, the world’s largest pork slaughterhouse, in Virginia.
“We’ve seen that when community leaders and people of faith stand with workers, victories are possible, even in the unlikeliest of places, even in a place like North Carolina, the least unionized state in the country.
“It wasn’t easy, and it took a long time, but they won. And they won because they built a movement, and all across the South, we see that movement rolling.”
THE NEXT STEP
“We could change the future for workers everywhere if more unions make significant and lasting investments in the South and in other forgotten corners of our nation,” she said. “So many workers want and need a union.
“We have real victories to celebrate, but brothers and sisters, we could have so many more!”
The dinner is held annually to honor the great union organizer Mary “Mother Jones” Harris just up the road from her monument and museum in the town of Mt. Olive, about 30 miles north of St. Louis. The monument has been renovated in the past two years, and the museum just opened this year adjacent to the City Hall.
As she closed her presentation, McMillan read a poem she wrote for the Moral Monday rallies being held in North Carolina to oppose actions of the state government such as repealing the Racial Justice Act, curtailing voting rights, cutting social programs and restricting abortion rights. Here is how it goes:
It’s time to organize workers everywhere because there’s too much corporate greed, and we have families to feed.
There are so few jobs, no decent wages; inequality tops the news pages.
CEOs earn more and more while the rest of us grow poor.
The bosses want their workers cheap, meek and docile like sheep.
They move their companies south hoping we won’t give them any mouth.
Well, imagine their surprise as they watch the South arise.
From the mountains to the sea, working folks everywhere agree.
Now is the time to take a stand for justice throughout this land.
We’ll organize every workplace, every town, and there will be no stopping us, no backing down.
In the face of our unity, injustice will crumble, it will crack, and victory will be ours.
Forward together – not one step back.