So what is happening in Alabama and the deep south recently? If you were to look at the headlines and election results, you may think that this is merely a hotbed of reactionary political activity, and don't get me wrong... that it is. Here in Alabama we still have more Klan outposts than socialist organizations, but that has been changing somewhat recently, and before some of you go there, I'm not talking about North Carolina. I attended the gigantic Moral Movement march in Raleigh this past year, and you might say that North Carolina has about as much to do with Alabama as Jerusalem does with Athens.
The Moral Movement has spread to the Yellow Hammer state, but in much smaller numbers than can be seen in North Carolina. The Reverend William Barber came and spoke in Montgomery, the capitol city, a few months ago, and there was a crowd that numbered in the hundreds, not exactly close to the 100 thousand or so who gathered in Raleigh last year. Seven people were arrested in Montgomery over the summer protesting Governor Robert Bentley's (AKA “Dr. Death”) decision to not take Medicaid expansion. However, this doesn't seem to be at the heart of most of the progressive political actions I've seen in the last few months in my particular area of the state.
I think this can largely be attributed to the Moral Movement's almost exclusive focus on electoral politics. In the recent midterm election, Democratic challenger for governor Parker Griffith garnered a measly 36.4% of the vote. That's not exactly hopeful for progressives, especially considering that Griffith's platform was far from what might even be categorized as center-left or center for that matter. Griffith is a former Republican Party member, and his platform was virtually no different than Bentley's, except for the proposal of an education lottery (something even progressives are not solidly behind) and the expansion of Medicaid. I think smart progressives in Alabama realize that electoral politics in this state are, at least for now, something of a waste of time except on the local level in urban areas such as Birmingham. The thought of a progressive alternative for Alabama in electoral politics has become so dismal and the Alabama Democratic Party so irrelevant that many, if not most, members of Progressive Democrats in America here are discussing the formation of a third party rather than pursuing realignment of the state's Democratic Party apparatus.
So what is to be done, or what is being done? We did celebrate an electoral victory of sorts a few weeks ago when Golden Dragon copper in rural Wilcox County, AL, voted to unionize with the United Steel Workers by a single vote. This vote came in our favor in spite of the governor's objections. Dr. Death himself celebrated the building of the plant as one of his main accomplishments in the last State of the State speech, and he sent letters to each worker at the plant the day before the election that said something akin to, “this company has been so good to your community and created jobs for you. Don't do this!” Well, at least half the workers plus one saw through this smokescreen.
Also of note to labor advocates is the creation of Local 112 of the United Auto Workers near the Vance, AL, Mercedes plant. I'm sure many of you have heard about the UAW's attempts to organize the south recently, but much of the news coverage has been based on Volkswagon in Chattanooga, TN. IG Metall, the union which represents Mercedes workers in Germany, sent representatives to the Tuscaloosa, AL area to both speak with workers considering unionization and to hold a press conference alongside UAW announcing the creation of a new local.
The UAW is not following its traditional tactics of focusing on an election for collective bargaining, at this point. Membership in the local is open to any of the plant's workers, but the UAW's efforts represent a broader organizing strategy than merely getting an election result for collective bargaining before further action. Currently, the local is hosting meetings between both workers at the plant and representatives of community organizations which support the idea of further unionization in the state and in the region. However, the organization of labor at Mercedes is not the only issue that has been on the agenda at these meetings. Issues that range from the “Fight for $15,” solidarity with Bangladesh factory workers, voting rights, Medicaid expansion, immigration reform, and the overturning of the Citizens United ruling have become frequent topics of conversation and organizing efforts at the union hall.
From what I've seen thus far, these are the types of community-affirming and relationship-building tactics that the UAW should focus more on in the deep south. The coalition forming around the UAW campaign is broader than the campaign itself and has drawn community support from organizations ranging from the Tuscaloosa NAACP and local clergy from various denominations to the West Alabama Labor Council and United Students Against Sweatshops.
In addition to the USW campaign at Golden Dragon and the UAW's at Mercedes, another type of union drive is just starting to take form in Alabama. On November 22nd in Birmingham, the first ever public meeting of the Alabama Industrial Workers of the World took place, with around 30 in attendance and 3 new members joining the “one big union.” The meeting was attended largely by those in work situations where the traditional trade union model was not as practical as in a large scale factory, but there were notable exceptions. The IWW sent an organizer from the Atlanta branch to come speak to the group of interested workers. Even with the IWW's more radical approach to the organization of labor as compared to AFL-CIO affiliated unions, the meeting was very much in line with what most would consider a standard union meeting, even though the workers were not speaking on one industry or a particular workplace. We spoke of situations and problems on the job, found much common ground, aired similar grievances, and proposed strategies on how to deal with them. It was quite a simple meeting, and surprisingly, no plans were made to storm the winter palace, make little round bombs, or torch any police cruisers. Well, there go the stereotypes about anarchists and communist rabble-rousers!
You've probably noticed a pattern here. Many of us in Alabama have lost sight of short-term goals in electoral strategy, considering how the state is so dominated by the Republican Party, but the question of the organization of labor seems to be something hot, accessible, and on the minds of many. As the phrase “Organize the South or Die” has become ascendent in labor circles, I think many progressive Alabamians are taking it to heart, and I have never seen so much action around labor in this state. With the Republicans in control of electoral politics and their supermajority in Montgomery still reigning, many folks, and this includes myself, are seeing hope in the renewal of the labor movement in Alabama. After all, whatever the “good people” of Alabama's thoughts are on electoral choices, it's hard to squelch the message of better pay, better working conditions, better benefits, better hours, and more job security, right? It's kind of a no-brainer.