Stewart Acuff

Sep 25

Organizing Public Employees in the South

The Tennessee United Campus Workers, an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America, held their annual convention in Nashville last Saturday. I was privileged to attend, speak, and talk about Playing Bigger Than You Are and organizing at a reception at the end of the day.

It was a great and exciting day with recitations of victories, vigorous discussion of priorities and strategies.

For many in the labor movement, the most unique fact of UCW’s organizational life is the absence of collective bargaining or any way to reach collective bargaining.

Public employees in America aren’t covered by federal labor laws. More than 20 states don’t allow for collective bargaining for their employees.

Does that mean public employees shouldn’t have unions?

Hell no! Dr. King was assassinated in the struggle for Memphis sanitation workers to have a union and collective bargaining.

With a larger and larger percentage of American workers losing collective bargaining rights and the consequent frightening growth of inequality, we need a much larger, broader, and deeper struggle for collective bargaining rights.

That is why the Walmart workers’ struggle and UFCW support is so very important. That is why the fast food workers struggle is so important. A real fight at the bottom of the economy has the potential to raise all workers.

But because, in part, public employees have a First Amendment right to free association and right to organize, a big campaign to help public workers in the South organize unions to contest for power is a fight whose time has come.

When we think of unions as only vehicles for workers to engage collective bargaining we leave ourselves fewer and fewer options in today’s struggle.

But when we see unions as vehicles for building worker power and engaging the struggle for economic and social justice, organizing regardless of collective bargaining rights makes more and more critical sense.

Image source: Overpass Light Brigade

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