The AFL-CIO, at its quadrennial convention this week, adopted a resolution to come up with a “Southern Strategy” that includes “a long-term commitment to organize the South.”
Union officials told The Hill that the labor movement needs to follow the workforce, which is moving down south, as well as learn how to better operate with right-to-work laws in the region designed to weaken union power.
Linda Bridges, president of the Texas AFT, a teachers union, said only bringing more workers into labor will lead to changes in the South’s laws that restrict labor’s influence.
Unions also see opportunity for political gain, which could benefit their traditional allies in the Democratic Party. Shifting demographics, including a growing Latino population, could shake up the electorate in the South.
“There’s huge potential in the South,” said Michael Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO’s political director, noting the rise of Hispanic voters in the region. “It’s Florida, North Carolina. That is changing the equation in all of those states.”
Democrats are eyeing Texas and will be working with unions to expand into the state. Snatching the deep red state from the Republicans would be a coup for Democrats, but union officials laid out timelines of several years — not 2014, the next election year — before one could expect to see blue victories.
“This is really the beginning of a long-term strategy of building union power in the South,” Podhorzer said, noting the AFL-CIO would invest political resources in the race against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as well as in Florida and Texas this campaign season.
Podhorzer and Bridges both said they have been working with Democrats on their plans for Texas.
Growing labor’s ranks in the South will be difficult. Republican-heavy legislatures and state governors in the region go after unions constantly. In addition, several companies have moved south partly to avoid having a unionized workforce.
Mike Williams, president of the Florida AFL-CIO, said unions would have to be aggressive.
“I have used the term many times, and people don’t seem to like it sometimes. Right-to-work is a lazy labor leader’s best excuse. Because the fact is that you can organize. Right-to-work doesn’t stop you from organizing,” Williams said.
James Andrews, president of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO, said unions could move outside of the traditional organizing process.
“There are great opportunities in the South. You might have to approach those opportunities at a different way. It might not be, as we have heard here, a normal [National Labor Relations Board]-type election,” Andrews said.
Labor in North Carolina has used Working America, the AFL-CIO community affiliate that represents nonunion workers. The outside group has organized 25,000 new members over the last year, according to Andrews.
“Nowhere in our history that I know of in a single year we have organized 25,000 workers going through the National Labor Relations Act,” Andrews said. That growth could be a boon for labor’s endorsed candidates in the state.