American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations President Richard Trumka addresses members during the quadrennial AFL-CIO convention at Los Angeles Convention Center in Sept. 2013.
American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations President Richard Trumka addresses members during the quadrennial AFL-CIO convention at Los Angeles Convention Center in Sept. 2013. Nick Ut/AP
When workers at a Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga narrowly rejected the United Auto Workers in a recent vote on whether to unionize, it was a stinging setback for a labor movement looking for a big organizing victory in a Southern state.
So while the agenda at the AFL-CIO's winter meetings in Houston this week includes the push to increase the minimum wage, pressing for a new immigration law that includes path to citizenship, and looking ahead to the 2014 and 2016 elections, much of the discussion in hallways and in media briefings is about the failure to organize at Volkswagen.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said that loss — by a very narrow margin — should be kept in perspective.
"Not many years ago this kind of union election in Chattanooga would have been unthinkable," Trumka said.
He places the blame on an aggressive stop-the-union effort by Republican elected officials in Tennessee, who said that bringing in the UAW would mean a loss of tax incentives the state gives to VW and increased difficulty in recruiting other businesses.
"You had a governor, you had the head of the legislature, you had a U.S. senator saying to workers that if you exercise your right, we're gonna take away your job. That was the threat," Trumka said.
The South has always been difficult terrain for the labor movement. Right-to-work laws are the norm, making it harder to organize and collect dues. But D. Taylor, president of the union called UNITE-HERE, which represents hotel, food service and textile workers, says there are workers all across the South who should be receptive to a union.
"We have to have a continued presence and an aggressive presence in the South in order to make sure those workers have better wages and more job security than currently exists," Taylor said.
Regarding current organizing efforts by his union in the region, Taylor said there are many.
"We are, we are doing campaigns, but based on what we just saw in Tennessee we try to keep a low profile so we don't have the governor and U.S. senators condemn that we're gonna make it the worse place in the world to do business. So we're organizing in the South," he added.
To counter the bad news from Chattanooga, union leaders also point to government data showing several Southern states — including Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee — with an increase in the percentage of workers who are union members. The overall gains are small — but the AFL-CIO says it's a sign of progress and opportunity.
Rose Ann DeMoro heads the nurses union, National Nurses United, which she points out has made some sizable gains.
"Seven thousand nurses in the past three years in the South... I think 4,500 in Florida, 2,500 in Texas. We have a massive organizing campaign in Orlando right now. There's other campaigns going on right now in Texas and other places throughout the South," DeMoro said.
At the AFL-CIO meetings, the talk of organizing in places like the South merges with what the labor movement says is its top issue: income inequality and the fact that the wages of average Americans aren't keeping up.
"If that's the debate then the American people will win. Look, a lot of people are talking about it. From the pope to the President and everybody in between," Trumka said.
He hopes that topic gains traction in the 2014 and 2016 campaign seasons.