The Long Road to Recognition: Southern Service Workers Find Their Power

Credit: Union of Southern Service Workers

Caption: Waffle House worker, Naomi Harris, speaks to a crowd of supporters outside a Waffle House after walking out on strike on July 8, 2023 in Columbia, South Carolina.

Low-wage service workers in the U.S. South face significant barriers to building power at the workplace due to a plethora of anti-union state laws, exclusion from federal labor protections, and the persistent super-exploitation of Black Southern labor. Against these odds, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) launched the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW) on November 17, 2022 in Columbia, South Carolina. USSW seeks to express and amplify the power of low-wage workers through direct action, community-based alliances, multi-industry organizing tactics, and fostering multiracial unity. Ultimately, the goal of USSW is to transform poverty wage service jobs in the South into dignified union jobs. This will require a long struggle for far-reaching transformations, including the overturning of racist preemption laws that limit local governments’ ability to improve wages and working conditions, the setting of sector-wide standards for service workers, and robust government action to create high-quality care jobs across the South, among other things. USSW’s central objective in this moment is to build a militant mass organization of workers that can wage that fight effectively, while also achieving immediate concrete victories through shop floor and community campaigns.

Emerging from a long history of worker organizing and Southern movement building, including the Charleston Hospital Strike of 1969, the campaign to organize J.P. Stevens textile workers in the 1970s, and the more recent “Justice@Smithfield” campaign in North Carolina, the USSW draws most immediately on the experiences of its predecessor, “Raise Up the South,” an outgrowth of the “Fight for $15 and a Union” campaign. USSW members include workers across the low-wage service economy, particularly in fast food, retail, care work, and dollar stores. Geographically, USSW members are active in North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia.

USSW members include workers across the low-wage service economy, particularly in fast food, retail, care work, and dollar stores.

USSW was founded with the understanding that Southern workers are critical to the success of the U.S. labor movement as a whole and to the broader effort to win a just society. Throughout American history, the South has served as a “reactionary drag” on national politics, in the words of historian Michael Goldfield, while giving birth to deeply rooted people’s movements that have galvanized and transformed the entire country at major turning points. “The importance of the South for America,” notes Goldfield,

means that its political transformation holds the central lever for transforming the United States as a whole. The key . . . to transforming the South today as in the past lies in the ability of its workers to organize themselves collectively, especially across racial, ethnic, and gender lines.[1]

Although the South is strategically crucial and has a rich tradition of resistance to draw on, labor has historically struggled to build and maintain organization here. This is partially due to the repeated failure of labor as a whole to concentrate on the South. W.E.B. Du Bois argued in Black Reconstruction in America that, in the years following the Civil War, white trade unionists in the North “evolved the American Blindspot for the Negro and his problems. It lost interest and vital touch with Southern labor and acted as though the millions of laborers in the South did not exist.”[2]

[T]he six worst states in terms of wage policies, worker protections,  and organizing rights, are all located in the South.

As every union activist in the South understands, the barriers to worker power and organization in the region are immense, particularly in the Black Belt South, where the remnants of slavery and Jim Crow continue to define social relations and working conditions. These distinct challenges require unique strategies and tactics, and a commitment to building power over the long term.

What Southern Service Workers Are Up Against
The history of the South is largely the history of the super-exploitation, in various forms, of Black labor, which has in turn impeded the betterment of wages and working conditions for all Southern workers. Black Southern workers have at key moments been excluded from the rights and legal protections extended to other workers, including during the New Deal period when the rights of industrial workers were dramatically expanded. Acting at the behest of white landowners, Southern Dixiecrats ensured that New Deal labor protections such as the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act did not apply to agricultural and domestic workers, who were disproportionately Black. During the immediate post-World War II period, it was Southern legislators acting as a bloc who most vehemently pushed for the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which constricted the activities of unions and made it easier for employers to fight unions. It was Southern states that first implemented right-to-work laws, making it harder for unions to operate in the South. This long history of exclusion and repression means that Southern workers today are by almost all social indicators worse off than their Northern counterparts. According to Oxfam America’s index of working conditions by state, the six worst states in terms of wage policies, worker protections, and organizing rights—North Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, and South Carolina—are all located in the South.[3]

One of the first conversations that USSW activists often have with coworkers is to persuade them that it is not, in fact, illegal to be part of a union in the South.

Many Southern workers have zero experience with unions, but they deeply understand the anti-unionism of the Southern power structure. One of the first conversations that USSW activists often have with coworkers is to persuade them that it is not, in fact, illegal to be part of a union in the South. Although workers in fast-food and Dollar stores have the formal right to organize a union through the traditional National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) process at their individual worksites, that right is largely meaningless in a context where employers can fight the union with near impunity, and the majority of the workforce turns over every few months. In many respects, Southern service workers, especially Black and brown workers, continue to be excluded from basic union rights and protections as workers, much as their ancestors were during the New Deal.

There is no straight line to victory under such conditions. The question is, how do low-wage Southern service workers organize to win power, over the short and long term? That is the question USSW is trying to answer.

Solidarity, Not the NLRB, Makes the USSW a Union
The foundational idea behind USSW is that Southern service workers can’t wait for permission from employers or the government to build their union. USSW defines a union as an organization of workers coming together to use their strength in numbers to get things done that they can’t get done on their own. As Local 1199 undertook mass organizing in New York City hospitals over a half century ago, the union’s founding president Leon Davis argued,

a good organizer is one who reduces a union to its very simple and elementary stage. In practice and in theory a union is not a constitution, not dues, not motions and contracts. All this may be a necessary by-product, but it is not the essence of a union. Once workers decide to stick together everything else falls into place.[4]

In this way, USSW members organize themselves across multiple employers and industries, building solidarity as a precursor to collective bargaining. This practice emerged organically over the years, as worker activists cycled from one low-wage job to another and carried their commitment to the struggle—and their organizing knowledge—into new shops. This is a departure from the traditional NLRB election organizing process, where the union constructs its collective bargaining unit as a reflection of the way that a single employer or worksite organizes production. From  an organizing committee-building perspective, USSW has found that this sector-wide approach simply makes the most sense in the South’s low-wage service economy. Holding groups of worker leaders together at a single shop in industries such as fast food, where annual turnover is upward of 150 percent, is all-but impossible.

Jamila Allen, a long-time USSW leader who works at Freddy’s Custard in Durham, N.C., puts it this way:

We do this style of organizing because all kinds of service workers are dealing with the same problems. Everybody struggles on the job—whether it’s fast food, retail, care work. Everybody is underpaid. Around here, a lot of places are talking about how they’re raising wages, but they’re still starting workers at $10/hr. It’s not enough to live on . . .

We’re the workers that a lot of people look down on. A lot of people don’t treat fast food workers, gas station workers, or other service workers with respect. Customers are having a bad day, so they take it out on a service worker. There’s a lot of disrespect that comes with being in the service industry—from bosses, but sometimes from customers too.

All these are things we have in common. And we all need change. That’s why we’re organizing across the service industry.

Also, we organize across the service industry because there’s high turnover in the service industry and workers usually move to different jobs, from a retail job to a being a server in a restaurant, to homecare . . . And a lot of our members work two jobs at the same time. So when you switch jobs, you can still be part of our union and still have the union protecting you at all these jobs.

USSW protects members on the job through a variety of tactics, all centered on aggressively enforcing the existing rights that all workers are supposed to be afforded, whether they have a  collective bargaining agreement or not. This includes issuing complaints with regulatory agencies around sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and safety hazards, and filing NLRB charges when workers’ rights have been violated. Where necessary, USSW members and community allies engage in call-in campaigns, worksite “speak-outs,” and other forms of direct action to ensure that workers’ rights are protected.

USSW is organized from the workplace out, into city-based chapters or organizing committees. USSW local chapters are both geographic assemblages of low-wage service workers fighting for the broad interests of all workers, and a vehicle for building worker power on the shop floor through direct action.

Direct Action at the Workplace
Southern workers in the industries that USSW organizes are de facto excluded from collective bargaining rights in any meaningful sense. The road to winning and enforcing those rights will be a long and winding one. The only way to get started is through workers building power on the job “by any means necessary,” as long-time USSW leader Eric Winston puts it, echoing Malcolm X. Direct action is the tactical centerpiece of USSW’s workplace organizing. “We do direct actions because it’s more powerful and it will get to the bosses quicker than going through a long NLRB election process,” says Jamila Allen. “Direct action means going on strikes, worker speak-outs, demand deliveries where we march on the boss.”

USSW members may have been denied the right to collectively bargain in the traditional manner, but they still have the right to free speech, the right to assemble, and the right to protest unfair conditions. The workplace organizing of USSW starts here, with the basic activity of workers coming together on the shop floor to demand improvements to their conditions. There is nothing new about this approach in the South. Unions such as the Southern Tenant Farmers Union of the 1930s, and the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union in the 1960s, employed direct action tactics in the absence of trade union legality to build their power.

The immediate goal of USSW’s workplace committee building is to unite workers inside a single workplace or employer to demonstrate their power as workers and to win concrete improvements in their working conditions. In each workplace where they are active, USSW members organize around a common set of five “universal demands for employers” that were adopted at the union’s founding summit—dignity and equal treatment, health and safety, fair and consistent scheduling, fair pay, and “a seat at the table” in decision-making processes on the job.[5]

Each successful workplace organizing campaign of USSW shares a few characteristics: issues are identified that are widely and deeply felt among a broad cross-section of employees; organic leaders in the workplace are identified and recruited to worksite organizing committees which meet regularly to plan strategy; workplaces are charted and mapped to gain a thorough understanding of the dynamics among coworkers; organizing committees create a “plan to win” tailored to their unique circumstances. Direct action, beginning with small demonstrations of solidarity such as button days and petition deliveries, and escalating toward more militant tactics such as strikes and walk-offs, are the main tools used by USSW members when formulating worksite organizing plans. Workers have won immediate, concrete victories through these methods, including wage raises, termination of abusive managers, and increased safety precautions.  USSW amplifies these shop floor organizing campaigns and exercises narrative power through the creative use of social media and the press, centered on workers’ own voices and stories.

Direct action, beginning with small demonstrations of solidarity such as button days and petition deliveries, and escalating towards more militant tactics such as strikes and walk-offs, are the main tools used by USSW members . . .

USSW also carries its fight to Southern state legislatures and government institutions. On April 4, 2023, the same day that workers across the South struck to demand safe jobs, the union filed a federal Title VI civil rights complaint against South Carolina’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (SC OSHA). This complaint, following months of safety organizing by Black USSW members in the state, alleged that South Carolina was enforcing OSHA standards in a discriminatory manner, neglecting industries with larger percentages of Black workers. On December 7th, USSW petitioned the federal Department of Labor to take control of the state’s health and safety enforcement after continued negligence. As a result of these complaints, several employers have stepped up their safety precautions, although as of this writing SC OSHA has not taken any steps in response to the complaints.

USSW members who band together to confront the power of the boss gain confidence in their ability to exercise power as workers. Naomi Harris, who led an organizing campaign against racial discrimination while working at MOD Pizza, had this to say about the lessons of her experience:

I’ve learned to be more strategic with who I speak to [about organizing] and how I go about it. Now I really watch people and understand where different workers stand, so I know who is on our side and who could move to our side. You also have to know who not to approach because they will turn around and tell management about our plans. There’s strategy to organizing in your store . . . I’m going to have my eyes open from now on, at every job I go to. I’ll pay attention to the work conditions, and I’ll always be ready to organize.[6]

Naomi’s reflection points to the recruitment and cultivation of worker leaders who stay with the union through multiple jobs is central to USSW’s organizing. The deep work of developing and growing this cadre of leaders starts through workplace struggles, but continues outside of the four walls of the workplace and into the broad movement-building activity in which members are constantly engaged.

Geographic Organizing and Community Unionism
USSW believes that the dividing line between “workplace” and “community” must be overcome in order for Southern workers to win power. Some of the most iconic Southern labor campaigns of the past half century, such as the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Smithfield meatpacking campaign in Tar Heel, North Carolina, have been rooted in this same belief. Beloved Community Center founder Rev. Nelson Johnson, who was a key leader during the Smithfield struggle, names this “community unionism.” Historically in the South, says Rev. Johnson, workers who lacked the ability to join “formal unions” were able to win their demands because “the community was the union.”[7]

In practice, USSW members exercise this kind of associational power by organizing into geographic chapters, the activities of which extend far beyond workplace organizing. Chapters are engaged in a constant cycle of activity, creating a space of belonging and community for workers, and instilling a common identity as workers across the service sector. The activities of chapters range from “street heat” days, where member leaders fan out to different low-wage workplaces to sign up unorganized workers, to in-depth trainings on organizing tactics, to community  cookouts in neighborhoods with large concentrations of service workers. Members of the union, like most low-wage workers, may bounce from job to job, but the activities of their chapters provide an ever-present entry point into organizing and solidarity.

Members of the union . . . may bounce from job to job, but the activities of their chapters provide an ever-present entry point into organizing and solidarity.

USSW members understand that wages and working conditions are inseparable from every other issue impacting their lives and their communities. That’s why the union’s members are constant fixtures at local protests around affordable  housing, voting rights, and police brutality. As USSW member Keenan Harton said during a rally against police violence, “as a Black man, the injustice I face doesn’t end with my job.”[8]

A Culture of Struggle
Popular education, cultural organizing, and community-building, rooted in the Southern freedom movement tradition, permeate USSW’s organizing. Following the lessons of Highlander Research and Education Center, USSW defines popular education as a participatory process using workers’ own experiences to analyze the world and create strategies for change.[9]

Highlander Center educator Susan Williams notes that

popular education and organizing are actually one process: people coming together, trying to figure out what to do about a problem, learning more, talking about it, taking action, and then reflecting and trying to figure out what to do again . . . Popular education involves passing on skills and content in a collective way; it’s based on the belief that people can do more than they think they can. Good organizing provides people with the ability to learn together and grow. So these processes are connected.[10]

Popular education is a part of everything that USSW does: every organizing conversation, every social media post, every committee meeting. Regular educational retreats give members space to reflect with each other, teach and learn with each other, and grow as union leaders.

Popular education is a part of . . . every organizing conversation, every social media post, every committee meeting.

Cultural organizing, using the forms of collective self-expression and deeply held faith traditions that Southern workers relate to, is also a staple of USSW’s activities. Songs and visual arts are woven through all of the union’s activities. Mass meetings of USSW draw on the religious traditions of the Black South, creating in one space, at one time, a “beloved community” among the workers. USSW members cultivate a collective spirit and identity that sustains their commitment to militant organizing, drawing on lessons from the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST) and its practice of “mística,” which uses expressive performance and evocations of transcendent reality as a pedagogical and motivational tool. Crucially, it is this cultivation of a collective spirit of joyful militancy, rather than pragmatic “wins,” that sustains the commitment of most USSW members to the struggle.

Oftentimes, USSW members talk about the union in deeply personal terms. In a letter to new members of the union, Naomi Harris writes,

We have been waiting on you to arrive. We are so happy to have you here with us. This is going to be a long journey, but I know you are ready to fight by ANY means NECESSARY. Here at USSW we fight together not against each other. We help one another. We love one another. We show up for one another. We shout out for one another. We are present for one another. We are so happy you finally joined the family. Just remember we are here to help make the workforce a better place. We are here to hold corporations and the government accountable. We are here to FIGHT and DEMAND what is rightfully OURS. Don’t no closed mouths get fed. Open your mouth, so that you may be fed.

USSW members are under no illusions about the difficulty of the task they face. Real victory can only be won through a sweeping, far-reaching set of transformations to state policies,  governmental institutions, and employment practices. This is a long-term struggle that can only be won in deep partnership with every other fight for justice in the South. It will require slow, patient work, and a willingness to disrupt the status quo to challenge corporate power and systemic racism. Ultimately, the underlying problem facing Southern workers is their lack of control  over the decisions that impact their lives, including on the job. The fundamental question the union seeks to answer, therefore, is, “How can Southern workers overcome this reality to become the protagonists of their own history?” The success or failure of the USSW will depend on its ability to answer that fundamental question.

1. Michael Goldfield, The Southern Key: Class, Race, and Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 8.
2. W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: Towards a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers), 367.
3. Oxfam America, “Best and Worst States to Work in America 2022,” available at https://www.oxfamamerica.org/explore/countries/united-states/poverty-in-the-us/best-states-to-work-2022/#table.
4. Leon Davis, “Let’s Get Organized,” (undated materials from 1199 newsletter).
5. Available at https://ussw.org/demands/.
6. Taiwanna Milligan, “VOICES: Southern Workers Are Teaching Each Other How to Organize,” Facing South, August 25, 2022, available at https://www.facingsouth.org/2022/08/raiseup-organizing-southernworker-power-trainings.
7. Reverend Nelson Johnson, “Statement to Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” August 26, 2005, available at https://greensborotrc.org/njohnson.doc.
8. Thomasi McDonald, “Durham Workers Join National Strike for Black Lives,” INDY Week, July 22, 2020, available at https://indyweek.com/news/durham/durham-workers-join-anational-
9. Available at https://highlandercenter.org/our-story/mission/.
10. Chris Brooks, “Interview: Organizing to Learn, Learning to Organize,” Labor Notes, April 3, 2017, available at https://labornotes.org/2017/04/interview-organizing-learn-learningorganize.

Author Biography
Ben Wilkins is the director of the Union of Southern Service Workers. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.