Faces of The South: Invigorating the New Labor Movement Through Effective Organizing

This article was featured in the IAM Summer 2024 Journal and written by IAM Communications Representative Elías Flamenco Rivera. 

Over the past year, various Districts across the IAM’s Southern Territory have achieved remarkable success in organizing efforts. These Districts have collectively won multiple campaigns, recruiting nearly 800 new members. These impressive results have been achieved thanks to the tireless efforts of individual organizers helping shape the South and making huge strides for the union and the broader labor movement.

IAM Districts 776, 1888, and W2021 have implemented distinct strategies to boost density in the core industries that they represent. This approach has proved extremely effective because it has led
to successful organizing campaigns and helped the union broaden its membership base, consolidate its support and strengthen its overall influence.

Organizing in the Southern Territory can be a complex process due to several challenges that include, but are not limited to, a lack of education among workers about the benefits of unions, the impact of so-called “right-to-work” laws that weaken union power, and anti-union propaganda that can influence workers’ opinions. These factors can make it difficult for unions to gain traction in the region. Organizers must work diligently to overcome them by educating workers about their rights and the benefits of collective bargaining.

IAM Districts 776, 1888, and W2021 are strong units that have played a significant role in representing and defending the rights of IAM members across various industries, such as aerospace, manufacturing, woodworking and the federal sector. Together, they represent a total of 61 Locals and approximately 17,000 workers.

“In just a few months, these Districts have gained nearly 800 new members, demonstrating an effective strategy that has consolidated worker support in key industries and strengthened the union’s overall power,” said IAM Southern Territory General Vice President Craig Martin.

“IAM Districts 776, 1888, and W2021 have played a vital role in representing and defending the rights of IAM members across various industries, establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with.”

Educating Members Through Trust and Community Building

Establishing and maintaining labor unions in the Southern Territory is an arduous endeavor that requires dedication, time and resources. One of the biggest challenges is the need for more awareness and education about the benefits of unions among workers in the area. Many people hold false or outdated beliefs about what a union is and what it can do for its members, such as job security, fair wages, and improved working conditions.

This lack of understanding is due, in part, to a long history of anti-union sentiment in the South, where employers and politicians have often worked to prevent unionization by spreading misinformation and intimidating workers who speak out. As a result, many people in the region view unions as unnecessary or even harmful to their interests. To overcome these barriers, advocates for labor rights must invest in outreach and education efforts to inform workers about the benefits of unionization; this may involve creating informational materials, hosting town hall meetings, or engaging with workers one-on-one to answer questions and address concerns.

“You have to sit down with workers and educate and address their main issues. Is it pay? Is it an unsafe working environment? Or is it that you don’t have a voice?” said IAM District 776 Lead Organizer Keith “Chubb” McCrory. “Education and meeting people face to face is the key.”

“Workers need to learn that sometimes they aren’t getting treated equally as other coworkers in their own industry,” said IAM District W2021 President and Directing Business Representative Charles “Chuck” Bennett. “Many people assume that just because they live in a small community, they don’t need to compare the cost of living with other places. However, the truth is that the cost of basic necessities such as milk is generally the same everywhere, and the value of your labor is equal to that in other parts of the country as well.”

Building meaningful connections with union supporters is essential to promoting a positive perception of unions in workplaces and the community. Despite challenges, IAM Districts in the Southern Territory, including 776, 1888, and W2021, have successfully organized workplaces. These organizing victories have opened the doors for negotiating collective bargaining agreements that significantly enhance the quality of life for working families.

Growing Density, Building Strength

In recent years, the Southern Territory has been making significant changes to enhance its ability to serve members and assist workers who want to organize under IAM in their workplaces. As part of its efforts, the Southern Territory is consolidating districts and increasing density to create a more robust and efficient union.

“The restructuring of different districts has significantly boosted our capacity, enabling us to provide better services to our members and organize more workers who seek a voice on the job,” said IAM District 1888 President and Directing Business Representative Ernie Epps. “By having a stronger team, we can leverage our bargaining power and negotiate for more favorable contracts that ultimately enhance the lives and benefits of our members. This helps them personally and benefits their families by providing better job security and stability.”

IAM District 1888 is a newly chartered district that was established in September 2020. It was created through the merger of District 27 in Louisville, Ky., District 154 in Calvert City, Ky., and District 711 in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Similarly, in October 2020, IAM District W2021 came into existence by consolidating District 73 in Mississippi, District 161 in Louisiana, and a part of District W2, which primarily covered Arkansas. In addition, IAM District 776 covers many Locals in Texas, providing support and representation to a diverse range of workers in the region.

The Southern Territory’s goal is to create a stronger labor movement to protect workers’ rights better and improve their lives and those of their families. By increasing density and building power, even small victories can positively impact workplace safety and attract more people to the cause.

“If we have high union density, then we’re able to compare all the existing contracts so we can get the best of the best for our members every time we negotiate an existing or new contract,” said IAM District 1888 Business Representative and Organizer Ryan McCarthy.

“In Bluegrass Station, Ky., 332 new members of Lockheed Martin workers took a stand for their rights,” said McCarthy. “They realized they were being underpaid and not treated fairly after reviewing the contract negotiations and the outcome with Tunista, Lockheed Martin subcontractor. In response, they formed a campaign and joined the IAM to fight for what they deserve.”

IAM District 1888 welcomes the newest members working for Lockheed Martin at Bluegrass Station, Ky.

Through these initiatives, the Southern Territory hopes to empower workers to join IAM to take control of their workplaces and build a more equitable and just society for everyone. Only by working together and building solidarity can we ensure that workers are treated fairly and with respect and have the tools they need to succeed in their careers and lives.

“We prioritize having a high percentage of union members in our organizing efforts, which has proven beneficial in numerous locations. Thanks to union density, workers have secured good first contracts,” said IAM District 1888 Assistant Directing Business Representative Bill Benson. “Without union density, the outcomes would have likely been less favorable. When a town or region has a strong union presence, people know the benefits and are more inclined to join a union.”

“To strengthen our union and to build strength, we have to build our membership up,” said McCrory. “We’re stronger in numbers, and that’s the message we need to get across.”

Growing the union also provides job security. If an employer’s competitors are not unionized and do not offer the same benefits, it becomes difficult to negotiate and achieve better terms. They will keep arguing that they cannot compete if they have to pay high union wages while their competitors pay non-union wages. It is in everyone’s best interest to encourage unionization in other facilities to help negotiate better contracts and improve the standard of living for everyone.

“In a right-to-work state, where the employer has the power to terminate a worker’s employment at any time, having a union contract is always better than having no contract at all. With a union contract, workers are entitled to just cause protection, which means that an employer cannot fire a person for arbitrary or unjust reasons,” said Bennett. “I always advise people that they give their best years to their job and should ensure they have a union contract to protect their rights.”

Union Members Advancing Pro-Worker Agenda

In Southern Territory Districts, educating workers about the value of union representation and the need for equal treatment in the workplace is crucial. However, “right-to-work” laws pose a significant obstacle to this effort. To overcome this challenge, these districts must provide excellent service to their existing members and establish strong relationships with pro-worker candidates and organizations in the community. This requires a deep understanding of workers’ needs and concerns and a commitment to building trust and mutual respect. The IAM has been aggressively organizing in the South.

“In states where ‘right-to-work’ laws are enforced, the biggest challenge faced by labor unions is fear and intimidation. Companies intimidate workers and create fear, making it difficult for the unions to get new members to join or even start a campaign,” said IAM District 1888 President and Directing Business Representative Ernie Epps. “Overcoming this fear is the biggest challenge for the unions.”

In every election cycle, labor rights are at stake, and these districts are taking measures to ensure that every IAM member is well-informed and empowered to make a difference. These districts understand the importance of supporting workers and their families and are committed to providing the necessary information and resources to help elect candidates who share this vision.

“Over the years, we have prioritized matters that are most significant to us, regardless of political leanings. We are impartial to party lines and political affiliations of politicians. Our primary concerns lie in matters that impact our financial stability, labor rights, and working families,” said Bennett. “We urge all voters to carefully evaluate their economic interests and social concerns when choosing a candidate. We are optimistic that by making informed decisions, we can positively impact our workplaces and communities.”

“In Kentucky, we have taken the initiative to educate our members at the local level about issues that directly impact their livelihoods. We are highly selective in our support for political candidates, and only those who fully align with our values, like Gov. Andy Beshear, receive our backing,” said McCarthy. “We take an active role in their campaigns by knocking on doors and attending rallies, as we know this is vital for the well-being of our members.”

Invigorating the New Labor Movement Through Effective Organizing

The various districts of the IAM Southern Territory are setting an example in organizing and improving IAM members’ lives while continuing to show remarkable resilience and dedication in their mission to promote workers’ rights and interests.

“The IAM Southern Territory’s true strength lies in the dedication of its members,” said Martin. “Our commitment to prioritizing workers above all else and advancing their agenda for a more fair and equal South is what drives us forward.”

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