May 12, 2015
By Steven Wishnia
The largest civil-rights demonstration in the South since the historic Selma-to-Montgomery march of 1965 took place last year in Raleigh, North Carolina—and it had labor rights as one of its key points.
The march grew out of the “Moral Mondays” movement, a coalition encompassing civil-rights activists, gay and lesbian-rights activists, and Raise Up 15, the state AFL-CIO, and United Electrical Workers Local 150. They began staging weekly protests after the state legislature cut unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 12, refused to expand Medicaid benefits to 500,000 people under the Affordable Care Act, and enacted restrictions on voting intended to lower black turnout, including reducing early voting and requiring voters to have photo identification.
Those measures are “morally indefensible and economically insane,” the Rev. William Barber, Moral Mondays’ best-known leader, told LaborPress before an appearance at Stony Brook University on Long Island April 28. Bringing different groups together against that, he says, is simply common sense.
“The same people that are attacking labor rights are the same people attacking education, are the same people attacking health care, are the same people attacking the LGBT community, are the same people attacking teachers, are the same people attacking the environment,” he explains. “Our argument is that if they are cynical enough to be together, we ought to be smart enough to come together.”
A second principle is framing these issues as questions of right and wrong. “We believe that nothing powerful in this country that has been transformative, that has reconstructed America, has been done without a deep moral foundation,” he avers. “The women’s suffrage movement had a deep moral foundation, the early labor movement a deep moral foundation.”
North Carolina is the nation’s least unionized state, with less than 2% of its workers union members. The state not only bans the union shop, it has a 1959 law that prohibits public employees from bargaining collectively—“the only one left in the country,” Barber notes. Still, he believes that “in the next few years, we’re going to see some real transformation.”
“We have one of the strongest Raise Up 15 movements in the country,” he says. “We were successful with our movement in organizing the Smithfield plant a few years ago, when people said it could never be done in the South.” The movement is also building to repeal the law against public-sector unions. “It’s a Jim Crow law, put on in the 1950s, really targeted at black people, but now it’s impacting everybody, from firemen to teachers to garbage workers,” Barber says. “And by raising this as a moral issue, we’re beginning to get a lot of traction.”
One of the reasons why the South is the least unionized part of the country is what Barber calls “the Achilles heel of Southern labor organizing,” the issue of race. “Our movement is working hard to turn that around,” he says, “and we’re beginning to have quite a success. If you look at our rallies, there are large numbers of working-class white people who now understand that they’ve been bamboozled.”
“We need to recover what Cornel West called ‘the radical King.’ The Dr. King that talked about labor and economics and civil rights and how they were connected,” he continues. “I’m calling for labor unions to refresh and the civil-rights community to live by King’s call, when he asked labor and the civil-rights movement to create a long-term organizing fund particularly allotted to the South. I still believe that if you change the South fundamentally, you change the nation. It’s still the battleground.”