Naomi Harris was fed up with work.
At a Mod Pizza store in Columbia, S.C., Harris despaired at the lack of air conditioning in the kitchen, racial bias in staffing and homophobic and racist language by management. Instead of quitting, she organized her colleagues in a work stoppage last June to demand change.
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“Our shifts were segregated,” Harris, 21, said. “The night shift, which was the hardest shift, was mainly Black people and then the morning shift was the white workers and just a sprinkle of the Black workers who couldn’t work the night shift.”
The slowdown worked. The restaurant’s district manager was fired and a kitchen cooling system installed.
“It struck a nerve in my body, like in a good way,” said Harris, who moved to a server job at Quaker Steak & Lube, where she earns $2.13 an hour plus tips. “It just feels amazing to be doing something like this. It’s powerful. It’s something that everybody can benefit from. It’s not selfish. They were just asking for what we deserve.”
That success was Harris’ first in labor organizing, which has historically been a difficult proposition in the South, especially for Black workers. Inspired, she joined with union leaders and in November co-founded the Union of Southern Service Workers, a multiracial advocacy group for workers in low-wage, high-turnover jobs that have a legacy of racism.
“Black, brown and immigrant service workers across the South are leading the fight for a fundamental transformation of our economy and democracy aimed at re-writing outdated laws that have always held back working people and stopped them from gaining a voice through unions,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union. “Together in the Union of Southern Service Workers, workers across states and workplaces in the South will become an unstoppable force that no union-busting corporation or racist politician dare ignore.”
That the USSW was formed in South Carolina—which has the lowest union membership rates in the nation at 1.7%—is telling. Black workers, who have historically underpinned the South’s service economy, are empowering themselves as advocates for change.
“South Carolina, for example, is a 'right to work' state that has historically been anti-union,” said O. Jennifer Dixon-McKnight Ph.D., assistant professor of history and African American studies at Winthrop University. “Add the fact that you’re talking about the lowest wage earners in the country, folks that really need their jobs and need to be able to work but at the same time have the least amount of protection in these spaces, have the least amount of resources, have the least amount of guidance and oversight in terms of helping them to navigate these difficult conversations.”
Black Labor, Southern Resistance
From the arrival of the first Africans in 1619, Black people have worked—usually with little or no compensation—to build the United States’ economy.
Slavery yoked Africans to masters across the British colonies, but the South’s agriculture-based economy put a premium on free Black labor to build the nation. Those attitudes survive today and can be found in lower wages, including the custom of tipping (to prevent the formerly enslaved from earning more competitive salaries), to fewer opportunities for economic mobility.
As America industrialized after the Civil War, the South held on to agrarian economy with the formerly enslaved key to the workforce. Wages were low and hours long, and Black people still had to contend with white hostility.
Even as union membership grew in the industrial North—which sparked the Great Migration of Black Southerners in the early and mid-20th century, the South remained resistant, and today only 6% of all workers in the region are unionized.
The South’s long-held political stake in preventing union organization manifests itself in legislation that deters organization.
Every Southern state has “right to work” laws that allow employers to fire workers for any reason, which leaves them vulnerable to the whims of their bosses.
“It’s like modern day slavery without the whips and chains,” Harris said. “When you think about it, it’s the same thing because we’re in these jobs more than we are at home. […] We spend all our time at a job getting paid dirt cheap and having to rub pennies together hoping we can make it stretch into $2 by the end of next week just to get something to eat.”
Nationally, businesses are pushing back against organized labor, which is driving a decline in union density that is among the worst among industrialized countries. Still, Americans showed more support for unionization in 2022, according to a Gallup poll in which 71% of respondents approved of unions—the highest point nationally since 1965. Petitions for union elections rose by 53% in fiscal year 2022, the largest number of filings since 2016.
Post-Pandemic Labor Force
The global COVID-19 pandemic shut down economies around the world, but in the U.S., the outbreak shifted the dynamic between employers and employees. Essential jobs were redefined in the workplace but as the labor market recovered, Black workers were left behind.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Black unemployment rate in 2021 was 8.6%, compared to 4.7% for whites and 5.3% overall. In the meantime, concerns about contracting the virus exacerbated a growing employment and income gap.
“For the Black community in particular, I think about it in terms of if you have a group of people who have already experienced deficit and discrimination and exclusion and already grappling with being among the lowest wage earners in the country,” Dixon-McKnight said. “So, there’s already all these challenges that Black people as a community face going into the workplace. Not only […] grappling with these issues just on the basis of being Black in the workspace, these are the things that [Blacks have] had to face historically. When you add the challenges that come about as a result of COVID, not only am I dealing with the discrimination and exclusion and things of that sort because of my race, but now I'm dealing with all of that compounded by the threat or the danger of contracting COVID.”
Southern workers are paid some of the lowest wages in the country, which means more challenges in an economy that favors companies while leaving employees undercompensated while raising productivity to record levels.
According to a 2022 report by Economic Policy Institute researchers Valerie Wilson and William Darity Jr., net productivity per work hour rose 69.6% between 1979 and 2019 while median wages for Blacks grew 5.2% compared to 20% for whites.
“Racial wage gaps also have widened amid the broader trend of growing wage inequality,” Wilson and Darity wrote, “as black workers have reaped even fewer gains from increased aggregate productivity than white workers.”
That’s why unionization is an option more Black workers are embracing.
“Workers in the South face unique challenges tied to the legacy of racism that require a unique solution,” said Eric Winston, a restaurant cook from Durham and a USSW member.
“We are building a union despite the fact that the rules are rigged against us as Southern workers. We are building a union by any means necessary and building it in a way that makes sense for us.”