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Southern Movement Assembly Creates a Framework With a Labor Sensibility for Southern Struggles

A strategy for the South’s struggles has national potential.

Libby Devlin, Saladin Muhammad and Rita Valenti participate in the Worker Justice Assembly at SMA VII. (Photo: Southern Movement Assembly [SMA Vll])

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators, and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 90th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Libby Devlin, Saladin Muhammad and Rita Valenti of the Southern Movement Assembly. In this interview, they discuss the importance of a movement in the South to create framework and tie local organizations and struggles together.

Libby Devlin: I am Libby Devlin. I am the southern region director for National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC)/National Nurses United (NNU). I am on the governing council of the Southern Movement Assembly and I am on the coordinating committee for the Southern Workers Assembly which runs the Southern Workers School.

Saladin Muhammad: I’m Saladin Muhammad, retired international rep for the United Electrical Workers union, founding member of the Black Workers for Justice and co-coordinator of the Southern Movement Assembly.

Rita Valenti: I am Rita Valenti. I am a registered nurse. I work with National Nurses Organizing Committee. I’m on the board of Healthcare-NOW! I am a Project South founder.

Sarah Jaffe: We are talking a little while after the Southern Movement Assembly happened. Tell our readers what that was.

Muhammad: It is a convergence of organizations, grassroots organizations, largely anchored in the African American grassroots struggles in all of the states in the South creating a movement framework to tie what essentially has been a local organization and local struggles so that there is some sense of strategy and program in people’s understanding of the Southern freedom movement.

Tell us a little bit about the history of the Movement Assembly; how long this has been going on and the background to this coming together.

Valenti: This is the Southern Movement Assembly 7. Our first one was in 2012 in Lowndes County, Alabama. Each Movement Assembly has built on the one before it and has developed a sense of principles in which people can work together and practice consciousness, vision and strategy in terms of coordinating our activity and ultimately try to build power from the bottom up to end oppression and exploitation of our people in the South.

Devlin: I would add to that that all the organizations — I think there are 20 organizations that participate in the Southern Movement Assembly — we have all agreed to a blueprint which is the Southern People’s Initiative which includes working to build a new economy, to establish more of a people’s democracy and to protect and defend each other within that democracy. Those are the overriding principles that we are working toward, in the context of the principles of unity that we have all agreed to in terms of the process by which we work toward those goals.

Devlin, Muhammad, and Valenti at the Worker Justice Assembly at SMA VII. (Photo: Southern Movement Assembly [SMA Vll])Devlin, Muhammad and Valenti at the Worker Justice Assembly at SMA VII. (Photo: Southern Movement Assembly [SMA Vll])

Let’s talk a little bit about how this past assembly went. Was it at all different from what you were thinking about with Trump as president or are you still pretty focused on the same things that were happening before?

Muhammad: We have a long-term perspective and that is regardless of who is president. Obviously, the Trump presidency has some influence on how we think about the long-term perspective, because it certainly is a part of the long-term perspective of the elite class and the direction of the system. We felt that it is important that people have a perspective so that we don’t just panic because of this open facilitation of white supremacy and white nationalism. So, building on the past assembly informed us on the road ahead. It has had some influence, but it didn’t disrupt perspective.

Some of the Southern organizers I have talked to recently have said, “America woke up in the South after Trump was elected. We have already been struggling with people who are a lot like Trump.” Tell us a little bit about what happened at this assembly. What were some of the sessions like? Who was there? What were some of the conversations that people were having?

Valenti: I think there were about 300 people there. That showed, to me, more and more of a deep commitment, because to get to Whitaker, North Carolina is not just landing [at] an airport someplace. You actually have to be engaged and really committed to building this work.

Essentially, it was a series of frontline assemblies that engaged a National Student Bill of Rights; another assembly dealt with mass incarceration and de-incarcerating the assemblies; one on climate change, people’s democracy assembly, and then, of course, the assembly that Libby and Saladin and I and a lot of other folks put together — the Workers Justice Assembly, an assembly on migration and one on economies for survival. Plus, a number of skill-building assemblies that dealt with strategy and tactic, as well as vision.

It was a beautiful space and in a lot of ways, it created a harm-free liberation zone where people felt very comfortable to share their views and really try to come together to develop political strategy, recognizing and honoring the space that we were in — from native peoples who had once been in the Franklinton Center space to the plantation system of slavery that had also been [there] … and now to a liberating space where we are looking to build power to come together and free our people.

Devlin: I know Black Workers for Justice has been involved in the past and I think this is the third assembly that the NNU has participated in, but this particular assembly had, I think, more focus on the idea of workplace democracy and building worker organizations in their workplaces as a way to expand democracy and as a way to protect and defend each other. There was a little bit more attention to the idea that we need to have a worker-based movement if we intend to really do anything about income inequality, the wealth inequality, the lack of democracy really in our country at this point.

On that note, why don’t we talk a little bit about the Workers Justice Assembly, in particular, and the things that were discussed and the people who took part and what the next steps are.

Muhammad: The Workers Justice Assembly represented a new entity, or as described in the Southern Movement Assembly, a new frontline. That is, a new battlefront, a new issue struggle. The question of organization in the Southern Movement Assembly has become a kind of common notion of community-based organization. The question of building organization at the workplace, and organization that directly impacts the economy from the standpoint of how the system produces commodities and creates the basis for wealth.

The Workers Assembly provided an experience that has been a little different from other frontline assemblies. We involved participants in a practice that trade union organizing does; meeting other people, asking them where they work, asking them about what issues they face where they work, etc. Then, going out to some real workplaces to leaflet and talk to workers and to be able to report back that experience, to have a sense of some of the things that workplace organizing entails. I think that was a new experience and a new practice and hopefully will be appreciated in whole [in the] ongoing motion of the Southern Movement Assembly.

Devlin: Also, obviously a lot of the unions have a real vested interested in having strong alliances with community organizations, particularly the nurses [who] are natural allies, our patients and community. It is important for the unions to be involved in the Southern Movement Assembly because it engages unions and community organizations together. The unions bring something important to this relationship in that we, as unions, are the ones who directly confront capital every day at work. Many of the community organizations, they engage in really important organizing, but they don’t necessarily have an automatic relationship via their union to directly confront some of the economic systems that are particularly exploitative and unfair to people.

So, we bring that alliance together to figure out, “Where do these community organizers themselves work and are they interested in participating in a broader economic struggle for economic justice?” Also, to bring that consciousness to people. I thought it was very interesting and informative for me; [an] educational experience to go through … with people and discuss [the] people’s perspective … and to build a broader relationship with people. We are all on the same team. We might approach it from different methods, but we are all on the same team and how do we become larger than the sum of our parts?

Valenti: I was very, very excited about the presence of some of the key unions that have an understanding of social unionism which brings together the workplace and community issues and sees those things interconnected as opposed to a more elitist business unionism model that tends to collaborate with the boss.

The other thing that I think also came out of this is this whole notion, as well, of a gig economy and what a lot of young workers are facing in terms of internships and contracting and some of the real problems that young workers face in an economy that is constantly changing and has been developing in a way that unpaid labor and lack of benefits are the norm for so many of the young workers.

How does this collaboration between unionism and grassroots organizing actually begin to challenge power and transform our society in ways that address the current situation? In our assembly we had nurses, we had retired workers, we had representatives from [United Electrical Workers], of course, from NNU, as well as a lot of workers who are working in 501(c)3s and struggling to bring together their work experience with their desire to transform this country. It was new and exciting in a lot of ways and the next step in terms of building power because as the South goes, so goes the nation.

Devlin: We also had some online journalists as part of the Workers Justice Assembly. This was before Ricketts closed down his business rather than deal with unions. What he did, I think we need to learn from that and think about how we approach — I don’t know if I would call online journalists as part of the gig economy, but it certainly is precarious work. How are we going to approach the precarious work to be able to have people take power? What do we learn from that and how do we build on that and figure out what the next and proper steps are?

Muhammad: I think that an important lesson when there are so many different frontlines is dealing with the experience of the role of the state locally and the role of the state nationally, and its international role and recognizing that this also develops contradictions. That is, that contradictions in people’s language in terms of how they frame things, contradictions in people’s sense of the importance of their various areas of work.

For me, the Southern Movement Assembly raises the issue of how a movement has to deal with contradictions that emerge out of organizing in a changing economy and also in a changing political reality and whether or not the differences that exist should be viewed as antagonistic within the movement or a learning curve that the movement has to understand in order to be able to move forward collectively.

There were challenges, even as we talk about a liberated space to be able to deal with questions and issues. I think we learned that even in liberated spaces, sometimes there will be differences that a movement has to try to navigate and work out. Understanding challenges in the course of carrying out a strategy and a program is something that I think the assembly helped us to learn.

One of the things that different parts of the south have been facing this year — you had people from Puerto Rico join this assembly, too — one of the challenges that several places have faced this year has been hurricanes and looking forward into a world of climate change. I wonder how much you guys talked about these storms and what being ready for the next ones would look like.

Valenti: I think one of the leaps that has occurred in the Southern Movement Assembly process was Southern Movement Assembly 5, Gulf South Rising that marked the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath of Katrina with a huge amount of privatization that went along on New Orleans and a real wakeup call that Saladin has mentioned, the state is not organized to support our people. So, what is it that we have to do in terms of building leverage and power? One of the reasons that I love this movement assembly process is because it is beginning to address that.

Also, NNU started the RN to RN program with Katrina that brought nurses into the gulf after Katrina and has also sent nurses into Puerto Rico. Not from the perspective of colonizers, but from the perspective of “What is on the ground and how do we assist with that?” Part of the bringing in of unions, progressive unions, into the Movement Assembly is the building of capacity and organization, the other question that comes out of the Southern Movement Assembly process … is: What is the nature of organization we have to build to win?

Devlin: As NNU/National Nurses Organizing Committee, we have a very strong position opposed to the things that create climate change. We have an environmental and climate justice working group in our union. We just passed a very strong resolution at our convention last month to oppose the things that cause climate change. We have a very active anti-fracking group that we work with. We are allied with Food and Water Watch on the anti-pipeline work and anti-fracking work. We are looking to participate in helping to solve some of the root causes of these climate disasters.

Then, we also have the Registered Nurse Relief Network, which we send folks out to wherever there are major disasters. In our union, we have hundreds of nurses in Houston and Corpus Christi who are members of the union. We have thousands that were impacted by the Irma hurricane. We don’t actually have any active membership in Puerto Rico, but we did send our largest delegation of disaster relief nurses to go work there. That was, obviously, by far the biggest in terms of [inadequate] governmental response … [to] the most need. In our view, it would be better to not need [RN-to-RN] to be able to resolve the climate change problem.

Valenti: Right.

Muhammad: Hurricane Katrina, for many of us, brought forward the beginning [of] understanding of disaster capitalism. That is an important aspect of our understanding about the question of climate change and the role of the state, the failures of the state. It is bringing to what has essentially been a network, concepts and understandings to be able to be a movement. That is very important. There are so many conferences that take on similar, not identical, characters as the Southern Movement Assembly. But, the difference between the Southern Movement Assembly and a conference and workshops, etc., is that it is part of an ongoing process of forging and building a movement with a consciousness that is local, national and international, global. To really see how those features are forged is a way to look at the experience of the Southern Movement Assembly and its annual convergence.

You said “As goes the South, so goes the country.” I think that is particularly true in the age of Trump. What are a couple of the lessons from this past assembly and from the work of doing these assemblies more broadly that people from outside the South should take?

Valenti: I really want to underscore what Saladin just said, this notion of not just mobilizing, not going backwards in history to a time that is past, and not just a series of workshops, but actually deep political organizing that produces a change of consciousness and begins to actually discuss the vision of the world that we want to build in this hugely transitional and chaotic period. And development of strategies.

I think the South has had much more of a handle on that because we have had a lot less, since our inception, resources that we have had to rely on each other and respect each other and understand the centrality of our history based in genocide and slavery. Wall Street has controlled the South and through that control has really controlled the nation. We see that in not just this Trump era, but more so in the history of Right to Work in terms of labor, the history of “state’s rights,” particularly in terms of healthcare and failures to expand Medicaid. What we bring, I think, to this table is that we try to listen to each other and not just tell each other.

Devlin: I guess I always kind of hoped that the standards in the northern states would move South, not vice versa. So, when you look at income inequality, it is worse in the South. Health outcomes are worse in the South. Education quality is worse in the South. Infant mortality rates are worse in the South. The percent of unionization rates is directly linked to all of that, as well. Particularly, income inequality and wealth inequality, there’s a reverse correlation between union strength and income inequality. The stronger the union is, the less income inequality is.

I think what we bring from the South is that we have been living under these same conditions that the existing government and their funders would like to see brought throughout the country. We have existed. We have survived. We can say we have done that. I think a lot of people in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, they are all going to be faced with the same conditions that we have now. I know that they are working to try to figure out “How do you fight back in that environment?” because the political climate has been different there. One thing that people can learn from us is how to be scrappier. How do you fight in that context? There has been a lot of cross-state discussion that has been going on and I think that is helpful and useful.

Muhammad: Historically, the labor movement in particular, has not recognized the strategic role of the South in a national strategy. The South is a zone of global capital very much like, and that pre-existed, NAFTA, the maquiladoras, etc. The South hasn’t been looked at almost as if it had maquiladoras, but international capital is now seeing it as a region of concentration that is protected by a state that is dominant internationally. Economists have said that the regional economy of the South would be considered as the world’s fourth largest economy, following Japan. If we are not recognizing this concentration of global capital in the South and understanding how to challenge the outrageous actions of US and global capital then I don’t think we are looking at a strategy correctly.

When Wisconsin happened and the issue of Right to Work was raised, it appeared as if the sky had fallen. We have been living under Right to Work and it never sounds like the sky is falling for the South. Almost as if that is normal for us. “Let’s worry about something that is not normal for everyplace else.” In terms of how capital, in terms of so-called de-industrialization and the Rust Belt and all of that stuff utilize the South, I don’t think that we have a good handle outside of the South on understanding what that is going to mean for the labor movement in terms of the shrinkage and the light. Again, I think looking at the South almost as a kind of internal colony, if you will, in terms of how capital has used it in reorganizing itself. I think that is something that the northern forces have to get a better handle on.

I know your work is going to go on in various places after this assembly. How can people keep up with the work each of you [is] doing and the organizations you are part of?

Muhammad: We have a Southern Workers School, supporting the school is a part of how to be able to relate to the work of our various organizations.

Valenti: There is so much going on. I know that the next piece that is following right on the heels of this is the United States Human Rights Network … also meeting here in early December. We are going to be building out a National Nurses Council here in Atlanta that will also incorporate some of our understandings in the Southern Movement Assembly. There are monthly Southern Movement Assembly membership calls. It really provides a space for people to engage politically.

Devlin: To add to the Southern Workers School issue, it is not a location. We can run these schools really anywhere that people have an interest in doing it. The idea being that you would have a cadre of people in various workplaces and all across the South who have a way of communicating with each other about different strategies that they have used at work, what worked, what didn’t work, what they could have done better, how they can confront issues in the workplace like job discrimination or underpay or short staffing or any number of issues that people have every day. And what are the methods that they are using that have been effective. We can set one up really anywhere. We did one in Raleigh. We have done one in Atlanta. We are thinking about doing one in Tampa. We can set it up with any gathering of people that want to talk about it. I think it is a very important development that has happened in the past….

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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