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Will the Next Labor Movement Come from the South?

Saket Soni of the National Guestworker Alliance talks about how guest workers in New Orleans are re-envisioning possibilities for better working conditions and economic democracy.

Saket Soni, Director, National Guestworker Alliance (Image: via Jobs with Justice / Flickr)

Corporate America – especially in the American South – doesn’t seem to know the proper way to treat a guest. Guest workers have long been one of the most easily exploited segments of the American workforce. Employers frequently take advantage of their legal vulnerabilities to ignore labor laws, pay subminimum wage and threaten them with physical abuse, all of which American citizens are better equipped to resist. Whole sectors of the American economy – especially agriculture – have long depended on this underground labor market and the ease with which employers can dominate it.

But in recent years, guest workers have been bringing attention to their plight and winning some small victories. One of the leaders of that movement is Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance and the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. From his base in the Deep South, perhaps the United States’ most worker-unfriendly region, he has helped organize workers across the Gulf Coast.

In 2012, Soni worked with a group of guest workers at a crawfish processing plan named CJ’s Seafood, where employees were locked in, forced to work nearly around the clock and threatened with violence when they protested. The Guestworkers Alliance and the CJ’s employees were able to put pressure on CJ’s Seafood’s chief customers: Walmart and the Walmart-owned Sam’s Club. The employees went on strike, fasted and protested outside the homes of Walmart board members. They raised enough attention that The New York Times endorsed their cause and many other workers from across the Walmart supply chain joined their efforts. This case is a model for the kind of organizing Soni is dedicated to: confronting the complexities of the American labor market with the power of collective action.

Amy B. Dean spoke with Soni about his ongoing campaigns with guestworkers and about the challenges of organizing the South.

Amy Dean for Truthout: I want to begin by asking you about the recent United Auto Workers union (UAW) loss at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. Does it tell us anything that we didn’t already know about labor organizing in the South?

Saket Soni: Well, I think it’s a reminder of how far the opposition is willing to go to mobilize all of their resources to intervene in what should really have been a matter decided among workers: whether they wanted a union. Instead, those workers had to factor in the economic stress of jobs being taken away from them. They had to factor in all sorts of rhetoric including, ironically, how the union would turn Chattanooga into Detroit. Which is laughable because Detroit’s best years were because of unionization.

I think it also teaches us how far we need to go. It will take patience to really win in places like Chattanooga. The opposition had a community strategy, and we’re going to have to do that, too.

Describe this community strategy. What did Volkswagen management do on the ground?

They had community meetings, billboards, conversations. They created a sense that the unionization was going to be bad for life in the city overall. It started to make the union a choice of an entire community, not just something that can be won anymore within the four walls of a workspace.

And, just to be clear, the union lost because the opposition didn’t play fair. They carried out all of the tactics that we’ve seen in New Orleans and across other places in the South whenever workers of any stripe attempt to organize. There’s almost a playbook at this point: highly alarmist rhetoric followed by threats and outright retaliation.

What are you most excited about right now when you think about your own campaigns in the South?

The CJ’s Seafood campaign is the kind of journey that starts with an incident at the workplace that gets the workers to the point where conditions can no longer be tolerated. It moves through the initial coming out and then to going on strike, to eventually picking up two or three years later in an entire industry that’s central to the economy of the Gulf Coast – showing how the industry could really be transformed.

What those workers started, that’s pretty inspiring.

Talk a little about the Walmart supply chain. We’re facing a situation today where many contractors have very little control over working conditions. How does this impact organizing strategies?

Most people are used to this idea that there’s a boss who actually controls all of the conditions at a workplace. The idea is that the person you’re working for directly, the person you see every day, is the one who controls your wages, your working conditions, your environment. If that’s the case, you can get your other coworkers together and sit down with this person. You can figure out how to solve problems together at the workplace.

But this situation is true for fewer and fewer people.

They [CJ’s Seafood employees] work for a man named Mike LeBlanc, who gets money by selling everything workers pack to clients such as Walmart and Sam’s Club. Walmart is the one that sets up the working conditions, how much the contractor will pay, how long the contracts are.

If Mike LeBlanc had a stable, five-year contract from Walmart and Walmart said, “Hey, these are our labor standards on the supply chain: You keep this much money for yourself and you need to use this percentage of our contract to make sure the workers are paid well, have decent housing, have a pension fund and get overtime.” If Walmart said that, Mike LeBlanc would have no choice but to do it. He would get money for himself, and he would actually invest some amount of money in the well-being of the workers.

Yet, what happened was that Mike LeBlanc was having to sell to Walmart, not knowing when his contract would be renewed or for how long. Walmart was buying at extraordinary low prices and was pushing Mike LeBlanc to cut costs, like they do with every vendor.

I went out to LeBlanc’s operation. He works from home. He had a trailer for the workers, near a small factory right across from his house. He’s not the 1%. The only costs he can cut are the costs of dignity at work for the workers. He keeps pushing them to produce more, and that’s leading them to produce more for less. While the direct employer is Mike LeBlanc, Mike LeBlanc controls so little. In effect, workplace conditions are created by Walmart and other retailers who sell the seafood produced.

Supply chains are part of a bigger picture. People are working for subcontractors who work for another tier of contractors. Or they’re sourced by temp agencies into workplaces. Or they’re working along supply chains where the end user – the Target store or the Walmart store – is actually setting the terms of the economy.

The system is set up to make sure that workers don’t have a whole lot of control.

It always strikes me that when policy decisions are being made, those folks who work on the ground are not part of the conversation. So the policies don’t often meet the needs of those most affected. From your perspective of someone who works with people in the supply chain, what would you like to see happen if government were to amend the National Labor Relations Act? What changes would be most important?

There’s actually work happening on the ground right now that offers a glimpse into the structural reforms that we would actually want to see. What often takes place in the course of organizing is that workers exercise their political imaginations and come up with ideas. If there is a next New Deal, it will be the best of what’s happening on the ground.

Just take a look at things that are already happening: A lot of the guestworkers are organizing across multiple campaigns: the seafood sector, the refineries, the shipyards. Across the South, they have demanded that the people at the top of the supply chain be responsible for wages and conditions where they’re doing the work – particularly since more and more work is subcontracted, sourced out and temped out. The people who are the ultimate beneficiaries of the work, the ones making profit, are the ones who are the real bosses. And so across many industries and many workplaces in the South, our members are attempting to push for the real bosses to come to the table.

If you take it to the level of national reform, it would mean that the people at the top of the food chain would actually bargain with the people at the bottom. This would be a little different from the National Labor Relations Act, which concentrates on the bargaining unit in one workplace at a time.

What if the bargaining unit was an entire labor market or an entire political economy or an entire industry? What if all of the workers in all the small shops across the entire seafood industry in the Gulf Coast were actually able to have a mechanism to bargain with the retailers who sold seafood?

That’s a great one: Redefining who constitutes the employer.

Yes, the first thing is to rethink who you bargain with. The second is rethinking what you bargain for. After the New Deal, most benefits were tied to a union contract. Now, we’re living in an economy where workers do not identify with one employer for their whole lives – or even for more than a few years. So we need to rework the social contract.

More and more workers are juggling three jobs, or subbing from job to job. Sometimes this is in one industry, but sometimes it’s across multiple industries. I have members who are restaurant workers on Monday and landscapers on Tuesday. They’re all in New Orleans, though. How does New Orleans guarantee a sense of security for these workers? We need new forms of bargaining and new people to bargain with. We also need to figure out a new set of guarantees that workers can count on – guarantees that will be there for them, whether they’re employed or not.

We always hear people say, “You can’t organize guestworkers; they’re excluded from the NLRA.” And yet you have been able both to identify rights that guest workers have and to organize around them. How do you overcome the sense of defeatism that is so common in this area?

I think the biggest thing we’ve learned from organizing guest workers is that no one is unorganizable. You have to start from a place that’s appealing to people’s sense of dignity. At some point, keeping your dignity becomes more important than anything else. I think that’s the first thing.

Secondly, guestworkers are part of a broader economy; they’re not there by themselves. Not only are they exploited, but these workers are used to [discipline] other people from the local community. Why would an employer hire someone for $9 an hour if a guest worker can be thrown in to do the same job for $6?

So what is the hope for guest workers? Are there goals beyond winning back stolen wages from bad employers?

I think our members want to win improvements for themselves, of course. But they also have much higher aspirations – aspirations to really spark the next iteration of the labor movement. People like guestworkers and farmworkers and domestic workers and day laborers, they’re the next wave of the movement.

That’s not just something that exists in my head. Every single guestworker in the last nine years that has come forward or gone on strike, they always talk about doing this for future workers. Whether that’s joining a union, or whether that’s inventing the next form of what a union is, I think there’s an aspiration to figure out what organizational forms, what laws, what movement will get us to the point where workers have a voice in the economy and in democracy.

We know our country is in a crisis of democracy. Right now, democracy is under attack. From time to time in the history of this country, there is a vision of the next phase of our democracy that is fueled by the energy and the imagination of workers. That’s the role that the Mississippi Delta played in the ’50s and the ’60s. I think it’s the role that low-wage workers in the South will play in the next decade.

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