A First-Of-Its-Kind Union Ramps Up Efforts To Sweep The South

by | Aug 29, 2023 | Industry, Labor Relations Ink, Service Industry, Strikes, Trending, Union Organizing, Union Research, Unions, USSW

With the release of the new Cemex decision broadening the path for unions to organize an employer, those companies in the restaurant and other service sector industries will want to be aware of the activities of newly forming labor unions such as this.

The Union of Southern Service Workers began making headlines last fall after formally christening themselves during a rally in Columbia, South Carolina. This union holds some familiar attributes, given that it began as an offshoot of Raise Up, the Southern leg of the SEIU’s Fight for $15 initiative. Yet this is no ordinary effort by the SEIU, for the USSW purports to not only be “built by and for low-wage workers” but also stretches across many industries.

A key distinction: The union frames itself as a cross-sector organization, designed to retain members even if they job-hop between industries, i.e., fast food, retail, hotel, nursing home, warehouses, etc.

That cross-sector focus is cunning for a few reasons: (1) It discourages membership churn by allowing workers to maintain membership after switching jobs; (2) It eases organizing in high-turnover industries that remained relatively immune to organizing activity until recent years.

Full steam ahead: The USSW will attend a Sept. 2 conference in Atlanta to spread their message of “fighting to transform our low-wage, high turnover jobs” into unionized jobs. The union also made this a summer of safety issues while intensifying recruitment efforts. Even in workplaces not formally unionized, the USSW “backs” walkouts and strikes.

One major summer target: A certain around-the-clock breakfast chain, which has 1900+ locations that are primarily concentrated in the South.

Aided by the USSW, Waffle House workers in Columbia protested against “extreme hours” and low pay while lobbying for 24/7 security against the viral “Waffle House fights” that have garnered social media attention. Workers also expressed concern over armed customers after recent shootings at multiple locations.

Those Columbia workers walked off the job during the morning rush hour. That walkout turned into a three-day strike, during which union organizers joined the workers as they protested violent and intoxicated customers.

The USSW has remained busy with other summer initiatives:

  • Also, in Columbia, workers claiming to be from Dollar General and Burger King attended USSW informational sessions focusing on heat safety– a hot issue during this blazing U.S. summer.
  • In Atlanta, GA, Dunkin’ workers recently picketed for safety, and Publix workers went on strike over working conditions.
  • In Savannah, GA, the USSW led strikes at three cafes (Foxy Loxy, Henny Penny, and Fox & Fig), ending with nine workers claiming they were fired for participating.
  • In Durham, NC, 50+ service industry workers recently went on a USSW-organized strike over workplace safety concerns.
  • In South Carolina, the union alleged that the state OSHA fails to perform safety inspections at food service and retail workplaces.

The union claims other distinctions, including how their focus on low-wage workers means that members are likely to be minority and/or female. Additionally, several Southern states are governed by Right To Work laws, which protect workers from compulsory dues payment in union workplaces. These last points don’t point toward any conclusions yet, but they add up to more reasons to watch out for the USSW.

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