In this unprecedented time of economic and social upheaval, sparked in part by the pandemic and a former president falsely claiming election fraud, Georgia labor rights and voting rights groups are finding common cause, rooted in a shared sense of urgency.
Together, they are working to mobilize people against the linked threats of labor exploitation and voter suppression. The labor and voting rights movements have always held nominal ties, but the current crises are producing more tangible connections and new alliances.
“People lost jobs, healthcare benefits, their homes and more,” because of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Sandra Williams, executive director of the Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council, a coalition of labor unions with members in 18 metro Atlanta counties.
“Denying individuals a voice at their job is just like denying them a voice at the ballot box,” Williams added.
These coalitions are crossing lines of race and class since both labor exploitation and voting restrictions disproportionately affect Black and Latino people.
Local voting rights groups mobilized afresh last year after the Georgia legislature passed a restrictive new voting law, SB 202, that reduces access to absentee ballots and early voting while giving the state legislature control over county voting operations.
Meanwhile, there were at least six work stoppages last year in Georgia over pay, health care, and job security from schoolteachers, city workers and local units of unionized John Deere and Nabisco workers, according to Cornell University’s ILR Labor Action Tracker.
In recent weeks, workers at Starbucks locations in Atlanta and Augusta have filed for union election with the intention to gain more direct input into the decision-making process. Georgia Democratic Party chair and U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams has publicly backed the unionization effort.
Nationally, the number of major strikes and work stoppages doubled to 16 last year, compared with only eight actions in 2020 involving 1,000 or more workers for at least one shift, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The number of workers involved also spiked, from just 27,000 workers walking out for actions in 2020 to 80,700 workers last year. The majority of those, 45,400 people, were health care workers and teachers.
Voting and labor rights organizations locally and nationally are forming new alliances to capitalize on the energy at a time when voters and workers face suppression.
Locally, the New Georgia Project, which defends voting rights, has partnered with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), said Paul Glaze, New Georgia Project’s communications manager.
Both organizations are looking for ways to collaborate, he said – for instance, by recruiting poll workers from SEIU’s membership and jointly funding research and polling nationally. In the past, labor unions kept more of a distance from voting rights groups because of difficulties in aligning goals.
“There’s been a shift,” Glaze said. “Labor is now more willing to publicly align with voting rights and the progressive movement.”
“I consider this a good thing,” said Glaze. “The labor movement is one of the few spaces of true cross-racial, working-class solidarity. To be frank, it’s one of the few places where black and white folks can come together and talk about normal stuff.”
“Voting rights and unions put power behind our voices,” said AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler in a February manifesto published just after Congress again failed to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act on Jan. 19. The AFL–CIO is one of the nation’s largest unions with 12.5 million members.
The new Georgia law is one of 34 voter suppression laws passed by Republican legislatures in 19 states in 2021, said Schuler, in reaction to former President Donald Trump’s insistence that the 2020 election was rigged, triggering the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Republicans billed the new laws as needed reforms to prevent election fraud, while Democrats charged they restrict voters’ access to the polls.
Schuler said the labor movement must fight for voting rights. “At the same time extremist lawmakers continue to carry out their fundamental assault on our voting rights, corporations are using every union-busting tactic in the book to deny workers a voice on the job.”
“Workers who practice their legal right to organize for dignity and safety are subjected to intense suppression campaigns, complete with forced anti-union meetings and false claims about the dangers of voting by mail,” Schuler added.
Glaze and Williams said they see clear parallels between the current political environment and that of the Civil Rights Era.
Civil Rights Era Coalitions
After the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shifted his focus to lifting Americans out of poverty.
It’s relatively well-known that King had traveled to Memphis to organize a sanitation worker’s strike when he was assassinated in 1968, but he was also working on a lesser-known effort, the Poor People’s Campaign.
The campaign set clear, ambitious economic goals such as guaranteed minimum income, a massive federal jobs program, and a commitment to building low-income housing.
But King’s “commitment to multiracial, economic egalitarianism,” as American Legal Historian Reuel Schiller calls it in it Mourning King: The Civil Rights Movement and the Fight for Economic Justice was not popular with every faction in the Civil Rights movement.
While King had ideals rooted in anti-capitalism, individuals like Booker T. Washington had a more capitalistic approach in favor of amassing capital to gain economic freedom and political power.
Conversely, a “Christian Moral” portion of the movement took an approach that bypassed a critique of capitalism in favor of arguing that all people had a moral obligation to harbor a colorblind approach to poverty.
King’s gifted leadership held these civil rights-era factions together to mobilize for electoral and economic gains, Schiller writes, but these alliances began to fracture in the years after his death.
Former Atlanta Mayor Maynard T. Jackson exemplified the shift, initially embracing labor rights in 1970, then distancing himself after he was elected Atlanta’s first Black mayor in 1973.
Jackson was Atlanta’s vice-mayor in 1970 when the city’s sanitation workers’ union went on strike for better wages, pensions, and working conditions. The strike lasted 37 days, and Jackson made headlines by publicly criticizing then-Mayor Sam Massell, who was white and siding with the workers, who were mostly Black.
Massell initially fired the workers and replaced them with prison labor. But he finally caved under the political pressure and struck a deal with the union.
However, when the sanitation workers’ union again struck in 1977 with similar demands, Jackson, now the mayor, opposed them.
Jackson had won election by currying favor from Black voters, progressive groups, and the white business interests.
By 1977, he knew that it’d be a political problem if he were to lose the support of the white business establishment that had helped him get elected.
At the time, he was quoted in the Washington Post reflecting on his change in position. “If anyone had told me four years ago that today I’d be on the wrong side of that song, I’d have called them a liar,” said Jackson. The strike eventually began to fizzle when Jackson replaced hundred of AFSCME workers.
Voting rights and labor organizations need each other for survival and success. “None of these movements are strong enough to survive on their own,” Glaze said.
As a personal reminder of the precarious political moment, Williams, the labor organizer, recently stopped by the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, which tells the history of slavery and mass incarceration in America.
She was taking a slight detour on her way to Selma, Alabama, where the late Georgia civil rights hero and Congressman John Lewis was so gravely wounded leading the voting rights marches across Pettus Bridge decades ago.
“We secured voting rights 100 years after slavery ended, and now look where we are decades later,” Williams warned. “If we don’t work hard now, we will be alienated and they will strip us of all the gains we’ve made.”
Note: A previous version of this article misspelled Ms. Shuler’s name. We regret the error.
Kendall Glynn is a freelance journalist covering politics and entertainment in Atlanta.