“This convening is called a worker school, but in many ways it’s really an organizing conference,” Ajamu Dillahunt, a member of the SWA Coordinating Committee and Black Workers for Justice, addressed the crowd during the opening session of the Fall 2023 Southern Worker School. “Our objective this weekend is to meet the opportunities of the present with increased levels of consciousness, organization, and coordinated collective action.”

The gathering – which brought together more than 140 rank and file workers from 11 Southern states and multiple industries – emerged from the weekend of November 10 – 12 with a higher level of coordination between workers in sectors across the region, and a plan for making strategic interventions in the year ahead. It was also the first multi-lingual Southern Worker School to date, and was multinational, multi-gendered, and multi-generational in character.

Workers who came to the school traveled from as far away as Arkansas, Texas, and Mississippi, and included delegations from nearly all of the eleven active workers assemblies across the South, Venceremos, UE Locals 150 and 111, four locals of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) locals, Asheville Food and Beverage Workers United, Black Workers for Justice, and Carolina Amazonians United for Solidarity and Empowerment (CAUSE), among others. The Fruit of Labor Singing Ensemble provided revolutionary music throughout the gathering.

“I was very motivated to learn from other workers to never give up because we have a long fight ahead of us; hearing other workers’ stories, and how they organized to improve their working conditions gives me confidence that we’re on the right path to achieve justice for poultry workers,” shared Marisol Corona, a Tyson poultry worker in Arkansas and a member of Venceremos.

David Leon — a factory worker, union member, and organizer from Triad Workers Assembly in North Carolina — attended the school with other members of the TWA. The Triad assembly was formed earlier this year after workers from Greensboro and Winston-Salem attended the previous SWA school in Charlotte held in April.

“The SWA’s school brought together worker militants from across the South and from a wide range of industries — from longshore workers to chicken processing workers to auto workers to retail and food service workers,” Leon said. “The members of Triad Workers Assembly that attended the school were able to connect with fellow militants, including workers from our same industries, and plot ways to build the struggle on the job and in our unions. As a chapter of the Southern Workers Assembly, TWA benefited from the presentations and debates that took place throughout the weekend about how to grow our local assembly and build workers’ power. Our goal is to build a better world for our class, and I’m looking forward to joining fellow SWA members on the picket line during the struggles to come.”

Sean Williams, TDU Steering Committee Member Co-Chair and Teamster Local 71 Executive Board Trustee

Marisol Corona, Tyson poultry plant, Venceremos

Maria Ruvalcaba, Tyson poultry plant, Venceremos

Magaly Licolli, Director of Venceremos

Vijay Tripathi, Starbucks Workers United

Montrell Perry, City of Durham, Solid Waste Operator, Durham City Workers Union, chapter of UE Local 150

Pamela Irvin, First Committee Person at General Motors UAW Local 2404

Billy Randel, Truckers Movement for Justice 

Building Strike Power in the U.S. South

The worker school kicked off with a panel Friday evening, during which workers who had organized for or led strikes in their workplace throughout the last year shared lessons from their experience, and engaged the workers gathered in a broader discussion on how to incorporate work stoppages, strikes, and other job actions into our organizing.

The panel featured:

  • Sean Williams, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) Steering Committee Member Co-Chair and Teamster Local 71 Executive Board Trustee
  • Maria Ruvalcaba & Marisol Corona, Tyson poultry plant workers, and Magaly Licolli, Venceremos 
  • Montrell Perry, City of Durham, Solid Waste Operator, Durham City Workers Union, chapter of UE Local 150
  • Pamela Irvin, First Committee Person at General Motors UAW Local 2404
  • Vijay Tripathi, Starbucks Workers United
  • Billy Randel, Truckers Movement for Justice
  • Moderator: Libby Devlin, retired National Nurses United Collective Bargaining Director  and SWA Coordinating Committee member

“I learned on that strike line that brothers and sisters stand together. We don’t have to be blood, you call us and we’re gonna be there…As y’all organize, and get together and fight, don’t give up the fight,” Pamela Irvin, a first shift committee person for UAW Local 2404 at General Motors in Charlotte, shared. “We might ratify this agreement, but our fight is not done…Everything your employers make, they’re not making it – you are. Don’t let the employers scare you. I hear so many people say ‘well i was told I’ll be fired.’ Just shake your head at them. Can they fire all of us? There’s no way. After our management did what we do everyday, they don’t want to. If it’s not a clipboard and a pen, they have no interest.”

Logistics sector breakout group

Elevating coordination and organization

One of the main objectives of the Southern Worker Schools is to facilitate network building across sectors, both through formal programming as well as through open time during the weekend gatherings.

Seven industry breakouts were organized to this end during the day on Saturday: manufacturing and food production, service and retail, logistics, education, healthcare and childcare, and municipal sector groups. These discussions afforded workers in each sector the opportunity to collective assess conditions in their sector across the region, exchange reports and lessons from the work they’re engaged in at their workplace and in their city, and identify opportunities for increased levels of coordinated activity going forward.

Most of these industry breakout groups made plans to continue the deliberations on these and other points that were opened during the worker school, and engage other workers in their sector across the region to participate in these upcoming meetings – a significant step forward towards constituting industry councils in key sectors across the region. The development of such councils that can raise the level of coordination and engage networks to take coordinated collective action has been a longstanding objective of the Southern Workers Assembly.

“The meetings with the ILA locals and CAUSE [during the logistics sector breakout] can lead to incredible bonds of solidarity between workers along the supply chain. That’s exactly what we’ve talked about doing in different cities, and the long-term potential for that kind of supply line organizing is mind-boggling,” reflected Billy Randel, a truck driver and leader of Truckers Movement for Justice. “The camaraderie of a conference of rank and file workers and the size of the conference made it so we passed each other in the hallway and were able to talk and remember names. It helps to build a relationship on a personal level and that’s what you need in the movement.”

Additionally, there were two simultaneous discussion groups that met later in the afternoon on Saturday – one for newer assemblies and other workers interested in developing a workers assembly in their area, and another for established assemblies. The training session for new worker activists covered the basics of starting a workers assembly, engaging in agitational workplace outreach, organizing follow up, and building out the local networks to identify common demands around which to organize.

The established assembly discussion group provided space for the workers assemblies to frankly discuss their successes and challenges, and collectively exchange on their experience developing cross sector, geographic networks of rank and file workers embedded in workplaces across the South. This group additionally took up a discussion of the Southern Worker Program, and identified key demands from the program that reflected issues that are broadly and deeply felt by workers across the region to orient a regional campaign moving into 2024. In a later session, the full gathering had the opportunity to similarly rank points of the program that could be the basis for such a campaign tied to immediate demands. A continuations committee was formed that plans to reconvene in December to further develop plans for this campaign.

‘Higher levels of consciousness, coordinated collective actions’

Raising the level of political education, both in terms of our own consciousness and recommitting to and strengthening ongoing political education work across the network, was high on the agenda for the weekend gathering. 

“This school is trying to raise us to a higher level. What is that higher level? It’s class consciousness. Not just your industry, not just your workplace, all of the workers, even the ones that don’t know that they’re in the working class.” said Abdul Alkalimat, a member of the SWA Education Committee, as he addressed the gathering during the final session.

“When we talk about strategy at this school, we’re talking about strategy for the class. That’s a bold move. The bosses, the capitalists, intend to rule forever. We have to begin to think at the same level to confront the enemy that we face. We have to think about how we raise the level of consciousness of our class to confront the struggle in front of us.”

Alkalimat continued: “The critical issue is power. What is power? Power is the ability to get something done relative to the obstacles you face, so the greater the obstacles, the greater the need for power…The SWA is building a social justice working class movement, we’re not just talking about what happens in the workplace. What we’re talking about is a social justice working class movement, we have to be involved in the environmental struggle, involved in the struggle to get the police to stop killing people, involved in the struggles of the social issues of the day. We’re talking about building the sense in society that the working class is beginning to move. Every time you struggle you learn lessons, and every lesson takes you to the next level – so we never lose if out of every struggle we’re building a greater level of power. Let’s make the end of the school a new beginning for a class conscious, abolitionist, working class movement.”

During the session, workers were asked to submit topics for political education sessions in the new year, and committed to taking this discussion back into their workplaces, organizations, and local workers assemblies on the need to elevate consciousness to build the type of working class movement that can navigate and confront the challenges of the day. As the discussion closed, school participants chanted “higher levels of consciousness, coordinated collective actions” as the charge to orient the work we committed to engage in together across the region going forward.

Looking ahead

“I’m inspired to see the resilience from workers in the South. The Worker School was a great opportunity to learn and to connect with workers and organizers that are also working in creating fair jobs for people. We’ll continue building relationships with workers across the South to continue our struggle for the dignity of all workers,” Magaly Licolli, Director of Venceremos, reflected at the conclusion of the school. 

Resilience, unity, and a conscious effort to connect our struggles across the region to advance the development of a fighting working class movement is what will be needed in the challenging year ahead.

Throughout the gathering, discussions were taken up on the conditions workers are seeing in our workplaces and our communities, and both the opportunities and the dangers posed by the upcoming elections, right wing state legislatures, and the ongoing Israeli war on the Palestinian people, among other developments, and how best to make an intervention given the political environment.

In addition to raising a regional campaign connected to the Southern Worker Power Program, the Southern Worker School resolved to build for a coordinated day of action on Martin Luther King Jr Day 2024 – January 15 –  to raise the need for a struggle-oriented, independent path forward for workers in the South. 

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