Eric Winston spent the worst months of the pandemic at a Cracker Barrel in Durham, cooking up platters of country-fried steak and watching his coworkers die.
The deaths—three in total, all caused by COVID-19—could have been prevented, he says: when a worker initially tested positive for the virus, the restaurant’s management could have closed the dining room for a professional cleaning or allowed the worker to quarantine for 14 days, as mandated by the CDC, by offering sick leave.
Instead, management kept the restaurant open and refused to provide paid time off. The worker, unable to risk losing more than a few days of pay, returned to work too early. The virus spread amongst staff, and the three most vulnerable workers, all people of color, died in quick succession.
“I was risking my life, every day, for $13 an hour,” Winston says.
Winston, a veteran service worker, has dozens of stories like this. Some years back, he was working at a Chick-fil-A when his mother had the first of three strokes. When he asked his manager for time off—not paid time off, just a few days of unpaid leave so he could take care of his mom—he was fired.
In the state of North Carolina, most of the horrific practices that service workers endure are legal or largely unchecked, which is why Winston has spent the past nine years taking matters into his own hands.
Since 2014, when he joined Raise Up the South—the southern branch of the workers’ rights organization Fight for $15—Winston has organized workers at businesses including McDonald’s, Burger King, Waffle House, and Cracker Barrel, leading strikes to demand better safety policies, fair pay, consistent scheduling, and respect and dignity in the workplace.
His efforts, a number of which sparked near-immediate change from employers, have helped to lay the groundwork for something that—given state and federal legislative blocks, systemic exploitation, and the service industry’s high turnover model—has long seemed impossible in the South: last week, Winston and more than 100 other service workers established a union.
Initially launching in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama—the first two of which bear the lowest union densities of any state in the nation—the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW) is an evolution of Raise Up the South and will function as a part of the Service Employees International Union, a labor union that represents nearly 2 million workers in the United States and Canada.
Unlike the enterprise unions that have made headlines in recent months, such as Starbucks Workers United and Amazon Workers United, the USSW is cross-sector, offering membership to fast food, retail, warehouse, care, and all other service industry workers in the four-state region.
According to founding members of the USSW, the cross-sector model holds a number of benefits.
The issues that service workers face are typically systemic and widespread, so joining forces across sectors—and creating a joint list of demands—is an effective way for workers to maximize capital and collective power and work toward enacting industry-wide change.
The model also acknowledges the reality that, because low-wage service jobs have such a high turnover rate, the store-by-store approach utilized by enterprise unions—in which workers vote to pass union elections at individual company locations—is extremely difficult for service workers to pull off.
“If I try to form a union at just McDonald’s, or just Wendy’s, [the companies] can drag the process out for two, three years,” says Mama Cookie, a Durham resident, longtime labor rights activist, and founding member of the USSW who works two service jobs. “And by that time, bam, bam, I done moved somewhere else, all my coworkers moved somewhere else, and there’s no one left to [vote for a union].”
(This phenomenon is currently stalling the efforts of Amazon Workers United, which has lost union elections at two warehouses—and faced fierce opposition from the company—in the months since workers made history by unionizing a facility in Staten Island, New York.)
Cummie Davis, a Chapel Hill resident and founding member of USSW who works as a care provider and rehabilitation technician, says the cross-sector model also caters to workers who have multiple jobs, like herself, and offers employees of mom-and-pop restaurants, independent retailers, and other small-scale businesses the newfound ability to unionize.
Davis, who has worked for the same in-home care service for 14 years, says she has a number of demands for her employer: offer employees the ability to work 40 hours a week, so they don’t have to work second jobs; provide additional pay for working on holidays; and compensate workers for the hours they spend with patients overnight.
“We get paid from the time we get there to 10 o’clock at night, then we have to spend the night in their beds without pay,” Davis says.
But because Davis is one of just three providers employed at the company, and because her shifts rarely overlap with those of her coworkers, she hasn’t had an opportunity to organize.
Now, though, with the USSW’s cohort of service workers behind her, organizing seems more feasible.
“I have been working in the service arena for so many years,” Davis says. “And I always have felt like my back was against the wall. Do I call the unemployment office? Do I talk to the labor board? [USSW], it opens the door for me. They let me know that we hear you, that we got demands, we have your back.”
As it stands right now, the union’s approach to organizing is at once broad and laser-focused.
Its universal demands for employers (compiled in a petition that prospective members can sign to receive membership information) are as sensible as they are ambitious, with thunderous clauses like “real healthcare benefits for workers and our families” and “protection from sexual harassment, homophobia and racial discrimination.”
“This little bit tucked in about ‘the end of wage theft’—damn!” says Gunther Peck, a Duke professor who teaches courses on labor organizing. “And ‘rights for regular work hours’—they’re naming casual labor as a problem. Who else is doing that? This union is fighting for something so much bigger. It has a sense of its moral universality. Labor movements, at their best, have done that historically.”
But before a full-fledged sea change—which, workers recognize, will likely take decades—the USSW aims to provide members with the expertise and resources they need to organize their individual workplaces in a way that sparks direct change without necessitating new legislation or union elections.
This, too, is a formidable task.
Each of the four states where the USSW is active have right-to-work and at-will employment laws, which severely undermine union efforts and workers’ rights, as well as preemption laws, which prohibit local governments from enacting ordinances that could raise the minimum wage, require employers to provide paid leave, and otherwise benefit workers in their municipalities.
So even if workers succeed in organizing a handful of local businesses, there’s currently no way to ensure that those businesses will adhere to their promises. But that doesn’t mean that the USSW’s work will be done in vain.
“Community unionism doesn’t fit the law,” Peck says. “On the other hand, the labor movement didn’t wait to be legal to get moving. So [the USSW] can lead, and it can change practice by changing behavior, and then the law can catch up.”
One approach, Peck says, might be for the USSW to work with progressive Southern cities and advocacy groups to implement some kind of workers’ rights contract—bound not by law but community pressure—that employers must sign to receive approval from local patrons.
“When the division of powers in our democracy doesn’t provide checks and balances against abuses of power, communities have long had that power,” Peck says. “That’s the great thing about American radicalism: it’s local and decentralized.”
In Durham, for instance, scores of employers have signed on to the Living Wage Project in recent years, helping to create an expectation that local business owners pay workers at least $16 an hour.
This kind of action can unleash a “moral energy” that spreads to other areas, according to Peck.
“I don’t think the state legislature can abolish community,” Peck says. “I don’t think that’s in their power.”
The crowd moves as one—a sea of workers, most in crimson shirts, that swells and folds and ripples with raised fists.
This must be the red wave that everyone was talking about.
It’s Friday, November 18, and a massive group of service workers is ringing in the launch of the USSW at a conference center in Columbia, South Carolina, where they’ve coagulated for a three-day summit.
One hundred and twenty workers—40 of whom hail from Durham—spend the morning chanting, dancing, discussing their demands, and watching videos that detail the direct ties between racism and restrictive labor laws.
“For forever and a day, [corporations and legislators] have tried to prevent organizing by separating Black and white people,” says Mama Cookie. “The USSW is a ‘race build’ as well as a union. We got to build ourselves up as a family.”
Before lunch, workers take turns standing at a podium and sharing stories about the injustices they’ve faced in the service industry.
Jamila Allen, a founding USSW member who has organized three strikes at a Freddy’s location in Durham, discusses the safety hazards she endured during the pandemic and proudly announces that, thanks to the strikes, Freddy’s has implemented a COVID-19 sick leave policy at 33 of its locations.
Another worker says he experienced consistent wage theft at a Red Roof Inn, sometimes getting paid for just one or two hours of work after a ten-hour shift. One speaks about the 17-hour shift he worked at a Waffle House during Hurricane Irma. In a barely audible whisper, another tells the crowd that a shooting victim once came into the store where he works and died; when the body was taken away, his manager made him clean up the crime scene, he says.
Eric Winston is last to the podium. When he discusses his experiences at Cracker Barrel and Chick-fil-A, his voice remains calm, but toward the end of his monologue, he seems to receive an infusion of emotion from the room and launches into a rallying cry.
“This is our chance to make a change, y’all,” he says. “We built this union. We’re doing it our way.”
Workers in the crowd beat their hands on the tables, drumming up a storm.
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