Striking McDonald’s workers at a Fight For $15 protest in 2021. | Photo by Jade Wilson.

In a stunning display of collective action, service workers across the South—whose organizing efforts have long been thwarted by right-to-work laws, a stagnant federal minimum wage, and exploitative systems entrenched in racism—have succeeded in launching a union. 

The Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW) is a continuance of Raise Up, the southern branch of the workers’ rights movement Fight for $15, and will function as a part of the Service Employees International Union, a labor union that represents nearly 2 million workers in the U.S. and Canada, according to founding members of USSW.

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 USSW is open to fast food, retail, warehouse, care, and other service industry workers who endure low wages and are typically offered little recourse for sexual harassment, wage theft, and poor conditions in the workplace.

The launch of the USSW comes at a time when unionization efforts are surging across the country. Yesterday, thousands of Starbucks employees—who have unionized at record speed in recent months—staged strikes at stores across the nation to call for better pay and protest the company’s union-busting efforts. And in the seven months since Amazon workers won a historic union election at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York, Amazon facilities have seen an uptick in organizing efforts nationwide, with employees vying for safer, more equitable workplaces.

In establishing the USSW, workers have compiled a list of demands for employers in the South, including: 

  1. A seat at the table to make decisions about working conditions, establish corporate accountability for treatment of workers and respect workers’ right to organize free of retaliation;
  2. Fair pay and an end to wage theft across the industry;
  3. Dignity and equal treatment, including equal pay for all workers, protection from discrimination and harassment, and more;
  4. Health and safety through healthcare benefits, sick leave, and safe workplace protections and equipment;
  5. Fair and consistent scheduling, including the ability to work full time hours with safe staffing levels, and regular weekly schedules.

Service workers who are interested in joining the USSW can sign this petition, which will put them on an email list to receive more information about membership.

The USSW will officially launch today at a summit in Columbia, South Carolina. The INDY will have a full report on the summit and union launch in Wednesday’s print edition. 

This is a developing story. 

Support independent local journalismJoin the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Follow Staff Writer Lena Geller on Twitter or send an email to Comment on this story at