Speech Delivered at the Wiregrass Labor Council’s Annual Awards Banquet by Democratic Candidate Audri Scott Williams on September 19, 2017
To the president of this organization Larry Keel, and to the secretary Juanita Wise who graciously invited me to be here today. To the organizers at the Wiregrass Labor Council who put this event together, to the union members gathered here, and to the workers across this state and across this nation, I come to you in gratitude and in solidarity. While I may stand before you today as a candidate for Congress, I would not be running if I didn’t see it as my responsibility to stand with you as a citizen and as a leader. The issues of labor; the issues of power and collective bargaining in the workplace, of protections against exploitation, of benefits for workers and livable wages for every job are not just my issues, they’re our issues. They reflect not just what we value as political actors, but what and who we value as a country.
In an era of vast inequality where, since 2012, the richest 10% of families received half of all income in America; where the wealth owned by 0.1% of Americans is equivalent to the wealth owned by 90% of Americans. In an era where public sector unions are under attack; where states like Wisconsin and Ohio have joined the south in cracking down on collective bargaining rights; and where our power in the workplace is at the discretion of corporations that think that workers should have no power, the question of how we respond to organized labor and to the needs of workers, has become inseparable from the question of the kind of America we’re becoming, and the kind of America we’re going to be. And the answer isn’t going to come from Washington; it’s not going to come just during election years. In the south, it’s going to come from how Americans as workers and we as supporters of organized labor decide how solidarity should be concentrated. This is especially true after what we saw at the Nissan plant in Canton Mississippi.
We know that when unions are strong, that when workers can have a seat at the table, income inequality is lower and wages for all workers are higher. But we also know that the south has a history. Beginning with slavery, the south has had a different understanding of labor, and different ways of conceiving how it should be structured. Where some states thought labor should be paid, parts of the south stole the wages of that labor, just as surely as it stole dignity and lives. Its first strikes were on plantations, not factories. Where people, who were viewed as tools, saw their own humanity stripped and rebelled against plantation owners or ran to the north just for the possibility of having that humanity recognized. When the Civil War and Reconstruction ended and Jim Crow took its place, those same workers found themselves kidnapped and imprisoned under Black Codes and “vagrancy” laws, and leased as convicts to industrializing Montgomery and Birmingham, driving down wages for skilled white workers and miners, while guaranteeing no wage and no freedom for black workers and miners.
Some of Alabama’s earliest and largest strikes came from black and white coalminers confronting the effects that convict leasing had on their wages. One of Alabama’s largest strikes happened in a 1920 coal strike where an integrated union, seeking recognition from the state, saw its black members lynched, their houses dynamited, and where the mining company, in collusion with the governor, helped evict thousands from company houses. When Governor Kilby, the pro-business governor at the time arbitrated their demands, he used that union’s integration against them, saying, and I quote “70% to 80% of the miners are negroes. The southern Negro is easily misled, especially when given a permanent and official place in an organization in which both races are members.”
In 1946, some two decades later, hundreds of union organizers from the CIO came to the south, seeking to organize it and give us a taste of the increased wages from industrialization that were beginning to show in northern states and cities like Detroit and Chicago. It was Jim Crow that sent them back. It was the belief enshrined by lynching, by sundown towns, by sharecropping, and segregation that not only was white and black different, and that not only should white and black never align, but that white was better than black and that white people deserved better because of it. In Alabama, a Right to Work state that’s the sixth poorest in the nation, with the second worst life expectancy in America, the consequences of that belief are still being felt today.
This history doesn’t exist to depress and discourage us, but to remind us that workers seeing their interests aligned weren’t thwarted simply by companies targeting unions, but by corporations collaborating with existing forms of oppression to drive down wages and opportunities for all. When we look at the spectacle of a President Trump, and his promise to “Make America Great Again” by defining other Americans out of our shared story and shared resources, we should ask ourselves how that looks today.
We should ask ourselves how that looks today, in an Alabama where 800 million dollars can be found for prisons, sooner than 800 million for a jobs program. We should ask ourselves how that looks today, in an Alabama where the government’s response to a predominately black city like Birmingham raising its minimum wage was to make it illegal for all cities to raise their minimum wages. We should ask ourselves how that looks today, when in 2011 instead of guaranteeing the living wages, benefits and protections to immigrants that all citizens should enjoy, we let our fields wilt, just to ensure that Hispanics were excluded. We should ask ourselves how that looks today as convict leasing has transformed into prison exploitation, where honest work is done for pennies per hour, at the expense of all workers, including the prisoners themselves. We should ask ourselves how that looks today when 54% of the people in those prisons are descendants of those slaves who had their wages stolen, despite being only 26% of the state’s population.
The challenge of the moment and the moral demand of our time, is to determine, in this period of increased assaults on public sector unions, teachers’ unions and collective bargaining generally, what solidarity means and what solidarity has to mean for today’s America. The divides between black and white, immigrant and citizen, employed or not, incarcerated or not can no longer be sustained. To create the change that turns this district blue and that guarantees the living standards that reflect our value as laborers and as humans, we have to redefine we. We have to see how what happens to a neighbor we don’t value is a preview of what can happen to us. We have to see in the denial of black wages the mechanism that can lower all wages. We have to see in the gender pay gap the mechanism to lower wages for the service industries that make up a growing source of jobs. We have to see in the proposed removal of immigrants, in the denial of black voting rights through Voter ID laws and prison disenfranchisement assaults on the very allies unions and Democrats will require to empower us all.
The interrelation between labor and civil rights isn’t new, and neither is the task before us. It’s the same task that A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin organized for in both labor unions and the Civil Rights Movement. It’s the same understanding that sent Martin Luther King carried to Memphis, Tennessee to support Sanitations Workers who went on strike over racial discrimination at the work place. And it’s opposition to that understanding and to the organized pursuit of equality that got him assassinated. It’s with Martin Luther King’s words to the AFL-CIO in 1961 that I leave you with now:
“Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature, spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.
In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans such as “right to work.” It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. It is supported by Southern segregationists who are trying to keep us from achieving our civil rights and our right of equal job opportunity. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone.
Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote. “
My name is Audri Scott Williams and I’m running for US Congress right here in District 2. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.