What is Raise Up the South? & What Employers Need to Know

"Fight for $15 and a Union"" is a movement of low-wage workers across the country that has branched into regional and city-wide organizing efforts. Originally focused on increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour, "Raise Up the South" is the Southern branch of the "Fight for $15 and a Union" and an organizing cry that encourages fast-food and low-wage workers to come together to fight for higher wages, more regular schedules, paid sick days, healthcare benefits, a voice on the job, and a seat at the decision-making table. The "Raise Up the South" campaign specifically focuses on organizing low-wage employees in the south.

The "Fight for $15 and a Union" and its affiliations are alt-labor campaigns that are not affiliated with a traditional labor union, and their influence is growing. There have been fast food worker strikes in the South in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and elsewhere. Workers asked for higher wages and the right to form a union without retaliation. As the movement grows, you should be aware of its goals and tactics. This workers union embodies the ideals of mostly younger workers who believe they should have more say in how businesses are operated. 

Who is Raise Up The South?

The original "Fight for $15" is now "Fight for $15 and a Union" but remains an alt-labor group or workers union (also called a workers advocacy group), meaning it’s not a branch of a traditional labor union. It’s an organization that began in 2012 when 200 fast-food workers held a walkout in New York City to demand $15 per hour and union rights. Since then, it has grown tremendously, primarily gaining members among fast-food workers, home health aides, airport workers, child care teachers, adjunct professors, and retail employees. Today, there are participants in more than 300 cities on six continents. 

The phenomenal growth of "Fight for $15 and a Union" has become a force to reckon with as it pursues its goals of building regional or city-wide chapters of low-wage workers. "The Fight for $15 and a Union" has called for fast-food and low-wage workers to raise up and “demand a fair wage of $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation.” 

"Raise Up the South" is one of the regional chapters or projects of "Fight for $15 and a Union." It is a worker-led organized group. There is a steering committee that guides "Raise Up the South," which is made up of five members who work in the fast-food industry.

Traditional labor unions must focus on issues allowed by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which are pay, benefits, and working conditions. Though they are getting cleverer at connecting issues like social justice to pay and working conditions, they are limited in ways that alt-labor unions are not if they want to protect employee rights "Raise Up The South" can embrace any cause it wants to embrace and is not confined by the NLRA as long as the worker tactics don’t break any laws.

Raise Up the South ran a series of Worker Power Workshops across the south in July and August 2022 to teach workers how to organize a union in the workplace. They were held in Durham, NC; Columbia, SC; Atlanta, GA; and Mobile, AL. The recruitment flyer said, “Are you fed up with low wages, bad working conditions, and no respect or voice on the job? Are you ready to do something about it? Come learn how to organize your workplace at our Worker Power Workshop throughout the South this summer.”

The organization also has the Raise Up Organizing Academy, which is currently closed, but workers are kept informed of organizing activities on social media.

Workers join Raise Up by paying a $15 fee that the organization would like to be a recurring automatic electronic funds transfer.

alt-labor unions

“A Whole New Vision”

The growing influence of the "Fight for $15 and a Union" is no more apparent than in California’s passage of the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act (AB 257) that became law in September 2022. The law establishes sectoral bargaining for fast food workers. It creates a Fast Food Council that will bargain for fast food workers in California who are working in fast food chains of 100 or more restaurants to establish standards on wages, hours, and working conditions.

The Council is composed of two fast food workers, two franchisors, two labor advocates, one representative from the California Department of Industrial Relations, and one representative from the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development. It was given the authority to raise wages to up to $22 per hour in 2023. "Fight for $15 and a Union" played a major role in getting this bill passed. This activism fits the larger purpose that Fight for $15 and a Union, and its projects like Raise Up, envision.

The University of the Poor Journal interviewed the Director of Raise Up the South, Ben Wilkins, which was very revealing. As the name implies, Raise Up the South has a Southern regional focus but, “also the commitment to joining together economic struggles with political struggles, and trying to broaden the conception of what it means to be a trade union. By “political struggles” I don’t just mean elections," said Wilkins. "I mean the fight for a whole new vision for how society works, rather than just improvements on single issues like wages or benefits." 

Three industries are the primary target of Raise Up the South – fast-food, retail, and healthcare workers like nursing home aides and home health aides. Raise Up the South believes it can organize the lowest-paid workers as employee activists to create a social force for change. The regional affiliation was created according to Wilkins because low-wage workers are a large labor group in the South.

The strategy is to combine organizing at individual workplaces and in neighborhoods and city-wide. The logic behind the approach is that low-wage workers frequently change jobs, so Wilkins doesn’t believe a traditional labor union in which workers negotiate with employers over wages and working conditions is applicable because of high employee turnover. It’s difficult to stay in contact with workers by organizing a work site with a high turnover, so a new means of communication and support was needed. 

Raise Up the South wants to create a new union structure that is not hemmed in by the traditional labor movement. It's an alt-labor approach to organize the poor and the working class to build up power.

raise up the south

What Employers Need to Know about Raise Up & Organizations Like Them

When Dollar General workers in Holly Hill, South Carolina, went on strike on July 16, 2022, they were demanding a $15 minimum wage, job safety, more staff, consistent work scheduling, and the reinstatement of a worker they believed was unjustly fired. They were also talking about forming a union. One striker said, “…we need a voice, and that’s why I believe we need a union.” The workers were inspired by Raise Up, which is organizing the South.

Raise Up, and organizations like them can organize thousands of workers without geographic or workplace limitations. They can organize online through virtual organizing, support each other, and call for strikes, walkouts, and protests. Not quite as powerful as traditional labor unions yet, the workers get a lot of public support in the pro-union environment that exists today because they are low-wage workers. 

"Fight for $15 and a Union" and its campaign Raise Up the South, believe that low-wage workers are intentionally prevented from advocating for themselves by the way employers plan work schedules. As Raise Up the South explains it, large fast food chains have built “a labor model that tries to keep workers separated and struggling. Low pay, high turnover, working irregular hours with no set schedule, no information about your rights – these conditions are meant to divide us.” 

Times are changing due to the power of social media. Workers who felt they could not organize before are discovering they can join forces online. As an employer, your leaders need to understand how union organizing is changing.

  • Traditional labor unions are often not involved in the protest or walkout.
  • Social media is a source of worker recruitment and news and makes organizing and calling for strikes, walkouts, and protests possible, with some employees joining in as a show of support for peers.
  • Social media and digital organization enable regional or national organizing, taking organizing beyond the individual workplace.
  • Employees are jointly organizing across businesses, jobs, store chains, etc.
  • The vision of organizations like Raise Up the South is broader than getting higher pay or more benefits because the members believe society should work differently, making this a social justice cause as much as a traditional labor protest.
  • Traditional labor unions are learning from the alt-labor groups, meaning employers can learn from alt-labor groups also. 
The Art of Labor Relations CTA

Employee Voice is the Number One Need

In reading the Raise Up the South website and worker comments, it’s clear that employees want and expect a voice. It’s a matter of respect for them, and rightfully so. Like Starbucks employees, the low-wage workers believe they should have a say in how businesses are run because they are the people at the frontline serving customers. Starbucks and Amazon employees that began unionizing became the models for low-wage employees, making workers realize they could unite without a traditional labor union. The biggest mistake an employer can make is ignoring employee issues entirely, or failing to create an environment where employees can turn to their managers or supervisors when they need to. An open-door policy is essential.

Following are a few refresher tips.

  • Employees at every level of your organization need a voice.
  • Focus on an atmosphere that prioritizes employee engagement.
  • Develop labor-wise leaders who have strong employee engagement skills.
  • Review all Human Resources policies concerning employee safety, staffing levels, pay rates, benefits, and scheduling within the context of what is happening in the alt-labor space.
  • Assess your turnover rate and determine if their ways to reduce it through policy changes.
  • Conduct a union vulnerability assessment to identify areas of weakness.

Contact IRI Consultants for assistance planning a path forward. When you assess your vulnerability to union organizing, and create a culture that connects employees and their supervisors, it's less likely that employees feel they ever need to turn to a third party to have their voices heard. These are tumultuous times, but there are always positive ways to re-engage the workforce and create an environment where unions, whether alt-labor or traditional unionizing, are simply unnecessary.

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