Bill Chandler


[Excerpt] Mississippi is tough. It has a brutal history. Its plantation system enslaved blacks and oppressed most whites. Its segregation and racism divided workers. Bosses fearful that "their" workers may organize against them are rabidly anti-union. Workers are scared. Fear is real when you are not organized.

Yet in this hostile environment, where state workers win justice only through intensive legislative lobbying, the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees/Communications Workers of America has racked up impressive victories in the past four years. We have lobbied for and won the two largest pay raises ever given to state workers in the history of Mississippi and the largest in the U.S. in recent years, totaling a minimum of $3,600 per person annually. We got a bill passed by the legislature allowing sick leave for illness in the state employees' immediate family. We were the only group of state workers in the U.S. to defeat all privatization bills during the 1993 legislative session. We fought the illegal firing by Governor Kirk Fordice of four prison guards in retaliation for their political activity, and we were successful in getting them rehired with back pay. Overall, we have built credibility in the Statehouse and worked closely with a large group of legislators in drafting and passing or defeating bills affecting state workers.

These successes depended entirely on constant, face-to-face contact among union activists and union members and non-members. In an anti-union state, almost everything gained for state workers is the result of intensive mobilization. This involves gaining and displaying power and working inside the legislature. Workers see they can achieve results. Most important, their success comes through their own hard work to become a potent political body. They are no longer "serviced" by the union — they own that activity.

Average wages in Mississippi have always been the lowest in the U.S. The Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World organized in Mississippi on the principle of "one big union" for all workers, skilled or unskilled, black and white. Later, skilled whites organized into the American Federation of Labor's craft and railroad unions, but it was the Congress of Industrial Organizations' drives in telephone, clothing, textile, and electrical manufacturing that unionized tens of thousands of workers, black and white, in the private sector.

The long struggle of the civil rights movement has had the greatest impact on Mississippi. Enfranchisement of black voters led to the election of the largest number of black public officials of any state in the country. As a spinoff of the civil rights movement, more whites and poorer whites voted, electing many progressive and populist white officials, who were more sensitive to workers' concerns.