How’s this for irony? Lowcountry activists are using social media to organize a protest against a local Chamber of Commerce seminar dedicated to exposing how activists use social media to organize protests.
The seminar, pitched to local businesses and titled “Social Network Organizing, A New Wave of Protests and Union Organizing” will be held in the boardroom of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce on Sept. 12.
“New union organizing tactics are emerging,” reads an invitation to the event. It goes on to say how union organizing through social justice organizations funded by organized labor “are influencing lower-paid employees (via email, tweets, Facebook messages, and other forms of social media) to walk off jobs and protest publicly.” It warns that such activity has many risks to businesses, including setting up businesses “for legal mistakes and creating a pathway for aggressive union organizing.” The goal of the seminar is to educate businesses about such online activity and what they can do about it.
The seminar has attracted the ire of activists who believe the local chamber shouldn’t be involved.
“This is an inappropriate activity for an organization which purports to serve the entire community,” says William Hamilton, a Mt. Pleasant attorney who has worked with local social justice organizations for more than 20 years. Hamilton has been using social media to circulate an e-mail invitation for the workshop among other local activists in the Lowcountry. Some have talked about picketing the event or protesting it, according to an email chain.
Charleston Metro Chamber CEO Bryan Derreberry says the reason his organization is putting on the event is because it’s an issue enough of the chamber’s 1,700 dues-paying members want to learn more about.
“We listen to what they request and we design our programming based on that,” he says, adding that businesses have expressed concern about union activity. In 2012, South Carolina had the nation’s third lowest organized workforce at 3.3 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Community groups and worker centers, which can be backed by unions, aren’t considered “labor organizations” under the law because they don’t have bargaining relationships with employers. It’s become a national issue. “The new approach is sparking a backlash from some businesses, who call it an end-run around labor laws that can be used to help unionize new groups of workers,” The Wall-Street Journal reported last month.
One of the speakers scheduled to lead the local seminar is Eric Schweitzer, an attorney for the local labor and employment law firm Ogletree Deakins where he “frequently assists employers establish and maintain union-free employee relations programs,” according to his biography on the firm’s website. Also speaking is Jim Gray, whose consulting firm specializes in, among other things, “union organizing exposure,” and “downsizing, restructuring, and facility-shutdowns,” according to his website.
George Hopkins, who is the S.C. Progressive Network’s Charleston chapter coordinator and teaches history at the College of Charleston, expects a picket line in front of the local Chamber of Commerce headquarters on Leeds Avenue during the Sept. 12 workshop.
“The bottom line is people have the right to organize or bargain collectively,” Hopkins says.
Kenny Riley, president of the International Longshoreman's Associations Local 1422 in Charleston, who also leads the state chapter of the AFL-CIO, expressed outrage that businesses might be worried about a wave of low-paid workers mobilizing because they can't afford basic needs such as food, housing, healthcare and utilities.
“The hatred of labor unions are so bad in this state that the promoters of such a forum would attempt to cloud the real issues of economic disparity, race, and class by inserting unionism into this equation," he said. “That’s right, go ahead and blame the unions for the sad state that these workers find themselves in. Blame the unions for responding to the cry of the 99 percent of struggling Americans in this country.”