Union Strong. What’s behind that saying? Easy–union members.
What makes a union strong, are the members: workers who stand together, are involved in their workplace and communities, and work to better the lives of all working people. This week we would like to shine a light on one of those members.
Gary Southall has worked at Kroger–as a head deli clerk, a head checker, a head frozen food clerk, and now as a cashier–in Jackson County West Virginia for 41 years. He has been a UFCW member for just as long. Coming from a union family, it seems to be in his blood: “My dad, my grampa, all the uncles–everybody union members for as long as I can remember.”
When he began working at Kroger at the age of 16, the union was already in place, however, Gary eventually got more involved with his union, and has become a true member activist over the years. Not only is Gary a Local 400 steward, but is an avid supporter of programs in his community that benefit working people and better living conditions for young people.
One such program is the Jackson County Anti-Drug Coalition, which works to reduce underage alcohol abuse and substance use among youth. He has helped garner $1500 in donations for the coalition, $500 of which is from UFCW Local 400. Gary is also a member of the Central Labor Council, and an officer with the AFL-CIO, and as part of the AFL’s national initiative, he strives to be very involved in his community, even if it doesn’t involve union members. “We just take care of each other,” Gary says of the work he does.
Gary also lobbies for the UFCW, and this week helped re-introduce a bill that will prevent the sale of alcohol through self-checkout machines. The bill’s intent is to curb the ease with which already intoxicated or underage consumers can purchase alcohol.
When talking to Gary, its clear that he really cares for the youth in his community, and wants them to have as much opportunity in life as possible. Gary, working with the West Virginia AFL-CIO, has helped promote an educational video called Labor in the Mountains, which tells the story of labor’s history in West Virginia and the coal-industry, as told by a grandfather who lived through much of it, as he answers his granddaughter’s questions. Seeing the importance of teaching students about Labor’s influence on the middle class, the group worked hard to ensure that, effective this year, the video will now be shown in all middle school and high school civics classes in Jackson County, and they are working to spread this to the curriculum of other counties as well. Similarly, Gary is also working with others to promote an award-winning book called Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type in which some literate cows leave notes for their farmer, demanding better working conditions and eventually going on strike. They are hoping to get a copy of the book into all third grade classes in the county, as well as community libraries.
On top of helping to promote labor education for kids, Gary is also involved with a program called Reconnecting McDowell, which works to help kids living in poverty in this neighboring Appalachain county, by improving education, providing food, and helping kids find safe spaces, among many other things.
Now in his fourth year at the Leadership Academy, hosted by the AFL-CIO and the West Virginia University institute of labor studies and researches, Gary has emerged as a true leader, helping others to see why unions are so important.
Gary has been through two strikes at Kroger, earlier on in his career. It was during those times when he saw how important the union difference was: “At that time I was working part-time, and I wasn’t making very much money–but when I went back to work after the strike, I was making double that money, which was fantastic for a young guy still in school.”
“But the point [of the union] in general, for me and for everybody, if they know it, is that you have a voice–you’re not out there by yourself, and you have someone to help you if you need help. You know your union steward–I’m a union steward and I have been for 15 or 20 years. No one can come out here and single you out, or say ‘If I don’t like ya, we’ll fire ya’ or that kind of thing.” He says that the union creates better work practices, and prevents unsafe working conditions: “you’ve got someone to say, ‘you know you can’t do that’ and if someone says ‘you need to do this or we’ll fire you’ well, no, we aren’t gonna do it if it’s not safe.”
“We’ve got welfare benefits, like pretty good insurance and I’ve got six weeks of vacation now. Industry-wide, at least my area here in West Virginia, no one else in the grocery business makes the kind of money that we make.”
But one story Gary likes to tell, to show what solidarity can do, doesn’t have anything to do with wages or benefits. “It may sound kind of silly but, I have a son who will be 36 in April. When he was 6 weeks old, Kroger came in one day, and some of us fellas had started growing beards–and I don’t remember what the reason was, but we had decided to grow beards. Anyway they came in and they told us we couldn’t grow a beard on company time, that if we wanted to grow one, we had to grow it on our own time, and shave it off for company time.” Gary says that this mandate didn’t sit too well them. “Of the people still there, and there are four in my workplace that were there when this happened–we still have that beard that we couldn’t grow 35 years ago. That was the last day I was clean-shaven, and I haven’t shaved from that day on, 35 years ago.” Gary and his coworkers stood together, in doing something as simple as not shaving off their beards, and Kroger backed off. Recently, one of Gary’s close friends and co-workers was asked to shave. His response was, “I’ll tell you what–the day that Gary Southall shaves, I’ll do it too.”
Gary is a true example of what unions can do when members are active and involved, and how they benefit the people in their communities. Stories like his inspire us to stay strong and continue sticking together in solidarity for the middle class, and all working people!
If you know a UFCW member who inspires you, or has a story worth telling, please contact Mia Perry at firstname.lastname@example.org