In this Q&A with Prism, Union of Southern Service Workers member Mama Cookie discusses the uphill battle of fighting for labor rights and protections in North Carolina
(On the left, Mama Cookie; top right, Naomi Harris at the Waffle House strike in Columbia, South Carolina on July 8, 2023; bottom right, Arnice Sykes at USSW’s Heat Speak Out in Atlanta, GA on July 28, 2023 featuring Burger King workers & a former Dollar General workers. All photos courtesy of the USSW)

Service workers—especially those toiling away in the South where wages are lowest and protections are most insufficient—are facing multiple crises: extreme heat, health disparities, and flagrant safety violations, to name a few. Since the pandemic began, the dangers associated with service jobs nationwide are also mounting. While it may seem quaint for millionaire pop star Lana Del Rey to pick up a shift at Waffle House in Alabama, workers at the popular 24-hour diner often deal with violence from patrons. The internet loves videos of Waffle House fights, but it’s worth noting that the risk of bodily harm shouldn’t be part of a business’s daily operations—especially not for workers earning an average of $7.35 an hour.

Mama Cookie, a home health care and fast food worker who’s become a powerful force in North Carolina labor organizing, hears startling stories from service workers across the South. There was the warehouse worker in Columbia, South Carolina, who explained that his workplace didn’t provide any safety training or gear, leading to forklift accidents and broken bones. Waffle House workers in Atlanta told her about how their restaurant was shot at while they worked third shift. And who could forget the dozens of “systemic hazards” the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found at Dollar General, the popular discount retailer in the U.S. where there are “codes being broken every day”? Dollar General employees said they handle chemicals without any protective gear, and women reported being left to run the entire store on their own. 

According to Mama Cookie, the CEOs of major corporations “don’t even give a damn” about the serious issues affecting their low-wage workers. But she’s here to make them. 

Prism readers were first introduced to Mama Cookie earlier this year in a feature on the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW), a first-of-its-kind cross-sector union offering membership to fast food, retail, warehouse, care, and other service industry workers across North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. In a way, USSW is a continuance of Raise Up, the Southern chapter of the Fight for $15 and a Union that formed in 2013 and took root in North Carolina. USSW, which functions as a part of the Service Employees International Union, is a multiracial union with racial justice at its core—and Black women like Mama Cookie are central to their work in the region. This should come as no surprise. Low-wage workers are more likely to be women, and they are disproportionately Black. 

USSW is fighting for higher wages, health insurance, sick leave, and protections from discrimination and harassment. This will be an uphill battle in the South, where union membership rates are low because of historically racist right-to-work laws and preemption laws that keep service workers mired in poverty. These conditions persist today. Using data on wages, worker protections, and rights to organize, the nonprofit organization Oxfam ranked the best and worst states to work in the country last year. The top six worst states to work in were located in the South.

These statistics do not deter Mama Cookie, who has spent the summer working two jobs while also educating workers on the signs of heat exhaustion and supporting USSW members launching safety strikes at their workplaces. In the weeks leading up to the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, few are better positioned than Mama Cookie to discuss the state of crisis in the service industry, the importance of having a multiracial labor movement, and why low-wage workers should not be afraid to assert their rights. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tina Vasquez: You have a lot of fans on the internet, and they want to hear more from you.

Mama Cookie: Alright, I’m ready. What they need to know?

Vasquez: It seems like USSW has spent the summer doing a lot of organizing around safety issues. In July, there was a “heat speak out” in Atlanta featuring Burger King and Dollar General workers who were forced to work without air conditioning. The same month, Waffle House Workers in Columbia, South Carolina, also held a safety strike. Why is USSW so focused on safety right now? 

Mama Cookie: Because people are dying. People are getting hurt on these jobs. There’s a lot of stories I could tell you. The state of crisis in the service industry is really, really serious right now. But these safety issues have always been there. 

Naomi Harris speaking at the Waffle House strike in Columbia, South Carolina on July 8, 2023. Photo courtesy of the USSW.

Vasquez: Labor Day is coming up, and so is the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I think it’s easy to focus on what has changed over the last 60 years, but I want to hear from you about what’s stayed the same. What are the economic and racial injustices that persist, especially for Black low-wage workers in our region of the country? What are the forces that you are still fighting against 60 years later? 

Mama Cookie: Well, we’re still fighting about this history. They still don’t want to teach the history of Black people, and they really don’t want to teach the history of how Black people been fighting in unions and on strike lines for over 60-plus years. People need to realize that it ain’t just started; this has been going on. When they did the March on Washington, they just picked up some stuff [Black people have been talking about since] back in the 1800s, really. Black people have been fighting and striving for years on how to make these unions work. Unions have been in Black communities forever. The March on Washington was just a drop in the bucket. It made an impact [still felt] today, but racial imbalance is still taking a toll. They still make it seem like if we get ahead, white people are going to fall down. But they fail to realize [racial justice] builds everybody up. The March on Washington tried to make things better, but today we’re still marching. So what’s really changed in what we marched for then and what we’re marching for now? I’m asking you a question now.

The March on Washington was just a drop in the bucket. It made an impact [still felt] today, but racial imbalance is still taking a toll.

Mama Cookie

Vasquez: It’s very clear to me that we still have a whole lot of work to do, and I think people tend to focus too much on what has changed instead of what hasn’t. 

Mama Cookie: We all need to make changes and break this racial barrier. These racial barriers are killing us—and that’s why big corporations want us to stay divided. As long as we stay divided, they happy. They talk us against each other. That’s their focus. We gotta break that cycle. 

Vasquez: I’m really glad that you brought that up. You and I have talked a lot about how corporations and anti-worker elected officials use race to pit workers against each other and to break up labor movements. They use this strategy because Black and Latinx people have the most to gain from union membership. In the organizing work that you do, do you still see how that plays out? 

Mama Cookie: USSW has gotten across a lot of barriers, but they’re still doing this. They’re still trying to divide us. A lot of people are really starting to understand what USSW is about. They’re starting to see how these corporations use race to divide us. A lot of people are coming to USSW and are now actually talking about how they have seen [employers] try to divide workers. 

As a matter of fact, I had a worker in retail say she sat down with her coworkers—Black people and white people—and they talked and figured out what was going on. She said, “They’re trying to play us.” So sometimes, it’s just [USSW] being out there and talking about these things, putting the word out there that this still happens. Racial discrimination isn’t just against Black people. They pit us all against each other, and we ain’t having it.

Vasquez: I have attended a worker summit for NC Raise Up, USSW’s predecessor in North Carolina. In trainings, it was striking to see people from different walks of life come together for the first time in a multiracial organizing space and for them to realize how many commonalities they had with other low-wage workers. What is the power in having a multiracial labor movement?  

Mama Cookie: We all have people walking in our doors and walking on our backs, and we’re still fighting. A majority of workers in the Southern service industry are Black. So when [the] focus is on service jobs, it’s mostly Black workers in the South. A lot of people think USSW is just about Black people, but it’s not. It’s about all of us. When USSW started, nothing like this had ever been done. They didn’t think it could be done. They didn’t want to see Blacks and whites and Latinos and all kinds of other people from different industries come together and fight as a unit. But we came together, and we are making this thing work. So these injustices in the workplace people keep hollering at me about? They’re gonna stop. It’s got to stop. Enough is enough.

They know we are fighters. They know we are people that are tired. We are people that have had enough of these big CEOs telling us that we are nobody.  

Tina Vasquez: I mentioned earlier that you have a lot of fans—a lot of people are rooting for you. It’s very rare for reporting to receive the level of response I got from our last story about the pivotal role you’ve played in launching USSW. So it wasn’t a surprise to me that April 3 was named Mama Cookie Day where you live in Durham, North Carolina. You have become such a powerful voice in our state’s labor movement. What do you think your story and your fight for labor rights represent to people? Why do you think your words and actions resonate so deeply?

Mama Cookie: Let me dig into my own history and family. My strength comes from my grandparents. My parents died when I was young. My grandparents had to end up raising eight of us, and my grandmama and my granddad didn’t have a lot to raise eight kids on. As we got older, each one of us had to get a job just to help them manage the house. A lot of people say [to low-wage workers]: Why didn’t you go to college and get a better job? We couldn’t ever afford to go to college. If I did go to college, I’d still be paying back my student loans right now. As me and my siblings got older, we had to work and take jobs that we didn’t want to be in. I had five siblings up under me, so we had to help take care of them.

My grandfather was a union man, and my grandparents never allowed us to stand back and not be heard. So I’m not afraid to step out, say what I see, and talk about what’s wrong. 

Vasquez: So you learned this from your grandfather? 

Mama Cookie: Yeah, and I’m never gonna stand back and not be heard. My grandparents didn’t allow that. My grandaddy? My God, my God. That man was power. He did not allow us to be stepped on. If he felt like we was right, he stuck with us. If we was wrong, we’d figure out a solution to fix it. 

Vasquez: This is just kind of in you then; it’s who you are?

Mama Cookie: I reckon so. 

Vasquez: It wasn’t until I moved to North Carolina that I came to fully appreciate the very radical organizing work that has always come from the South. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about what a beautiful and brutal place the South can be and how these very forces shaped not just the Civil Rights movement, but the reproductive justice movement, the environmental justice movement, and other movements for justice. Do you see the USSW as part of this legacy?  

Mama Cookie: Yes, and the people know it. They know who we are. They know we’re out beating the streets, letting workers know the Union of Southern Service Workers is for people across industries. They know we are fighters. They know we are people that are tired. We are people that have had enough of these big CEOs telling us that we are nobody. The South has the lowest rate of unions in this country. You better believe we are going to build it back—and we ain’t never gonna stop. This union is here to stay. 

Vasquez: Because of misinformation from right-wing movements, there are a lot of misconceptions about activists and organizers. You’re not a paid activist. You’re a union member who still struggles to make ends meet. There might be a Mama Cookie Day in Durham, but you still supplement your home health care wages by doing fast food work. What do you want people to know about the hardships you continue to face, even as you fight for other workers’ rights?

Mama Cookie: I can’t even retire. I’ve worked 21 years at Wendy’s, and I still do home health care. I’m 64. Does that make sense to you? The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Tell one of them Congressmen to go and do this kind of work for $7.25. I bet they’d look at me like I was crazy. This is not a living wage. There isn’t a living wage in any state in this country right now—and the South is really getting hit with it. The price of everything is going up, and I’m struggling like everyone else. We need a living wage. 

You have rights. You have the right to strike. You have a voice. Your voice can be heard. This is what the Union of Southern Service Workers is about. We want people to know we got your back.

Vasquez: There are a lot of reasons why low-wage workers don’t feel empowered and are afraid to file complaints or otherwise speak out about labor violations in their workplaces. For people who might be feeling this way—especially people in our region who haven’t heard of the Union of Southern Service Workers—what do you want them to know? 

Mama Cookie: They got to step out. They got to step out on faith. They got to step out and believe in themselves. A lot of low-wage workers are threatened. If they complain, they get their hours cut. That’s a real threat to people who are already not making enough money. We need to let these workers know that we are here, and we can stop these violations. You have rights. You have the right to strike. You have a voice. Your voice can be heard. This is what the Union of Southern Service Workers is about. We want people to know we got your back. We want your voice. We will stand and fight with you no matter the circumstances. But you got to come out, and you got to want better. You got to want it more than I will ever want it.

Vasquez: You are personally taking on a lot of risk to do this kind of organizing. Employers could fire you, cut your hours, or retaliate against you in other ways, even though it’s illegal. Given how hard this is—and what a slog it can be to fight for your rights in an anti-worker state like North Carolina, what inspires you to keep fighting? In your lifetime, do you think you will see low-wage workers get the pay and benefits they deserve?

Mama Cookie: I never thought I’d see a Black president, but I did. I always keep faith and belief in what’s possible. The only way we can beat these circumstances is if we get young people to know they have a voice, and there are a lot of young people out here with me fighting every day in this struggle. I know in my lifetime, I will see a change. I will see it, and I will be part of that change. I know and I believe that it’s going to happen. A change is gonna come, and I will see it.

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.