Making the South union-strong

December 10, 2012

Jason Netek explains why a determined fight against racism has to be at the center of the struggle for a strong union movement in the South.

THE SOUTHERN U.S. is well known as a hostile environment for organized labor. The rules are stacked heavily in favor of the bosses, union density is low, and we haven't seen the kind of struggles that can change labor's fortunes for a long time. In order to turn things around, Southern workers will have to toss out the old rulebook and build a new labor movement on different foundations.

From the days of slavery, through the Jim Crow era, right up to the present day, the legacy of racism in the South has been a major barrier to the economic advance of working people. From its beginnings in the decades following the Civil War and the end of slavery, the mainstream of American labor largely tolerated the formal segregation and deeply rooted racism that persisted in the South and made little effort to organize unskilled laborers.

Unions in the South maintained segregated locals so as to not upset the "Southern way of life." For many years, the vast majority of Black workers remained outside the unions. The bosses often used unemployed Black workers as strikebreakers against unions that wouldn't have them as members, and in turn, white chauvinists would feel vindicated in maintaining their prejudices.

Tobacco Workers on strike near Winston-Salem in 1946
Tobacco Workers on strike near Winston-Salem in 1946

Nationally, the Great Depression of the 1930s transformed the situation for unions. The stock market crash and ensuing economic free fall threw millions out of work and into struggle. The most militant workers sought to organize beyond the confines of craft in favor of all-out, industry-wide campaigns.

This was an era of a new and defiant unionism that rested on the strength of an informed and empowered rank and file and the ever-present threat of mass action. This approach, and the conscious anti-racism of a new generation of communists and socialists, meant that the color line was intentionally crossed like never before.

Whereas Black membership in unions was never higher than a few thousand before the Depression, several million were organized into industrial unions by the late 1940s. Labor was leaps and bounds ahead of where it had been at the end of the 1920s. But the majority of newly organized workers were to be found in the North and on the West Coast.

IN THE aftermath of the Second World War, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), then a rival to the more conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL), embarked on a campaign to organize the South. "Operation Dixie" was intended to consolidate labor's successes by expanding into new territory--12 Southern states where racism was an especially powerful tool for keeping workers divided.

The most far-sighted trade unionists understood that if this section of the country remained non-union, it would present opportunities for Northern businesses to escape the more union-dense North. They also understood that a Jim Crow South would never be an organized South. The CIO was well placed to carry out the campaign thanks to the experiences gained in the struggles of the Depression era.

But the breakthrough was not to be. In 1947, employers were handed a new weapon in the form of the Taft-Hartley Act. The law allowed states to pass so-called "right-to-work" laws, which did away with the closed shop. Taft-Hartley also barred unions from taking part in sympathy strikes and secondary boycotts, and it required union leaders to take an oath affirming that they weren't communists--an obvious attempt to rid the unions of many of their most talented and battle-tested organizers.

This harsh attack on the democratic rights of American workers was a major blow, but the final nail in Operation Dixie's coffin came when union leaders scuttled the project in order to strengthen labor's coalition with the Democratic Party, including its segregationist "Dixiecrat" wing.

A series of anti-communist witch-hunts in the unions heralded the shift, and by 1955, the CIO had merged with its former rival, the AFL. The class struggle unionism of the CIO's glory days had given way to a more compliant policy of "business unionism," based on the wrong assumption that workers and capitalists both have an interest in maintaining profitability, for the good of the nation as a whole, even if it means accepting pay cuts and layoffs once in a while.

Nearly 60 years later, the South has a low union-density--no state is above a 9.8 percent unionization rate--with correspondingly low wages and rising poverty rates. For all that Southern politicians bluster about their job-creating policies, nine of the poorest 10 states are in the South.

By all standards, Southern workers lag far behind their Northern counterparts despite the economic power of Southern-based businesses in every sector, especially in technology and finance. Significantly, major auto companies have opened or are opening new plants in Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi, Texas and Tennessee.

SEVEN OF the last 13 presidents have been Democrats, thanks in no small part to near-total union support in any given election--and yet labor has had less and less to show for it.

The Democratic Party's absolute contempt for its union base was on full display earlier this year when Charlotte, N.C., was chosen as the site for the Democratic National Convention (DNC). With a unionization rate of just 4.1 percent, North Carolina ranks dead last in the country for union membership.

More positively, the day before the DNC, 300 people gathered at Wedgewood Baptist Church in Charlotte for the Southern Workers Assembly in order to draw attention to the crisis in Southern labor and to call for a new approach to unionizing in "right-to-work" states that doesn't require workers to wait for politicians to finally enact some progressive labor laws.

Another key element to organizing in the South is fighting racism. Despite the end of legal segregation, racism is alive and well, and it creates barriers to class solidarity. A disproportionate number of Black workers are unemployed, and the pillar of Black economic stability, public-sector jobs, is under assault by the bipartisan austerity agenda.

Successful unions today will be part of the movement for jobs and unemployment relief as well as vehicles to safeguard the living standards of their members. They will also be a part of the immigrant rights movement, because workers with the least protections under the law are the most easily exploited and are seen by bosses as the best replacements for workers with jobs protected by contracts.

Finally, labor needs to recognize that the most effective campaigns for building a new movement will be creative, flexible and rest primarily on the energy and initiative of the rank and file.

Campaigns like OUR Walmart show new potential for organizing under Southern conditions. OUR Walmart seeks to build workers' confidence through actions such as the Black Friday walkouts, utilizing the "mic check" made famous by the Occupy movement and employing mobile pickets to go from store to store.

In an age of chain stores and franchises, union organizing can't effectively be done one store at a time. Black Friday actions affected 1,000 stores across 46 states, according to organizers. The effectiveness of the campaign is in breaking through Wal-Mart's anti-union monologue and demonstrating the power that the employees have right now.

Plus, the campaign has actively sought to tap into the broad resentment of Wal-Mart--the rolling walkouts and protests over the last few months have had a decidedly community-wide flavor to them. This sort of direct-action and social-justice unionism needs to once again become the norm.

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