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Blacks, Unions, & Organizing in the South, 1956-1996


Compiled by Rudolph Lewis





Impediments to Labour Union Organization in the South

By F. Ray Marshall

The South Atlantic Quarterly, n.d.


            The weakness of unionization among Southern industrial workers presents a serious threat to the labor movement in the rest of the country, because it is difficult for employers to grant increases in wages or to avoid decreases if their Southern competitors have sizeable advantages over them. As the South becomes more industrialized, its influence on the national scene assumes added significance; its non-agricultural employment rose by 79 per cent between 1939 and 1955 as compare with 63 per cent for the rest of the country.

            Semiskilled and unskilled workers present the main problems for the unions, because most of the skilled workers in the South have long been relatively well organized. In fact, several strong national craft organizations, including the International Association of Machinists, were founded in that region.

            Attempts to organize Southern industrial workers have had consistently disappointing results for the unions. Immediately after World War II, both AFL and the CIO launched drives to organize the South. The AFL's campaign lasted about a year, and brought a net increase in Southern membership, but not so large a one has had been expected. The CIO campaign, "Operation Dixie," was more elaborate and lasted until about 1950, but despite careful preparations and large expenditures of money and effort, the CIO probably had fewer Southern members when the campaign faded out that it had when it started.

            A short analysis of the reasons for this state of affairs will explore some of the barriers to unionization, set out under the heads of social, political, and economic factors. Although it is understood of course that these factors are interrelated, they are here divided for expository purposes.

Social Factors

            That workers in large cities are more highly organized than those who live elsewhere is a commonly accepted generalization, applicable to industrial workers of the urban centers of the South. But that region is not predominantly urban, and workers in rural communities ans small towns are notoriously difficult to organize. The employees an any particular craft or industry are too few to support a union, too expensive to organize. The small Southern town adds characteristics of its own which form obstacles: a tradition of paternalism; the likelihood that the industry, through its control of law-enforcement machinery, meeting places, and communications, may hamper the operations of a union and the close personal relationships which are likely to make the organizer seem an "outsider" of alien attitudes. The Southern worker is s apt as not to "appreciate" the job tendered him by his employer.

            "In the past, all this was especially true in the company towns which the early mills in the South found it necessary to build for scattered and impoverished workers. Company-controlled police could keep union organizers out of the town and deny them a meeting place. Furthermore, joining a union resulted in losing not only a job, but a home. The threat of eviction accounted in large part for the ease with which employers in the textile and lumber plants frequently defeated strikes and organizing campaigns. But in recent years, as Harriet Herring has shown in her Passing of the Mill village, this impediment to organization has diminished. Automobiles and good roads enable the worker to live on farms or at some distance; he commutes rather than living at the mill gates. For various reasons the employers have sold many of the company houses to their employees. The Fair labor Standards Act and other regulations forbade mill owners a differential for housing furnished by the company, which found it cheaper to sell the houses for a small down payment and deduct the long-term installments from wages.

            The racial problem has dominated the history of the South, and is a major factor in labor relations, as in all other human relations. Negroes have been excluded from much of the South's industrial development, or relegated, as in textiles--the regions leading industry--to janitorial or similar jobs. A study at the University of Mississippi of that state's drive to 'Balance Agriculture with Industry' points out that "Negro labor has not been used to any significant extent in BAWI plants despite the fact that approximately half of the population of the state is Negro." Indeed Donald Dewey concludes that "In the fifty years before World War II the relative position of Negro workers in Southern industry actually deteriorated; they did not share proportionately the expansion of urban employment, and they were not upgraded as individuals into jobs previously held by whites."

            In industries that do not employ sizeable percentages of Negroes, racial separation is an impediment to effective organization combining the races, and indeed, to any organization at all. Part of the trouble lies in the old obstacles to combining the unskilled, poorly paid worker, frequently a Negro, with the more highly skilled. In almost all cases where relatively successful unions including Negro and white workers have ben achieved, as in mining and long-shoring, there have been scarcely any wage and job differentials in the various employments.

            Employers have sometimes used the racial issue as a weapon against unions, stressing the integration views of the union, and predicting that unionization would lead to the promotion of Negroes to supervisory positions, encourage social integration, and make it possible for Negroes to be elected to public office. On the other hand, some employers have hired Negroes as strikebreakers, thus introducing the Negro worker into certain employments.

            National union leaders, realizing the importance of the colored worker in organization, have been desegregationist, but their Southern local leaders have not found it easy to accept the union's racial policies. At the International Harvester Company in Memphis, for example, where both the company and the United Automobile Workers advocate an anti-discrimination policy, Negroes have had difficulty in obtaining jobs reserved for white workers. Trouble has erupted on several occasions when Negroes attempted to get jobs in all-white departments or were promoted to supervisory jobs over white workers. The intensification of racial feeling promoted after the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in the schools has hurt the labor movement, inasmuch as many union leaders are identified with integration. The heightened emotion in the ranks of Southern unions actually led an abortive attempt to secede from the AFL-CIO and found a Southern federation of labor.

            The deep-seated, evangelical, fundamentalist religion of southern communities has played a part in Southern unionism. It has cut both ways, or rather both sides have attempted to use it to forward their ends. The social gospel would lead some churchmen to favor measures that would promote the welfare of the worker. Lucy Randolph Mason, as agent of the CIO, was at least indirectly responsible for the adoption by the Southern Baptist Convention of a resolution favoring collective bargaining. Since the main training in leadership, speaking, and organizing of the southern worker has been in his church, and since his religion has such an appeal for him, organizers have used hymns and church procedures in their meetings. When in 1949 a large conference of the CIO in Atlanta sought to invigorate its southern drive, national CIO leaders used religious slogans. This was to be "a spiritual crusade led by men with religion in their hearts . . .," ". . . the thing we are fighting for is Christianity."

            On the other hand, some southern brands of religion contain a fatalism and a pacifism, among other element, that are not conducive to the united action required of unionist. Moreover, from various motives, among them religious conviction, many Southern preachers have been either cool or actively hostile to unionization. Among those who adduce evidence of anti-union activity by preachers are Liston Page (Mill Hands and Preachers, New Haven, 1942) and Miss Mason (To Win These Rights, New York, 1952).

Political Factors        

            The attitude of the press in the South is predominantly anti-union, although seldom as extreme and violent as the late Frederick Sullens, editor of the Jackson (Mississippi) Daily News, who wrote in 1937:

            Note to the CIO: If you want to start trouble anywhere in Mississippi, please pause and take this information. The Mississippi National Guard has been mustered up to      2,300. It has been made an effective fighting      organization. The boys know how to shoot guns and are not afraid to do it when the command to fire is given.

However, if communities oppose 'outside agitators', these latter can expect little protection from local officials, who reflect the attitudes of their communities, and, if the press seems to advocate disregard of the civil rights of objectionable people, the labor organizer may find his work dangerous as well as difficult.

            The extent of anti-union legislation by Southern states may be indicated by the fact that the eighteen 'right-to-work laws in the United States, ten have been passed by Southern legislatures--in Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, Texas, and Mississippi. Louisiana had a similar statute, but repealed it in 1956. These laws vary in content, but are usually patterned on that of Virginia, which makes the union shop illegal under any circumstances. Their net effect on organized labor is nor easily determined, but it is clear that they represent an anti-union bias on the part of Southern lawmakers, who employ in passing them arguments not against the union shop but against union themselves.

            Probably one of the main reasons for these "right-to-work" laws is to support the current large-scale efforts of Southern cities and states to attract industry by demonstrating to northern industrialists that they will be relatively free from unions if they come South. The Southern programs, supported by advertising and active solicitation, hold out a variety of inducements, sometimes including the provision of factories and concessions in taxes, and frequently imply that labor is 'docile' and will remain unorganized. Anything that interferes with potential industrialization is to be deprecated, and Southerners believe, as the press has frequently demonstrated, that strikes and unions will repel many industries.

            That available studies--such as those by G.E. McLaughlin and S. Roback for the national Planning Association in 1949 and by F. T. deVyver in Southern Economic Journal, 1951--seem to indicate that considerations of markets and materials are more important in the migration of industries than is the labor factor does not obviate the fact, significant for unionism, that people "think" an absence of unions is a primary inducement to industry. Thus the drive to industrialize the South has, in the short run at least, been an impediment to unionization.

            The operations of the Taft-Hartley Act have slowed union growth more in the South than elsewhere. The time that it takes the National Labor Relations Board to hear cases of unfair labor practices has been lengthened by certain features of the law, especially so in the South because employer and community hostility lengthen investigations and because the geographical area covered by NLRB districts in the region is so large. By the time NLRB gets around to a decision, the worker who has been discharged for union activity will have been employed for a considerable time or forced to find another job.

            The provision of the act making it possible for strike-breakers to vote in representation elections is the subject of complaint by unions in the South, where strikebreakers are abundant, and they also feel that the stigma of having to file non-Communist affidavits is stronger in a region where the methods and objectives of American unions are not as well known as in regions where the unions have been operating longer.

            Southern labor leaders feel, too, that the "free speech" or "captive audience" provision gives an added advantage to the Southern employer, who already controls most of the media of communication and who has only to hint that his plant will move to induce the Southern worker to vote against the union. Further, Section 2 of the Taft-Hartley Act changed the definition of "employer," which in the Wagner Act included anyone "acting in the interest of employers," to anyone acting directly or indirectly "as agent of" the employer--a difference of considerable importance in the South where there are many people fighting unions who do not fall within the legal concept of "agent," but who might be acting "in the interest of" the employer.

            Perhaps even more important than the provision of the act is its philosophy. The atmosphere surrounding the passage of the act was to "get labor." This can be a very important ant-union weapon itself, purely aside from the provisions of the law. The Wagner Act greatly aided unions in the South, as in the country as a whole, because workers really believed "the president of the United states wanted them to join the union." The Taft-Hartley Law and the publicity accompanying its passage leaves the impression that unions are too strong. Even if this idea were correct for the non-South it does not necessarily apply to the South.

            Critics might ask: "If the Taft-Hartley Law is such an important impediment to unionism in the region, why didn't they organize under the Wagner Act?" No one who has followed the history of unionism in the South would conclude that the impediments to unionism were overcome by the Wagner Act and the favorable atmosphere of the New Deal; the obstacles to union growth run much deeper. The Taft-Hartley, while not a fundamental deterrent, has slowed union growth in the region by making it easier for employers and the community to oppose unions. Unions made some headway here under the Wagner Act, but the Taft-Hartley Act was passed at a time when the region was making its greatest industrial progress. If the Taft-Hartley Law had not been passed, it is almost certain that the CIO's 'Operation Dixie' and the AFL's Southern drive, both of which got under way shortly before the law was passed, would have been more successful.

            Another deterrent to unions which may be discussed under political impediments is union rivalry, which has not been entirely eliminated by the AFL-CIO merger. It is difficult to determine the net effect of internecine strife for unionism in the region. The progress made among industrial workers by both federations was probably enhanced by this competition. On the other hand, unions have wasted energy and money fighting each other that could have been used to organize the unorganized; and these conflicts have caused many Southern workers to refuse to join unions or to drop their membership.

            The most notable row was the running conflict in 1949-1952 between Emil Rieve, the president, and George Baldanzi, executive vice-president, in the Textile Workers Union of America of the CIO, which embittered two conventions of the union and finally resulted in Baldanzi's shift to the United Textile Workers of America under the AFL. As many as fifty locals with 25,000 members eventually left the CIO for the AFL, and though some of them later returned many textile workers were lost to the CIO and some to the labor movement as a whole.

Economic Factors

            Most of the South's industries are of types that are highly competitive, employ many women--women are notoriously hard to organize--have many branches, exist in both the North and the South, and pay low wages. The predominance of these types in the South operates to the advantage of unionization in that area. So does the surplus of labor arising in part from changes in the agrarian economy, the apparent betterment of living conditions to workers just off the farm, and the temporary satisfactions to the new worker of a regular wage.

            The South's industrial employment, though growing more diversified, is concentrated in highly competitive industries to a larger extent than that of the rest of the country. Its five leading industries have been textiles, food and kindred products, lumber and wood products (except furniture), apparel and related products, and chemicals and allied products. Such an industrial structure is an important impediment to unionization. Employers have to fight labor unions harder in order to maintain their competitive positions. Likewise, in such industries nothing  short of a concerted drive to unionize the entire industry can be successful.

            The individual employer, as has been repeatedly demonstrated in the textile and garment industries, is powerless to accede to union demands. The situation is most clearly seen in the case of Northern industries in competition with those in the South. If the latter are unorganized, or have an advantageous differential, union pressure will result in the plant's moving South, as in the case of the Alexander Smith Company, rug makers, who, when the TWUA struck in 1954, simply closed their Yonkers plant and expanded their plant at Greensville, Mississippi.

            These strictures apply of course to branch plants anywhere, especially if the units are small, and branch manufacturing has been increasing in the South in recent years, especially in the textile industry. Many of them are scattered through rural areas and are highly mobile, all of which makes organizing them expensive and hazardous. It takes more organizers and more money to cover the territory, and the workers, cherishing their newly found jobs, are likely to be hostile to the union.

            Paradoxically, the facts that wages in the South are low and that they are rising both militate against the unions. Low wages and small incomes make it harder for workers to pay union dues, to hold through a strike, and to see the usefulness of a long struggle. When wages are increased, frequently indirectly through union activity, the Southern worker is as likely to give credit to the employer as to the union.

            For example, in September, 1950, Northern textile operators increased wage rates by 10 per cent. Another 6.5 per cent was added in March of 1951, and an additional three cents per hour was given later by an escalator clause. To meet these increases, companies in the South raised wages by eight cents per hour, or 8 per cent in September, 1950, and another 2 per cent on the same base (not including the increase) in the spring of 1951. The wage differential between North and South was increased. But the main point was that the Southern worker was inclined to give credit to his employer for an increase that kept him satisfied.

            In fact, having further to go, Southern wages increased during the war and inflation, 1940-1955, at a faster rate than those for the rest of the country. With 1940 as the base, the index of wage and salary payments in the South stood at 499 in 1955 compared with 408 for the non-South; for manufacturing wages the figures were 550 and 454. This is a very important reason for the attitudes of southern workers. People will compare their present incomes with their past ones, and reflect how well off they are, rather than compare their wages with those of workers in other regions. So the increases in the South have removed the feeling of discontent which workers must have before they will join unions.

            The southern agricultural workers, as a whole, are likely to feel that they are infinitely better off when they escape to a factory job--any factory job. There are a lot of them, too. The 1950 census indicated that the South had about one half of the total farm population of the nation, but less than a third of the national farm income. In 1955, agricultural workers in the South had a composite hourly wage of $.52 an hour; the comparable figure for the rest of the country was $.84. When the Southern farm laborer can get a factory job at $1.41, it little matters to him that wages are higher ($1.96) in the rest of the country. (Figures for 1956.)

            The southern agricultural worker is eager for industrial employment, and ignorant of and apathetic toward unions. He has, by migration, swelled the ranks of workers outside the South, but he is apparently drawn not by wage differentials but by the mere existence of employment. Migration, mechanization, and acreage control have taken their toll: between 1940 and 1954 the number of Southern

tenant farmers declined from 1,110,000 to 577,000. Thus some of the 'hidden unemployment' in the region has disappeared, but there are still more workers on the farms than are needed, and the surplus of labor thus presses against conditions favorable to labor organization. It is hard to win strikes with an abundance of strikebreakers available, and unions are weak if they do not have the ability to strike successfully.

            The agrarian who comes to the factory likewise finds the amenities of urban life superior to conditions he left, although the Southern farm has made an astonishing advance in recent years in such matters as electricity, telephones, and cars. Pleased with conditions of life, with higher wages than he formerly made, he is poor subject for the organizer. After a while, it will occur to him that high cash income is more than matched by high cash expenditure. Presently he will compare his wages not with those he made on the farm, but with those his father made in the factory. As he becomes accustomed to industrial employment, he will probably accept unions more readily.

            All these economic factors, the writer is persuaded, are basic to the political and social factors; but they are all interrelated and they all operate in varying combinations in different places and circumstances. We may conclude that unions can expect to make little headway among the South's industrial workers until: (1) mechanization and rationalization of agriculture improve the conditions of agricultural workers to the point where they are no longer anxious to get industrial jobs at prevailing wage rates; (2) industrialization 'soaks up' that part of the labor force which has been displaced from agriculture, but which has not found acceptable employment outside the South; and (3) a generation of industrial wage earners emerges which is dissatisfied with current conditions.

            Even when these things have happened, unions will continue to encounter such impediment as are bound up with racial and other social problems, with the structure of industry, and with inherent opposition from employers, but they will encounter less resistance from workers and the public.

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