Ever heard of the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union? You could be forgiven for answering in the negative.
Ever heard of J.P. Mooney and his organizing exploits in Avondale, Alabama? Nope?
Did you know that the largest political rally ever held in Alabama was put on by the Communist Party during the Depression? Nah?
The South has earned its reputation as the region most hostile to leftism and union organizing in the United States. After all, Gov. Nikki Haley, who is cruising towards re-election in South Carolina, declared that any auto companies that had unionized workforces should refrain from relocating in South Carolina. In Tennessee, state legislators made plain their opposition to the United Auto Workers gaining a foothold in Chattanooga by stating that they would revoke any tax incentives that Volkswagen received in the event of a yes vote. Aside from those anecdotal examples, the South is home to some of the lowest unionization rates in the country — North Carolina’s union density, at only three percent of workers organized, is the lowest in the country. Arkansas is not far behind at 3.5 percent, nor is Mississippi and South Carolina at 3.7 percent. One does not think “citadel of unionism” when they think of Alabama, but at 10.7 percent, they far outpace any other state in the region for union density.
But there was a time when radical politics and organizing found its home in the rural South.
The Populist Party found its greatest strength in the South during the late 19th century, electing governors from North Carolina and Tennessee, and members of Congress from Georgia and Alabama. Huey Long, the Kingfish who served as governor and U.S. Senator from Louisiana, came from a Populist family, and it influenced his politics throughout his time in public service. Labor unions like the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (Mine Mill), the Fur and Leather Workers International Union (Fur and Leather) and the Food, Tobacco, and Agriculture Workers Union (FTA) were pioneers in interracial organizing tactics, and it helped them rise to the top during the failed drive to organize Southern workers known as Operation Dixie. And when the three aforementioned unions were eventually expelled from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) during the its turn towards the right and business unionism, it deprived the labor federation of its most valuable organizing assets.
It is easy to forget the long history of Southern radicalism and labor organizing when it seems like any particularly strident comment against the contemporary labor movement comes from a Southern politician. And, to be sure, the labor heroes of the late 19th through the mid 20th centuries faced an implacable enemy as well, given that the neo-chattel economy of the immediate postbellum period depended on easy access to cheap labor. Cities like Kannapolis, North Carolina; Bogalusa, Louisiana; and West Blocton, Alabama stand as testament to the attempts by the capitalist class to control every aspect of their workers’ lives, and they were assisted all too willingly by white supremacy and the state.
But the efforts put forth by the Southern radicals of yore was successful to the degree that they were because of an assessment and engagement with working-class communities across the region: the story of the Black organizer during Operation Dixie who would disappear into the Black communities of north Mississippi so effectively that even his closest fellow organizers could not locate him stands as a humorous, yet important, example of that. There was a recognition that in order to be successful, leftists and labor organizers could not simply go to the shop floor or to friendly enclaves on college campuses or liberal towns and conduct their organizing there; they had to have a plan to engage in a mass mobilization of the public to see their goals realized. They had to take their message of working-class solidarity out to places like the Mississippi Delta and North Alabama and organize the farmers; they had to organize in the coal mining communities of Walker County, Alabama and eastern Kentucky; they had to let the packinghouse workers in Winston-Salem know, “Yeah, we not only got your back, but we will connect your cousin down the road to legal services since we know he was fired without cause.” Because Southern society is relational, many times to a fault, and it is important that people understand that you are here for them and theirs.
So when I go to a conference and hear a labor organizer on a narrowly-defeated representation vote tell me that they did not publicize their presence in the community because “we did not want to alert the company that we were there”, I want to give them the same advice as the organizers who told me that they have been in town for a year and are just now starting their community outreach:
Read a book. Know your history. Recognize the importance of relationships and communities in the South, and adapt strategies for the 21st century so we can achieve victories for the Southern working class.