It May Take a Southern Union To Unionize The South

As Erik Loomis says, this is depressing. The United Auto Workers, off the Volkswagen loss in Chattanooga, appear to be suspending their effort to organize Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama. Erik’s explains the UAW’s strategy, and he’s right the UAW doesn’t have good options. They probably can’t win an election, even if they did everything perfectly. Without changes to federal labor law–in particular, some kind of repeal or route around the restrictions imposed on unions in the 1947 Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act–it will remain difficult to organize private-sector workers.

Even though it’s hard to organize private-sector workers, organized labor continues to have modest success in the Northeast, most of the Midwest, and along the Pacific Coast (Hawaii and Alaska are two of the three most heavily unionized states). And unionization isn’t only in states that never passed so-called “right to work” legislation, where winning union elections and maintaining a healthy union are harder. Several right-to-work states–such as Nevada and Iowa–have unionization rates much higher than Southern states. Because of factors such as the stability of the workforce and size of the workplaces, manufacturing is one of the easier sectors in which to organize workers, and over the last several decades the South has increased its national share of manufacturing facilities and workers. Manufacturing’s shift to the South is a reason the recent discussions have been about organizing efforts in the South; to paraphrase bank robber Willie Sutton, manufacturing unions are trying to organize in the South because more and more that’s where the manufacturing workers are.

Nevertheless, even before the Taft-Hartley amendments–which included the option for states to go “right to work”–it was still harder to organize in the South. The reasons for that have to do with the history, the social and economic power structures of the South, the racial dynamics and factors too numerous to discuss here. But many boil down to “the South defines itself in opposition to the North.”

If we accept that it is different, it may take a different approach to improve labor’s fortunes in the South. It may require a “Southern labor movement.”

150 years after the end of the Civil War, white Southern identity is still somewhat rooted in opposition to full social and cultural integration with the rest of the country. Instead of fulminating about Northern abolitionists, bankers, and railroads, today many white Southerners fulminate against Washington DC, Hollywood, and…France, I guess. And Muslims. At the heart of much of white Southern identification is a sense of historical rootedness in the South and the related defiant belief that they are different from and not inferior to the urbanites and suburbanites in the North and coastal West.

A labor union based in that most black of major northern cities–which (unfairly and simplistically) is seen as an example of everything that’s wrong with almost everything about non-white majority Northern cities–that union may not stand a chance of gaining the trust and allegiance of any group of mostly male, mostly white Southerners, much less a group of auto workers making wages that are pretty good for the South, and who are told that unionizing could force their employer to pick up and move that production and those jobs to Mexico or China.

It’s not an easily tested empirical hypothesis, but a Southern labor movement could be more effective representation of Southern workers. Imagine major unions based in places like Birmingham, Alabama, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Little Rock, Arkansas.  Think about how they might be seen–and whether they would be more trusted–by Southerners if those unions organized workers only in the South. And speculate how white Southern workers might react to a union that’s largely free–real or wrongly attributed–of association with black members, black leaders and black influence.

A Southern labor movement would probably be wrong for the country, because it would help perpetuate rather than challenge America’s two-tiered labor market. It also probably wouldn’t be a strong challenge to the vestiges of white dominance of the South. So a Southern labor movement is not the right answer. But that it may nevertheless be the least bad answer shows the difficulty–in the absence of major changes to federal labor law–of unionizing the South.

And “unionizing” is, in this case, a double entendre.

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One Response to It May Take a Southern Union To Unionize The South

  1. Woody Peckerwood says:

    This is rich!
    If you can’t win the hearts and minds of workers on the merits of unionization, change the rules so they no longer have a choice! Force them into your will if they don’t want it!
    And BTW, Erik Loomis sits in his cloistered de facto government job with apparently lots of free time to tell the rest of us scrapping for a living how to live.
    It’s terribly insulting.

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