The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

United States:
The "New South":
But an Old Problem for the Unions

May 1, 1998

From the moment that John Sweeney, Richard Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson were elected to the leadership of the AFL-CIO in October 1995, they have placed a major emphasis on extending union organization to hitherto unorganized workplaces. Pointing to the long-standing decline in the rate of unionization in this country, they argued for the need "to organize every working woman and man who needs a better deal and a new voice."

At the first winter meeting of the new AFL-CIO Executive Council, in January 1996, the Sweeney leadership proposed that the federation establish an organizing fund of 20 million dollars a year; that it set up its own department charged with organizing; that it and its member unions campaign to improve national and state laws governing organizing; and that they develop a long-term strategy to organize the South. The new leadership targeted the South especially because union membership has historically been and continues to be much lower there; and the South with its lower wages and anti-union laws continues to draw industry away from other areas of the country which are more strongly unionized.

Last September’s AFL-CIO convention, where the Sweeney-Trumka-Thompson leadership was re-elected, proposed to vastly increase the sums of money and the number of organizers that the federation and its member unions devote to organizing efforts. The convention set, as its goal, total annual organizing outlays by all union bodies to reach one billion dollars a year by the year 2000. Once again, attention was drawn to the need to tackle the South.

Union Ranks: Low Everywhere, But Much Lower in the South

It’s obvious that there has been a big decline in the organized forces of the union movement in the United States. Today there are just over 16 million union members, down from well over 21 million in 1978, the year in which the unions had the largest number of members. The relative decline is much worse, given that the workforce increased by 33 million people during those same years. Today only 14.1% of all employed persons are in unions, compared to 23.6% in 1978. (The peak year for participation in unions came in 1945 when 35.5% of the work force was organized.) When government employees and teachers are excluded, the rate of unionization is even lower: in 1997, unionization in the private sector fell to less than 10% for the first time since the 1920s, that is, before the massive movement of the 1930s which established the industrial unions in this country.

It is equally obvious that the national rate is pulled down considerably by the low level of unionization in the 13 states usually referred to as the South (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia). With close to one-third of the nation’s workforce, 38 million people, the South today has only one-sixth of its union members. Overall, the rate of unionization in the South is only 8%, compared to 18% of workers elsewhere.

Of course, these averages hide very big variations. In the South, for example, unionization ranges from less than four percent in South Carolina to 11% in Alabama and 13% in Kentucky. In the rest of the country, the span is even wider, ranging from six percent in Arizona to 24% in Michigan and 27% in New York.

In any case, the South has long served as a pole of attraction for companies wishing to escape the higher wages and stronger unions of the industrial heartland around the Great Lakes. For example, from 1964 to 1996, the number of manufacturing jobs declined by 1.1 million in the rest of the country, while increasing by 2.2 million in the South.

While industry moved to the South, the unions which had grown up with industry elsewhere did not so easily follow. North Carolina, for example, is one of those states which attracted a great deal of industry in recent decades. It has almost as many people employed in manufacturing as does Ohio, Illinois or Michigan. And it has large industry. Already, in 1990, it had 81 factories with over 1,000 workers. But its rate of unionization is only 4%, compared to rates running from 20 to 24% for these Midwestern manufacturing states.

Where the unions do exist in the South, legal restrictions included in the so-called right-to-work laws which abound in the South, make it more difficult for the union apparatuses to function given the dependence of the unions today on such things as dues check-off and union shop.

Choosing Jim Crow

There are historical reasons for the low level of unionization in the South. Unions grew up in this country along with industry and the rise of big cities which concentrate large number of workers together. But the South, proceeding from slavery, was long mainly rural and small town, with much less industry. Furthermore, the different legal forms that racial oppression took—from the "Black Codes" at the end of the Civil War to the Jim Crow laws passed with the collapse first of Reconstruction and then of the Populist Movement at the end of the last century—contributed substantially to dividing the working class. The system of racial subordination, which dominated the South for almost a century, was enforced by official and vigilante violence. And these paramilitary groups which grew up in use against the black population were readily available to be used against attempts to form unions.

But the problem was not just an objective one. The unions themselves, by the choices they made, contributed to maintaining a racially divided working class.

Of course, the particularly oppressive situation in the South made it difficult to challenge Jim Crow, but the fact is, some union militants showed that it could be done. The United Mine Workers, often in areas where there were socialists, the Timber Workers who were part of the IWW, and the unions led by the Communist Party all showed it was possible to organize black and white workers together to fight for their common interests, despite legal segregation.

But the majority of unions never tried to challenge Jim Crow. During "Operation Dixie," the big Southern organizing drive initiated in 1948 (and let die a few years later), neither the AFL nor the CIO had been ready to directly challenge the legal division of black and white workers imposed on the unions by the segregation laws. What’s worse, many of the unions, in fact, openly excluded black workers in their constitutions, particularly the railway brotherhoods. Many more unions effectively excluded black members, under pretexts such as discriminatory tests or a "grandfather clause" which required someone, in order to become a member of the union, to have a parent or other relative who had been a member. Many of the construction unions openly refused to organize black workers. Other unions had separate locals for black and white members.

Of course, it was not just in the South where unions excluded or restricted black members. During the 1960s, New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago saw repeated demonstrations by black community organizations demanding that construction sites be opened to black workers. The picture given by the "hard hats" of New York became symbolic of those unions who opposed all attempts by black workers to gain access to decent paying jobs.

By the early 1960s, two-thirds of all unions in the South had black and white members, but even in this case, black workers usually had the worst jobs at the lowest pay, and often were in separate seniority lists. This was true not only of the AFL locals, but also of important CIO locals, as in steel. And it was also true, although to a somewhat lesser degree, in the North. As late as 1964, that is, ten years after the Supreme Court’s crucial decision knocking down legal segregation (Brown versus Board of Education), the Locomotive Firemen and the Railway Trainmen still had written exclusions in their constitutions.

The dismantling of the Jim Crow system by the mobilization of the black population saw the unions either standing to the side, or even opposing it. Many local unions were controlled by active racists. They passed resolutions and spent union money in defense of the segregationist cause, and they allowed the Klan and White Citizens Councils to use their meeting halls. At the national level, while the AFL-CIO might have given a luke-warm endorsement to the aims of the civil rights movement, all it had to propose to the black population then struggling was to rely on the Democratic Party, the same party which rested on Jim Crow in the South.

Even when black workers in the South tried to force their employers to recognize unions, the official labor movement was often lukewarm about this possibility, which would have extended their ranks in the area of the country where they most needed to expand.

In general, the unions missed the chance to really extend their influence and their numbers during these years, a chance which in fact was wide open in front of them. Of course, to do so, not only would they have had to confront the racism of part of their membership; more importantly, they would have had to have been ready to prepare a massive mobilization, calling on black and white workers both to engage in the kind of struggles which could have established unions in the South.

But this would have brought them directly into opposition to the Democratic Party, whose control over the federal government depended on its control of the so-called "solid South." This large bloc of Democrats sent to Congress from the South was almost totally committed to maintaining segregation.

Despite their stance, the unions nonetheless added members in the South, not from campaigns like Operation Dixie, but as the black movement continued to dismantle Jim Crow. After years of stagnation, unions in the South added 961,000 members in the period from 1964 to 1977, an increase of almost half in their numbers.

Nonetheless, relatively speaking, the unions were falling further behind in the South. In 1953, Southern union membership had been 17.2% of the non-agricultural workforce. By 1964, it had decreased to 14.4%; by 1977, it was only 12.8%.

Of course, we can’t rewrite history. But it seems at least possible that if the unions had followed a different course during the years when the black population was struggling in the South that not only would the rate of union organization not have taken such a precipitous decline in the South as elsewhere, but that the unions might have broadened their organizational weight and influence in the South.

In any case, an important opportunity to extend the organization of the working class in the South, that part of the country where the unions were least strong, was certainly lost. And with that, the union movement in the country as a whole was weakened.

The "New South"

The South today has quite a different character from what it had only a few decades ago. Starting with the buildup to World War II, a disproportionate share of military spending went to the South, and this aid to industrialization continued long after the post-war period, up to the establishment of the space program. Northern industrialists, looking for sites outside the big industrial cities of the Great Lakes States, began to move into more rural areas, especially in the South. Attracted by the South’s lower energy costs, lower wages and weak unions, foreign industrialists also began to situate there. With this industrialization came utilities, construction firms, transportation and communications industries, as well as a developed financial sector of real estate interests, banks, and insurance companies. Today, the occupational structure of the South is not that much different than in other industrialized areas of the country.

Many of the obstacles that impeded union growth in the South have been removed. The South is no longer predominately rural, small town, and non-industrial. Three-quarters of its population live in sizeable metropolitan areas. If racism is still rife—as it is everywhere—legalized Jim Crow segregation is a thing of the past. The Klan, as an effective paramilitary force, has been decimated.

Even if the rate of unionization is lower in the South, the unions nonetheless have an established base in the South of 2,600,000 members, upon which future growth could be built. It needs to be said, however, that if the South more and more approaches the North, it’s not simply because the South has modernized; it’s also because the situation of the working class in the North has been worsening. For example, while real weekly wages of workers in North Carolina rose by 6.7% in the period from 1979 to 1994, the wages of Michigan workers declined by 6.4%.

In any case, there is no longer such a grossly different objective situation, making it qualitatively more difficult to organize in the South than in the rest of the country. Whatever problems unions face in the South, they face similar ones in the North.

What to Do?

Two years ago, the AFL-CIO estimated that unions would have to organize 400,000 new members nationally every year just to keep pace with retirements, job eliminations and the growth in the workforce. Their results last year—a little less than 400,000—were not quite enough to keep pace, and thus they fell back a little more absolutely, and even more in relative terms.

Their results were less encouraging in the South than elsewhere. Proportionately, they established fewer new "bargaining units." And most of the successes they did have came from small workplaces. The big plants, where victories could add a large number of workers at one time and which could serve as an inspiration to workers throughout the area, remain hostile to efforts of the unions to organize. The UAW has not yet made a real breakthrough in organizing the auto plants established by foreign companies in the South.

Obviously, no one can expect that the AFL-CIO’s new leadership should turn around the whole situation in a mere two years, a situation which has taken decades to develop. The real question is what the Sweeney team proposes to the workers, in the whole country as well as in the South, to change this situation.

Over the last year or so, it has drawn attention to the trap involved in following the NLRB procedures for getting a vote to establish a union. They point out the way companies regularly use delays running to many years, in some cases, decades, to avoid an election or, in any case, its implementation. They also indict the NLRB for allowing the companies to use all sorts of tactics to get rid of militants trying to form a union. The federation said that over 10,000 workers were fired, last year alone, for organizing activities.

Thus, the unions have begun to go directly to demanding a union when they have the signatures of more than half the workers. In some cases, where the corporations are not all that hostile, this works, and of course, it is much more direct, and much quicker.

But, in the cases where the corporations aren’t ready to deal with the union—which are the majority of cases—the unions usually see no other option than reverting back to the same old NLRB election procedures. For example, when the United Food & Commercial Workers Union asked the large nursing home chain Beverly Enterprises to accept a card check in place of an election in a number of its facilities, it simply refused. And so the UFCW began to petition for elections, confronting delay after delay in doing so.

Increasingly the unions have been turning to a "corporate campaign" or other means of pressure, usually short of a strike, to force recalcitrant employers to bargain with them. This often means demonstrations in front of company headquarters and board of directors’ meetings, often carried out by other forces for the workers involved; demands made in stockholders’ meetings; appeals for support from the "community"—that is, liberal clerics, politicians and intellectuals; consumer boycotts. The Sweeney leadership has made a special appeal for students to join the federation’s organizing department.

If the new AFL-CIO leadership sticks to its course, really increasing money and militants thrown into the effort to organize, it’s possible that the number of union members could increase a little, although even that’s not sure. These last years, when the unions have been losing members, have been years of "economic recovery." What will happen when the next recession hits and membership goes down automatically because fewer people are at work?

When Unions Prove They Are in Earnest

Even if the unions were to increase their numbers a little, they won’t become a force again without leading the workers in struggles to overcome the situation they confront today. Companies rich with profits continue to carry out "restructuring" and to demand wage and/or benefit take-aways. The government continues to dismantle social programs, even including Social Security, once thought sacrosanct.

The unions always point to the fact that union wages are significantly higher than non-union wages and use that as an argument to convince other workers to join a union. Last year, according to the federation, non-union wages were only 4/5 of union wages. Even if this whole gap were explained by the lack of a union—which obviously it isn’t—the fact remains that the situation of unionized workers has also deteriorated.

During these last decades, workers everywhere have seen a labor movement which agrees to give up concessions in order to help "their" boss, which accepts "restructuring" in order to help "their" boss redress falling profits.

When unions have led strikes—and they have led very few (the number of major strikes in 1997 was only about seven percent of what it had been 25 years earlier)—most of these strikes have remained isolated, vulnerable to whatever attacks the corporations, the courts and other authorities are ready to mount on them. When the government came for the Teamsters president, Ron Carey, after the mildly successful UPS strike, the union movement stepped back, effectively doing nothing to defend him. Nowhere in the union movement, including in the Teamsters union itself, did anyone propose to mobilize union ranks against this attack, not only on Carey, but on every union which might want to carry out a struggle. By their actions, or more accurately, their lack of action, the unions do not attract other workers to make the efforts and take the risk of forming a union.

A Southern organizer for the CIO wrote after the 1946 strike wave, "One of the most remarkable things to me during the recent steel strike was the way workers of hitherto completely unorganized plants came into the union office in Atlanta and elsewhere asking for help in organizing. The strikes did not scare them off but rather seemed to prove that the unions were in earnest about their wages and working conditions."

The unions today have to prove they are "in earnest" about the problems facing workers today. If the unions were to make a real struggle over wages, job losses, intensity of work and the lack of new jobs, they could make the unions a real pole of attraction for that whole large part of the working class which is outside the unions today, including in the South.

But to do so would force the unions to carry out the kind of struggle which would threaten not only the profits of "their" corporations—although it certainly would do that—but the existence of the capitalist system itself. This they have never been ready to do. By everything the leaders of the unions, new as well as old, have done, they show they don’t want to risk jeopardizing their position inside capitalist society, often symbolized by the ties the unions have built up over the years with the Democratic Party.

These ties, according to the leadership of the unions, are what protects the workers from an even worse onslaught of government attacks. These ties—again, according to the unions—are what give the workers any possibility to maintain some of the legal protections they currently have. In March of 1998, the AFL-CIO Executive Council declared, "Because of an unprecedented effort by our international unions, state labor federations, central labor councils and local unions, the slopes of that sinkhole [in which working families are mired] are today far less slippery. And because of the commitment and dedication of tens of thousands of union activists across our country, those elected officials have turned their politics and policies a measurable number of degrees back toward working families who elect them." This was nothing but a justification for AFL-CIO proposals to increase the number of union militants and the amount of money devoted to organizing support for "labor’s candidates", i.e., the Democrats.

On the national level, we see what the Democrats have been capable of during these past two decades when the working class was quiet: whether in the White House or in control of Congress, they have joined with Republicans to pass anti-worker legislation, to dismantle social programs and to carry out the same anti-worker policies. Whatever differences that exist between them and the Republican party exist essentially on the level of the propaganda they make, that is, the audience they try to address.

In the South itself, the so-called "Right to Work" laws were passed by Democrats. In 1996, the unions, who had helped elect Zell Mill governor of Georgia, acted shocked when he moved to "privatize" unionized state workers’ jobs. They acted shocked when Democrat Maynard Jackson, who had run for mayor of Atlanta with their support, refused, once in office, even to bargain with the sanitation workers and their union.

Certainly, if today the unions turned their backs on their long-standing policies, if they called on the workers to make the kind of struggle the working class has already numerous times shown itself capable of, nothing is to say that workers would immediately respond. The last period certainly weighs heavily on the morale of the working class.

That might be all the more true in the South, where the situation of the working class remains a little more desperate than in other parts of the country. But at least the unions would have given the workers a different perspective, one that would allow them to see their way past the current rotting situation.