The forward elements of organized labor are going South in earnest. Let us hope that the main forces are not far behind. The struggle to unionize the South began late and remains problematical, yet it is unavoidable if unions are to reverse their long slide into the margins of political influence.

In this battle, Black political power is also at stake. That should be labor’s trump card.

African Americans know who their enemies are. Half of the Black population lives in Dixie, in daily confrontation with the same old antagonists, the evil-eyed men who hated both Blacks and unions in the Fifties and Sixties, but now claim to despise only the unions.

These unreconstructed reactionaries fool no one—at least, they don’t fool many African Americans. Despite the fact that Black people’s historic foes are at least as formidable in the 21st century as they were four decades ago, they can be beaten. Union resources are essential to Black victory, and Black people’s vision and numbers are the only hope for organized labor in the South.

The Republican Party below the Mason-Dixon Line has been transformed into the White Man’s Party, under the firm control of racist businessmen who are as vicious as mistreated pit bulls.  In state legislatures across the South, multi-layered legal fortifications have been erected against union organizing, in the same way that the Dixiecrats piled on Jim Crow laws in overlapping profusion from the moment of Emancipation right through the middle of the last century.

In hindsight, we now know why the racists legislated with such mad, redundant energy: They were wracked with desperate fear of Black freedmen and women. Their awesome, bewildering framework of statutes made the system of racial oppression seem impregnable, but concealed a fragile inner structure, whose legal façade was made to crumble in the space of one decade—1954 to 1965.

Today, with wild and thumping pontification, these same bigoted bosses rail against “agitators” causing “dissension” among the “good working people” who stand to “lose their jobs” if “outsiders” wearing union baseball caps invade the sacred soil of the South.

It all sounds so familiar, especially to the insiders: southern Blacks.

Traditions, Myths and Power

African Americans are the most politically attuned people in the nation; it comes with the experience. Blacks know that what the corporate media treat as venerable southern “tradition” is rooted less in history and culture than in the immediate need to retain power. We have seen it all before. When conditions change, traditions evaporate.

Media propagate the myth that the South is solidly anti-union, and that this state of affairs is rooted in the region’s peculiar “traditions.” Nonsense. The same thing was said about segregation—the system, we were told, was “traditional.” Mythmakers also convinced most Americans that the Stars and Bars had always had a revered place atop the region’s public buildings.  That, too, was a lie.

Southern legislatures began stitching confederate banners in the corners of their state flags in the 1940s when it became clear that Blacks might soon achieve critical mass in their search for allies against American apartheid.  The racists anticipated, with good reason, that a concerted assault on segregation was imminent. “Tradition” had nothing to do with the unfurling of these new flags. They were dramatic signals that “massive resistance” to desegregation and Black voting rights had begun.

Similarly, southern lawmakers worked themselves into a frenzy of right-to-work legislation in the Fifties and Sixties, as it became clear that Jim Crow constraints against African American social mobility were about to burst. Southern barons realized that, in much of the region, working people’s power plus the right to vote meant Black power.

If union organizers had followed civil rights workers onto southern turf in large numbers, the entire edifice might have collapsed. We will never know.

Unfortunately, American labor leadership had not desegregated itself, and was in no position to take advantage of the enormous human energies unleashed in the South. Racism in top union ranks was in large measure responsible for abandoning the South to the worst elements of a corrupt, greedy and racist business class.

It was during the heyday of the civil rights movement that collective bargaining among public employees was made illegal in all of the Old Confederacy.  This was not a historical coincidence.

Barry Goldwater carried five southern states for the GOP in 1964, running against civil rights and for union-busting legislation. This was the debut of the Republican’s Southern Strategy. Today, a white Democrat businessman is often hard to find in Dixie, while in many districts Blacks make up a solid and even overwhelming majority of the Democratic Party vote.

Republican rule is the reason the South remains entangled in the barbed wire of anti-labor legislation, with new bills passing all the time. Tradition is irrelevant. Political action can break the Republican grip on the region, but that will require an absolutely unprecedented investment of union resources and political will.

The real South is pro-union

The people of the South are ready for unionization. African American receptivity to organized labor’s call—when the call is made—is thoroughly documented and beyond dispute in all regions of the country.

The next fact bears repeating: White southerners are more receptive to unions than whites anywhere else in the United States.

According to Wade Rathke, chief organizer of Local 100 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), rabid anti-unionism among white workers in Dixie is a myth, yet another “tradition” with no basis in fact.  Indeed, the opposite is true.

“White workers in the South are more inclined to organized labor than elsewhere in the country,” said Rathke, speaking from New Orleans.  His local’s jurisdiction includes Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas.  The racial data come from polls commissioned by SEIU, the nation’s largest union and, along with fourth ranked American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the most aggressive in signing up unorganized workers.

Southern workers as a whole are 20% more pro-union than their counterparts in other regions, providing “a rich opportunity” for organizers, said Rathke. “And if you are fortunate enough to have a union full of Black women - praise the Lord!” 

In every region, by all measurements, Black women are the most pro-union group in the nation, followed in descending order by Black men, Hispanic women, Hispanic men, white women, and white men.  Down South, all six sex and ethnic cohorts are willing to hear what the unions have to say, if given the chance.

Law, the exercise of raw state power by the venal businessmen who control most of the capitals of the Old Confederacy, keeps the South captive to low wage employers. Forget about “tradition.” Spit that word out with the snuff.

Paying the cost to fight the boss

Union organizing is expensive, costing thousands of dollars per person. In those regions where right-to-work laws undermine the very existence of the unionized workplace - allowing individuals to opt out of paying dues, for example - the task is even harder. In the past, labor concentrated its expenditures in areas of previous success, in search of easy pickings in friendly territory containing higher “densities” of union workers. Much of the South was all but written off.

This is, of course, a general description of affairs; there are many notable exceptions along the spectrum of organized labor and within individual unions. However, the overall result was that broad swaths of the South were treated as no-go zones. Having abandoned the field – and millions of southern Black workers, who are ready and eager to fight the powers-that-be – many northern-based unionists whined that the South’s “low density” of existing membership represented a prohibitively expensive investment.

For decades, the whiners prevailed, but now there is no alternative. A tidal wave of change has left labor gasping. Unions represent only about 11% of the U.S. workforce, and much of that membership is in the public sector. Jobs are going South.

SEIU’s Rathke points out that “42% of job growth in the U.S. is in the unorganized private sector of the South.” As a top organizer, Rathke lobbies for funds to get the grassroots job done. He acknowledges the “resource problem,” but adds, “It’s never too late. If we don’t do it now, we’ll pay for it forever.”

SEIU Executive Vice President Patricia Ford constantly stresses the urgency of a Southern Strategy.  There is no other option, says Ford, a Black woman in a 20% African American union. “There was resistance [to a big southern push] for various reasons. You can spend a lot of money down there, and your success rate won’t be as good” as elsewhere, she said, in her Washington office. “But, if business keeps going that way, we have to face the situation, sooner or later.”

When northern jobs went south, they didn’t arrive with Detroit-level wages.  Good pay, however, is relative. Ford points to Alabama’s new auto plants. “People who were making $8.00 an hour are making $22.00 an hour, now. But that’s cheaper than what the automakers were paying in Michigan. What’s the union going to tell them they’re going to do for them?”

Ford answers her own question: “You can make a million dollars a day, but if they can fire you today, what difference does it make?  Job protection is the issue. That’s one of the reasons that African Americans went to work for the federal government.  They had the civil service system.”

At any rate, Rathke and Ford aren’t organizing autoworkers. The SEIU’s current focus is on the public sector in Georgia, Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana, and health care workers in Florida. Since unions organizing on behalf of public employees must operate on the fringes of legality in the South, the union’s mission is openly political. State legislatures have to be convinced to ease the restrictions under which organizers work. Friendly executives need to be cultivated.

Success hinges on the union being seen as representing far more people than its actual or potential membership, alone.

“Governor Roy Barnes, in Georgia, is very accessible to us,” Ford reports. Barnes is a Democrat. In Georgia, the only significant block of votes his party can count on are African American. In that sense, Blacks, unions and the Democratic Party share a commonality of interests (although southern white Democrats constantly delude themselves into thinking that they are the bulwark against Republicanism.)

For unions to thrive in Dixie – that is, seriously penetrate the “42% of job growth in the U.S. [that] is in the unorganized private sector of the South” - they must transform the region, itself. This requires open, intimate identification with Blacks, who have the numbers, historical experience, and political will to confront the prevailing order.

Ideally, no daylight should shine through any cracks in such an alliance.

A new kind of union

The SEIU and AFSCME, its sister union – both of which have African Americans as second in command and heavily Black memberships – are developing strategies suited to the region. “For organizing to be successful in the South, it has to be community based,” said the SEIU’s Rathke. “You can’t pretend that it’s just labor versus management at a worksite.” 

The legacies of slavery and the civil rights struggle are central facts of the southern organizer’s environment. “Out of these roots, the branches must include continuing commitments to civil and human rights for working people,” said Rathke.

Rathke has been an important activist in the region since the late Sixties, having helped found the national grassroots community organization ACORN and Local 100 of SEIU.  He’s chief organizer for both outfits. Few unions have this kind of in-depth southern presence.

Unfortunately, labor’s southern offensive has materialized a few decades late. “The shame is that we don’t have more vibrancy in our civil rights institutions. They’re not what they were,” Rathke laments. “You’ve got to build your own community roots.” 

The Living Wage Movement is labor’s project to re-root itself.  SEIU, AFSCME and ACORN are the key components of the national movement. New models of community-union collaboration are being created, ties that will undoubtedly shape organized labor’s future in the South.

It took a mass movement to win a referendum, in February, raising the New Orleans minimum wage to $1 above the national floor. This popular victory in a large, majority Black southern city placed labor at the center of a collaboration among many organizations. African Americans, in particular, were overwhelmingly supportive.  The campaign didn’t increase labor’s “density” in the region, but it firmly established unions as allies of unaffiliated working and poor families, as well as the churches and other institutions that serve them.

The New Orleans referendum is an example of how labor can build its political base, without necessarily adding a single member. “Density” is not destiny.

The Louisiana Supreme Court put the New Orleans wage hike on hold, while it decides if the state’s cities can constitutionally raise minimum wages. Just weeks ago, the South Carolina legislature voted to make it illegal for cities in that state to follow New Orleans’ lead.  Florida’s legislature is headed in the same direction.

Sometimes it seems that we are reliving the “massive resistance” of the Fifties and Sixties. Yet, in the end, the Jim Crow edifice came tumbling down. The chains that currently bind labor in the South can also be broken, if the region’s people – especially African Americans - perceive that their concerns and labor’s are one and the same.  Besides, labor has no choice. The status quo means slow death.

Transform the Democratic Party in the South

The White Man’s Party—the southern GOP—is organized labor’s most implacable political foe, the boss’s mouthpiece. Its groveling cousin is the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a group of conniving white Democrats whose mission is to retain dwindling white support through continual compromise with Republicans.

The DLC is a southern invention that expanded to include conservative Democrats from other regions, and now even boasts a small clique of unprincipled Black office-seekers. (Cory Booker, the right wing-funded aspirant for mayor of Newark, NJ is a DLC darling.) Bill Clinton and Al Gore are founding DLC members.

This Southern Disease has infected the entire nation, moving the country’s political center of gravity further rightward and southward, year after year. Labor and Blacks count fewer friends on Capitol Hill. Both groups find themselves accepting whatever crumbs they can get from whoever lives in the White House.

To fight the disease, labor must go straight to the source.

Of the 35 full voting members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), 16 represent districts in the Old Confederacy.  (The African American congressional delegates from Washington, DC and the U.S. Virgin Islands do not have full voting privileges.) That’s almost half of the CBC’s voting strength, and the only dependable, labor-friendly block in the region.

Despite the uncertainties of redistricting, the CBC is likely to become increasingly southern. However, Black seats are not automatically labor seats, as became dramatically evident on June 25.

The Birmingham Debacle

The SEIU's Patricia Ford observes that African Americans in congress have, until now, "intuitively" voted pro-labor, even when their support is unappreciated. "They usually vote on behalf of working families. They themselves often come from working families."

Ford knows the math. "From a congressional perspective, in terms of who supports a labor agenda, you will find the Black Caucus supports a labor agenda more frequently than any other caucus, about 90% of the time," said Ford. "These are largely congresspersons from the South. But, labor has taken them for granted."

Disaster struck on Tuesday, June 25, in the heart of Alabama's Black belt. In a run-off primary election, five-term Representative Earl Hilliard was trounced by an African American challenger with pockets full of right wing cash (including many thousands of dollars from zealots of the pro-Israel lobby.) Hilliard was overwhelmed, despite the desperate efforts of Black Caucus members and a few unions - notably SEIU.

Hilliard's excellent labor record could not save him from the onslaught of money, largely because the full weight of labor's resources had not been brought to bear. The accumulated decades of union inactivity took their toll. When Arthur Davis, a young former district attorney, takes office, he will owe organized labor nothing.

It should now be clear that the battle is not just about electing more African Americans in the South. Unions must work to shape community infrastructures that can resist the power of money.

Labor must also convince white southern Democrats to change their ways; to stop, in effect, running away from Black voter's concerns-the DLC's electoral formula. Money is, of course, a very convincing commodity, and labor isn't broke, yet. However, there is no substitute for grassroots organizing, a labor resource that the boss's money can't buy.

Veteran organizer Wade Rathke senses a change in the climate: "The limits of greed are about to be reached. The level of greed and corruption is just disgusting to people. In the South, it is even more stark."

Black receptivity to unionism is a fact-Black women are treasures, in this regard. White southerners tell pollsters of their willingness to join union ranks. Experience has taught us that the Hispanic workers pouring into Dixie are amenable to unions. The region is rich with potential. Only the law - and lack of political will - stands in the way.

Southerners have experience with changing laws.

Labor has been loosing on the southern front, by default. Union paymasters must mobilize their organizers like never before, and send them South. As Rathke puts it, “When you get ready to organize the South, be ready for a fight.”


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