ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Blacks, Unions, & Organizing in the South, 1956-1996
A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY
Compiled by Rudolph Lewis
DIXIE’S REACTION TO MEANY
Union Drive Fizzles in South
By Ed Townsend
Christian Science Monitor (ca. February 1956)
Two months ago the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations outlined plans for a vast new organizing campaign. Backed by plenty of manpower and money, the drive had as its principal target the unorganized South.
The organization plans have been filed away now. The strong statements by George Meany, president of AFL-CIO, and other federation spokesmen who favor racial integration have so antagonized southern workers that most unions have deferred indefinitely the hard and costly job of trying to sign them up.
Here is why:
The Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union had membership cards from a claimed 255 of the employees of a Birgmingham department store in February and was making what it considered steady progress toward a spring representation election. The day after Mr. Meany issued a statement in Miami Beach demanding a federal probe of school desegregation in Alabama, RWDSU’s campaign collapsed. Its organizers were told coldly to “tear up the cards” by those who already had signed up; others refused to have anything to do with “an organization that is fighting us” and that advocated “mixing the races” in the South.
In Charleston, the United Textile Workers was making progress toward unionizing employees of Manhattan Raybestos about the same time. In the wave of resentment against the AFL-CIO integration stand, UTW’s support dwindled away to almost nothing. Its drive also collapsed.
More recently, the Textile Workers Union of America was one day away from an expected victory in a National Labor Relations Board representation election in the Carolinas when racism flared up. The employer walked through the all-white mill with a Negro in overalls, pointing out machines and explaining the production operation. When they had left, a foreman told workers, “That’s your new foreman when the union comes in.” TWUA took a solid drubbing.
Those are typical incidents. They point up two things that stand in the way of union expansion in the South today:
1. Because of the racial issue, workers in southern states (all less than 25 per cent organized by unions) are now more than ever wary of unionism; they fear that top-level labor pressure for integration in schools will be followed, eventually, by pressure for full social and economic integration–including equal opportunity for employment.
2. The racial issue furnishes those employers who want to fight unionism with a potent weapon. To the unions, the first of these is the more important. Federal labor laws provide some degree of protection against the second, even though where a racial-equality issue is raised–as in the Carolina cotton mill–“coercion” in the accepted sense may be difficult to prove. NLRB has held in the past that color cannot be considered as a factor in designating members of a bargaining unit.
Generally, AFL-CIO isn’t doing any organizing now in the South, although it has more than $4 million available and some 320 organizers ready. The delay is due as much to jurisdiction squabbles between textile, paper, wood, and other rival unions in the federation as to racial tension.
The United Rubber Workers still is organizing–and claims some recent successes–but it acknowledges that “problems” are being encountered. TWUA also is staying busy in the textile industry, and making limited gains, but its staff people admit that they are not sure “how long we’ll be able to go on as we have–it depends a lot on local situations.” The United Steelworkers is about at a standstill.
A United Automobile Workers spokesman in Detroit said his organization in immobilized, adding, “When you have a fire in your house, you stop building an annex until you put it out.” UAW has been troubled by a revolt in its International Harvester local in Memphis.
James Dicey, vice president of the International Woodworkers, one of the unions hoping for AFL-CIO aid in the South, recently returned to Portland, Ore., after a three-month study of the racial tensions on union activities in Dixie. He commented guardly that “racism is naturally going to hurt union organizing over the long pull . . . I don’t mind telling you I am worried at what is taking place.”
Union by union, that is the story today. An AFL-CIO representative in Arkansas said flatly that in his state–less affected by racial tensions so far than the others below Mason and Dixon’s line–expectations of organizing gains have been cut 50 per cent for this year. In other states, such an estimate is called “optimistic” by union leaders.
One said candidly that labor will be “lucky to hold what it has through this year, much less gain anything.” Others appear to agree, although few are willing to admit the possibility of lost membership as well as lost headway.
But, as in the case of secession talk, which generally is discounted, the souhtern union heads are not particularly worried at this time about long-range prospects. They expect racial tension to continue to hold back labor through the remainder of politically active 1956, with prosegregation and prointegration forces fanning the flames of discord. But–again, barring further inflammatory incidents–they expect labor progress in the South to begin picking up again by the spring of 1957.
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update 24 July 2008
Related: Dept. of Organizing