(To the right, Anne Feeney)
The American Labor Movement lost one of its greatest troubadours this week to Covid, Anne Feeney, the Pittsburgh songbird, activist, protester, and granddaughter of a violin-playing, labor organizing mineworker. A trained lawyer as well as musician, she once lamented how workers in this country have lost a sense of labor tradition.
“So many lessons that we have learned—both bitter and glorious—are remembered in labor songs,” she wrote in a May 2008 column in The Guild Reporter. “One of the reasons we don’t know our history is because we don’t know our songs.”
Knowing history is to know that movements rise from the bottom up, not the top down. “Professionals, politicians and philanthropists are helpless to effect social change without mass movements behind them. … France has a fantastic labor movement even though its union density is lower than ours. But French workers have something that we do not have—class consciousness. This is something that has been drilled out of us by corporate America.”
A lot of labor buzz has been created by Democrat Joe Biden’s rise to the presidency. Calling himself “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen,” Biden has promised that “unions are going to have increased power.”
As Anne Feeney told us, however, real power is going to depend on grassroots organization and mobilization. Here in the South, where workers have always faced what I call the “phalanx” of opposition by big business, politicians, religious leaders, and corporate media, such grassroots efforts have been paying off, paying off in a region with a proud-but-tortured-and-largely hidden labor history and one with its own strong musical tradition as well.
On Feb. 8, the 5,805 workers at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse will begin receiving ballots on whether to vote in the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Although Amazon’s facilities in places like Germany and elsewhere in Europe are fully organized, the company is fighting like hell to make sure its Bessemer warehouse stays non-union. A pro-union vote in the Deep South, of all places, might inspire workers at other U.S. Amazon sites to go union. It’s enough to make billionaire Jeff Bezos have nightmares even if he’s relinquishing some of the reins of his power.
Organizers at Bessemer are “cautiously optimistic,” as people like to say when they want to remain clear-eyed even as they see rays of hope. Workers get paid comparatively well at the plant, but many feel the company needs to do more to protect them during the pandemic and that management makes too many arbitrary decisions about shifts and working hours without notice to employees.
Farm workers in the South these days tend to come from Mexico or farther south, and that makes them the most vulnerable of workers. Federal programs like the H-2A visa program put them under the control of employers who too easily and without consequence break promises on wages as well as living and working conditions. In recent years, however, organizations such as the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and Southern Migrant Legal Services have used class-action lawsuits and pressure tactics on the long-insulated corporations that contract with growers and buy the products the workers produce to achieve significant gains for those workers—better wages and a better system to voice and resolve complaints.
As reported earlier in Labor South, nurses at Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, overwhelmingly won their union drive last September, a historic milestone for the allegedly anti-union South. Over the past 10 years, union membership here in Mississippi grew 2.6 percent, according to the Institute for Southern Studies' Facing South. Neighboring Louisiana saw a 1.6 percent increase. The Carolinas saw increases from 2019 to 2020.
(Ella May Wiggins, martyred labor troubadour and activist during the textile mill strikes in North Carolina in the 1920s)
What if these workers knew more about Southern labor heroes like Ella May Wiggins, Mother Jones, Lucy Randolph Mason, Howard Kester, Scipio Jones, H.L. Mitchell, or songsters like John L. Handcox, Hazel Dickens, Florence Reece, and Zachary Richard? They’re not taught in the classroom or played on the radio, but watch out once their words and their music are heard. There’s a newly arrived songbird in heaven who knows what would happen.