(Mother Jones, "The Miners' Angel")
Let’s have a bit of a roundup—from Biden’s misplaced sympathies to a progressive populist challenge in Mississippi--before we get down to the business of my recent talk to union members on “Labor and the South”:
Today is the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine, and the warmongers are rattling their sabers louder than ever and wanting more war. It's very telling that Joe Biden went to Kiev instead of East Palestine, Ohio, site of a recent environmental disaster that was brought on by the same pampered railroad industry he has allowed to profiteer at the expense of its workers and the American people.
Here, closer to home in Mississippi, populist Democrat Brandon Presley—yes, a relative of the late Elvis himself—has declared his candidacy for governor, challenging right-wing Republican incumbent Tate Reeves. More than three decades ago, I covered the then-very young Presley’s rousing speech at the fabled Neshoba County Fair endorsing fellow populist Democrat Wayne Dowdy’s ultimately unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate.
That speech launched a political career that led to Presley today being the state's highest elected Democrat as the Northern District public service commissioner. Though by no means a raging radical, he has well established his grassroots populist credentials, taking on the utilities again and again on behalf of the people. So far he’s ahead of the widely disliked Reeves in the polls, but Reeves commands a formidable $5 million war chest in a deeply conservative state.
Now to the business of the day. Earlier this month, I gave a short talk to members of the United Campus Workers/Communications Workers of America Local 3565 on the University of Mississippi campus about a favorite topic: “Labor and the South”. Here is the draft of my discussion, which I’m going to leave in the original caps of my prepared remarks and with my marked emphases if you don’t mind. I take a look at labor’s past, present, and future in the U.S. South:
THE SOUTH HAS A LONG, RICH HISTORY OF LABOR THAT GOES BACK TO THE KNIGHTS OF LABOR AT THE END OF THE 19TH CENTURY, A UNION THAT ANTICIPATED THE FUTURE CIA IN SEEKING BOTH SKILLED AND NON-SKILLED WORKERS—INCLUDING COAL MINERS, TURPENTINE WORKERS, AND DOCKYARD WORKERS IN THE SOUTH--AND WHICH HELD A BI-RACIAL CONVENTION IN RICHMOND, VA., IN 1886 THAT INCURRED THE WRATH OF THE LOCAL AND REGIONAL PRESS. THE HAYMARKET AFFAIR ON MAY DAY IN CHICAGO THAT SAME YEAR EFFECTIVELY ENDED THE KNIGHTS BUT SET THE STAGE FOR THE LATER RISE OF THE INDUSTRIAL WORKERS OF THE WORLD (IWW) AND EVEN LATER THE CIO.
THE 20TH CENTURY BEGAN WITH MOTHER JONES’ ORGANIZING OF COAL MINERS IN APPALACHIA, THEN A COUPLE DECADES LATER CAME STRIKES BY TEXTILE WORKERS IN THE CAROLINAS AND TENANT FARMERS AND SHARECROPPERS IN ARKANSAS AND BEYOND, HUGE PROTESTS AGAINST THE BIG TEXTILE MAGNATES AND COTTON PLANTATION OWNERS, LABOR HEROES LIKE COTTON MILL TROUBADOUR AND MARTYR ELLA MAY WIGGINS, SOME VICTORIES AND SOME BRUTAL LOSSES. LATER THE CREATION OF THE HIGHLANDER SCHOOL IN TENNESSEE GAVE NEW HOPE TO RAISING WORKER CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE SOUTH.
(To the right, Ella May Wiggins)
OPERATION DIXIE IN THE LATE 1940S AND EARLY 1950S WAS A HUGE EFFORT TO ORGANIZE THE SOUTH AND SCORED VICTORIES IN PLACES LIKE THE MASONITE PLANT IN LAUREL, MISSISSIPPI, BUT IT ULTIMATELY FAILED AMID THE HYPED-UP-ANTI-COMMUNISM WITCHHUNTS THAT CHARACTERIZED THAT TIME. UNIONS ACROSS THE LAND STRIPPED THEMSELVES OF THEIR MOST MILITANT AND HARD-WORKING ORGANIZERS.
THIS NEW CENTURY BEGAN WITH A HUGE LABOR VICTORY BY THE INTERNATIONAL LONGSHOREMEN’S ASSOCIATION LOCAL 1422 IN CHARLESTON, S.C., AFTER THEIR STRIKE FORCED THE DANISH NORDANA SHIPPING LINE TO RETURN TO HIRING UNION WORKERS. THE VICTORY CAME NOT, HOWEVER, WITHOUT A BRUTAL COURT BATTLE.
MORE RECENTLY, THE FAILURE OF UNION CAMPAIGNS AT THE NISSAN PLANTS IN TENNESSEE AND MISSISSIPPI AND THE AMAZON PLANT IN BESSEMER, ALABAMA, HAVE RESURRECTED THE OLD “THE SOUTH IS ANTI-UNION” MANTRA. SOUTHERN WORKERS FACE WHAT I’VE LONG CALLED A PHALANX OF OPPOSITION THAT NOT ONLY INCLUDES MANAGEMENT AND OWNERSHIP BUT ALSO THE POLITICAL LEADERSHIP, THE MEDIA, THE COURTS, AND EVEN MANY OR MOST CHURCHES.
STILL, YOU CAN’T KILL AN IDEA.
TECHNICIANS AT THE NISSAN PLANT IN SMYRNA, TENNESSEE, JUST GOT NLRB APPROVAL TO VOTE ON JOINING A UNION. THE SOUTHERN WORKERS ASSEMBLY IS HOSTING A “SOUTHERN WORKER SCHOOL’ IN CHARLOTTE, NC, IN APRIL. THE UE (THE UNITED, ELECTRICAL, RADIO & MACHINE WORKERS OF AMERICA), ONE OF THE MOST DYNAMIC UNIONS IN LABOR HISTORY, HAS WORKED WITH THE ASSEMBLY AND HELPED ORGANIZE WORKERS IN THE CAROLINAS IN RECENT DECADES. MY FORMER STUDENT JAZ BRIZACK HAS LED THE CHARGE TO ORGANIZE STARBUCKS WORKERS ACROSS THE COUNTRY, INCLUDING IN MEMPHIS AND EVEN HERE IN OXFORD, MISSISSIPPI. KELLOGG WORKERS IN MEMPHIS AND OTHER CITIES ENDED THEIR 77-DAY STRIKE IN LATE 2021 WITH A NEW CONTRACT THAT INCLUDED COST-OF-LIVING RAISES AND BETTER WORKING CONDITIONS. NURSES IN ASHEVILLE, NC, SUCCESSFULLY ORGANIZED DESPITE OPPOSITION FROM ONE OF THE NATION’S GIANT HEALTH CARE COMPANIES. THE FARM LABOR ORGANIZING COMMITTEE AND COALITION OF IMMOKALEE WORKERS HAVE WON SIGNIFICANT GAINS FOR MIGRANT FARM WORKERS FROM FLORIDA TO NORTH CAROLINA. IN NOVEMBER A NEW UNION, THE UNION OF SOUTHERN SERVICE WORKERS, CAME INTO BEING IN ALABAMA, GEORGIA, AND THE CAROLINAS. LET’S NOT FORGET THE UNITED CAMPUS WORKERS’ OWN VICTORY IN THE PUBLIC UNIVERSITY SYSTEM IN TENNESSEE A FEW YEARS BACK, PREVENTING A MASSIVE PRIVATIZATION EFFORT LED BY THE GOVERNOR. THE COVID PANDEMIC HELPED RAISE CONSCIOUSNESS OF WORKERS RIGHTS ACROSS THE COUNTRY—FROM NURSES TO TEACHERS TO COFFEE SHOP WORKERS.
WORKERS IN THE SOUTH, AS ACROSS THE COUNTRY, NEED TO KNOW THEY CAN’T RELY ON THE MAJOR POLITICAL PARTIES, AND THAT INCLUDES THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY, FOR CONSISTENT SUPPORT. EVEN THEIR OWN NATIONAL UNION LEADERSHIP HAS TOO OFTEN COMPROMISED AND GOTTEN TOO USED TO THE BENEFITS OF COSY RELATIONSHIPS WITH POLITICIANS—WITNESS THE BREWING REVOLUTIONS IN OLD UNIONS LIKE THE UNITED AUTO WORKERS AND THE TEAMSTERS. UNIONS NEED GRASSROOTS ORGANIZING AND A MILITANT COMMITMENT TO TAKE ON THE EXISTENTIAL CHALLENGES ORGANIZERS HAVE ALWAYS FACED. THE SOUTH HAS LONG BEEN THE KEY TO A RESURGENT LABOR MOVEMENT IN THIS COUNTRY. THAT’S A MOVEMENT THAT SERVES ALL WORKERS, REGARDLESS OF RACE.
(Martin Luther King Jr.)
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. SAW THE IMPORTANCE OF A MOVEMENT THAT IMPROVES THE LIVES OF ALL WORKING PEOPLE, AND THAT’S ONE REASON HE CAME TO MEMPHIS IN 1968 TO SUPPORT THE STRIKING SANITATION WORKERS. THAT’S A PART OF THE KING LEGACY YOU DON’T HEAR DURING CELEBRATIONS OF HIS LIFE AND DURING BLACK HISTORY MONTH. IT’S A LEGACY OF DR. KING THAT WE NEED TO EMBRACE AS WELL AS REMEMBER.