Friday, March 1, 2024

Organizing the South--Building success by learning from the victories of the 1930s and the failures of Operation Dixie in the late 1940s and early 1950s

(Sidney Hillman)

At the beginning of the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ “Operation Dixie” campaign to organize the U.S. South in 1946, Sidney Hillman, the leader of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, called the South “a venture into unplowed fields.”


Nearly 80 years later, organized labor has vowed finally to plow those fields and plant seeds that will ultimately help build a new labor movement across the nation.


“Take heart, learn the lessons and apply them to your situation, and thing big,” former UE (United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America) Director of Organizing Ed Bruno told participants from across the South in a Southern Workers Assembly online discussion Thursday, February 29.


Indeed, the United Auto Workers, fresh off its Stand Up Strike victories with General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis in 2023, has pledged $40 million to organize non-union auto plants, with a focus on the South. Results are already coming in. This month workers at both the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennesee, and the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama (that German company’s largest U.S. plant) announced majority support for unionizing.


They’re among some 10,000 non-union autoworkers signing union cards at 14 plants across the country.


After failed unionizing efforts at the Nissan plants in Mississippi and Tennessee and the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga in recent years, many wondered if the South would ever shake off its longheld distinction as the least-unionized region in the country, whether its “unplowed fields” will ever grow rich with a true harvest of its underpaid, overworked laborers.


After what has been dubbed “The Year of the Strike” in 2023 with UAW victories at the Big Three, nationwide organizing at Starbucks cafes (Starbucks has finally agreed to stop opposing unionization), in hospitals and on college campuses across the land, workers have a new confidence. The pandemic and record corporate profits also helped create a new worker consciousness, and polls show public support for unions at its highest level since the 1960s.


 “We’ve learned that we can’t trust Mercedes with our best interests,” Mercedes-Benz workers in Vance, Alabama, said in their announcement of majority union support this month. Citing the company’s “record profits”, widespread use and abuse of temporary workers, and imposition of a two-tier pay scale, the announcement continued, “There comes a time when enough is enough. Now is that time.”


At the Southern Workers Assembly Zoom session this week, Bruno and Jim Wrenn, a founding member of UE Local 150 at the Cummins Diesel Engine Plant in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, talked at length about the reasons behind the widely acknowledged failure of Operation Dixie between 1946 and 1953. The exploitation of divisions between black and white workers, the rank anti-communist demagoguery of the era, and inability of organizers to network campaigns at different plants in the region and work in solidarity rather than individually were all factors in the campaign never reaching its goals.


Bruno contrasted Operation Dixie with the massive pro-union surge in the mid-1930s that gave rise to the UAW and other unions, a high point in the history of organized labor in this country.


Five factors were key to the success of the 1930s labor movement, Bruno said:


1.     A committed cadre of organizers who were few in number but young and energized and who networked with other organizers. They were “not isolated.”

2.     A militant minority who “were fed up and ready to do something.”

3.     A high degree of class politics with pro-labor President Franklin D. Roosevelt leading the nation and powerful pro-labor forces in Congress and beyond.

4.     New rights as a result of the Wagner Act of 1935 and other legislation backing workers.

5.     The development of a “national voice” by strong labor leaders like John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers.


Workers today need to learn the lessons from successes and failures in the past, to work in solidarity with other workers who are struggling, to network, and build “corporate campaigns” that drive home their issues and demands to corporate headquarters, not just to local management, Bruno said.

(Philip Murray)


In 1946, CIO president Philip Murray called Operation Dixie “the most important drive of its kind ever undertaken by any labor organization in the history of the country.”


The new organizing campaign in the South in 2024 doesn’t have a name yet, but Murray’s words may very well still apply.