By Douglas Williams and Cato Uticensis
There are no fortresses for labor; no metaphorical stone walls behind which we can ride out the onslaught. MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina AFL-CIO, has said that we must “organize the South or die,” and she is correct. Without a concerted effort to organize in the states of the old Confederacy, there will be no labor movement within the next ten years, and all the gains for working people that brave men and women fought and bled and died for over the past century will be swallowed by rapacious corporate oligarchs bent on societal domination.
The notion that this is a crisis is an understatement. The destruction of PATCO, the air traffic controllers union, in 1981, was a crisis. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement by a unified Democratic federal government in 1993 was a crisis. What the union movement faces now is nothing less than a threat to the existence of unions in their present form, and with that comes a threat to the very basic minimums all workers in the United States can rely upon.
Operation Dixie was conceived because companies were shifting their operations from the heavily unionized North and Midwest to the South. The campaign focused on the burgeoning textile industry in the South, which stretched largely from the Carolinas through Alabama, as well as the wood products industries, such as lumber. The CIO committed 250 organizers and around $1 million in 1946 (about $12 million in current dollars) to set about organizing the largest firms. The organizers came from across the industrial spectrum, and the citizens’ committees utilized by local organizers were surprisingly diverse for the times, including workers from across the racial barriers, religious leaders, and recent veterans of the Second World War. It was a campaign that held much promise, and a victory in Operation Dixie would have gone a long way toward building a powerful labor movement in every corner of America. However, while there were some successes in organizing tobacco workers and workers in other smaller industries, the efforts to unionize the textile and lumber industries were largely failures.
Where did Operation Dixie go wrong? The organizers’ biggest mistake was underestimating the power of the alliance between law enforcement and industry. This alliance worked in numerous ways— detaining organizers, harassing pro-union workers, and refusing to prosecute crimes committed against both groups (including murder). The atmosphere of fear kept many workers from signing up for the union. Organizing workers across racial lines also encountered problems, as the CIO’s national commitment to interracial cooperation tended to fizzle at the ground level. And with the second Red Scare setting in, the unions most committed to cross-cultural organizing, such as the Food, Tobacco, and Agricultural Workers and the Fur and Leather Workers, were systematically booted from the CIO for their links to communism prior to the CIO’s reunion with the American Federation of Labor in 1955.
In some ways, we are still fighting the same battles in Southern labor today. The much-noted failure of the United Auto Workers (UAW) to organize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga (despite the recent chartering of a minority local at the plant), as well as the building of worker resentment against the UAW at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama, is emblematic of this. The defeat at VW was blamed in large part on the willingness of Republican elected officials at every level of government to lie and threaten the stability of jobs at the plant. As Mike Elk noted in his post-mortem piece on the organizing drive in In These Times, however, there was not a concerted effort by the UAW to engage progressive and community organizations.
If Southern politicking is anything, it is relational; folks down here require a fairly intimate rapport with organizers in order to buy into their vision. And with pro-union workers at the Mercedes plant lodging complaints about the UAW’s Alabama organizers’ inexperience and lack of regional connections, the fear of Chattanooga redux is palpable.
But it does not have to be this way. Delegates to the 2013 AFL-CIO convention passed Resolutions 16 and 26, which committed the labor umbrella to making a stronger push for Southern workers in addition to a more widespread engagement with community activism. If the UAW debacles in Chattanooga or Alabama have taught us anything, it should be that a Southern organizing plan that lacks a focus on community engagement and mobilizing workes is a guaranteed failure.
From Operation Dixie to Operation Mooney
What’s needed is a plan that is even more ambitious than the original Operation Dixie. As such, we propose Operation Mooney.
Operation Mooney is named after J.P. Mooney, an Alabama organizer for the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers. As the story goes, Mooney was handbilling outside of the textile plant in Avondale, Alabama (now part of the city of Birmingham), when a group of company police officers attacked him. Bruised and battered, Mooney returned to the plant the next day, where he was beaten once again, this time nearly to death. During his six weeks in the hospital, the company’s police chief commended Mooney for his bravery before informing him that his officers would shoot him if he returned to the plant. The day after he left the hospital, Mooney returned, leaflets in hand, to the entrance of the plant. In the next two weeks, he signed up every worker in the Avondale Mills plant, negotiated a contract, and placed a black worker on the local’s executive board.
The kind of commitment to workers and their communities that Mooney showed is what will be required to build a mass movement of workers in the South. To that end, we propose the following:
• The AFL-CIO should, over a six-month ramp-up period, hire one thousand organizers, drawn from existing rank-and-file activists and from young activists who support this kind of worker empowerment but whose experience is in political campaigns or community organizations.
• Experienced organizers already working for AFL-CIO affiliates or with extensive experience in the movement would be shifted over or hired on to this project to provide day-to-day supervision of organizers, with regular local oversight of this project performed by the Central Labor Councils. This would allow international unions to ensure that their specific concerns with regards to this project are addressed regularly, and it would give union workers direct oversight over this work.
• The AFL-CIO would commit to keeping the resources for this effort in place for no less than four years, after which the Executive Council would decide to re-authorize, modify, or end this project.
• Operation Mooney would work to cultivate relationships with faith leaders, local environmental organizations, and other progressive political organizations in the South to address the needs of workers outside of the workplace and in their homes and neighborhoods. It would also work to shepherd the expansion of alt-labor groups like Working America in the places where they operate
This is a monumental undertaking, and it will mean that other worthy efforts will go under-resourced while this project is operating, but there is no other way forward. Even with a Democratic president, a Democratic House, and a Democratic Senate, we could not achieve a basic labor law reform like the Employee Free Choice Act, while anti-union policies continue their march through state legislatures and into the lives of the workers they harm. Unless we rebuild our power in a big way, there is no way forward.
We make this proposal knowing full well the kind of resources it will require. It takes bold moves to counter bold foes, and foes like Art Pope, David and Charles Koch, Eli Broad, the Walton family, and other “malefactors of great wealth” are nothing if not bold. Without an ambitious undertaking like Operation Mooney, nothing can reverse (or even arrest) the labor movement’s accelerating decline.
The working class of the South deserves better than that.
Douglas Williams is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Alabama. He blogs at The South Lawn and Hack the Union, and can be found on Twitter at @DougWilliams85.
Cato Uticensis is the pseudonym of a union organizer working in the South. He likes barbecue, bourbon, cigars, and labor politics. He can be found on Twitter at @Cato_of_Utica.
An earlier version of this article appeared at The South Lawn. This article originally appeared in the fall 2014 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.
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