Training Organizers for a new Operation Dixie

by Douglas Williams and Cato Uticensis

Operation_DixieThe organizer has to play many roles on any campaign: manager, scheduler, healer, therapist, evangelist, and so much more. It is a job that stretches the limits of what seems possible for one human being to do, yet thousands of people wake up everyday and serve as the floor general or lieutenant for their party, their union, or their individual cause. When it comes to the labor movement, the organizer plays a key role in all aspects of growth. They are integral in bringing together enough workers to vote for the formation of a union, assisting in contract negotiation by pulling together a contract campaign, and then ongoing in some states to keep density on the shop floor up. Without dedicated organizers, the labor movement would be nowhere near as strong as it is today, if it even existed at all.

As such, when a primary criticism of our last piece (“A Call for a New Operation Dixie“) seemed to be that the lack of sufficient lead organizers to supervise the effort and the difficulty of getting hundreds of organizers up to speed for a operation of this size could make it infeasible, it was a criticism that we had to take seriously. The current training system can be described as an artisanal one: it trains excellent organizers in comparatively small quantities. For a new Operation Dixie to be successful, however, the labor movement must have the ability to raise a battalion of organizers in a relatively short period of time. The implementation of organizing cadres is an optimal solution to this potential issue facing a large-scale labor organizing operation in the South.

Continue reading

A Call for a Second Operation Dixie

by Douglas Williams and Cato Uticensis

TOperation_Dixiehere are no fortresses for labor; no metaphorical stone walls that we can shelter ourselves behind to try and ride out the onslaught. MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina AFL-CIO, said that we must “Organize the South or Die,” and she is absolutely correct. The fact of the matter is that without a deliberate, concerted effort to organize in the states of the old Confederacy, there will not be a labor movement worth speaking of 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 clawed back by rapacious corporate oligarchs bent on societal domination.

The notion that this is a crisis is massively underselling the problems facing labor, both organized and unorganized, right now. The destruction of PATCO, the air traffic controllers union, in 1981 was a crisis. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement through a unified Democratic federal government in 1993 was a crisis. The recent “Civil Wars in American Labor” between the Service Employees International Union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, and UNITE HERE were a crisis. What the union movement faces right now is not a crisis, it 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.

As we discussed in our previous piece, there is a cultural void in the South when it comes to labor. What we didn’t do is go into detail on why that is. There is a long and ignoble tradition in the South of active repression of workers organizing. Much of this tradition was exercised against the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the largest unionization drive in the South to date: Operation Dixie.

Operation Dixie was conceived because of a problem that may sound familiar to many today: companies were shifting their operations from the heavily unionized North and Midwest to the South, where unionism had comparatively not taken hold. The predominant focus of the campaign was on the burgeoning textile industry in the South, which stretched largely from the Carolinas through Alabama, as well as the wood products industry. The CIO committed 250 organizers and around $1 million in 1946 (about $12 million in 2013) to set about attacking the largest firms and the most recalcitrant workers within those firms. The organizers came from across the industrial spectrum, and the citizens’ committees were surprisingly diverse for the times, including workers from across the racial barrier, religious leaders, and recent veterans of World War II. It was a campaign that held much promise, and a victory in Operation Dixie would go a long way towards 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 effort to unionize the textile and wood products industries were largely dead by the end of 1946.

Continue reading

Creating a “culture of unionism” is essential for increasing labor density in the South

by Douglas Williams and Cato Uticensis

Douglas Williams

Douglas Williams

One of the difficulties of organizing in the South is that the struggles here frequently occur under a veil of invisibility due to the lack of pro-worker media down here. Barring major fights like the United Food and Commercial Workers’ (UFCW) fifteen-year long trench war against Smithfield Foods, where everything from cops on the company payroll to enterprise corruption lawsuits were used against the union, most of our battles do not gain much in the way of attention outside of the communities where they occur, and when there is coverage it is almost always skewed against the union. Even when unionized businesses hit hard times or close, the workers are never part of the story.

This cannot be entirely blamed on the media: Southern workers are trained by everything around them to see unions as a threat. Some of this is the fault of labor: The failure of Operation Dixie, the weak response by both the AFL and the CIO to the first right-to-work law in Florida in the early 1940s, and the ongoing lack of investment in organizing in the South by all unions feed this notion, but it’s only part of the story. The fact of the matter is that Southern workers tend to be culturally conservative. The CIO’s Operation Dixie and the fear of what the African-American community in the South would look like if it was organized drove the passage of Taft-Hartley and allowed right-to-work laws to proliferate rapidly across the former Confederacy. This was a successful attempt to weaken the labor movement, as it was a key ally to the Civil Rights Movement when it was gaining in momentum.

Continue reading

One Big Union: Why community engagement is needed for labor victories in the South

by Douglas Williams

Douglas Williams

Douglas Williams

It is funny. I had this blog post written out about how progressive communities in the South should support labor in all of these different ways, and why we must do better in our advocacy of working families. I had listed out all of these great ways that progressive communities could get involved in the labor movement, and that we should be more proactive and vocal in our support for better wages, better benefits, and a safer workplace.

Then I talked to my father.

“So one thing that I suggest is that progressives could have house parties to discuss labor issues in their community.”

“Oh. Well, who is going to be there to discuss the labor issues with the group?”

“Well, I just figured that the people would discuss it amongst themselves.”

“But didn’t your last post talk about the lack of communication in Southern labor? So you expect people to go from not having any information at all about the things that labor is doing in their area, to being able to host house parties? Is that realistic, son?”

DAMN.

He then kept asking me that same question: Who is going to discuss labor issues with the people at the house party? It is a perfectly good question to ask, so I did some cursory digging.

Continue reading

The Invisible Struggle: Why we need more pro-worker media in the South.

by Douglas Williams

Douglas Williams

Douglas Williams

On February 21st, The Century Foundation hosted a Twitter chat about ways that the labor movement can be strengthened (it was inspired by a series of articles in The Nation). It was a fun chat within the #u1nation Twitter hashtag, with people throwing out many ideas, including me:

Now, I know that there are campaigns going on down here; I am not so foolish as to think that organized labor is completely absent in the South. But the struggle for collective bargaining down here is largely invisible, outside of stories about foreign automakers locating here because of the lower union density here.

Continue reading