Published by EH.NET (August 2005)

Timothy J. Minchin, Fighting against the Odds: A History of Southern Labor since World War II. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2005. xiv + 232 pp. $59.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8130-2790-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gerald Friedman, Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

If the United States is “exceptional,” it is because of the South. At the end of World War II, politics and labor relations in the northern states of the United States resembled those of the United Kingdom or continental Europe with a unionization rate of about 40 percent in the northern U.S. and a New Deal Democratic Party that favored national health insurance and an economic bill of rights similar to the program of European Labor and Socialist Parties. It was the low unionization rate and reactionary political climate of the Southern that has made the United States different. Reactionary southern politics has pulled the American political economy to the right, preventing the establishment of a European-style social welfare state and undermining unionization and union wages in the rest of the United States.

Timothy Minchin explores one element of southern exceptionalism, the weakness of southern unions. This is an old problem; as far back as the late-nineteenth century, southern labor unions were relatively weak compared with their northern counterparts. But southern union weakness became particularly conspicuous after rapid union growth in the 1930s established strong unions throughout the North. Union weakness denied southern workers the benefits of union organization. By keeping down southern wages it preserved a wide North-South wage differential and limited southern social welfare benefits. It also endangered the wage and political gains made by northern unions. This made southern unionization, as a prominent union leader quoted by Minchin declared in 1949: “the most important organizational problem facing the CIO today” (p. 185).

Minchin recounts some of the efforts made to address this problem by building southern unions, including both campaigns by northern-based unions and those by southern workers themselves. Most of these efforts failed. In 1946, the CIO launched a million-dollar campaign, dubbed “Operation Dixie,” to organize Southern industry. After recounting the failure of Operation Dixie, he describes continuing union campaigns, including efforts by textile unions to organize southern textiles, with major drives at Cannon Mills and J. P. Stevens, and the United Auto Workers’ efforts to organize foreign-owned plants in the South. Most of these failed, pointing the way to the collapse of many private sector unions in the 1980s. Among the few successes Minchin describes were organizing drives among public-sector workers, including the Memphis sanitation workers, whose “I Am a Man” campaign drew Martin Luther King there for his last public appearance before his assassination. But even in the public sector, unions have been less successful in the South than in the North.

Again and again, Minchin describes how unions were defeated by hostile employers for whom “anti-unionism had practically replaced racism as the South’s signature prejudice” (p. 183). Union drives were stymied by personal appeals by employers, the layoff of union activists, and threats to close plants rather than sign a union contract. Anti-union employers were supported by politicians committed to bring industry south, by clergy, whose churches were often subsidized by anti-union employers, and by police and vigilantes who assaulted and abused union activists and organizers. The support of northern unions and Civil Rights activists helped a few unions to overcome this entrenched opposition. But, more often, southern reaction carried the day, leaving the South a low wage enclave within the United States economy; and a region suffering from a terminal democratic deficit.

Minchin shows how racism reinforced southern anti-unionism. Repeatedly, union campaigns were defeated when white workers refused to join with black workers after employers threatened that a union would force them to relinquish racist privileges. Minchin’s story is not all tragedy, however, because he does not focus exclusively on organized labor’s defeats. He also describes the success of the Civil Rights movement, successes achieved through the collective struggle of African-American workers. The Civil Rights movement and the enactment of national legislation forced employers to open more occupations to black workers, to integrate workplaces and their facilities, to grant African-American workers equal pay, and to treat them with a certain dignity. But even these successes, hard won and valuable as they are, were more limited than had first appeared. Many of the jobs African-Americans won in the 1970s disappeared in the 1980s soon with deindustrialization and the relocation of work to outside the United States.

Minchin’s book is largely old-school labor history, focused on unions and collective action by workers without regard for any broader economic or social context or the experience of workers outside of unions. This obviously limits the book as a study of southern labor; and the book is certainly not a study of southern social or economic development. This narrow focus limits the book as a study of southern unions because it leaves unexplained the extraordinary and united hostility of southern political and social elites to unions and their willingness to tolerate openly illegal actions against unions. I suspect that the South’s political and social leaders gave business a free hand against labor because they sought to raise southern income by attracting outside investment capital to work with low-wage southern workers. This “low-road” development strategy accommodated elite opposition to taxes. But investments in education and social infrastructure are needed for an alternative development strategy of encouraging local entrepreneurship and attracting outside investment to work with a skilled labor force.

Low-road development required a consistent anti-union stance to keep wages down because lower wages were the only reason industry was attracted to a region with poorly educated workers and poor social capital. While allowing some parts of the South to lure foot-loose northern industry, the low-road has proven a poor long-term development strategy because it cannot insulate these areas from other low-wage competition. Continued failure to invest in human or social capital has left much of the South with little to offer except unspecialized labor at low wages, labor no better than that offered at even lower wages in Mexico, Latin America, East Asia, and now China. By contrast, successful southern regions, like North Carolina’s research triangle or the Atlanta area, developed local industry and attracted outside transplants by creating a skilled, workforce in an attractive environment. Chapel Hill, Charlotte, or Atlanta resemble Boston, New York, or San Jose economically because they followed a high-road development strategy emphasizing creative and efficient labor supported by investments in human and social capital. By developing local specialties, the high-road strategies followed in these northern and southern regions insulated them from the low-wage competition that decimated Southern textiles and other industries in the 1980s and 1990s.

Minchin’s book says little about these larger issues. This is unfortunate because without a deeper analysis his study is a chronological review of the familiar story of southern unionism’s defeats. This journalistic recapitulation is nicely done, and would be recommended for undergraduates and as a review for specialists. But there still remains room for a major study of southern exceptionalism.

Gerald Friedman is co-editor of the journal Labor History.