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This Day in Labor History: September 22, 1946

[ 22 ] September 22, 2012 |

On September 22, 1946, the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural & Allied Workers of America (FTA) reached a contract agreement with the Piedmont Tobacco Company, marking an early victory in the CIO’s Operation Dixie campaign.

In the aftermath of the World War II, the Congress of Industrial Organizations wanted to expand American unionism to southern factory work. It faced a huge problem in doing this–a problem it had experienced in northern unionized factories–racial animosity at the workplace. Could class solidarity overcome the combined enemies of racial prejudice and employer race-baiting? The CIO bet that it could. Moreover, the CIO knew it had better work because it could see the writing on the wall. It knew that companies were already looking for cheap, nonunion labor in the South. If it couldn’t organize the South, then what was already happening in the textile industry would decimate American unions throughout the North.

As the CIO was planning Operation Dixie, tobacco workers in Winston-Salem, North Carolina went on strike. The tobacco leaf houses were highly segregated workplaces. The CIO knew it could not organize the South without breaking down segregation at work. Among the most segregated workplaces were the tobacco factories. Low-wage black labor made up the majority of the workforce for the job of stripping tobacco leaves from the stems, a difficult process to mechanize.

One of the largest factories was the R.J. Reynolds factory in Winston-Salem. Workers had joined Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural & Allied Workers of America in 1943, winning collective bargaining rights and giving African-American workers access to political power for the first time since the white supremacist crushing of the biracial Populist coalition in eastern North Carolina at the end of the 19th century. The FTA was a radical union with significant connections to communists in the North and a deep commitment to fighting for class inequalities and racial prejudice.

By 1946, R.J. Reynolds was an extremely profitable company as it fully benefited from the postwar economic boom. Workers around the nation were striking for better wages since their earning power had been so negatively effected by inflation and price controls stemming back to 1942. The contract the FTA signed in 1943 was up that May and the union determined to fight for better rights for all its workers. Local 22 had several demands–reduction of racial inequity in wages, paid holidays, and a seniority system that would prevent the company from eliminating areas of the workforce strongly union through mechanization. In fact, R.J. Reynolds had been doing just that–since the 1943 contract, the company had invested heavily into stemming technologies to undermine the black union militants in that job. In 1945, RJ Reynolds employed 3533 workers in the stemmeries. In 1946, that number had fallen to 1415. Nearly every one of those laid off workers was a black union member.

At first, R.J. Reynolds refused to negotiate on any issue, especially the seniority system. But fearful of a strike affecting the opening of the yearly tobacco markets, the company flinched when Local 22 called for a strike to begin on July 15. The company caved on most issues, including taking power away from foremen to play workers off each other through granting arbitrary raises to workers they liked.

That was the easy part. The independent tobacco houses were even more intransigent. Attention focused on the Piedmont Tobacco Company. Growing militant leadership at the small leaf houses were ready to provide a strong challenge to racial segregation and poor pay and working conditions in these companies. The union and its supporters believed that the intransigence of the small companies came from racial prejudice, with executives angry that black workers had gained rights. One small company fell on July 31, signing a contract with Local 22. The other companies attempted to hold out. Strikers marched in downtown Winston-Salem, showing pictures of the shacks where they lived on their placards, asking onlookers, “Would you like to live here?”

The strike continued. On August 23, the police cracked down. A truck broke the picket line. The police facilitated this but didn’t give the strikers time to move. The strikers fought back. One, a woman named Margaret DeGraffenreid, was arrested and beaten, suffering a head injury. Reynolds workers joined the fray and scuffles with police broke out along the line, fights that were essentially racial in nature. 3 workers, including a writer for The Workers’ Voice, a communist newspaper out of New York, were sentenced to hard labor.

Despite this repression, the black workers of Winston-Salem continued pressing on. They worked with the largely white farmers of the North Carolina Farm Bureau to build a farmer-worker alliance. Despite the racial tensions that I’m sure were there, it was so much in the interests of the tobacco farmers to get their crops to market, that the Farm Bureau put pressure on the leaf companies to agree to a contract.

On September 22, the FTA and Piedmont signed a contract that was a minor victory for the union–no union shop (although the companies were 90% unionized at this point), but some wage hikes and the first paid holidays these workers ever had–July 4, Labor Day, and Christmas. But the fact that they even agreed to a contract in the first place was an important victory.

After winning in Winston-Salem, the union expanded quickly through the tobacco factories of North Carolina, winning 22 of 24 union elections, a total of around 10,000 workers. The CIO officially announced Operation Dixie in its aftermath, sending 200 organizers around the South to organize the region on an industrial basis.

Ultimately, Operation Dixie failed, a topic that will receive attention again in this series. Despite the early victory in Winston-Salem an the other regional tobacco factories, McCarthyism and Taft-Hartley combined to destroy Operation Dixie and undermine CIO radicalism. The northern communists the CIO relied upon for organizers and publicists were expelled from the labor movement. The right to work rules in the Taft-Hartley Act gave southern states a major tool to beat back the incipient unionization they faced during Operation Dixie. Without the radical edge, there really wasn’t much of a reason for the CIO to exist independently of the American Federation of Labor, leading to their reunion in 1955. And the strike didn’t really lead to long-term unionization of the leaf factories. With the ejection of the communists from the FTA, the CIO sought to undermine its own union to purge the left. In 1950, divided, R.J. Reynolds busted the union entirely.

All in all then, the defeat of Operation Dixie is a fundamental moment in the history of American labor’s decline. Maybe it didn’t have to be that way.

Much of the information for this post comes from Robert Korstad’s Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South. You should read this book.

This is the 42nd post in this series. You can read the rest of the series here.

Comments (22)

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  1. Peter Hovde says:

    So I’m guessing this galvanized the Dixiecrats to push for Taft-Hartley?

  2. William Burns says:

    I think you mean “fighting against class inequalities and racial prejudice.”

  3. DrDick says:

    Race baiting and red baiting have long been the finest tools of American capital in its ongoing efforts to immiserate labor and render it totally dependent.

  4. David Kaib says:

    Taft-Hartley was a Jim Crow law. That it’s completely uncontroversial at this point is disturbing.

  5. stjust says:

    150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation
    The Emancipation Proclamation turned the Civil War into a social revolution. It transformed the struggle, waged by the North until then as a war to preserve the Union as it had existed in 1860, into a war for the destruction of slavery and the social and political order that rested upon it…

    In England, mass demonstrations were held in support of the Union in spite of the fact that a Union blockade had brought the “Cotton Famine” and mass unemployment in the British mills. At one of these demonstrations a resolution was passed by “The Working People of Manchester” declaring that emancipation “will cause the name of Abraham Lincoln to be honoured and revered by posterity.”

    Lincoln quickly wrote back, acknowledging “the sufferings which the working people of Manchester and in all Europe are called to endure in this crisis.” He thanked “the Workingmen of Manchester” for their “decisive utterance upon the question.” The letter was delivered by Charles Francis Adams, ambassador to Britain and grandson of founding father John Adams…

    http://www.wsws.org/articles/2012/sep2012/pers-s22.shtml

  6. cpinva says:

    it’s no surprise that racial animosity was a critical factor in the tobacco companies, tobacco was the crop that solidified slavery as an institution in the colonies, va first.

    tobacco was the crop that gave the southern colonies economic survival, but it required massive amounts of land, and was incredibly labor intensive. thus, the need for

    1. huge plantations, to replace the land worn out by growing tobacco., and

    2. cheap labor. slaves filled the bill.it was tobacco, as the first major cash crop in the new world (even james II couldn’t stand it, described it as a “vile, noxious weed”. maybe he wasn’t all bad.), that spurred expansion west, in a continued search for new growing land. cotton and rice would come later, also needing large tracts of land, and massive amounts of cheap labor.

    • Peter Hovde says:

      Not cheap labor, bonded labor-free laborers would not stay on the plantation when they could go and start farms of their own after driving off the original inhabitants, who had been decimated by European diseases. Indentured workers filled the bill for a while, before the move to slavery.

    • firefall says:

      I thought that was James I you’re referring to (as far as I can tell, James II really WAS that bad).

  7. cpinva says:

    btw, this is an excellent series, i’ve recommended it to my son’s history instructors at his college. since my son is majoring in history (don’t ask, i love history, but…………), i thought this series could be a nice, non-formal additive.

  8. Gareth Wilson says:

    Local 22 had several demands–reduction of racial inequity in wages,

    Right on!

    paid holidays,

    Preach it, brother!

    and a seniority system that would prevent the company from eliminating areas of the workforce strongly union through mechanization.

    Aaaand you lost me. So the union demanded to slow down technological progress to preserve jobs for its members. That’s certainly an interesting piece of labour history, but I hope you’re not presenting it as a good thing. If you are, what present-day technology would you ban to preserve union jobs?

    • Mark says:

      I’m pretty sure the point of this is that those to be made redundant by mechanization should be selected by seniority, not by union affiliation or lack thereof.

    • David Kaib says:

      What piece of technology that would make it cheaper to produce tobacco would you have been willing to trade for continuing Jim Crow?

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Example 1 million of Americans’ technology fetish blinding us to all other considerations.

      • Gareth Wilson says:

        I’m not an American. I carry around a technological artifact at all times, because I could die if I can’t get to it. Now, it’s possible that unions have never used violence to try and supress the particular technology I depend on, like they tried to supress modern typesetting software. But I can’t help taking a dim view of any campaign against a technological advance.

        • DrDick says:

          Then I am absolutely certain that you feel equally strongly about management’s staunch resistance to technological innovations that would save lives, as at the Massey coal mine, or even the planet, as with car mileage standards and reductions of pollution. Right?

        • Hogan says:

          How about a campaign against using a technological advance as a not very opaque cover for union busting?

          • Gareth Wilson says:

            It’s possible that the technology naturally busts the union, isn’t it? There’s a difference between deliberate union-busting for profit and technological obsolescence. Even in a Communist state, you’d eventually want the journalists to be able to directly typeset articles, and you wouldn’t keep employing the useless middlemen.

            • Hogan says:

              “Naturally”? I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

              Sure, not all work is worth preserving; there is work that destroys souls and minds and bodies, and the sooner we can mechanize that work the better, ceteris paribus. Unfortunately in this country, the distribution of power between employers and employees is not a ceterus that is paribus. What happens to the people displaced by technology is not the employer’s or the government’s problem. The union was trying in an indirect way to address that problem, because collective bargaining doesn’t offer a way to address it directly. (A communist state would address it directly: either find the displaced workers other work, or support them until other work becomes available.)

  9. [...] of Sleeping Car Porters September 2, 1885–Rock Springs Massacre September 22, 1946–Tobacco workers win contract in North Carolina, starting CIO’s Operation Dixie campaign. October 23, 1976–International Woodworkers of America Local 3-101 holds a monthly union [...]

  10. [...] September 22, 1946: Tobacco workers win contract in North Carolina, starting CIO’s Operation Dixie campaign [...]

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