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.