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Southern Masculinity and the UAW Defeat in Chattanooga

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Mike Elk’s long piece on southern white masculinity and the defeat of the UAW in Chattanooga is well worth your time. There’s a long history in the South of working-class whites showing political deference to their social and financial superiors and it came to play again in Chattanooga. This deference is based on ideas of masculinity that promote individualism for yourself but loyalty to your superiors in rejecting invading forces.

The pro-union workers believe that statements by Jackson and the low-level supervisors were a major factor in turning the tide against the union.

“There is a reverence of the lower-level management,” says worker Feinauer. She attributes this attitude in part to a paternalistic culture at the plant that rewards loyalty over all else. “I … suspect the good ol’ boy system appeals to some of [the workers] because it may be the only strength they have to get themselves ahead,” she says. “If the playing field were more fair and level, they may have nothing to offer in skill, merit or education.”

Volkswagen worker Wayne Cliett agrees. “Yes, I see it daily. [Workers] are yes-men. They are ass-kissers. … All this, hoping to get ahead, and it works, because the supervisors eat it up.”

Experts and workers say this reverence for low-level supervisors may be strengthened by aspects of Southern culture. “There is this long tradition in the region of a (sometimes intense) personal identification with the company, especially among floor-level supervisors, [which] undermines solidarity and union organizing,” says Beth English, director of the Program on Women in the Global Community at Princeton University and author of A Common Thread: Labor, Politics, and Capital Mobility in the Textile Industry.

English, whose work centers on the textile industry in the South, notes that even as management positions became increasingly professionalized over the past century, with decision-making isolated from the reality of the shopfloor, “upper-level management continued to frame relations between workers and themselves as intimate and personal. “The long-standing paternalistic culture of seeing an employer as a benefactor … perpetuated among floor supervisors,” she explains. “The floor supervisor was the embodiment of that personal management style, so … floor supervisors’ loyalty to management wasn’t framed as disloyalty to the rank and file.”

“One of the rewards of being a supervisor in the South is the power that you wield over the people that work for you,” agrees Volkswagen worker Gravett. “When this power is threatened, many members of management go to extremes to keep their power. Harassment and the targeting of employees that threaten the system that gives management their power is fairly common.”

Of course as Elk points out, there are lots of white southerners who reject these ideas of masculinity and rethink southern resistance in ways that promote causes of equality. They have existed since the Civil War and today they use an alternative history of the Civil War as inspiration. The only problem is that they never manage to win over enough working class people to make a difference at the polls or in the union elections.

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