On May 18, 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Tennessee Valley Authority as a centerpiece to his New Deal. The TVA would have both short and long-term impacts on the nation’s labor history, ultimately going far to transforming an entire region of the nation, providing the raw materials and industrial capacity necessary to become a major site of American production after World War II.
The Tennessee Valley was one of the United States’ most underdeveloped areas in 1933. Despite a long-term effort by Nebraska senator George Norris to push for public power in the region, private interests prevented a major government investment until the Roosevelt administration swept to power that year. The net farm income of the Tennessee Valley was only $639 a year compared to the national average of $1835. The Roosevelt administration saw widespread regional planning as key to raising the nation’s poorest regions out of poverty. Targeting the Tennessee River Valley, the new agency built sixteen dams to prevent erosion and limit floods, provide electricity for both farmers and industrial operations, and eventually for recreational purposes. It also attempted to establish a model community with modern urban planning for the region to follow at Norris, Tennessee, north of Knoxville.
However, it should be noted that Washington planners, fearful of alienating the white South through this unprecedented government incursion into the economy, not only reinforced segregation on the job, but created new forms of it. Much physical labor on construction sites was not segregated in the 1930s, but after the TVA introduced segregation that its planners assumed already existed, it spread through the South for a lot of hard labor. Yet even here, the federal government was employing black Americans at high rates for the first time in a very long time and despite the institutionalized discrimination of TVA and the fact that the white power structure in the South were all Democrats, it helped the process of convincing blacks to leave the Republican Party which now did nothing for them and join the Democratic Party that might do a little bit for them. TVA did eventually provide better jobs for African-Americans, but only after threatened NAACP lawsuits and Fair Employment Practices Committee investigations. But all hiring of blacks was resisted. When TVA hired three black security guards in 1943, none other than John Rankin said it would “engender more bitterness among southern representatives and southern senators than anything else I could mention.” And when blacks showed up in 1942 to help work on Fontana Dam on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, white workers threatened to lynch them.
For unions, the impact of the TVA would be ambivalent. Fourteen American Federation of Labor trade unions were involved in the construction of the dams but the agency originally would not recognize them as bargaining agents on the projects until its lawyers decided that since TVA was chartered as a corporation, it could be legally liable for not doing so. In 1935, TVA created its Employee Relationship Policy, a sort of localized Wagner Act. It granted the right to organize and choose collective bargaining agents free of management. The AFL then created the Tennessee Valley Trades and Labor Council (TVTLC) as the bargaining agent for all the AFL craft unions. But while the TVA leaders in Washington were relatively open to unionism, local supervisors who lacked any interactions with unions were openly hostile. When John Turner was fired for passing out union literature during working hours, labor appealed to TVA leadership who reinstated him in part because the TVA board itself had facilitated the unionization of the workforce. In 1940, the TVA signed the first general agreement covering its blue-collar employees and then moved on to a similar agreement with seven unions covering white-collar workers. In short, the TVA provided a small bastion of unionism in a harshly anti-union part of the nation.
Building the Big Ridge Dam, Tennessee
Interestingly, the early TVA also worked with the Highlander School, the radical Myles Horton-led educational center in Tennessee that would later train Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and then be closed (it moved to a different part of the state). TVA’s first chairman was Arthur Morgan, who had socialist ties, including through his son who was an avowed socialist. Morgan had the TVA pay for a few workers to attend Highlander for industrial training and, while Morgan had to publicly keep his distance from the radical center, the Highlander-trained workers played a central role in organizing the TVA craft unions. The connection between the two institutions continued to thrive over the next few years, although Morgan ignored Horton’s pleas to integrate the workforce.
No American could be sad about new economic opportunities for the Southern working class. But would those jobs be union jobs? In fact, for the most part, outside of the TVA itself, they would not. It was an intentional move on the part of the Roosevelt administration to reshape the geography of American industrial production in the New Deal and especially in World War II. There were many good reasons to do that. But TVA-produced power also provided the infrastructure necessary for corporations to move production from union jobs in New England and the Great Lakes states to anti-union southern states. As early as the late 1930s, textile manufacturers escaping unions in the northeast found the newly electrified areas of the TVA appealing places to move production. The CIO knew this was a problem and understood that the ability to organize these jobs would go a long ways to defining the postwar labor movement. So it initiated Operation Dixie in 1946 to begin organizing the South. And while not all those campaigns were related specifically around TVA-created jobs, its planners knew that TVA-provided power would open up the region to massive capital mobility as manufacturers saw the potential for a non-union workforce again within American borders. But Operation Dixie largely failed for complex reasons and those jobs largely, although not entirely, remained non-union for the existence of the workplace.
In the end, the TVA transformed the South and provided a great deal of new opportunity for Southern workers. It did however contribute, indirectly at least, to the decline of American unionism in postwar America.
The material on segregation comes from Nancy Grant, TVA and Black Americans: Planning for the Status Quo. Other material comes from F. Ray Marshall, Labor in the South and Irving Bernstein, Promises Kept: John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier.
This is the 143rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.