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Labor’s Southern Strategy

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Justin Miller reviews labor’s latest southern strategy. Articles like these come out every few years, talking about the latest way the AFL-CIO is going to organize the South. And of course it never happens. Will it happen this time? No, probably not. However, it is still useful both to get at what the AFL-CIO is doing in the South and what its potentials and problems are. Basically, the unions are targeting particular cities with diverse populations to fight locally for change, both the unionization of workplaces but also at the municipal level to pass politically progressive legislation like wage theft bills and higher minimum wages and for public transportation systems that would get its members to their jobs. These are good things. On the other hand, we can look at the Chattanooga disaster, where even with technical Volkswagen support (although a lot of opposition from VW bosses on the ground), the UAW could not win an election to organize that plant. That was an embarrassing and awful loss. And the reason the UAW lost the election was racism. Grover Norquist and the like funded ads playing up that unions equal Detroit and we all know what Detroit really means.

Meanwhile, if you look at what the AFL-CIO is doing here, it’s about mobilizing black and Latino workers. This is a smart, but limited strategy. Unions simply are never going to organize white southerners in any large numbers. It flat will never happen. Racism is ultimately what undermined Operation Dixie in the 1940s and it is what continues to undermine southern unionism. There are related issues as well like evangelical Christianity and paternalistic traditions here too, but race is the fundamental problem. In 1946, it was African-Americans who wanted unions and it’s the same, along with Latinos, in 2016. So focusing (increasingly scarce and soon to be more so after Friedrichs) resources where they are going to pay off. And practically, especially in cities like Dallas and Houston where you have huge non-white populations that are not politically mobilized, this could help lead to increases in voting that would begin to find turn Texas purple. That’s all good. But at the same time, municipal government is a very limited place to make change when you have hostile state governments. And with white supremacy the order of the day last four centuries, voters in most if not all southern states are going to continue electing racist and anti-worker governors and state reps. And even if the numbers of non-whites grow in the South to look like Texas, gerrymandering means that the mountain to climb is even steeper.

So the AFL-CIO efforts in the South are interesting and have value. But they have a limited upside.

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