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Alabama Unionism

Amazon’s new facility will be the single-largest private investment in the history of Bessemer, according to the town’s mayor.

Jamelle Bouie had an excellent column the other day about the long history of unionism in Alabama. As the Amazon campaign takes off in Alabama, it turns out there is a real history of radical and usually Black-based unionism in that state. In fact, Alabama probably has a longer history of union activism than any other southern state, in part because of a sizable Black population and in part because of the steel industry’s role in industrializing the state. Anyway, Bouie does what oh so few New York Times columnists do: research the issue and cite the relevant scholars.

For most of the next 20 years, the Black workers of Mine Mill would struggle against racism and capital in a singular push for racial equality and the emancipation of labor, neither of which could exist without the other. And while they would ultimately lose their fight — overwhelmed by the steel industry, its red-baiting in Washington and its own private army of racist vigilantes — the spirit of Mine Mill would live on and not just through the civil rights movement.

In the early 1970s, for example, a grass-roots workers organization called the Public Employees Organizing Committee strove to unionize Birmingham’s predominantly Black hospital and nursing home employees. The work of the committee, notes the historian Robert W. Widell, Jr. in “Birmingham and the Long Black Freedom Struggle,” “emphasized cross-racial solidarity” and “placed struggles over the workplace at the center of an expansive freedom agenda.”

Whatever its outcome, the Amazon unionization drive in Bessemer is part of this history, and its organizers are working in the tradition of what the historian Robert Korstad called the “civil rights unionism” of Black workers combining “class consciousness with race solidarity.” If it is these workers who, among so many others, stand a real chance of unionizing Amazon, then you could say that they owe it, in part, to their heritage.

As for all of us outside Alabama? We should remember that the political character of the South is more than its shading on an Electoral College map; that the entire region is home to a rich history of resistance against the twin forces of race hierarchy and class exploitation; and that a more just and equitable future may well depend on how much we take those histories to heart and build on them from there.

I swear I’m not just linking to this because Widell is about to become my department chair and thus have to deal with all the hate mail I engender from fascists.

In any case, I don’t know why Jamelle is doing all this work. I thought the key to a long tenure at the Times is to make up conversations with cab drivers who happen to share your views on globalization, go to Denver on Times money to get baked out of your mind, or become a mark for a Southeast Asian grifter taking your advantage of your desire to be a white savior for sex slaves and then never even acknowledge the point.

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