The union organizing campaign currently underway at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama could prove to be the most important labor fight in the South since the failure of Operation Dixie, the movement’s last large-scale push to organize the South in the late 1940s. The story of that historic effort holds lessons for the struggle today.
The heart of the effort was the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ (CIO) Operation Dixie, the labor movement’s most ambitious attempt to organize the South, a region that had been particularly resistant to unions. But Operation Dixie did not succeed: employers wielded red-baiting, racism, and repression to keep the region largely union-free. Goldfield examines what went wrong.
That history created the context in which Bessemer’s Amazon workers operate today: Bessemer is located in what was once a highly unionized region of Alabama, a hotbed of radicalism and, also, repression. Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke to Goldfield about this history, and what lessons the present-day labor movement can take from it.
Let’s start with the Amazon union election that’s taking place in Bessemer, Alabama. What’s the significance of this campaign?
First of all, Amazon is very resistant to unionization. During the pandemic, a lot of workers haven’t had a lot of leverage because business has declined. But Amazon is just the opposite. Jeff Bezos made $90 billion within months in 2020. So business has grown. And because they had to hire so many people, they gave employees COVID-19 bonuses. But once the benefits ran out from the first relief bill and people were more desperate, they got rid of the bonuses. It’s a situation where people who work for Amazon and other of these delivery services know how crucial they are, and they’re much more in danger. Of course, the reports we’ve had at Amazon are that the speedup and the accidents are pretty incredible.
You said it’s a big spark rather than a gradual or incremental shift that can lead to a new wave of unionizing. Can you talk about your research on that?
I wrote a book on the decline of organized labor in the United States, and I’ve kept up that line of research pretty much to the present, looking at unionization and union growth and decline over more than a century. What happens is, in normal periods, not much takes place.
During the 1870s, there was a huge growth of unionization — the big railroad strikes for example. During World War I, there was a huge growth of unionization: unions went up in membership from a little over two million people to over five million by 1920. A lot of that had to do with the increase in war production; even though we didn’t get into the war until 1917, European countries needed more goods produced starting in 1914. That created labor shortages, meaning much more leverage for unions. Unions grew all across the South during that time. So textile mills — really, virtually every industry you could think of across the South — unionized during that period from 1914 to 1920.
After that, unions declined quite a bit. The low point was in 1933, when union membership was down to about 2.7 million members from having been at five million in 1920. But then there are sparks that took place: in the book, I discuss in detail the coal miners, who were very important, especially in Alabama and West Virginia. (I consider West Virginia mostly Southern.)
The coal miners organized before any legislation was passed. I write a lot about the myth of Section 7a, which was a symbolic part of the National Industrial Recovery Act that said that unions are okay. Most historians have said that legislation, passed in 1933, stimulated union organizing, but I show that the coal miners, who are sort of the vanguard of organizing, organized before it passed. Once the coal miners organized, all sorts of other workers organized. There were six hundred thousand coal miners and they pretty much organized within a six-week period; it was a massive upsurge. And the conditions that they had in Alabama and West Virginia were very brutal: union people were murdered, it was very oppressive.
But once they organized — and this was particularly true in Alabama — the coal miners were very solidaristic. They organized everybody else too. They helped organize steel workers — steel and iron are very big in the Birmingham area also. So, Bessemer is a site where there’s not only coal miners around there but there are big iron ore mines in Bessemer, and there’s steel. This is the hook to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ’60s: the iron ore miners are about ten to twenty thousand. And they’re organized by the Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, which became a Communist-led union, but their history goes back to the Western Federation of Miners, which was led by Big Bill Haywood.
So, this has always been sort of a radical, militant union. They’re broken during the McCarthy period by the [United] Steelworkers who run this absolutely racist campaign: the iron ore miners are half black and half white, and the steel workers have the support mostly of white workers. But even after the union is broken, these black workers get very involved in the NAACP. They’re very active in the Civil Rights Movement.
There’s a civil rights tradition. I don’t know how much to make of this in terms of the present, because that was a long time ago. West Virginia is the state that voted for Donald Trump by the largest margin in 2016, but when the state’s school teachers went on strike, a lot of the signs and slogans they had harkened back to things that their grandparents had done through the United Mine Workers’ union.
They seemed to display even more solidarity and militancy than other teachers strikes — all of which had their positive aspects to them and solidaristic components. So, I don’t know how much to make of that tradition because it was a long time ago. But during the 1930s, Alabama was the most unionized state in the South. They elected a fairly liberal, populist, antiracist governor in 1946 and 1954 — “Big Jim” Folsom. The key thing is that the level of unionization in Alabama was higher than exists in any state in the United States today. We’re talking about fairly militant unions, as a really important social and political force in a Deep South state.
People are more open after the results of the election in Georgia to saying that some of the Southern states are changing slightly politically. But this [in the 1930s] was a massive change: we’re not just talking about 1 or 2 percent higher black vote and some suburban whites who are disgusted with Trump. We’re talking about people who had more radical visions about transforming society. It was on the basis of this support, or partly on this support, that this liberal populist governor was able to get elected.
The argument is that unionization in general has the potential to transform politics. One case in particular, for example. There’s this conservative district in Texas, where Martin Dies — who was the head of the House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC] and a real right-wing racist — was the Congressional representative. The Oil Workers Union in Port Arthur, Texas, where there were ten thousand oil workers at the time, organized in 1941 and 1942.
After the Port Authur workers negotiated their contract, they said their first goal was to get rid of Martin Dies. They mobilized so many people that he didn’t even run the next time and they elected a somewhat liberal, pro-union, antiracist Congressperson. The oil workers were not a particularly radical union. This potential existed in the 1930s and ’40s in Alabama. The union fell apart for a variety of reasons. There were a lot of conflicts between the industrial unions and the mine workers. Plus, they were not able to combat the white backlash.
After unionization declined, Alabama transformed into something that we’ve known since: Deep South, George Wallace, etc. But the potential existed, including in the South. Unionization in all parts of the country is progressive: it’s pretty commonplace to say that the decline in unions plays a major role in terms of growing inequality. But the unionization and transformation of the South is key to transforming the country. This is the part of the country that historically has held everything back, from the early colonial times to the founding of the republic.
There’s been lots of research on how backward the region was even in terms of the New Deal era. Richard Rothstein’s book, The Color of Law, argues that what happens during the New Deal is that the control of benefits — whether it be unemployment, conservation, even the entire GI Bill — is run by Southern white supremacists, so blacks get frozen out of the housing market.
Suburbanization takes place with easy credit for white veterans, so whites are moving into the suburbs with virtually no money available for black homeowners. So in Detroit, where I am, even whites couldn’t get money to fix up houses in the city but they could easily get money for suburban mortgages, while blacks couldn’t get any money to move into all-white areas of the city or outside of it. These things are the heritage of New Deal policy.
We see that Franklin Delano Roosevelt [FDR] wouldn’t come out against lynching because his Southern supporters in the Senate and the House were opposed to such legislation. Some of them were openly in favor of lynching, like the politicians from Mississippi for example. So, those constraints on anything very progressive happening were put on by the southern elites. That’s why the unionization and transformation of the South really provides the key to opening all sorts of things up.
A big part of this story is Operation Dixie — the CIO trying to build an expanded base in the South and then failing to do that.
Operation Dixie is something that I, along with most everyone else, saw as a critical turning point, its result being the failure to organize the South after World War II. But what I came to find in my research is that Operation Dixie was not as serious an organizing effort as I and other people originally thought. Changes in approaches to organizing took place in the late 1930s, and even within the CIO there were very conservative people. They wanted to rely on the federal government. They thought they could sweet talk the employers and have cooperative relations with them. They relied on Democrats who controlled many of the institutions, including the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] and during the war, the National War Labor Board, to help them, rather than trying to mobilize workers to struggle and building broad support for those struggles.
In Operation Dixie — which starts after the war, in 1946 — there was actually less money and fewer organizers than had been put into two earlier, industry-specific campaigns. The organization of steel — which was funded by the CIO and in particular the [United] Mine Workers — had two and a half times as much money as Operation Dixie, as did the Textile Workers Organizing Committee. In steel, they had alliances with the Communists, who had more roots in steel than anybody else. They used unemployed organizations, ethnic organizations, and civil rights organizations to build broad support for their campaign. In Operation Dixie, and also with the textile workers, they didn’t want any outside help.
This is one of the lessons that I would draw from the campaign in Bessemer: people have some leverage, but if they’re only one part of a huge company, outside support, publicity, bodies, and everything else is really important to help them win. The more support we can give them, the better. That’s why I think it’s actually significant that the National Football League Players’ Association came out in support of them, among other unions; I think more unions should be giving them support, and even sending people down there to help them.
But one of the lessons of what worked and didn’t work in the South is that you have to mobilize people, and you can’t rely on the government or on more favorable laws or thinking that you’re going to have cooperative relationships with the company, as if that will get you very far.
That’s one of the problems posed by some unions today, including the UAW, of which I was a member of for a long time. The UAW have lost a number of key fights in the South. They lost in Chattanooga. They lost in Mississippi recently. They want to cooperate with the company rather than mobilizing people. In taking that approach, it’s hard to convince many workers that the union is worth taking risks for.
Unionization in all these places, but particularly in the South, means people have to take risks: workers get fired for organizing. The penalties against the company are pretty weak so there’s nothing to hold the company back. So there has to be some bigger vision and goal involved if people in large numbers are going to take those risks.
I want to get back to the Operation Dixie era because your research offers some lessons. You look at the role of racism, and how a union’s willingness to take on racism mattered for success in the South — an unwillingness could portend a failing campaign. Where did the CIO fall on this spectrum?
My findings are a reversal of what I used to think about this era. The CIO was very reluctant on race, to say the least. People in the CIO considered themselves liberal. When academics doing oral history interviewed them in the 1970s, they’d all say they were pro–civil rights because after the 1960s, every liberal said they were in favor of civil rights. But when you go back and read the organizers’ reports, you’re aghast.
Some of these people were explicitly racist, but most of them were just obtusely racist. They don’t want to talk to black workers because they think white workers have to be organized first. Even though in most places, black workers in coal and steel and other industries are among the most militant and pro-union. They’re so bad that in some of these places, they alienate all the black workers. They want white leadership. They don’t want any of the blacks, even those with organizing roles, to hold leadership. They don’t appoint any blacks to the staff. And in the textile industry, which has a significant percentage of female workers, they don’t even have any female organizers.
I’ve gone through all the organizing and union reports, and looked at pictures of these people too. Of course, when you see a picture of fifty organizers, you can’t absolutely tell who is black and who is white, but so much of the time, it scans as 90 percent white, where the one or two black organizers don’t make a difference. And in the organizers’ reports, there are no female names — some names may be ambiguous, but if it’s Bob or Tom or George, it’s pretty clear.
They’re just very bad on these issues. They believed they could keep themselves from being red-baited if they hired white, male veterans. But those guys are inexperienced, and many of them are incompetent. You can read this from the organizers’ reports, where the union officials are saying, “Who are these idiots?” It’s not just leftists criticizing them. It’s union staff saying, “These people won’t even work on weekends, they don’t know how to organize, they don’t know what they’re doing.”
These are the people who are ideologically the CIO’s right wing — they’re liberals of a sort — complaining about the organizers who they picked. The irony is that even when they hire all white, male veterans, they still get red-baited. It’s like what happens today: the Right says Joe Biden is a socialist. You’re thinking, “What happens when you meet some of us who are real socialists?” This is what happens during Operation Dixie. They might as well have hired all these very competent Communist organizers because it wouldn’t have made any difference in how they were attacked.
There is an understanding of the CIO, generally the more left-wing of the two labor federations, as having been more aggressive on the issue of racism. But the story is not nearly so clear-cut.
They freeze out not only anyone who was a Communist, but anyone who had any connection with a left-wing union, even ones that were pretty mainstream. You don’t get any of this in the oral history taken twenty or thirty years later because people reinvent themselves — it’s not that they’re dishonest, but memory changes.
The CIO was more worried about Communists than racists, so they appointed many people who were actually racist. It was very bureaucratic. I would contrast what happened there with what happened in steel, in which radicals were very involved but were not the people at the top — the main person being [CIO founding president] John Lewis. But Lewis, because he was with the coal miners, understood that mobilizing people and striking was the key to bringing the employers to heel. That wasn’t the case for many of the unions.
The other thing which has a racial component is that the two biggest industries in the South were textile and woodworking. Woodworking involves both lumberjacks — people cutting down trees and transporting them — and people working in sawmills. There are six hundred thousand woodworkers in the country — about as many as there were coal miners — and the majority of them are in the South. In the South, they’re half black and half white. So when they mobilize, they have interracial unity. These workers are very militant, and the CIO mostly avoids them and goes for these almost entirely white textile workers. They somehow think that race won’t be a factor if they focus on textile workers. But the lesson of Alabama is that the interracial unions — steel, iron ore, coal — are critical to organizing the whole state.
The coal miners nationally, but especially in Alabama, did a number of things beyond organizing themselves. They organized groups of white and black workers to go together to register to vote. They often paid the poll taxes for black and white workers. They said if you’re in the Ku Klux Klan, that’s incompatible with being a union member and you get expelled. So if you were in Birmingham, or in Bessemer, and you’re connected with the Klan, you were out. Given the times, this is pretty impressive stuff. By the time Operation Dixie comes around, the CIO wants to avoid all these issues.
When people think about the campaign in Bessemer, and about organizing in the Deep South in general, is there anything your research bears out that should be kept in mind?
One interesting thing is the degree to which other workers, particularly coal miners, went about organizing other workers around the state. Today, that part of Alabama has a lot of food processing workers. That these workers, who are unionized, are playing a role in organizing and supporting the Amazon workers, is an impressive, good thing.
In the book, I talk about two types of power. First is structural power, which is when people have a lot of leverage. If all the Amazon workers organized, they’d have a lot of leverage on the company. But where the first warehouse to organize doesn’t have a lot of that leverage, what they need is what I call associative power. This is support from other unions and organizations that give them more leverage. And that’s exactly what the CIO refused to do during Operation Dixie. They denounced even liberal organizations that wanted to help–ones they had no political disagreement with, including the Southern Conference Educational Fund, which even Eleanor Roosevelt supported. They said, “we’re doing this on our own, it’s a union campaign.” That failure to mobilize the broadest support was fatal for a lot of their organizing.
So if I’m asked about the lessons from this period, I do think there are some on how to organize in general but also how to organize in the South in places like Alabama.
The 1930s and ’40s are a long time ago, and the industrial composition of Alabama now bears almost no resemblance to what it was back then. Alabama has food processing, warehouses. It has auto parts production. It has some assembly plants. In the South in general these days, there are four or five states that are economically dynamic, and that have grown in population. They tend to be the ones that are more politically competitive, and they’re states that seem to have more potential for unionization because of these changes. Georgia is one of those states. Virginia, thanks to the Washington DC suburbs, has grown immensely and transformed politically. But states like Mississippi or Louisiana are still fairly mired in the past.
Alabama is not one of the more economically dynamic states. The conditions people face, given the lack of protections and the lower minimum wages, can be much worse in states like Alabama. We’ve seen it in the rates of workers getting COVID-19 in food processing plants. If they can unionize in the South, the conditions have so much room for improvement. There are so many dimensions in which struggles like the one in Bessemer can be transformative.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Goldfield is an independent scholar and activist, currently a fellow at the Fraser Center for the Study of Workplace issues at Wayne State University. Material in this essay is taken from his forthcoming book, The Southern Key, Class, Race, and Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Alex N. Press is a staff writer at Jacobin. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Vox, the Nation, and n+1, among other places.