What’s the Deal With Unions in the South?

Hello All!

All ears

All ears

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that counsels on worker’s councils from its own consulate.

In this week’s edition, we’ll take a look at an important vote for unions at a car manufacturing  center in Tennessee from February. The vote was a key symbol in looking at how organized labor in the United States has decreased dramatically for several decades and what the future of labor unions holds.

We’ll review the history of organized labor in the country, especially in the South and make a conjecture about whether this is an irreversible trend in employment and what it means for key American industries in the future.

The Current: What the Volk wants

In a closely watched and intense vote that spiked national debate and tremendous outside spending and influence, employees of the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, TN voted 712 – 626 to not join the United Automobile Workers.

While both union and non-union supporters had predicted victory, the effort to gain union members in a traditionally anti-union region was seen as an important first step in a more comprehensive campaign to expand UAW membership in the South- notably to the Nissan plant in Smyrna, TN and the Mercedes plant in Alabama.

yoga means union, but union means  loss of subsidies from Bob Corker

yoga means union, but union means loss of subsidies from Bob Corker

The move towards a union faced serious political hurdles and threats from lawmakers. Had the plant unionized, the Tennessee governor Bill Haslem, Senator Bob Corker, and state senator Bo Watson asserted that parts suppliers would have located elsewhere and that subsidies would have been taken away from the plant.

Several states have been passing or considering “right to work” laws or legislation that gives states the right to determine whether an employee is required to join a union or not for a particular job. “Right to work” laws are highly controversial and are hotly debated around the country with union supporters contending the legislation is meant to weaken unions and contracts that supply steady workers rights and access to health care. Supporters of “right to work” see the law as giving individuals the freedom of choosing whether they want to join a union or not.

In addition, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist painted with a new medium by creating the “third party” Center for Worker Freedom which put up anti-union ad campaigns in and around Chattanooga, warning that the city might become “the next Detroit.” (the CWF was created specifically for this vote).

The people's auto has decided to stay out of the people's vote

The people’s auto has decided to stay out of the people’s vote

For its part, Volkswagen had stayed neutral on the issue and urged outsiders to not meddle in the vote. The German car maker has unions and works councils in all of its other 105 plants worldwide. Had the union won the vote to join the UAW, members would have collaborated with Volkswagen to create a German-style workers council – committees of white and blue collar managers and employees to develop factory policies.

After the loss of the vote, UAW representatives and union supporters at the plant immediately continued to press for a worker’s council – something that VW supports. But setting up a council without a pro-union vote is very difficult and may be impossible under U.S. labor law (no council has been set up before).

In addition, the UAW has filed an appeal with the U.S. government’s National Labor Relations Board seeking to overturn the vote and have a revote – again citing unfair intervention by outside interests against unionization. VW workers who voted against the union mentioned they already had good relations with their employer and an ability to bring up issues – therefore, making the idea of representation from a union unnecessary.

On the flip side, the UAW has been trying to extend their influence into foreign automaker plants in the South so that wages aren’t stagnant or depressed at the major American automaker plants in the North – part of an overall goal of decreasing the gap between rich and poor by raising blue collar/manufacturing wages.

But this begs an important question: Why did unions never form or establish themselves in the South in the first place?

Understanding this will help us answer the question of why Tennessee politicians and conservative voices opposed this unionization so vehemently. Let’s look further into the history of unionization in the U.S. and the culture of employment in the South to find these answers.

To Organize in the South…

Gompers helped start the strong tradition of organized labor in the industrial north

Gompers helped start the strong tradition of organized labor in the industrial north

Organized labor was delayed in its implementation in the southern United States. While the Knights of Labor formed in Philadelphia in 1869, and Samuel Gompers brought workers together to form the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU) in 1881 and then later the American Federation of Labor (AF of L) in 1886, southern labor did not begin to organize seriously until the New Deal of the 1930s.

What reasons can we come up with as to why labor unions didn’t form in the South at the same time as the North?

  • Southern economy: the economy, as it had been since colonial days, was based primarily on agriculture and cash crops. The North on the other hand, had a more diverse economy with manufacturing centers and a higher concentration of laborers.
  • Type of Labor: Who was primarily working in the fields and crop distribution centers in the South? Slaves. Slavery certainly was not the only labor involved, but it did instill a culture of labor designed around lack of freedoms for workers even after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
  • Culture of Employment: Given the history of slavery in the South and the dependency of the economy on free labor, it is not too big of a stretch to conjecture that employers and landowners would continue similar practices of minimal rights for workers.

The South’s devastation from the Civil War and its agrarian economy both contributed to its delay to industrialize. Industries of various types such as textiles did develop in certain areas such as Charleston, South Carolina and Greensboro, NC, but often did not flourish in the South until after the Great Depression.

% of farms sharecropped 1865-1914

% of farms sharecropped 1865-1914

After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, many newly freed blacks stayed in the South and were often tied to former plantations as sharecroppers. This kept many blacks in positions of debt to landowners – sometimes their former owners.

Sharecropping became the primary way of life for many in the South, black and white. Instead of moving or creating population centers with a diverse economy, much of the south continued to be an agrarian economy with a near-peasant workforce.

Other blacks and southerners migrated West to newly opened lands in Oklahoma, Texas, and to the North. This migration began to develop en masse during and following World War 1 when industrial labor gaps in the North in cities like Chicago offered an escape from the sharecroppers life.

Given the labor that was working as sharecroppers (former slaves) and Jim Crow laws, labor conditions were not ripe for a union. A culture that had existed for more than 150 years based on a hierarchical society and slave labor wasn’t going to reverse itself immediately. It wasn’t  until the 1930’s that a group tried to bring fair conditions for sharecroppers, both black and white in the South.

the STFU had a uniting agenda

the STFU had a uniting agenda

The Southern Tenant Farmers Union was created to implement the AAA (Agriculture Adjustment Act – a New Deal policy) fairly for both landowners and sharecroppers in the South. Previous attempts to bring rights to sharecroppers were met with serious resistance and intimidation; threats that were mirrored in other industries when they developed in southern cities.

The Factory in the South

As we mentioned earlier, industry was delayed in becoming part of the southern economy. When it did arrive, it often did so because of the lack of worker representation.

Many industries began to look to the South as a haven for doing business for two main factors: cheaper labor, and no established union “interference.” While unions had been instrumental in helping this country adopt fair labor standards and conditions into law in 1938 and help give workers a voice in their scheduling, pay, and free time, many businesses and companies considered them disruptive and politically dangerous.ihy9412081

To achieve many of labor’s gains, unions of course had to organize and strike – a process which of course delays production. Union victories often meant extra costs to employers, whether that meant higher wages or stricter implementation of safety standards. Employers expanding to the South would not find the same type of organized labor.

To avoid the complications and potential extra costs that came from worker representation, employers from the outset paid reasonable wages and sometimes provided decent worker housing and communities. While this did discourage unionization, eventually some southern factory workers became driven to organize.  When they did, they sought out the powerful umbrella unions from the North. Both the AFL and CIO competed to be the union representation in certain plants.

sockin it to the man

sockin it to the man

As more and more industry moved South in the 20th century, unions never achieved high rates of membership. This certainly did not mean there were no efforts to organize or that interest was low. In a multitude of industries from textiles to mining to leather to aluminum, to meat processing to farming, unions throughout the South began to form. It often was an uphill process with many barriers, though.

Don West was a lifetime activist and organizer in civil rights and unions helping to infiltrate mines, factories, and political circles to instigate change and social and economic progress. West describes harassment against his efforts of trying to organize mine workers in Kentucky:

“You see, then you couldn’t go to a miner’s home, even on a week end, go to a home and talk with him. You wouldn’t be in the house more than three or four minutes and there would be a knock on the door and someone would be there: “What you doing there, buddy? You don’t live here. You get back where you belong.” Three miners couldn’t meet on the street corner, stop and talk, exchange the time of day. They would be broken up by the gun thugs, you see… We’d just gotten in the house when suddenly at this door and this window and all there was an officer with a six shooter, just like a bunch of desperados were being taken, you know. Arrested. And they piled all my books and papers and everything into some trunks and boxes we had and took them along with us, down to the court house. They confiscated my books and my total library and they put us in jail. Accused me of conspiring to overthrow the government.”

West’s experience was not a unique one. Employers often had the support of local law enforcement to break up strikes, potential organizing, or civil rights activism. Activism was also fought vigorously by groups like the Ku Klux Klan who later burned down West’s house for his actions.

Given the difficulty in organizing and the barriers to worker representation created by the South’s employment culture, it becomes easier to see why union membership has stayed low. Sometimes, workers simply showed no interest in joining a union. Either companies barred worker organizing or the incentives for workers to organize didn’t trump the membership dues. Whereas union membership and community were often one and the same in some northern communities, the same culture was virtually non-existent in the South.plot unfolds

The failure for unions to establish a foothold in the South in the 20th century coincided with the decline of unions overall in the United States. Many opponents of New Deal policies and the power of labor attempted to limit unions and reverse some of the gains that had been made in the early 2oth century. From the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 which, among other things, allowed employers to fire striking workers, to the McCarthy era witch hunts  that broke the power of socialists and communist factions of the left, and the strong-arm tactics of some union bosses all helped to decline union membership and sputter the formation of strong unions in the South.


So we learned that the South was slow to unionize because of its longtime agrarian economy and hierarchical social castes which created a culture of employment around few worker’s rights and discrimination.

Once industries began to move South to take advantage of cheaper labor and avoid powerful unions, some workers saw the advantage of representation, but faced severe discrimination, retribution, and threats. Much of the union and community culture that had developed in the North failed to take root down South.

So unions in the South did exist and have existed for a long time in many industries, but certainly they did not, and have not had the numbers and representation that existed in the North.

Though the UAW’s appeal to the NLRB is still forthcoming, we have to begin to wonder if the UAW’s efforts to spread unionization to foreign owned auto plants is in vain. If politicians are intent on using their power to stop unionization, maybe using the popular private employer’s idea of Worker’s Councils will be a way around the barriers to worker representation.

It will certainly be very interesting to see if the UAW’s appeal will be taken seriously by the Obama administration. If it does, many will cry foul, citing that the administration would be backing labor outright. Perhaps the UAW will see that some of their tactics which many have seen as “strong arm” are not being perceived positively in southern states and may adapt accordingly.

While politics will be played from both sides, this union vote was fascinating and an interesting spot to view the state of unions and labor and to think about what’s to come.

Until the next worker’s council vote,

Your faithful historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:




Louis Uchitelle, The Disposable American






About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
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