The Southern United States has always been averse to the idea of unionized workforces. At its core, much of that is born out of the agrarian history of the region. From the nation’s inception, the South has been an economy driven by agriculture.
In fact, the “peculiar institution” of slavery allowed the South to compete with the manufacturing base of the Northeast. While lowering costs of labor in the 19th century, and apart from its obviously wicked treatment of human beings as disposable tools, the practice has repercussions in the region that reverberate today. The nature of vocations in the region did not require extensive education; that is not to diminish the difficulty of the work, but working in textile mills or operating farm equipment are better learned by practical experience than in classrooms.
The region began making inroads into varied forms of work by the early 20th century. In a recent Wall Street Journal article examining the recent decline of the South, Seth Herald writes:
Rural Adams County in the southwest corner of Mississippi exemplifies the typical story of the South’s rise and fall. It once attracted thousands of higher-paid factory jobs, particularly in the 1930s, when a big tire and rubber plant arrived. But the major factories began closing in the 2000s; the tire plant shut down in 2001. “Friends and family that have been here for 20 years…were packing up and leaving,” says Chandler Russ, who grew up in Adams.
The income gains the county notched against the rest of the country from the 1950s to the 2000s have completely reversed.
The county population peaked in 1982 at 39,172, and has declined about 20% since. Factory jobs, 18.5% of the county’s total in 1992, were just 5% in 2017. Per capita income is now 56.8% of the national average.Wall Street Journal
The refrain heard throughout the region during its growth in the 20th century remains today: lower taxes will draw businesses to the region. Of course, in many ways this has worked. Companies from the Midwest and Northeast relocated or opened new locations in the South, capitalizing on both the lower costs of living and tax burdens.
Unfortunately, though, that method to attract business was a double-edged sword. From the WSJ:
To diversify and lure manufacturing, southern states, starting with Arkansas in 1947, began passing right-to-work laws that weakened unions and kept taxes lower than in the wealthier North. And they spent less, especially on education: an average of $1,869 per student in 2009 dollars, in 1960, compared with $2,741 nationwide, according to the Education Department. In part, this reflected the long shadow of slavery. In the Jim Crow era white taxpayers and politicians resisted spending that benefited blacks, according to historians.
Mississippi was an early adopter of this industrial push. In the 1930s, it passed the nation’s first state-sponsored economic development plan to encourage northern industries to move south, using low taxes, low wages and other incentives. Manufacturers flooded in. By 2009, per capita income had climbed to 76.3% of the national average, from just 30.3% in 1932.Wall Street Journal
Regional politics that helped the economy grow have come back to bite. Low investment in education and few rights for workers have created a situation where jobs can be tenuous, and alternative options limited.
Because the history of right-to-work laws in the South is so deep, progress toward unionization is difficult. Indeed, to borrow a term from international relations, unilateral disarmament is the clearest roadblock. With neighboring states opposed to union membership, it is difficult for one to justify what amounts to unilateral disarmament: allowing the workers in one state to unionize means that, all things the same, new businesses may be just as likely to locate in the right-to-work state.
North Carolina is not a leader in unionized workforces, but we do have a history of education spending. Our state led the way in the mid-twentieth century in progressive policies to educate our population, even while neighbors did not follow suit. Unfortunately, that trend puttered off in tandem with the collapse of the global economy, as the South’s progress abruptly halted:
By the 2009 recession [the South] had nearly caught up economically with its northern and western neighbors.
That trend has now reversed. Since 2009, the South’s convergence has turned to divergence, as the region recorded the country’s slowest growth in output and wages, the lowest labor-force participation rate and the highest unemployment rate.
Behind the reversal: The policies that drove the region’s catch-up—relatively low taxes and low wages that attracted factories and blue-collar jobs—have proven inadequate in an expanding economy where the forces of globalization favor cities with concentrations of capital and educated workers.
“Those policies worked before, then they became fundamental constraints on the [South’s] long-term growth,” said Richard Florida, an urbanization expert at the University of Toronto.Wall Street Journal
In 2010, Republicans assumed control of North Carolina for the first time in generations, and soon held a trifecta: control of both chambers of the General Assembly and the Governorship. Education spending dipped following deep cuts to all spending during the recession, and austere policies since then have prioritized lower spending across the board.
But education is one piece of the puzzle. Workers themselves are playing an active role in the fight for better pay and treatment. This week, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, auto workers at a Volkswagen plant are voting on whether or not they will join the United Auto Workers, a nationwide union.
As a matter of course, Republican lawmakers in Tennessee have vocally opposed the push toward unionization. Recall the concept of unilateral disarmament; The American Prospect writes that:
“Company officials have repeatedly warned workers as well that if they unionize it could cause the plant to close. In captive-audience meetings, company officials have repeatedly pointed to Volkswagen’s decision to close its last North American plant in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, in 1988, following disputes with the UAW.
The company even brought in Tennessee Governor Bill Lee to warn workers that bringing a union into the plant could dissuade businesses from coming to Tennessee.”The American Prospect
Obviously, companies oppose unionization. But it isn’t necessarily about raising wages for some of the workers; many of the complaints they have with VW are with regard to inconsistent hours and maltreatment from management. The union vote here failed a few years ago, but many older workers claim that the promises made in the aftermath of the first vote were not kept, and that the odds of unionization have increased:
“They will yell, they will curse you out,” says Vicki Holloway, an autoworker at the plant. “If they don’t like you, if you don’t talk the way they wanna hear, if you don’t laugh at their jokes, and if you are not one of the good old boys, you don’t have a chance.”
Workers say that the culture of favoritism within the plant has created an environment where many fear to speak out, in an environment where injuries are common.The American Prospect
“In the past, some of the workers would go to HR with complaints and it may be about a supervisor that was harassing you. They would tell us that we would look into it, we will do research,” says Holloway, who says she was faced with racist taunts and discrimination as a middle-aged African American woman working at the plant.
However, Holloway says that all too often, filing a complaint with HR is simply inviting retaliation from the company.The American Prospect
“Pro-union VW workers complain of lax health and safety procedures, of quality of life issues such as constant last-minute changes in scheduling, insufficient vacation time and small bonuses.
“This is not about a pay raise,” said Steven Fugat, 26. “I just want some stability, I want to know when I have to work and when I get to be with my family or helping out at my church.”Reuters
The prospect of a unionized workforce goes beyond pay increases alone, but an institutionalization of respect between workers and management.
Low taxes and right-to-work laws are not a panacea for all of the woes of the South. To truly compete in a modern economy, there will have to be investments in education and job-skills far beyond our current levels. Unionization of the workforce, for blue-collar jobs especially, will provide continuity in work and a better quality of life, too. The wages paid by major corporations are not the maximum they are willing to pay, but the minimum they’re able to get by on. Many people choose jobs not because the pay is attractive, but because some job is better than no job.
The ideals of the New South are yet to be achieved, but with a renewed focus on educating our people and encouraging fair treatment of workers, they are not out of reach.
Kirk Kovach is a native North Carolinian interested in writing about politics, communication and culture.