White Supremacy and Labor’s Failure

Cody R. Melcher interviews Michael Goldfield

Posted March 28, 2021

CODY R. MELCHER INTERVIEWED Michael Goldfield about why the U.S. South failed to unionize and why this is the crucial to understanding the evolution of American politics. In his new book, The Southern Key: Class, Race, and Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s (Oxford University Press, 2020) argues, primarily, that this failure to fully confront white supremacy led to labor’s ultimate failure in the South, and that this regional failure has led to the nationwide decline in labor unionism, growing inequality, and the perpetuation of white supremacy.

Michael Goldfield is a former labor and civil rights activist, Professor Emeritus of political science and a Research Fellow at the Fraser Center for Workplace Issues at Wayne State University. He has written numerous books and articles on labor, race, and the global economy, including The Decline of Organized Labor in the United States, The Color of Politics: Race and the Mainsprings of American Politics, and most recently, The Southern Key.

Cody R. Melcher is a PhD candidate in the sociology department at The Graduate Center, CUNY. He teaches at the City College of New York.

Cody R. Melcher: During the past few months, Alabama has seen a marked increase in labor militancy. From a Steelworkers strike in Muscle Shoals to a planned union vote among Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, this working class activism in a region perceived by many to be intrinsically — some might even say “culturally” — hostile to class solidarity has surprised many on the left. How does your work — particularly The Southern Key — inform how we should interpret labor militancy in the South generally and the case of Alabama more specifically?

Michael Goldfield: In The Southern Key, I argue that the South is the key part of the country to organize for social change in general and for building a socialist movement. Working-class people are worse off in many parts of the South than anywhere else in the country; most of the executions (over 80%) since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 have taken place there.

This lack of respect for human life is perhaps reflected in the low levels of support for those in need, including children’s health care, unemployment insurance, workman’s compensation, and disability benefits.

Even a relatively affluent southern state like Texas has among the highest percentage of people in the country with no health care insurance.

While the heritage of slavery, as the 1619 Project emphasizes, is certainly central, the defeats of labor and civil rights struggles also play an important role, including the defeat of Reconstruction in the 1870s, the smashing of the southern interracial Populist movement in the 1890s, and the failures of the highly promising interracial labor organizing of the 1930s and 1940s, which my book explores.

So the South remains today the least unionized part of the country, where birtherism (the myth of Barack Obama’s birth in Kenya) is most adhered to among whites, where ignorance and superstition, anti-science irrationality (including COVID and global warming denial, rejection of evolutionary biology) are strongest.

I suggest that the low level of unionization and the resulting atomization of the population allows for the greater ability for people to be manipulated in their attitudes by southern elites.

Now, virtually all academics and liberals trace the low level of unionization in the South and the failures of union organizing to cultural attitudes, individualism, religiosity, submissiveness to elites. In The Southern Key I question these explanations, and focus on more material causes.

Difficulties in labor organizing have rather been a result of the availability of cheap labor (often from agricultural labor surpluses), the strength of racial oppression, and more violent unified repression at the hands of southern political elites and capitalists, especially when those organizing have been Afro-American or interracial.

Yet contrary to the accounts of most investigators, I trace a rich history of southern labor organizing, sometimes interracial. When given the opportunity, southern workers have been as militant, at times exhibiting strong racial solidarity, as those anywhere.

The Power of Organizing

Alabama was at the center of successful interracial labor organizing in the 1930s and 1940s. Coal miners, half of whom were Black, led the way,  joined by tens of thousands of steel workers, iron ore miners, wood workers, textile workers, longshoremen, and countless others.

By 1945 Alabama, with over 200,000 union members, was over 25% organized. To put this in perspective, no U.S. state today has that high a percentage.

The labor movement helped elect in 1946 and 1954 “Big Jim” Folsom as governor, who was well outside the Dixiecrat southern consensus, opposing the poll tax, inviting and shaking hands with Blacks at his rallies, denouncing those in 1954 who opposed the Supreme Court Brown decision.

The Nation magazine at the time called Alabama the “most liberal state in the South.” This successful interracial organizing suggests what is possible and offers some lessons.

The southern economy and Alabama in particular has changed dramatically since that time. Coal, iron ore mining and textile are gone, as mostly is steel. Alabama today is a center for auto assembly and parts production and has some important warehouse and logistic distribution hubs.

The pandemic has made clear both the centrality of food production and distribution, and e-commerce in general, especially in places like Alabama that have low wages and low levels of worker protection, as well as highlighting how central these things are to society as a whole. These industries are highly profitable, even more so during the pandemic, while becoming more dangerous and stressful, leading to renewed attempts by workers to organize.

This appears to be happening across the country. Now it may be something of a coincidence, but both Bessemer (where coal and iron ore miners were strongly unionized) and Muscle Shoals where the unionized Tennessee Valley Authority was centered, have a heritage of successful labor struggle. This was long ago, but West Virginia teachers’ militancy has seemed to explicitly draw on the historic solidarity of coal miners there from many decades ago.

So I wish to suggest that in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as today, it was not culture which held workers back in the South. When conditions worsened and opportunity presented themselves, workers then and now organize.

CRM: Highly-skilled engineers at Google recently announced the formation of a union. These workers, it seems, have extraordinary leverage, or structural power, as you put it. Can you explain what structural power is and why it is important for successfully organizing workers?

MG: Workers in capitalist societies have varying amounts and types of leverage. One kind of leverage that I discuss in The Southern Key is structural power, based on workers’ relation to the economy.

There are several types of structural power. One is their position in the labor market. How easily can they be replaced? Certain highly skilled workers are difficult to replace at any time. This is true of skilled electricians and plumbers on construction projects, but also all-star home-run hitters and pro-bowl quarterbacks.

This is the type of leverage to a certain extent that high-end engineers and software employees have at Google. Yet even workers with lower-level skills may be difficult to replace when they stick together in full solidarity. When President Richard Nixon attempted to replace striking New York City postal workers in 1970 with National Guard troops, and no workers crossed the picket lines, the ineffectiveness of the Guard in handling the mail forced Nixon to capitulate.

The skills of coal miners are also difficult to replace, except by other miners. When coal miners struck during World War II, they declared correctly that one could not mine coal with bayonets.

These examples indicate the necessity for the broadest type of solidarity. Thus, it is a good sign that the highly skilled permanent workers at Google are organizing alongside less secure contract workers and others with more easily replaceable skills.

The even more important type of structural power is workplace bargaining power based on the location that workers, when fully organized, have in the economic system. Certain groups of workers have the ability when they stop work to cause their employers or even the whole society a great deal of grief.

Highly unionized manufacturing workers often have the ability to shut down a whole employer or even a whole industry, something that the Google workers are not yet able to do. Workers at Boeing in Seattle have had this type of leverage, giving them the ability to postpone the delivery of the latest aircraft, which is why Boeing developed a nonunion backup facility in South Carolina.

Then there is the even higher degree of workplace bargaining power whose strikes can threaten to bring the whole economy to a halt. Railroad workers in the 19th century occasionally exercised this power, also coal miners in the 1930s and 1940s. Truck drivers and airline employees today have this power, but have never used it.

At the other end of the spectrum are university professors who — though they may have irreplaceable skills — have very little workplace structural power. When they go on strike (on the off-chance they all stick together), they might shut a university down, but the main people they inconvenience at least in the short term are their students, who are not themselves the most powerful economic actors.

Legislation and Militancy

CRM: A major debate among academics — from political scientists to lawyers to labor historians and among the left more broadly — has centered on the role of legislation and worker militancy. The standard story, especially popular among liberals, is that pro-working class policies always precede upsurges in working class militancy, not the other way around.

Your work since the late 1980s has sought to reject this standard account. Since this debate has become increasingly relevant to political activism on the left — whether the left should pursue pro-working class policies through the state to awaken an inert working class, or engage more directly in the class struggle — could you explain your position and discuss its contemporary relevance?

MG: This is an extremely important issue for us today, not merely of historical interest. The question really involves how working-class movements grow, and where activists should be putting their energies to facilitate and support these movements.

Most liberals, including the leaders of the labor movement, believe that what holds back unions are the unfavorable laws. If one could only elect more union-friendly Democrats, pass more favorable laws (like card check, and increased penalties on employers who violate labor laws), then union decline could be turned around, and the working-class movement would grow substantially.

In order to support this argument, these leaders and liberal academics completely distort the historical record. First, it is clear that the biggest increases in union membership and strikes have not happened incrementally, but in enormous, often unforeseen upsurges.

For example, such upsurges happened during World War I and its aftermath, with virtually no enabling legislation. The upsurge in public sector union growth, involving many millions of government workers in the 1960s and 1970s, took place before public sector bargaining laws were passed, as I have tried to document in the past.

I argue that these laws were a consequence of enormous union growth and strikes, especially by public school teachers, led by the successful 1960-1961 New York City strike of 50,000 teachers. At the time New York State had perhaps the most draconian anti-public sector bargaining law in the country, the Condon-Wadlin Act, which not only failed to stop the teachers’ strike, but which politicians were afraid to invoke, given the unanimity of the teachers.

A virtually unanimous academic literature (despite some erroneous recent claims that my argument here is not new) states that the early upsurge in the 1930s, especially that of the coal miners was caused by the inclusion of the symbolic pro-union section 7(a) in the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act.

I show in The Southern Key, based on archival evidence, that coal miners were effectively organized on the basis of a massive upsurge before the legislation was passed.

It is largely ideological blindspots that have led to the opposite interpretation, i.e. liberal, reformist, “fake news” so to speak, on how change actually takes place. I make a similar argument with respect to the 1935 Wagner Act (which only became effective after the Flint strike, when the law was then upheld by the Supreme Court in 1937).

The historical lessons are simple. Unions today abandon organizing and put huge amounts of energy and resources into electing Democrats, in what has proven to be the futile attempt to gain more favorable labor laws.

Many who call themselves Socialists do the same. I would argue that these energies, especially ours, should be put into organizing and supporting labor struggles, especially those in the South.

Why No U.S. Socialism?

CRM: Black socialist and “Father of Harlem Radicalism,” Hubert H. Harrison, often wrote that the United States had two choices: “Southernism or Socialism — which?” Can you explain how the labor movement has confronted this question, both practically and theoretically, since the 1930s?

MG: Since the beginning of the Republic, the southern ruling classes have been a bastion for supporting racial oppression (white supremacy), promoting racist ideology (white chauvinism), and anti-labor activities.

Southern states are the major site of the anti-union so-called right-to-work laws. They have been successful to varying degrees of promoting and supporting these activities to those in the South and in the rest of the country.

As W.E.B. Du Bois argued, the real answer to why there is no socialism in the United States (by which he meant no mass socialist, social democratic, labor, or communist party) boils down to why there is no liberalism in the South. So in order to build a mass socialist movement in the country, we must win workers (and radicals), especially white workers, to anti-racist, solidaristic goals.

This struggle of course needs to be nationwide, but it is most important in the South, which remains the bedrock of these values. So Harrison was right, the choice is between socialism or the values of the old South, something the Trump supporters see clearly, while taking the opposite side.

Workers and radicals have a choice today, as they did in the 1930s and 1940s. When conditions get bad — living standards, income inequality and racial oppression were bad enough before, now accentuated by the pandemic — workers, especially white (and male) workers have a choice to make.

Do they band together in solidarity, fighting for common goals, but also against the special forms of oppression faced by Blacks, other non-whites, women, immigrants, LBGQTs? Or do they turn to narrowly racist, male supremacist, anti-immigrant approaches, which seem less risky, and which employers are often happy to oblige?

Certain unions and left groups in the 1930s and 1940s took the path of solidarity and were at times successful, as I try to document in The Southern Key. Communists were very often aggressive at taking this approach, but so were coal miners at times, who were not left-led.

Many times the battles for solidarity were hard-fought, and the ability to convince or at times restrain or isolate racist white workers, especially in the South, but also in the North (where even the auto workers in Detroit saw their share of hate strikes during World War II) were not necessarily easy.

The importance of leadership was often crucial. The CP-led Farm Equipment Workers union had many majority white, civil rights oriented locals, including at the Louisville International Harvester plant. The Packinghouse (UPWA) workers in Fort Worth, Texas, fought a long struggle against the Armour company to integrate their facilities, battling and eventually isolating the racist forces in the local.

The UPWA, in its attempt to launch a national anti-lynching campaign, not only supported Emmett Till’s family in 1955 in Chicago, but was the only union to send a delegation to the trial of his lynchers in Mississippi, the group of eight being interracial, southern, and gender mixed.

Yet many mainstream union leaders in the CIO either capitulated to racism in their unions, or worse, as I argue were the leading enabling forces, including Philip Murray of the Steelworkers, head of the CIO, and Walter Reuther, president of the auto workers. I have attempted to document these things carefully, since they go against the still standard interpretations that leaders like Murray and Reuther were pro-civil rights liberals who were hamstrung by the rank-and-file.

So this is a battle to be waged, not only for the hearts and minds of workers but against mainstream union leaders, and even many of those on the left, who would capitulate to racist forces.

Looking Forward

CRM: In much of your work, you emphasize the catalyzing role of radicals in the labor movement and the fight against white supremacy. What lessons do the successes and failures of the left, especially that of the Communist Party, in the 1930s and 1940s hold for the current generation?

MG: I spend a good bit of time in The Southern Key examining the role that various left groupings played in building solidarity, in particular the activities of the Communist Party, who were at times the most aggressive at pushing these issues. At other times, especially during the Popular Front period (roughly 1935-1939, 1941-1945), they often undermined this stance because of their desire to maintain alliances with Democrats or class collaborationist union officials, even capitulating to them on racial issues.

In particular, during this period, they apologized for President Roosevelt’s unwillingness to support anti-lynching legislation, and gave unrestrained praise to Murray as he was consolidating a white racist union regime.

I also look to a lesser extent at these issues surrounding the Musteites and various Trotskyist groups, including the SWP and the Workers Party. So we need to learn from the best of these struggles, what radicals did right, and avoid the pitfalls that were faced ineffectively.

CRM: How might the left and the labor movement of today rekindle the militancy of the 1930s and ’40s?

MG: The enormous amount of energy spent by both the labor movement and many who consider themselves socialists to elect more liberal Democrats is, in my opinion, completely wasted, and could better have been spent elsewhere.

This is not simply a question of being anti-electoral, which I am not. Even Lenin’s Bolsheviks had elected representatives in the Tsar’s Duma. Yet the goal of Socialists, certainly revolutionary socialists, has never been that winning elections was the key to substantial change.

As the pre-World War I German Social Democratic leader Karl Liebknecht argued, his role was to talk auf dem Fenster (out the window) using his elected position in the Reichstag as a megaphone to talk to the working class. Reforms in general, then and today, are a byproduct of struggle, not of parliamentary maneuvering.

So I would agree with the liberal iconoclast writer Gore Vidal, who said that America has one party, the party of business, and “it has two right wings.” Those of us who call ourselves socialists have no business, as the great Socialist leader Eugene Debs taught us long ago, in supporting either of the two capitalist parties.

Those who are ready and able should be at the workplace helping organize workers to build unions, to develop solidarity and lead struggles, something I attempted to do for a good while in my younger days. Others of us should be spending our time building support, financially, with our bodies, publicizing, etc. those struggles taking place that we can aid.

In talking earlier about leverage that workers have, I want to mention what I call in the book associational power, outside support from other unions, community groups, political organizations, many different groups.

This type of support can give a dramatic boost to any labor struggles. It was central in the 1930s and 1940s, particularly prominent in the 1934 left-led strikes where unemployed and community groups played such a decisive role.

It was true in many other organizing campaigns of the 1930s, especially in auto, here in Detroit where I am, where the left-wing National Negro Congress played an important role in mobilizing support for the 1941 Ford organizing campaign.

So there is a role for all of us to play. I thought it was striking how little attention was paid to these issues, even by the Bernie Sanders campaign which claimed to be interested in unions and working-class issues. Nevertheless, this is where, I believe, our energies can most fruitfully be spent.

March-April 2021, ATC 211


One response to “White Supremacy and Labor’s Failure”

  1. Daniel P Jones Avatar
    Daniel P Jones

    Thank you for this wonderful interview with Michael Gold field