Fighting Against the Odds: A History of Southern Labor since World War II. By Timothy J. Minchin. (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2005. 240pp. Cloth: $59.95, ISBN 0-8130-2790-X.)
In 1967, as the American South was completing its makeover from benighted backwater to progressive Sunbelt, labor economist F. Ray Marshall concluded his Labor in the South with the prediction that southern unions, which then claimed 14 percent of the southern workforce, would "continue gradually to increase their membership" until the region's rates of unionization would match the non-South average, which at that time stood at almost 30 percent. Marshall figured that the increasing influx of industrial manufacturers would render obsolete the South's virulent antiunionism and usher in a new era of liberalism that would be "increasingly compatible with collective bargaining."
Of course, Marshall's optimistic forecast of a Dixie Detroit never quite panned out; instead just the opposite trend occurred. Ravaged by deindustrialization, automation, and hostile political climate, unionization rates fell dramatically across the nation. Much to Marshall's displeasure, the Sunbelt South showed that modernization was perfectly compatible with lower levels of union density. Since Marshall made his prediction, the South has enjoyed a sustained economic boom and is home to a series of vibrant metropolitan centers. Southern employers, civic boosters, and savvy politicians achieved this transformation through intensive lobbying for federal dollars, attracting corporations with low taxes, municipal investment, lax pollution and safety regulations, and by cultivating a two-tiered labor market consisting of a highly-educated middle class and an undereducated working class, many of whom are African Americans or Latin American immigrants, laboring in the region's low-wage nonunion sectors, doing the dirty, dangerous jobs that support Sunbelt prosperity.
In Fighting the Odds, historian Timothy Minchin finds this outcome was preordained as early as the 1940s, when the South began its economic take-off. "[E]ven as the region has Americanized," Minchin declares, "it never embraced organized labor to the extent that the rest of the country has" (7). Minchin advances this proposition through much of the book, the first full-length study of organized labor in the South since Marshall's Labor in the South appeared in 1967. A senior lecturer in North American history at Australia's La Trobe University, Minchin is well-suited for this task. In the past eight years, Minchin has produced no less than five monographs and a host of articles on postwar southern labor history. His mastery of the secondary literature, demonstrated by a superb annotated bibliography, serves him well as he distills the last thirty years of the "new southern labor history" into a cogent and stirring narrative. Although this literature explored all aspects of working-class culture, Minchin focuses on what one historian called "the 'big' question" that "stalks" southern labor history: "Why are there so few unions in the South?" For a concise introduction to the history of labor unions in the postwar South, one could not find a better book; for a definitive analysis of why unions failed, however, one should approach this book with caution.
Although Minchin praises Marshall's Labor in the South as a "truly path breaking" work, Minchin's bleak account of union defeat leads one to wonder how a southerner like Marshall could have even conceived of a scenario in which unions thrived in his native region (1). Minchin concedes that organized labor made significant gains in nonunion sectors of the southern economy during World War II, thanks to federal government mandates, but its fate was sealed in the immediate postwar years when southern employers used a host of antiunion tactics to defeat the CIO's Operation Dixie, an ambitious drive designed to stop the migration of "runaway shops" to the low-wage southern textile industry. Without strong industrial unions in the South, southern workers lacked the institutional base to elect liberal politicians who would have extended the labor-friendly New Deal into the postwar era.
Although many historians see the CIO's Operation Dixie as a "missed opportunity" in which labor could have prevailed if it had pushed a more radical civil rights agenda, Minchin finds few opportunities to be missed. Instead, he maintains that the CIO was constrained by "political realities," hemmed in by a coalition of antiunion employers and their political allies who used every means at their disposal to break unions and racist white workers who would rather cross a picket line than join a union that included African Americans (52). Although labor unions would continue to make repeated forays into the South, Minchin sees the battle over by 1954, when the CIO officially called off Operation Dixie, a concession that not only signaled that unionism was doomed in the South, but throughout the nation as well. The CIO's defeat, Minchin asserts, "actually marked the end of the national period of union growth that stretched back" to the 1930s (60).
Despite Minchin's pessimistic assessment, unions continued to make inroads throughout the 1950s, when union growth rates in the South outpaced the rest of the nation. Either as union members themselves or because their employers raised wages to quell union threats, southern white workers reaped the benefits of postwar affluence. Their newfound prosperity was not an indication of labor's failure, but a testament to its success. Minchin's pessimism also leads him to minimize black workers' achievements, particularly after 1964, when the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act put the power of the federal government behind black workers' efforts to gain entry into higher-paying industrial jobs. While Minchin maintains that black workers' considerable inroads into previously white jobs "failed to alter fundamental patterns of poverty" in the South, economic historian Gavin Wright has convincingly shown that black workers achieved an economic and political revolution during the civil rights era (102).
To account for the failure of unionism in the South, Minchin, in a nod to what can best be termed the Moonlight-and-Magnolia school of southern culture, asserts that the region's "antiunionism" constituted nothing less than a "distinctive southern trait" that meshed well with the region's moral conservatism and "different pace of life" (7). But Minchin fails to demonstrate that southern employers were more hostile to unions than their counterparts in other regions. A more convincing explanation that avoids the trap of "southern identity" has been advanced by historian Bryant Simon who attributes southern employers' antiunionism to the fact that most southern industries, particularly textiles, were concentrated in competitive, labor-intensive sectors and could not pass on higher labor costs to consumers in the form of higher prices. Southern employers' hostility toward unions was identical to midwestern manufacturers in similar competitive environments, and, as Minchin shows, the most ruthless of southern employers tended to be transplanted northerners such as New York-born Roger Milliken who liquidated one of his textile mills after workers voted to join a union.
It is also puzzling that Minchin assigns explanatory power to an abstract force such as regional "identity," given the rich history of human agency that he depicts in this book. His narrative undermines any notion of a single regional identity, or even a coherent single region as he takes the reader on a tour of a geographically expansive South that stretches from West Virginia to El Paso, Texas. Along the way, Minchin shows that the region's workers continued "fighting the odds" to form unions well into the twenty-first century.
In the end, Minchin's conclusion about the implications of the failure of unionism in the South hits its mark. While the Sunbelt South may have transcended its worst aspects, southern states have the nation's lowest median wage and rates of disability and unemployment compensation, while posting the highest rates of occupational disease and number of residents living below the poverty line. Southern boosters may congratulate themselves on a job well done, but they have turned a blind eye to the misery in their midst, which Minchin correctly notes, would have turned out much differently if unions had enjoyed greater success in the region.
David M. Anderson
Louisiana Tech University…