South's Anti-Union Mentality Fading as Economy Changes UPS Strike Is One Example of How the South's Views on Labor Relations Are Shifting

Article excerpt

Outside a large United Parcel Service facility, a crowd forms a picket line. Staccato chants fill the air. Union members blow "fighting for the future" whistles in protest.

It's Day 4 for striking Teamsters. Across the nation, sidewalks and parking lots host similar scenes as UPS and labor negotiators remain at an impasse.

But here in the capital of the historically anti-union South, the strike carries special symbolic importance. It and other union activity point up some of the profound economic changes the region has undergone of late and perhaps provide lessons for the future of America's struggling labor movement.

As more of the nation's manufacturing and population base has shifted to the South, unions have moved more aggressively into the region as well - a phenomenon often overlooked amid publicity about a pro-industry attitude that has allowed Southern states to woo manufacturing giants such as BMW and Mercedes to the area.

"The South is very important to the national union scene," says Kate Bronfenbrenner at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. "So much work has moved there..."

Historically weak unions

A generation ago, the UPS picket lines and rallies that now dot Atlanta would have garnered more ridicule than sympathy.

For two reasons, unions held only a crumbling foothold in the region until the 1970s. First, industry in the South has traditionally depended on low wages. Second, politics have been dominated by business leaders, who have held down unions.

Race and the lack of ethnic diversity also played a role in keeping unions out of the political structure.

"In the North," says historian Jonathan Prude, "different ethnic groups organized themselves occupationally, so the stake in having a good wage became bound up in ethnic politics and in ethnic self-consciousness."

In the South, by contrast, race often kept workers from forging solidarity. And management used race as a dividing tool. "For workers who talked of unionizing, the retort often was, 'We don't need you, we'll hire black workers,' " says Professor Prude at Atlanta's Emory University.

That all began to change as the civil rights movement improved race relations, as high-tech jobs began moving south, and as the region entered an economic boom that has drawn in millions of outsiders.

But even today, the South's political and business structures remain formidably opposed to unions. …