Fighting against the Odds: A History of Southern Labor since World War II

Article excerpt

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. …