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