Arkansas lesson: organize the South

My mother is laid to rest with my Vermont-born father in the Mississippi Delta region of the state of Arkansas. She rests not far from the family farm where she was born. We still produce rice and soybeans there and family histories that break through the simplistic narrative produced by the national media about Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s Arkansas Democratic Party primary victory.

There are miles of Arkansas roads where tourists seldom go. The food, farming and duck hunting are good. The people are often generous and friendly. And poverty and abandoned factories are easy to see. The historic economic underdevelopment of the African American community is both a legacy of slavery, segregation and substandard schools and a result of generations of failed policies of tax cuts, deregulation and business-friendly governments in “the land of opportunity.” African Americans and low-income European Americans or “poor white folks” suffer from low wages, low or no benefits, few unions and under-funded schools. Football, good Southern or soul food and Christianity unite most.

There are many faces of Arkansas, but outside of a few outposts of organization the majority of Arkansas workers are unorganized, disorganized, atomized as workers. Arkansas workers are organized around football, family, food, denominations and the military. This is, after all, the state where Bill Clinton ran for governor on a platform of opposition to the state teachers union. If you don’t believe me, read Clinton’s autobiography.

There was justice in the efforts of organized labor and in sending millions to Arkansas to defeat the betrayer of the “public option” in health care reform and the enemy of the Employee Free Choice Act, none other than the so-called Democrat, Sen. Blanche Lincoln. Although we came close to beating her, simply put: “close doesn’t cut it.” Many Democrats, disgusted with her performance, might just stay home in November. Arkansas is full of Republicans who won’t.

The real issue is the unfulfilled historic legacy of organized labor’s plans to organize the South. Millions for a primary might have been the winning ticket if a real grassroots “organize the South” campaign, coordinated with all of labor together rather than piecemeal, had been in place. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee’s incredible victory organizing farm workers in North Carolina, and the United Food and Commercial Workers’ victory at Smithfield’s meatpacking “super plant” there, suggest the way forward. Total commitment on the ground, real coordination, an army of “do or die” grassroots skilled organizers willing to take up the struggle against racism within the working class movement, would be the soul of such a campaign. Nothing less will do.

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