Organized labor and politics down south: Conversation with a rank-and-filer
In this Dec. 4, 2015 file photo, union supporters hold up signs near the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. | Erik Schelzig / AP

You should know right from the start that governing elites in the southern United States have been passionately anti-union pretty much since we stopped being a British colony.

And despite recent social and economic progress, as well as the valiant efforts to destroy the last remnants of Jim Crow’s shadow, reactionary forces in the South continue to rebel against labor unions.

Today, union membership across the South is about 5.2%, half the national average of 10.3%, with South and North Carolina (2.2 and 2.3%) having the lowest unionization rates in the nation. One key exception is the building and construction trades, which have a small stronghold in the South.

The statistics give an idea of the odds workers face in the South, but they don’t necessarily reflect the on-the-ground organizing that’s been going on in the last few years.

Unions have had a radical resurgence in the last few years. Major organizing drives have taken place across the South—a Volkswagen auto plant in Tennessee, Boeing’s South Carolina plant, and even with a “no vote” coming on union election day, workers have not stopped acting together to improve working conditions.

A common theme coming out of the national Fight for $15 and a Union campaign, particularly in the South was: “Act like a Union, even if you’re not recognized as a union.”

Teacher strikes that started in the South have spread across the country, revitalizing the fight to defend public education. | Jeff Chiu / AP

Outside of manufacturing, Teachers gallantly walked off their jobs in the South, and from coast to coast, in defiance of bad public education policies and funding, winning reforms that benefit both students and teachers alike. West Virginia teachers defeated a bill that would have taken funding from public schools and put it in the hands of private education companies.

Of course, these efforts go beyond the bread and butter fights. Labor down south has been a constant ally to the “New Poor People’s Campaign” in calling for a “moral revival,” and addressing the systemic issues affecting low-wage, and poor people from all across the U.S.

And, just recently, unions in Louisiana have jumped in the fray to protect reproductive rights, as the state pushes forward restrictive legislation on women’s right to choose.

Organized labor is alive, well, and active throughout the South—making up an invaluable part of its culture, despite the statistics and unfriendly-to-labor history of the region.

But as recounted at the beginning of this article, it’s tough being in a union in the South, almost as tough as it is to get a union in the South.

A quick labor history trip

For the latter part of the 20th century, state governments in the South—whether Republican or Democratic, prided themselves in providing businesses a cheap, union-free zone to set up shop.

They kept unions out largely by being Right-to-Work (for less) states and thanks to the federal labor law amendments under the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, known to union members everywhere as the Taft-Hartley Act, which restricted labor’s power and leverage. That law simultaneously gave employers the upper hand while giving the green light to states to become Right-to-Work.

Taft-Hartley was the product of a Republican-controlled Congress following the Great Post-War Strike Wave of ’46. It wasn’t all downhill after that; of course, some inroads were made in the South by organized labor in the decades since. The American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (Operation Dixie) both launched massive organizing drives, though both crashed against Jim Crow laws, deeply rooted racial prejudice preventing poor Black and White workers from building solidarity, a general distrust of “outside Northern agitators,” and a surge in red-baiting.

Old-time Southern capitalists, and modern-day capitalists, too, have been skillful in using racism and anti-communism to divide workers and block union organizing efforts.

“The labor hater and labor baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King famously said about this phenomenon.

During the McCarthy era’s height, labor suffered tremendous setbacks. Anti-communism led to the expulsion of communist, socialist, and left leadership in the CIO. That meant the main force responsible for new organizing and building black-white, multi-racial, and labor-community unity was ousted.

Present-day: Elections 2020

Parallels can be drawn between organized labor’s past defeats in the South and the current red-baiting taking place in the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. If you need any indication of how vicious things have gotten, you need to only hear some of the talking heads losing their minds, or just re-watch last week’s South Carolina Democratic primary debate. Many openly or subtly invoked the red scare against the democratic socialist candidate leading the field.

Early in February 2020, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden. How was that decision arrived at? What’s the feel of the membership down south? Was there a generational split on the votes? Those were just some of the questions I wanted to find answers for.

Ezra Byrd is a 28-year-old IBEW senior apprentice from North Carolina. He was kind enough to speak with me for over an hour on the phone last week, talking shop and politics. We talked just before Super Tuesday.

A little bit about Ezra first, though.

Before becoming a union apprentice, he worked construction for non-union contractors and as an “independent contractor” himself. He says he “wasn’t political.”

“My brother-in-law became a journeyman with the union recently, and he’s the one who organized me in,” Ezra said, in a soft, Southern drawl. “He told me I could stick with doing work for 14 bucks an hour and no benefits, or I could join the IBEW and do the same work but better…that’s what got me got me into politics… My political consciousness skyrocketed being part of the union—we’re constantly talking about how contractors are doing wrong and politicians making promises they can’t keep.”

Ezra’s not a first-generation union member. His grandfather was in the Carpenters Union before they moved to North Carolina. As he explained, his granddad worked for the Lutheran church and was sent on assignment to Germany, came back stateside to have his son (Ezra’s father), and then went back to the Black Forest of Germany where they spent 17 years.

“I can’t say I’m in immigrant, but we have a strange situation where culturally we are very German.” Along with German culture came radical, leftist politics.

“My dad has always been pro-union and pro-workers’ rights, but he never joined one because he didn’t know they existed here,” said Ezra. “But I just got him in as a first-year IBEW apprentice—so now it’s my journeyman bother-in-law, me soon to be a journeyman, and my dad starting with the union. It’s a family affair now.”

“What’s it like being in a union down south?” I asked.

“Well, the (building trades) unions here for a long time were pretty exclusive,” he said. “You had to know someone or have family inside to get a shot at an apprenticeship.

“It’s only recently, in the last 10 years, that things have started to open up. We have our first female apprentice graduate in our local in about 40 years. Once the old union administration stepped down and more progressive folks stepped up, the union is starting to show its power. You can only hold democracy back for so long before the tools that are there strike back, and it finally has.”

This natural train of conversation led us right to the 2020 elections, Bernie Sanders, and IBEW’s recent national endorsement of Biden.

Byrd said the decision was made without polling the membership. “So a petition started going around several locals” calling on national to reconsider the endorsement and instead opt for Sanders. “If you look at the ‘IBEW for Bernie’ Facebook page,” he tells me, “you’ll see most of the members are 30 and under”

That letter now has over 1,200 members’ signatures calling on the national union to reverse its political course.

He paused, took a breath, and continued: “For a long time, our membership ranks where shrinking, but now we’re growing because the younger generation of leaders are getting rid of outdated racist, sexist policies which allowed those on the apprenticeship board to automatically reject women and people of color.

“We are actively reaching out to lower-income high schools, trying to combat poverty and expand the trade and the viability of apprenticeship. Our local is still majority white, but I can tell you those new first and second-year apprentices are 80% women, Black, and Latino.”

As he put it, the millennials are driving the union forward, pushing progress from within, and their voices should be consulted on political matters directly affecting them.

And for Ezra, it all means getting active.

During his last local meeting, he put forward a motion calling on the national leadership to reconsider its endorsement of Biden (IBEW locals have the constitutional right to do so) and back Sanders. The vote on the motion won’t take place till after Super Tuesday, but it’s the principle that counts, he says, and it “shows our progress by having the motion move to a full vote.”

“What about racism within the local and in the Carolinas?” I asked. “Has this new progressive push addressed those long-standing issues?”

“It’s complicated. Racism is not dead; in the Carolinas, it is alive and thriving,” he said. “I work with a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds, and I can tell you whenever it’s a group of white workers, alone, there will be racist comments and jokes. I try to shut it down, but it doesn’t stop it from happening.”

Ezra Byrd, age 28, IBEW senior apprentice. | Courtesy of Ezra Byrd

Many of his Black union sisters and brothers who experience daily racism are also aware of politicians tokenizing them for votes and then discarding them after they win.

“Speaking of the issues,” I ask, “what did you think of the debate, and the 2020 elections?”

“A frustrating window into what American politics is….” said Ezra, before taking an audible deep breath. “You have red scare tactics over issues viewed as moderate left to the rest of the world, and attacks against Sanders for saying something positive about a communist nation.”

Though Ezra backs Bernie, his support comes with a reservation.

“The most disappointing thing about Sanders at the moment, especially during the debate, is his denouncing ‘dictatorships in China, Cuba, Venezuela,’ because if you look at his voting record it’s not too good—he voted to bomb Yugoslavia during the Kosovo war.

“It’s all really frustrating because he may be challenging the domestic status quo but he’s not challenging the international relations status quo…. He’s doing himself a disservice by not pushing a more radical international agenda…. On domestic issues, he’s never been scared to stand by his beliefs, [but] by taking a step back and capitulating to ideas like calling China a dictatorship, or Venezuela, etc., he shows he doesn’t have the same level of staunch progressiveness for the rest of the world.”

When it comes to politics today, a healthy dose of skepticism and constructive criticism goes a long way. Ezra’s political hopes lie beyond just a Sanders win and involve a complete shift in America’s political consciousness—a little bit more towards the left.

We each hung up our phones and began preparing mentally for the next few very political days; anxious to see how the votes would turn out on Tuesday.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.