Hard times are fighting times: Why and how we must win the South

The following document was prepared by members of the Durham, N.C., branch of Workers World Party and updated on April 8, 2014.  

The goal of this document is to help inform discussion at the March 29th Hard Times Are Fighting Times Conference on Socialism by placing current anti-racist struggles in the U.S. South and the U.S. labor movement in the context of historic national oppression and previous setbacks in the South. The goal is to avoid past mistakes and build greater unity in and between the anti-racist and union movements. To accomplish this we will first lay out some of the key historical points of the last 150 years, followed by an analysis of recent developments, and finally a few suggestions for a perspective for the coming period.

The unique importance of the U.S. South

The U.S. South has a dual character. It is primarily a region of the United States, the biggest imperialist power in the world and the greatest threat to humanity today. At the same time, however, the U.S. South has a unique history within the United States, with a different pattern of development rooted in slavery, and as such it is part of the Global South — characterized by colonialism, exploitation by imperialist powers, and national oppression. This contradictory character is both what makes this region pivotal to revolutionaries seeking ultimately to overthrow capitalism and what has frustrated previous attempts to organize workers in the region.

The role of the South — as a crucial component of modern U.S. imperialism — cannot be discounted. The School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Ga., has trained death squads and right-wing militaries that have terrorized Latin America for decades.

North Carolina itself is home to two of the largest military bases in the world. Fort Bragg is the biggest U.S. Army base in the world, home to the Special Forces Command, the U.S. Army Airborne Command and the Army Reserve Command — the biggest concentration of generals outside the Pentagon, which is itself in the South (Virginia). Camp LeJeune is the largest U.S. Marine base in the world. Other crucial U.S. bases — too many to list here — are also concentrated in the South. Notable ones include Fort Jackson U.S. Army, Fort Hood Army Base, Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Shaw Air Force Base, Pope AFB, Langley AFB, Marine Corps Base Quantico, Fort Hill Army Base, and Norfolk Naval Base.

These bases are located in the South for at least two reasons. First, this region has historically developed many U.S. military leaders going back to the Civil War, when many of the top military generals joined the Confederacy, as well as many military leaders of U.S. imperialism in the 20th century. Some of the worst offenders include Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels from North Carolina, who directed the invasion and occupation of Haiti in 1915, and General William Westmoreland, who became infamous during the Vietnam War.  Southern leaders also led imperialist interventions in Mexico, Cuba, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and others. Second, the concentration of bases in the South is due to its proximity to Latin America and the Caribbean and the perpetual threat of U.S. aggression to the Global South.

Building a movement that is visible in this stronghold of U.S. imperialism is necessary not only to show solidarity with the victims of U.S. military aggression around the world, but in the long term to organize GIs within the military.

Economic concentration as well as military

Not only is the South the center of U.S. military power, it is increasingly becoming a manufacturing center for U.S. capitalism. While it is still underdeveloped with respect to the rest of the country, it is now home to 30 percent of the manufacturing in the United States, a percentage which is growing due to both run-away shops from the more unionized North and direct foreign investment in new manufacturing. The South now receives 43 percent of all direct foreign investment in the U.S. Toyota, Honda, BMW, Nissan, Hyundai, Mercedes, and Volkswagen all have extensive operations in the South, concentrated in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and South Carolina. These same states are similarly increasingly home-to-domestic steel production.

The new manufacturing in the South is not only due to the racist anti-union laws that depress wages, but also the result of billions of dollars in incentives from states and cities that were forced to compete for the investments. These huge corporate giveaways drained the budgets needed to pay public workers and the money needed for housing, education, and infrastructure which was already severely underdeveloped. This makes the South even more vulnerable to human-created and natural disasters such as Hurricanes Floyd, Rita, and Katrina. States are also competing by removing any environmental protections, allowing fracking, and other practices that increase the risk of these disasters.

Much has been said in the capitalist press recognizing the importance to the labor movement of organizing these new manufacturing plants, especially in the context of the recent loss at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, but it is more important to understand why that happened. Comrades should carefully review Martha Grevatt’s Feb. 20 article in Workers World, “Volkswagen workers lost. Why?” except to say that an understanding of the history of the South — especially the inextricable links among national oppression, anti-unionism, and anti-communism — is at the center of it.

At the same time that manufacturing and foreign investment are increasing in the South, it is also emerging as a center of banking and finance capital, as characteristic of imperialism. In other parts of the Global South, imperialists locate production and steal natural resources, but keep finance capital at home. As part of the imperialist U.S., as well as part of the Global South, the U.S. South is also increasingly a center of finance capital, especially Charlotte, N.C., which is now the second largest banking center in the U.S., trailing only New York. Charlotte is the headquarters of Bank of America and the East Coast headquarters of Wells Fargo. Many other major capitalist conglomerates such as Nucor Steel, Duke Energy, Chiquita, and Time Warner Cable are also located there. Southern organizers began to mobilize directly against the banks in 2012 with the March on Wall Street South and the demonstrations at the BofA shareholders’ meeting. Increasingly Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and other unions are directly targeting the banks as well.

The Civil War and Reconstruction: An unfinished revolution for African Americans

Monica Moorehead’s introduction to “A Voice from Harper’s Ferry” should be required reading for any revolutionary or organizer in the U.S. South. There is no need to repeat all of her analysis, but a few points are crucial to understanding where we are now. First, she states that the Civil War was not primarily a war for the liberation of slaves: “It was a class war between two different exploiting classes,” the semi-feudal slaveocracy and the emerging industrial capitalist class of the North. Furthermore the defeat of the confederacy was a military defeat only; the capitalists did not “uproot every vestige of slavery,” which “deter[ed] a transition from a reactionary feudal period to a bourgeois democracy in the South, at least as far as the Black masses were concerned.” In short, freed Black workers were left without the bourgeois democratic rights of other U.S. workers, especially whites — rights often essential to organizing and building political power.

During the period of Reconstruction, the Black masses and their white allies made substantial gains toward full legal equality, enacting statutes and constitutional amendments that in some cases were even better than those won through struggle in the Civil Rights movement a century later. Contrary to popular history, these gains were not gifts of a benevolent government. The entire second half of the 19th century was characterized by struggle, often armed struggle, across the South. In North Carolina, Henry Berry Lowery, a Native American leader, led a guerrilla band of freed slaves, Native Americans, and poor whites against the “Home Guard” — the remnants of the Confederacy. When Black workers and white Republicans were able to win control of state governments, they were opposed by armed white supremacist militias: the Ku Klux Klan, the “Red Shirts” in North Carolina, and the “White League” in Louisiana.

By the turn of the century Black workers were abandoned entirely by the federal government and the Northern bourgeoisie. Southern white supremacists were left with free reign to strip all democratic rights and impose the apartheid Jim Crow regime. In 1898 in Wilmington, N.C., hundreds of Black leaders were killed in a coup by the white supremacist Democratic Party which took control of the local government. At the same time Klan violence and intimidation, combined with new laws known as the “Black Codes, stripped Blacks of the right to vote and enforced segregation.

Continuing role of the state perpetuates racism and national oppression

The use of state repressive power to enforce racial apartheid is not a historical feature, but ongoing structural racism that has adapted its form to modern conditions still serves the same function. The modern prison-industrial complex, especially in the South, is directly rooted in slavery and Jim Crow. North Carolina’s Central Prison was commissioned by the state in 1868 directly after the Civil War, as were prisons across the South. This new penal system, built with slave labor, emerged as a new tool for the oppression of former slaves.

The same system of state violence continues today where the police and the racist courts are the primary tool of racial oppression. The racist death penalty is concentrated in Southern states, especially Texas. So-called “stand-your-ground” laws attempting to legitimize the murder of unarmed Black youth started in the South and are spreading. Police murders of people of color are rampant, notably the murders of Jesus Huerta and Jonathan Ferrell here in North Carolina.

Organizing against this racist state and vigilante violence often originates in the South, spreading across the country as in the cases of the Jena 6, Troy Davis, and Trayvon Martin. These movements have attracted more energy, especially among young oppressed workers, than any other movements in recent years. As has been done so successfully in Baltimore, the vehicle of people’s assemblies can unite these movements with workers’ struggles.

Industrialization and organizing in the South

Jim Crow emerged just as class consciousness was growing in the rest of the country and socialism was gaining in popularity, but Jim Crow was triumphant. Black workers, former slaves, and sharecroppers fled north in the Great Migration, fleeing poverty, segregation, and Klan terrorism. The bosses attempted to use these new workers to cut wages and undermine organizing drives, playing on the racism of white workers. This tactic has been the primary weapon of U.S. imperialism ever since. The effect was similar to the abolition of the commons in England, driving farmers off their land and bolstering capitalism by supplying needed workers and undermining wages.

At the same time, in the process characteristic of modern imperialism, capitalists began moving manufacturing to the South to avoid organized labor, beginning with the textile industry. Huge mills opened across North Carolina, quickly becoming the dominant industry. For the first time communists recognized the critical importance of organizing the South and that it could only be done on the basis of complete anti-racist solidarity. The Communist Party sent organizers to Gastonia, N.C., in the late 1920s, leading to the largest strike in the state’s history that included both Black and white workers, even though the mills were entirely segregated. Similar efforts were undertaken across the South, especially in Alabama among steelworkers, mine workers, and sharecroppers. Ultimately most of these efforts failed due to the racism of Southern whites.

This pattern has continued with every organizing effort in the South, which began with the unsuccessful Knights of Labor in the 1880s who endorsed segregation. In 1940, an organizing drive was successful at Reynolds Tobacco Company among the majority Black and women work force, but it was turned back by the racism of the federal courts, which cut Black workers out of the bargaining unit and added white supervisors, breaking the union.

After World War II, the last major effort of the Congress of Industrial Organizations was Operation Dixie from 1946 to 1953 — an effort by the more radical of the two national union federations to organize the South. The entire U.S. capitalist class united with Southern white supremacists. The campaign was ultimately defeated by a combination of white supremacy, the anti-communist red scare, and the Taft-Hartley Act, which allowed states to ban strikes and closed union shops. This defeat led directly to a right-wing shift in the labor movement overall, as the CIO was forced to merge with the American Federation of Labor and abandon social unionism in a shift toward business unionism.

In 1959, in the early stages of the mass Civil Rights movement that swept the South, North Carolina enacted its last major piece of racist apartheid legislation of the Jim Crow era — a ban on collective bargaining for public workers. As low-wage public workers were disproportionately Black and women workers, this attack on public workers was a racist and sexist attack by the state. Subsequently Virginia passed a similar ban. Because they were successful in the South, the bosses are now expanding this attack across formerly strong union states like Michigan and Wisconsin, which triggered an historic fightback in 2011.

This history suggests only two paths that have been repeatedly argued about at least since the Gastonia strike. Either the labor movement can engage in a cowardly attempt to avoid the history of slavery and national oppression and ignore racism, in order to avoid falling victim to the prejudice of Southern whites, or it can take the only path to victory: recognize that a struggle against racism is essential to working-class solidarity and the only hope to organize the South.

The changing character of the working class

As Sam Marcy, a founder and chairperson of Workers World Party, noted 30 years ago in his seminal work, High Tech, Low Pay, the social character of the U.S. working class is increasingly women workers and workers of oppressed nationalities in service sector industries. Nowhere is this more true than in the U.S. South, as the preceding history shows. African-American and women workers have always been the largest percentage of semi-skilled workers, and now Latino/a workers make up huge numbers. Latino/a workers are growing as a percentage of the workforce faster in the South than in any other region of the U.S. The states with the fastest growing Latino/a population from 2000 to 2010 were all in the South: South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, and North Carolina, with Maryland, Mississippi, Georgia, and Virginia close behind.

As of 2010, women make up almost half of North Carolina’s workforce, similar to that in other Southern states, which continues to increase, while the percentage of men in the workforce is decreasing. Women workers are paid significantly less for the same positions. While they are actually more likely than men to hold college and advanced degrees, women make up a much smaller fraction of professional and managerial positions.  They are also much more likely to have only part-time work.

The South is also of critical importance to the struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer liberation. Despite the fact that LGBTQ workers have always made up large proportions of the working class, and are increasingly coming out and self-organizing, Southern states perpetuate reactionary and anti-gay legislation that is even worse than that seen in the rest of the country.

While courts in other states are being pressured to recognize same-sex marriage — most recently in Ohio — not a single Southern state has done so. In fact in 2012 North Carolina became the last state to enact a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. Activists flooded into North Carolina in 2012 and worked alongside local organizations to defeat the amendment.  While they were defeated by the right-wing, they left a legacy of resistance that continues to inspire the LGBTQ liberation movement in the South.

This changing social character of the working class in the South has profound implications for the movement.

Laying the foundation for uniting the anti-racist and labor movements

In the last 15 years two unions in North Carolina have shown the way toward the necessary anti-racist approach to organizing in the South. In 1997 the United Electrical Workers came to North Carolina at the request of Black Workers for Justice to help organize Black workers at the Consolidated Diesel plant in Rocky Mount and surrounding plants. This organizing expanded to majority Black low-wage public workers in cities, state facilities, and universities with the founding of UE Local 150 in 1999.

From the beginning UE-150 and BWFJ’s focus has not been on traditional card-check organizing drives, which have too often led to unions pulling out and abandoning workers after a defeat. Instead the focus has been on building workers’  direct power over working conditions with community and labor solidarity, especially around fighting racism in the workplace, which has led to deep roots in communities across the state. Similarly, beginning with the Mt. Olive Pickle campaign in 1998, FLOC has successfully organized thousands of migrant Latino/a agricultural workers by engaging a broad base of community supporters around not just workplace issues but broader questions of immigrant rights.

Learning from these examples, the United Food and Commercial Workers successfully won a contract at the Smithfield plant, the largest pork processing plant in the world in 2009 after a 16-year struggle. The UFCW at times waivered on questions of immigrant rights but ultimately did not abandon the struggle and took the necessary patient, long-term view, uniting Black and Latino/a workers.

This approach is now evident in the Service Employees’ fast food worker campaign, which is gaining traction across the South. Organizers are focusing on building community solidarity and workplace actions, rather than short-term card check campaigns. Pushing this movement in an explicitly anti-racist direction and building independent leadership among workers and the community are our most pressing tasks. It is noteworthy that FLOC workers, UE-150 workers, and Smithfield workers all make less than $15 an hour. We must encourage them to identify with the “low-wage” workers struggle as their leadership will be essential to its success.

Jackson, Moral Mondays, and the Southern Workers Assembly

As the economic crisis continues and millions of workers remain unemployed, we know that low-wage capitalism is not a passing phenomenon. Instead the anti-labor policies of the South, with their inherent racism, are being spread North to formerly industrialized and organized states. At the same time, Black leaders in the South are spearheading a new Civil Rights movement, but one that may prove stronger than the old because the conditions of the economic crisis are making the anti-racist struggle inseparable from union struggles and all struggles for social justice.

In some ways the economic crisis for our class began with Black and rural workers in the South, who were decimated by the North American Free Trade Agreement and subsequent “free trade” agreements. North Carolina lost 370,250 manufacturing jobs from 1993 to 2009, and 170,000 textile and apparel jobs between 1997 and 2002. Most of these jobs were in small towns in the Black Belt of North Carolina. Any minimal job growth during that period was in the finance and technological centers of the Research Triangle and Charlotte among a predominantly white work force, which reinforced historic racial divides. Now even those jobs are being lost and wages are being cut. IBM announced another massive round of layoffs in the Research Triangle in February.

Understanding the Moral Monday fightback, now spreading from North Carolina across the South, should begin with Saladin Muhammad’s article, “Moral Mondays: The Emergence and Dynamics of a Growing Mass Human Rights Movement.” In it he lays out the roots of Moral Mondays in a 2007 People’s Assembly and in NAACP President Rev. William Barber’s solidarity with UE-150. The people’s assembly program with its 14-point agenda combines labor and Civil Rights demands with opposition to imperialist war and the need for social programs for the unemployed. This year’s historic march of 80,000 workers in Raleigh on Feb. 9 was significant not only because of its mass size and draw from across the South, but even more so because of the large turnouts from labor unions, the youth and student movement, and the environmental justice movement under Black leadership.

In Jackson, Mississippi, a people’s assembly movement led to the historic election of Chokwe Lumumba as mayor, whose recent death was a severe blow to our class, but whose success reflects the power of the people’s assembly process. Continued attention to the developments in Jackson will be necessary in the coming months to ensure that the tragic death of Lumumba does not result in a major political setback and to continue to push the assemblies to deeper engagement around workers’ struggles.

The Southern Workers Assembly represents a united effort of activists and revolutionaries with BWFJ, FLOC, UE-150, the fast food worker organizing committee, and the UFCW Smithfield local to build a people’s assembly in the South, which not only unites these labor forces but also acts as a conscious independent section in the Moral Monday movement.

People’s assemblies are of special importance in the South because of the possibility of using them to overcome the racism and other forms of oppression that have fractured and defeated prior organizing. First, they can build a revolutionary pole within the labor movement and an independent structure that is not beholden to the Democratic Party nor dependent on the funding of international unions that may withdraw their support. Second, and even more importantly, the assemblies provide a forum for the type of patient explanation and discussion that is necessary to win over white workers to the leadership of the most oppressed, to allow all workers to understand the similarities of their situations that transcend industries and nationalities, and to build the ongoing relationships necessary for a protracted struggle.

Build the Southern Workers Assembly and All People’s Assemblies!

Organize the South!

Long Live the People’s Struggle!