“The Key to Change is for Working People to Organize”: An Interview with Michael Goldfield

Left Voice interviewed Michael Goldfield, author of "The Southern Key: Class, Race, and Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s." We discuss the Amazon unionization effort in Bessemer Alabama, the tradition of labor unions in Alabama and the need for radical working class organizing.
  • Left Voice | 
  • April 13, 2021

In your book, The Southern Key: Class, Race, and Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s, you talk about the Alabama exception— with Alabama being more highly unionized and having more progressive politics than the rest of the South in the 30’s and 40’s. Why was Alabama an “exception” and what is the legacy of class struggle in Alabama?  In your opinion, did that legacy of the “Alabama exception” survive at all? 

Although the 1930s and 1940s are seemingly a long time ago, before hardly any of us were born, there are still lots of lessons for us to learn. In looking at the Alabama labor movement during this period, one must begin with the coal miners. They were, as I show, the first to organize. Coal miners (and miners in general) in the U.S. and the world over have usually been at the vanguard of labor struggles. Chilean copper miners and Bolivian tin miners also played this role. In West Virginia, before the Lewis regime took away district voting rights, coal miners not only exhibited strong interracial solidarity, but also elected Frank Keeney, an avowed socialist and not incidentally a defender of Indigenous rights. And while I attempt to show that coal miners were the vanguard of the labor movement during this period, there were also vanguard sectors of coal miners. District 20 in Alabama was one of them, and it is not coincidental that 50% of them in the state were African-American. In 1943, when President Roosevelt threatened to draft any miners who struck again, all 23,000 coal miners in Alabama walked out, leading the way for a national strike of coal miners which the administration was powerless to stop. Iron ore miners (organized by the Communist-led Mine Mill and Smelter Workers) and steel workers, tens of thousands in the six county Birmingham area (including in Bessemer) were not far behind.

Left Voice is hosting a panel with a Bessemer Amazon worker and Robin D.G. Kelly, author of Hammer and Hoe to discuss the results of the unionization vote. Sign up and RSVP to the Facebook event.

The coal miners in Alabama saw it as their task and duty to assist in organizing all other workers in the state. They aided in the organization, beginning in 1934, of the tens of thousands of textile workers who were not easily organized in other states as well as woodworkers, washer women, laundry workers, school teachers, agricultural laborers, and even principals in one county. The Walker County Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) claimed later in the decade that they were the most unionized county, with Walker County being just northwest of Birmingham’s Jefferson County, in the whole country.

As I try to document in The Southern Key, Black workers were most often the most solidaristic and radical, amazing their white co-workers, even at times more conservative white union officials. This powerful interracial union movement was an important base of support propelling the election of radical populist, somewhat racially liberal, Big Jim Folsom, to the governorship in 1946 and 1954, making him more than a bit of an outlier among Southern governors.

As left-wing unions were expelled or in some cases destroyed, activists from these unions in Alabama provided the backbone for many civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s. They even took over many of the state’s NAACP chapters, including in Bessemer, to the consternation of the national NAACP office. Robin Kelley, in his wonderful dissertation and later book, Hammer and Hoe, was able to interview many of the survivors of these struggles. As a result of African-American voting and the election of Black officials in the majority Black city of Birmingham, on February 26, 1980, Mayor Richard Arrington proclaimed “Hosea Hudson Day,” giving Hudson (who died in 1988) the keys to the city. Hudson had been an open Communist leader of the steel workers, later a civil rights activist, so the tradition certainly lived well past the 1930s and 1940s. 

It is not clear how strong or faint this legacy is today, although recently in the militant state-wide strike of West Virginia school teachers, many claimed to be following in the footsteps of coal miners there, many perhaps their grandparents. The 1100 coal miners on strike at Warrior Met coal outside Tuscaloosa, who just rejected the contract negotiated by the UMWA leaders 1006 to 45 (an astounding rejection!) clearly follow in this tradition. The RWDSU at the Amazon facility in Bessemer failed, in my opinion, to tap into this tradition, which was probably more possible.

Let’s talk a bit about the recent Amazon Bessemer campaign. What do you make of the results?

First, we must recognize that the overwhelming vote against the union in Bessemer marks a decisive defeat, not to be underestimated. It will undoubtedly have a dampening effect on other workers, especially given its broad media attention and the high expectations of many. 

Yet, before dissecting what happened there, we need to recognize that this is a difficult period to organize for unions.

There is the pandemic and widespread unemployment, with the recognition that there are many other workers who are potential replacements. Threats by big companies, especially Amazon, such as that they might just move a facility if it were unionized are widespread and credible. Unlike coal mines or ports, which are fixed in place, logistics facilities can indeed move. The vicious overwhelming nature of anti-union campaigns by management has been well-documented. The low level of unionization at present, especially in the private sector, below six percent nationally, now presents workers with questions of support.The low level of confidence in general that a union would be able or willing to do much also plays a role.

The logistics industry, however, is doing well, especially during the pandemic. It is central, not just to retail (as with Amazon and Walmart), but also more importantly to global, just in time manufacturing. So, it is an important arena where workers, if organized on a broad scale, could potentially have a great deal of leverage, what I call in the book “structural power.” The industry includes not just warehouse workers, but also truck drivers, air and railroad workers, and shipping and port workers who tend to be more unionized and are pivotal to moving goods.

Given all this, it is important to look at the union’s strategy, comparing it to both other failed campaigns, especially of the UAW in Mississippi, Chattanooga, and Kentucky, and also to a variety of mostly less publicized campaigns which were successful.

It is hard to know how well the union did or did not organize workers inside the facility. What we do know is that they had only a few workers as visible spokespeople. They seemed to rely on using other unionists to leaflet and talk to workers going in and out of the facility and bringing in high profile people (including Sanders) to speak to supporters. While not as sclerotic as the various UAW campaigns, this was clearly not enough.

The recipes that give a union a greater chance of success are not necessarily that radical. Three successful campaigns are worth noting. Two are little known. The UAW, of course, failed abysmally at the Toyota TMMK plant. Yet, construction unions in Kentucky were overwhelmingly successful. Toyota originally tried to hire non-union construction labor to build the plant and to do maintenance once the plant was built. The unions defeated these proposals and gained all union workers in both instances. They mobilized thousands of construction workers to demonstrate, including by disrupting Toyota events and exposing some of their detrimental practices. They formed alliances with construction unions in nearby states and nationally to aid them and to refuse aid to Toyota. The comparison to the UAW is documented in a wonderful dissertation by my former student Amy Bromsen, Condescending Saviors: Union Substitution At Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky.

West Virginian and other states’ teachers mobilized their constituencies in massive demonstrations. In Oklahoma, thousands of teachers occupied the state house. The RWDSU held no mass rallies outside the facility involving the Amazon workers themselves. These rallies might have emboldened activists and more reticent workers and would have taken place outside the company’s control. As far as I know, they did not rent facilities in Bessemer or Birmingham for workers to hold large meetings. These were also problems with the UAW approaches.

So, their mobilization tactics were not adequate.

While I have no objection to the support of political figures or entertainers (In the 1930s Paul Robeson, Josh White, Pete Seeger, Zilphia Horton were omnipresent at union events during the 1930s and 1940s), the union did not do a good job of mobilizing their most important allies, what I call “associative power.” They should have put pressure on Black politicians in Bessemer and Birmingham to come out in support. Black elected officials in Bessemer, a town that is over 70 percent Black, who had facilitated Amazon’s arrival, played no visible role in supporting the union. The successful organizing of catfish farm workers in Mississippi, for example, emerged as a civil rights struggle, mobilizing community members and forcing political leaders to actively support them. The RWDSU’s appeal to BLM sympathies, in contrast, seemed somewhat wooden. Contrary to media reports, Alabama is not that unorganized compared to other states in the South. With a bit under ten percent unionization, compared to three or four percent in North Carolina and South Carolina, they have many potential allies. They could have set up picket lines outside the facility and further encouraged unionized miners, food processing workers, and others to join them.

And, there were not clear sets of public demands the union put forward, just dignity, etc. They should have said, if the union is certified, we will ask for $20 or so per hour (the striking miners rejected well over this amount), union safety and health committees, longer and more frequent breaks and lunch periods, less monitoring by computers and supervisors, no discussion of output and breaks without a union steward present, etc., and other demands that could have been developed at public meetings of workers, not to put in stone the examples that I have given.

The question of control of the workplace, pace of work, monitoring, etc. is ubiquitous across industries — something that needs to be formulated precisely for each type of work. In manufacturing, both time study and monitoring have over many decades become much more sophisticated and invasive. The health care system has become much more regulated. A bit of this is good — computerized checking to make sure the right patient is getting the right medicine, the correct body part is being operated on, etc. But, the overall view that whether a procedure should be allowed by an insurance company, or even whether an emergency room patient should be admitted, which is often decided upon by a non-medical person or doctors that are on time study (seven minutes for this type of examination, etc.) is outrageous. In many cases, these types of intrusions have even led doctors at certain places to attempt to unionize. This control is far more intense in Amazon facilitation centers and needs to be addressed sharply.

Finally, while it is necessary to organize extensively inside the facility, even at times on a non-majority basis, this is not a permanent solution. Large companies can only be forced to bargain extensively, especially over wages and benefits but general safety conditions as well, when the whole company is organized into a union. This increases workers’ leverage in a way syndicalist approaches do not. In more stable industries, even the IWW, e.g., among Philadelphia longshoremen, was forced to take this approach. And, we might note that unionized coal miners have a leverage that they would not have if they were not unionized. So, I have little sympathy for the syndicalist arguments, aside from their emphasis on workplace organizing and mobilization.

Many folks have been discussing the overlaps between Black Lives Matter and the Amazon unionization effort. In Alabama’s history how did civil rights struggles and unionization inform and gain strength from each other? 

I think the attempt to link Black Lives Matter and the union campaign was at times wooden and not necessarily that specific. Some civil rights issues cut across classes and others are very specific to certain types of labor. Both, of course, are important. Even police brutality and racial profiling, seeming cross-class issues, have, as the struggle in Ferguson, Missouri, made clear, important class components. Yet, workplace issues have a different dimension.

Civil rights oriented unions in the 1930s and 1940s, especially in the South, fought on both types of issues. Alabama unions fought for voting rights and against poll taxes, often refusing to segregate their meetings. San Francisco longshore, not only fought to integrate hotels and restaurants, they also successfully fought for jobs for Black bus drivers, and then rode with them to protect them from racist attacks. At the workplace they demanded the hiring of Black longshoremen who now disproportionately have jobs in this well-paid unionized industry. Farm Equipment unions in the North and South fought both against segregation in the community at large, and for opening up more skilled and better paying jobs to non-white workers. While we generally do not have segregated washrooms, locker rooms, lunch rooms, even in the Deep South, many of these workplace issues need to be reframed as labor-based civil rights issues. It has been made clear during the pandemic that women and workers of color work disproportionately in frontline jobs, where they cannot work remotely. They have also been more likely to be injured and to get sick. Companies, Amazon in particular, have not done enough to protect them. From all reports I have heard, the bulk of the anti-union campaign at Amazon was carried on by Black management officials, clearly with different interests than the actual workers. So, the framing is important.

You argue that class struggle and unionization comes in waves. Why is this important and what sets off these kinds of waves? What does this mean for how socialists should organize?

While there is always some incremental increases in unionization, mostly large scale growth takes place in waves with massive upsurges. This has been true world-wide, not just in the U.S. In the 1870s and 1880s, massive union growth took place in this country, often under the auspices of the Knights of Labor, including across the whole South, largely fueled by militant strikes of the country’s economically central railroad workers. In the period from 1914 to 1920, union membership went from roughly two million to five million members. From 1933 to 1945, union membership went from roughly three million to almost 15 million. And, in the 1960s and 1970s, public sector unions starting almost from scratch gained many millions of members. In none of these cases, I would argue, did changes in laws play a role. The legal climate was decidedly unfriendly in the 19th century. During World War I, production for the allies virtually ended unemployment, profits soared, and workers organized, demanding their share, including across virtually every industry in the South. In the 1930s, a series of triggering, inspirational struggles took place: the 1933 organization of the nation’s 600,000 coal miners, the 1934 Left-led strikes in Toledo, Ohio, the Trotskyist-led trucking strikes in Minneapolis, the Communist-led West Coast longshore strike, and the 1936-1937 Flint, Michigan, General Motors sit-down strike, which not only encouraged millions more workers to organize, but also led to hundreds of sit-down strikes in Detroit alone. All this occurred before any enabling legislation had become effective. Finally, I would argue that one event, the 1960 New York City strike of 50,000 school teachers which took place while New York state had the most draconian anti-public sector bargaining law in the country, the 1947 Condon-Wadlin Act, set off the wave of public sector union organizing, whose ramifications are still being felt today. .

While we should surely applaud move favorable pro-union legislation, it hardly ever plays much of a role. As always, there are certain exceptions, including perhaps the 1930 Norris-LaGuardia Anti-Injunction Act, which stopped judges from immediately stopping strikes at the behest of companies.

In looking at the catalyzing events for waves of unionization, it is hard to predict them in advance. I would argue, of course, that the Flint strike and the NYC teachers’ strikes were game changers. On the other hand, the highly inspirational, militant 1947 Buffalo, NY, teachers’ strike was crushed and led to anti-labor legislation. So, these things are not at all predictable.

These historical examples show several things that are pertinent to us today. First, that the existence of favorable labor legislation is over-exaggerated. Second, that Democrats, as one of the two capitalist parties, almost never come through, except after the fact. Despite promises, they were never going to repeal Taft-Hartley. Under President Carter in 1978 they also bailed. And, of course, with large Democratic majorities and a centrist Democrat as president under Obama, labor law reform was abandoned. The lesson from both these conclusions is that unions, and especially those who consider ourselves socialists, should not waste our time, money, or effort trying to elect so-called pro-labor Democrats or get labor legislation passed, but put our efforts into organizing.

If we look at the major labor upsurges, favorable legislation has virtually always come after the fact. As I have argued previously, the 1935 National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act only was passed after the 1934 strikes. It was completely ineffective until it was finally upheld by the Supreme Court after the Flint strike, as millions of workers were organizing. And, with minor exceptions, public sector bargaining laws virtually all came whether at the local, state, or federal levels, after waves of organizing had already developed large-scale success.

What do you see as the prospects of the labor movement in the Biden administration? 

My own understanding is that the administration in DC has very little to do with the prospects of labor. While people point to Reagan’s crackdown on air traffic controllers, it is important to note that the plans for crushing them were put in place under Carter, and it was the failure of labor unions to come to their support (not helped by PATCO’s go it alone approach) that facilitated things. It is also important to note not only the failed support under Democrats (including the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre, under Chicago’s Democratic mayor, which President Roosevelt refused to condemn), but also the gains unions made under President Richard Nixon. Massive support movements including large-scale coal miner strikes, and tens of thousands demonstrating at the state capital in Charleston, West Virginia, not only “convinced” Nixon to support coal miner safety legislation, but probably paved the way for the passage of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Act) as well.

So, the key to change is now, as it has always been, for working people to organize. We, of course, don’t know when the next big upsurge will take place, or what sparks might set it off. What we do know is that the weakness of organized workers leads capitalists to become more and more daring in their rapaciousness. And, as the situation for workers gets worse, it is only a matter of time. As Billie Holiday presciently said, “People don’t know when they have had enough until they have had more than enough.”

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