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Cody R. Melcher and Michael Goldfield

The failure of labor unions to succeed in the American South, largely because national unions proved unable or unwilling to confront white supremacy head on, offers an important key to understanding post–World War II American politics, especially the rise of the civil rights movement. Looking at the 1930s and 1940s, it is clear that the failure was not the result of a cultural aversion to collective action on the part of white workers in the South, as several histories have suggested, but rather stemmed from the refusal of the conservative leadership in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to organize an otherwise militant southern workforce composed of both whites and Blacks. These lost opportunities, especially among southern woodworkers and textile workers, contrasts sharply with successful interracial union drives among southern coal miners and steelworkers, especially in Alabama. Counterfactual examples of potentially durable civil rights unionism illustrate how the labor movement could have affected the civil rights movement and transformed politics had the South been unionized.