Before Operation Dixie

Before Operation Dixie

The fate of the Southern labor movement helps us understand why the United States took a sharp right turn over the last half-century—and points to a path for transforming the country today.

Doorkeeper at a meeting of the United Mine Workers of America in Wheelwright, Kentucky (nsf/Alamy)

The Southern Key: Class, Race, and Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s
by Michael Goldfield
Oxford University Press, 2020, 432 pp.

Amid the continuing devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, massive street protests against police brutality, and rising demands to end systemic racism in U.S. society and politics, a new book by the political scientist Michael Goldfield provides a glimmer of hope based upon his detailed analysis of labor struggles in the South during the Great Depression through the postwar years. According to Goldfield, the fate of the Southern labor movement holds “the golden key” not only for understanding how the nation took a sharp right turn during the latter part of the century, but also for transforming the economy and politics of the United States today.

Most studies of the 1930s and 1940s stress the failure of the Southern labor movement in the face of persistent racism, corporate resistance, and repressive police power. While acknowledging its shortcomings, Goldfield forcefully argues that they were by no means inevitable. In his view, this period represented a unique opportunity to transform not only the region’s labor and race relations but also political and social relations in the nation as a whole. In careful detail, The Southern Key documents interracial organizing across four major industries—textiles, wood, coal, and steel—and multiple cities and towns in the South, including Birmingham, Alabama; Paint Creek and Cabin Creek, West Virginia; Bogalusa, Louisiana; Elizabethton, Tennessee; and Marion, North Carolina.

Drawing from an exceedingly rich body of secondary studies on the region’s labor history, Goldfield reinforces his argument by calling attention to similar movements in a variety of other industries and cities across the South. Militant labor struggles emerged among packinghouse workers in Fort Worth, Texas; food and textile workers in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; farm equipment workers in Louisville, Kentucky; and oil workers in Port Arthur, Texas, among others. Unionized Texas oil workers, for example, in addition to negotiating a contract with management, also initiated a drive to register black voters and campaigned against the discriminatory poll tax.

Employing an explicitly materialist conceptual framework, Goldfield places the economy, capital, and labor conflict—as influenced by race and gender relations—at the center of his analysis. He concedes that certain cultural factors had the capacity to “take on a life of their own and even cause changes in the economy,” but he firmly rejects emphases on religion, paternalism, or any form of “culturalism as a primary mode of analysis.” Goldfield specifically outlines the local, national, and international structures of each industry, including an assessment of capital investments, labor recruitment, skill requirements, technology, production, and market demands. In a close study of the textile sector, to give one example, he offers an extended discussion of the interrelated development of the textile industries in the United States, Britain, India, Russia, and South Korea. Access to textile-producing technology and relatively “low capital and labor requirements” facilitated the movement of the sector into a variety of countries, which in turn had a major impact on local labor struggles and the modes of organizing that they adopted.

Goldfield documents widespread differences as well as similarities from industry to industry and from place to place. The coal and steel industries reported the most significant gains in membership, strike actions, and management concessions, while wood and textile workers experienced far less success, each for different reasons. The former failed largely because of the dearth of material and leadership support from the national labor offices, while the latter foundered mainly because of its failure to build bridges to other grassroots labor and social justice organizations, forsaking a broader and more inclusive multiracial labor movement. As Goldfield puts it, reinforcing his theoretical position, “The economic structure of the textile industry and the unwillingness of union leaders to engage in broad forms of struggle doomed textile organizing in the South. The culture of southern workers played hardly any role at all.”

Goldfield shows how support from comrades in other unions and assistance from a variety of nonunion social justice movements were indispensable for successful labor organizing. Coal miners, he argues, were the vanguard of the labor movement within and beyond the South. Even as they launched their own militant campaigns, most notably in Alabama and West Virginia, miners assisted organizing drives among other workers, particularly in steel, which they saw as key to the “security of their own union” and “were prepared to pour large amounts of money and energy into the task.” Alongside support from other industrial unions, Southern workers received help from a wide range of labor and social justice organizations: the Unemployed Councils of the Communist Party (CP); the grassroots Farmers’ Holiday Association; the Socialist Party; the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union; and the predominantly African-American Sharecroppers Union, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and National Urban League, to name a few. Radical student, religious, and political organizations rounded out the roster of associative groups supporting the Southern labor movement, especially the CP-led National Student League, the Southern Negro Youth Congress, and the International Workers Order. These dynamic social justice movements reinforced and encouraged one another.

The Southern Key reinterprets several crucial issues in the existing historiography of the U.S. labor movement. Three of these stand out. First, and perhaps most important, Goldfield rejects what he describes as the “myth of Section 7(a)” of the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act. Much of the conventional wisdom in labor history lauds this piece of New Deal legislation as central to the upsurge in labor organizing during the decade. On the contrary, Goldfield laments that this interpretation undermines the primary role workers played in jump-starting their own new movements for economic democracy. Between 1930 and 1932, for instance, coal miners had responded to their rising unemployment by staging massive “violent strikes” that scarred the coalfields. Goldfield convincingly argues that while state action may have been important, it should not detract from our appreciation of the power of workers to initiate movements of their own volition.

Second, Goldfield disputes the idea that the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ Operation Dixie was a dramatic breakthrough in the labor movement. Launched the year after the Second World War ended, it promised an unprecedented investment of resources into a vigorous campaign to organize the nonunion Southern workforce. Philip Murray, CIO president at the time, proclaimed Operation Dixie as “the most important drive of its kind ever undertaken by any labor union in the history of the country.” It also underscored a growing conviction among union leaders that their success depended on organizing the South. Goldfield credits the movement with early successes, particularly the campaign to organize workers in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, home to the Tennessee Eastman Corporation, Monsanto Chemical Company, and the Carbide Corporation—three plants holding lucrative government contracts. Still, he emphatically concludes that Operation Dixie was fundamentally a failure: it focused primarily on the textile industry, recruited few new members, downplayed and largely ignored the needs of black workers and women workers, eschewed support of the left (particularly the CP), and ultimately put insufficient funds behind the campaign to ensure its success.

Third, Goldfield reassesses the role of the CP in the labor struggles of the 1930s and 1940s. While an early wave of scholarship on the CP downplayed its role in bringing recognition to American workers and helping to organize the new industrial unions, over the past several decades a new historiography has treated it as a vanguard force for change in labor and race relations during the period. Although Goldfield acknowledges the party’s immense contributions to the expansion of the labor movement, he also draws attention to its profound limitations and shortcomings. He documents the CP’s close relationship with the most conservative wing of the CIO, including implicit support for the organization’s failure to answer workers’ calls for help in launching a spirited union drive of the Southern wood industry, where black workers made up at least half of the total labor force.

Moreover, although the CP retained its reputation as a forceful advocate for equal rights for African Americans, by the mid-1930s it had moved steadily away from some of its most important initiatives around civil rights and full citizenship for black workers and their communities. These abdications included the termination of the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, a fearless anti-lynching advocacy group, in 1935 and the dissolution of the militant Sharecroppers Union a year later. In short, the CP took a hand in undermining its own radical legacy in the South.

Closely aligned with his analysis of the limitations of the CP, Goldfield documents the rise of increasingly conservative labor leaders like Philip Murray and John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers of America and founding president of the CIO. Goldfield characterizes the Murray wing of the labor movement as “authoritarian and anti-democratic, racially backward, unwilling at most times to mobilize their followers for any sustained struggle against corporations, and anti-radical.” For his part, Lewis receives treatment as a leader of immense contradictions. He regularly repressed the ideas and actions of his union opponents. At times he collaborated with the CP and identified with the radical left; at other times he collaborated with conservative Republicans and took antiradical positions.   

The Southern Key makes a solid contribution to the historiography of the labor movement, race relations, and radical politics in the crucible of the American South. Goldfield recovers this important moment not just for its own sake, but for its echoes in the present. His book reminds us of the sacrifices that Southern workers made to forge interracial movements for industrial democracy. Although these efforts foundered on the shoals of racial animosities and conflict, state repression of workers’ rights, and divided union leadership, they nonetheless bequeathed a legacy of struggle for later social justice movements.

As today’s mass protests and labor actions attempt to build solidarity across racial, ethnic, cultural, national, and, to some extent, class lines, Goldfield’s book offers helpful insights into the myriad ways that social justice alliances formed and dissipated in the past. It serves as an important resource for contemporary activists to learn from another moment of struggle and hope for social transformation in the nation’s history.

Joe William Trotter Jr. is Giant Eagle University Professor of History and Social Justice and the director of the Center for Africanamerican Urban Studies and the Economy (CAUSE) at Carnegie Mellon University.