Radical Anti-Racist Unionism Has a History in Bessemer, Alabama

The ongoing union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, could prove to be a key beachhead for union organizing in the South. But it’s not the first time Bessemer has seen union fights. Nearly a century ago, the town was home to anti-racist union organizing with the Communist-led union Mine-Mill.

Leaders of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers gather for a 1954 convention in Bessemer, Alabama. Maurice Travis (R), secretary treasurer, lost his eye after being severely beaten during the Bessemer steelworkers union election five years prior. (Ira Gay Sealy/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are holding an important vote right now to become the first group of American workers for the company to unionize their warehouse. The fight is a key battle in the long-running and mostly elusive effort of labor to build power in the South. But this isn’t the first such unionization effort in Bessemer.

In 1949, during the Cold War crackdown on unions with leftist leadership, the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (Mine-Mill), a union with deep ties to the Communist Party and a history of anti-racist organizing, was challenged by a more moderate union, the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), which used racism and red-baiting to defeat Mine-Mill in the election.

Radical Mine-Mill labor organizers in the past confronted white supremacy in order to organize the working class in Bessemer. Mine-Mill’s decades of organizing in Bessemer helped lay the groundwork for today’s effort at Amazon.

Communists played an important role in building industrial unions during the 1930s. Party members were embedded as shop-floor organizers in key industries throughout the country, helping channel worker discontent on the job into organizing drives and strikes. As dedicated organizers, Communists often rose to leadership positions in their unions and pushed unions to organize black workers in the segregated Jim Crow South. At their best, Communist-led unions were among the most well-organized and actively anti-racist in this period.

But Communists’ influence within unions declined during the Red Scare after World War II. The Cold War climate allowed liberals, reactionaries, and capital to join together to purge Communists from most of their key positions in the US labor movement. In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act required union members to sign non-Communist pledges. After Taft-Hartley, more conservative unions within the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) began to challenge unions with Communist ties, in an attempt to wrench their leadership out of radicals’ hands or destroy them outright.

One such union was Mine-Mill, perhaps best known today for its production of the film Salt of the Earth, released in 1954. The film used actual Mine-Mill workers and their families as actors to depict a 1951 strike and the resulting police repression against Mexican workers at a zinc mine in New Mexico. It also emphasized the important role that women played in leading the strike.

Salt of the Earth faced virulent suppression that is shocking to consider today. Many theatres refused to show it, while actors were threatened for taking part. The lead actress, Rosaura Revueltas, was Mexican — she was deported in the middle of the film’s production. Distribution of the film was fought at every level and participation in its production punished at every turn, in the name of anti-communism.

Rosaura Revueltas, the lead actress of The Salt of the Earth (1954), was deported to Mexico in the middle of the film’s production. (Independent Productions)

But Mine-Mill’s radicalism extended far before Salt of the Earth, back to its roots in early twentieth-century hard rock mining in the American West. Unlike many other unions, such as the Globe Miners’ Union, Mine-Mill organized all workers regardless of race. In states like Arizona, Mine-Mill organized Mexican-American miners that other unions refused to organize.

In 1918, Mine-Mill organizers traveled from Northern cities to Bessemer, Alabama, to organize steel workers at the segregated Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI). TCI responded with force through a vigilante group formed by the company — a group that would later form the basis for the Ku Klux Klan in the county. The vigilantes tarred and feathered one of the black organizers of Mine-Mill and threatened them never to return.

But Mine-Mill did not back down from the threat of violence and returned to Bessemer in 1933. As it had done in Arizona with Mexican-American miners, Mine-Mill fought for black workers in Alabama when other company-controlled unions did not. In 1938, 80 percent of the Mine-Mill members in Bessemer were black.

The union won important victories in there. In 1938, it won reinstatement for 160 miners fired for organizing as well as a total of $100,000 in back pay. The union’s commitment to integration in the segregated South meant that its leadership was split evenly between black and white workers.

This made the Red Scare tactics that would soon be successfully leveled against the union a huge blow against militant, anti-racist trade unionism.

In 1946, Maurice Travis, a Communist, was appointed as vice president of Mine-Mill. Mine-Mill was part of the CIO at the time, whose leadership was working to purge Communists from its ranks. At the 1946 CIO convention, a measure pushed by moderates to eliminate Communists from leadership positions in its unions was narrowly defeated.

Some locals left Mine-Mill because of its Communist ties during this period. Mine-Mill’s president, Reid Robinson, was pressured by more moderate unionists to resign in 1947 as a result of these departures, which he eventually did. Reid’s resignation did little to ease tensions, however, because his resignation only promoted Maurice Travis, another Communist, to president. Eventually, the CIO pressured Travis to step down too, but he still served as Mine-Mill treasury secretary.

In 1947, labor and radicals’ enemies struck their hammer blow: the Taft-Hartley Act. Passed in response to a wave of strikes in 1945 and 1946, the act dramatically weakening the gains labor had made during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Taft-Hartley allowed states to pass right-to-work laws, allowing workers represented by a union to not pay union dues, and prohibited wildcat strikes and striking for political demands. The law also required union officials to sign an oath stating that they did not support communism.

Mine-Mill refused to comply with Taft-Hartley. Members like Maurice Travis refused to sign the non-Communist oath. In 1948, the CIO threatened to expel Mine-Mill over its refusal, and other conservative unions in the CIO started to actively challenge Mine-Mill for representation in its jurisdictions.

In 1949, Maurice Travis traveled to Bessemer to advocate for Mine-Mill in the union election against the USWA. Travis had prepared to speak on the radio in favor of Mine-Mill shortly before the election. But at the radio station, he was severely beaten by a group of USWA supporters, leaving him permanently blind in one eye.

USWA ran a racist, red-baiting campaign against Mine-Mill. The night before the election, nearly one hundred members of the Ku Klux Klan, descended from the company-organized vigilante group of the 1910s, rode by the Mine-Mill office with torches.

USWA narrowly defeated Mine-Mill in the election of five thousand workers. Nearly all two thousand black workers voted for Mine-Mill.

The following years were destructive for both Mine-Mill and black steelworkers. In 1950, the CIO finally expelled Mine-Mill for its Communist ties. In Bessemer, the new leadership for USWA was mostly white and negotiated contracts that discriminated against black workers. Mine-Mill confronted both racism and capital in Alabama, and the defeat of Mine-Mill benefited both of its opponents.

But the organizing efforts of Mine-Mill weren’t for naught. Members of Mine-Mill played influential roles in Bessemer’s NAACP Chapter and the Bessemer Voting League. Several important civil rights leaders from Alabama also had family in Mine-Mill.

In fact, the workers at the Amazon plant in Bessemer today also build upon the legacy of Mine-Mill. Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), the union organizing at the Bessemer Amazon plant, explains, “We see this as both a labor struggle and as a civil rights struggle, which has often been the story of the labor movement in the South.”

Applebaum directly links the organizing today to Bessemer’s past. He says, “Decades ago, that’s where the steel mills were located. People could speak to their parents or grandparents and hear about the difference unions made in their lives.”

The experiences in Bessemer of Mine-Mill workers in the past and Amazon workers today demonstrate an important lesson: labor organizing can and should be anti-racist. In Bessemer, many workers were mobilized by the Black Lives Matter protests against the police this summer. This mobilization in the streets then translated to organizing their workplace.

The Bessemer union drive at Amazon, a powerful anti-union force, provides hope for the future of organized labor. But Bessemer can only be the beginning. Socialists can build upon their history of confronting white supremacy to organize the working class across the country.