Black and White Workers and Communists Built a “Civil Rights Unionism” Under Jim Crow

Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein on why today’s union activists should look to the example of North Carolina black and white tobacco workers, who organized a union and went on strike in the teeth of the Jim Crow South.

Like so many other capitalists of the Second Industrial Revolution, Reynolds and the other tobacco companies recruited and concentrated thousands of rural folk, transforming them into a proletariat that was increasingly conscious of its own oppression. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

It has been twenty years since Robert Korstad published his landmark history of tobacco worker unionism in the 1940s Piedmont South. But the book has never been more timely. Rereading his Civil Rights Unionism during the summer of 2022 proved a revelatory experience. It is not just that Korstad’s history of African-American efforts to build a trade union in the Jim Crow South is so epic in scope, so intimate in its reconstruction of the hopes and fears of a now forgotten set of heroic men and women, so moving in its tale of freedom lost, won, and lost again.

More important, it is a wonderful companion to the labor headlines of our own twenty-first-century day. Almost every time I finished a chapter, I’d check my Twitter feed to see if there were new developments at Starbucks, Amazon, REI, or Apple. And when there were, I invariably found that Civil Rights Unionism shed some new light on the obstacles and opportunities that workers face when they challenge entrenched power.

There is obviously a world of difference between the unionizing impulse stirring among the sometimes young, multicultural, gender-bending baristas now making trouble at coffee houses around the country and the African-American women who stemmed tobacco eighty years ago in in Winston-Salem. You can’t read Korstad’s book without understanding the difference. But his exploration of race and class power, of authority, subordination, rebellion, and repression also speaks powerfully and persuasively to the young radicals seeking to make a new world in our day.

At the start of his book, after describing the strikes and manifestations that galvanized thousands of Reynolds Tobacco Company workers in such a profound and successful challenge to the New South industrial and social order, Korstad asks the question, “Why, suddenly, would so many workers do what only a day before they might have been afraid to do?” That is the question of our day and the question for any student of social transformation, of the way that a new consciousness comes to the fore that banishes fear and instills courage and commitment in a whole stratum of heretofore reluctant subalterns.

Nothing in the Labor Movement Is “Spontaneous”

Civil Rights Unionism has three virtues that make it timeless and compelling. First, it is a labor history that transcends all the industrial-relations categories into which that subdiscipline has sometimes been confined. The subtitle of his book is “Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for the Democracy in the Mid-twentieth-Century South,” so Korstad makes clear that every fight inside the factory and at the bargaining table reflects or advances a corresponding struggle on the outside, whether that be in politics, gender norms, or the stability of the Jim Crow order.

Thus when their new union, Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers, sought plantwide seniority for those African-American women laid off by a new technological innovation, this was hardly a prosaic demand but an assault on an entire set of segregationist and hierarchical factory relationships — ones that mirrored the male-privileged, white-supremacist order foisted upon North Carolina and the rest of the South during the counterrevolution that ended Reconstruction in the late nineteenth century.

In creating this Jim Crow order, Korstad makes clear that the new, reactionary hegemony was “hard work,” to borrow a phrase from Stuart Hall. It takes time, effort, and brute power to naturalize inequality and subordination, whether that be of class, race, or gender. A pernicious process of indoctrination created and reinforced the new traditions and social norms that constituted a Jim Crow order barely half a century old.

“Each morning on which a black tobacco worker entered a factory through the ‘colored’ door,” writes the author, “the more segregation came to seem timeless and inevitable.”

Korstad offers a structural-cum-social portrait of the local white elite, which at one point he calls the “the Solidarity of the Solidly Fixed.” But city air can make one free, or at least provides the conditions for making industrial freedom something of tangible value. Like so many other capitalists of the Second Industrial Revolution, Reynolds and the other tobacco companies recruited and concentrated thousands of rural folk, transforming them into a proletariat that was increasingly conscious of its own oppression.

Social dynamite was being stockpiled. But nothing was spontaneous here, even when those outside the stemmeries and African-American neighborhoods — and this included some unionists as well as local elites — could not explain the upheaval of June 17, 1943, when thousands of black tobacco workers walked off the job, in any other way.

I think Korstad would agree with me that the word “spontaneity” should be banned from the pages of all books of labor history, because the networks and friendships, the workplace singing and Sunday churchgoing, created a networked world that would soon make itself visible and powerful. Indeed, when we think about history of US capitalism, the existence of an urban working class that lived in close proximity to each other and the factories and mills in which they worked has been a fleeting social phenomenon, characteristic of just a few decades at the end of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth.

What has come to replace it? Twitter feeds? A shopping mall or university quad? Zoom meetings? I’m not sure, but in the present as in the past, historians, as well as contemporary organizers, must explore the geographies of solidarity.

We Need a New Communist Party

This may be a stretch, but just as Korstad describes the counterrevolution that transformed the South in the early twentieth century, we have had a different but parallel transformation of working-class institutions and consciousness since the 1970s when the New Deal order was crippled. As in New South Winston-Salem, the transformations in business organization and the technology corporations deploy, the evisceration of trade unionism and the rise of a new precariat have been “naturalized.” Upward of 50 million service workers in retail, hospitality, food service, and health care have been thrust into a world of dead-end, low-wage, insecure work — not unlike the employment offered to African Americans, Latinos, and an increasingly large cohort of white youth in recent decades.

And just as World War II and the radicalization of a stratum of black workers made the natural order seem unnatural and unjust, so too during our years of Donald Trump and the pandemic has a half-century reordering of labor norms finally taken on an unjust and unnatural character in workers’ minds — not just among a few scattered unionists and academics but of the millions participating in the “Great Resignation.”

So the demand for something as prosaic as a defined and predictable shift in a coffee house or warehouse now takes on a profoundly radical thrust, resisted by a whole cohort of billion-dollar corporations as a threat to their business model and the larger prerogatives of capital. The African-American women in the Reynolds stemmeries would have understood.

There are two other features of Korstad’s book that strike me as very relevant today. The first is the robust labor market that workers enjoyed in 1943 as well as 2022. Labor economists used to think that if you plugged in a demand for labor, wages went up and unions increased their membership and clout. It is clear that such a connection is far too formulaic.

Then and now, neither workers nor managers are automatons, responding in a mechanical fashion to outside economic stimuli. Indeed, one of the big differences between 1943 and 2022 is the role of two forces “outside” the workplace. The first is the federal government, the second the Communist Party.

During the war, the New Deal’s regulatory and war-mobilization apparatus played a huge role, especially in the South. Some historians, including myself, once argued that the warfare state constrained working-class militancy. But over the decades I’ve been persuaded that in World War II as well as at various points since, the legitimacy that the federal government fosters on working-class organizations and their demands has been far more important and progressive.

We’ve had a pale replication of that regulatory intervention during these last eighteen months of Joe Biden’s administration. But there is no doubt that the nationalization and politicization of labor relations during the war had a powerful impact, even among workers whose horizons had for so long been sharply delimited.

Korstad captured this legitimizing impact when he recorded a 1943 exchange between Theodosia Simpson, one of the organic leaders who arose from the Reynolds ranks and a top company executive.

Simpson: “Mr. Whitaker, according to the Little Steel formula you can give us a wage increase.”

“Who told you about the Little Steel formula?” Whitaker replied.

“Whether you know it or not, I can read and I can think. It’s been in all the newspapers.”

“I don’t know anything about the Little Steel formula, but I’ll have the company attorneys look into it.”

“Well, you start talking to them about that wage increase.”

It’s all here: first Whitaker is surprised that workers are following labor developments out of Washington. Ignorance would be bliss. But then, like so many Southern managers and politicians, he claims distance and his own ignorance when it comes to federal government edicts that might impact his control of the workforce and the remuneration they deserve once pay structures have been nationalized and rationalized.

But the federal government is not enough, nor even militant trade unionists. We need a new Communist Party — not a Stalinist replica of the 1930s party, of course, but a party of committed individuals, of cadre, who see unionism not as an end in itself but as a step forward toward a revolutionized society. Contra Daniel Bell, we need leftists whose politics really are those of a secular religion.

That was certainly true of the few dozen Communists who devoted themselves to building Local 22, a ten-thousand-member organization that had the potential to revolutionize politics and social norms in the Jim Crow South. Korstad shows the crucial role played by Communists, from the South and elsewhere, in providing a kind of backbone to the union impulse, driving it forward and linking it, even if sometimes mistakenly, to a much larger political agenda stretching from New York to Moscow.

Can the Democratic Socialists of America, now nearing 100,000 members — not far below that of the CP in its heyday — fit this bill? That seems unlikely at this moment, but such parties come in all shapes and sizes. In the 1960s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were cadre organizations that pushed the civil rights movement forward in decisive fashion. We need these vanguard formations once again. Those who founded the Occupy movement were of this sort; likewise those who spread the Black Lives Matter movement to virtually every city and state also reflect that organizational and moral impulse. But it has to be more than ad hoc. It needs to see itself as a maker of history for the long haul.

Institutions Anchor Consciousness

Any labor initiative will always face opposition: red-baiting and race-baiting in the 1940s; accusations of corruption, self-interest, Luddism, and divisiveness today. What’s ironic, of course, is how and why the rhetoric of anti-unionism changes with the times.

In the 1940s Reynolds management and other Winston-Salem conservatives sought to label Local 22 a race organization first and foremost, to persuade white workers to stay away and also to mobilize community whites against the local. While Reynolds was anti-union, of course, it found that in an era when federal law and national sentiment was ideologically and administratively far more favorable to unionism than today, a denunciation of unionism per se did not carry the weight it would later sustain.

Today, on the other hand, employers like Starbucks and Amazon advertise their support of Black Lives Matter as well as their commitment to abortion and LGBTQ rights. But all that coexists with a managerial rejection of trade unionism as an alien “third party,” ineffective and divisive, even in an era when the polls tell us that trade unionism is enjoying levels of public support not seen since the 1960s.

One reason for this has to do with the relationship between consciousness, social norms, and institutions. On the Left today, perhaps especially the academic left, the transformation and exhibition of consciousness, certainly when it comes to our identities, has become a highly refined art and often a flash point for controversy. But leftists seeking to transform the way we think about gender, race, status, or class can’t forget that institutions — laws, unions, political parties, social movements enrolling large numbers of people — are necessary to anchor an evolving progressive consciousness. A transformation of language or identity, no matter how radical, cannot stand alone.

This was not a mistake the Local 22 militants ever made. As Korstad makes clear with example after example, they understood the imbricated relationship between institution building and the transformed consciousness and social norms of thousands of workers — and of their erstwhile betters.

“We made the superintendent call the black Man mister,” reported union militant Velma Hopkins.

Thus Korstad offers a nuanced corrective to my New Left argument that the grievance procedure and the contracts that structured it were an obstacle to shop-floor militancy and the liberatory consciousness that stood behind it.

This is why the destruction of Local 22 during the McCarthy era was such a tragedy. As Korstad and I argued in our 1988 essay, “Opportunities Found and Lost: Blacks, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement,” that destruction of a labor-based black liberation movement, South and North, would have a profound impact on the character and course of the civil rights movement in its classic phase and afterward. Today a new set of militants are linking their sense of identity, highly variegated as it might be, to the union impulse and the construction of a set of institutions that can safeguard those identities in a far more authentic fashion than any corporate diversity office.