The Newberry Library Labor History Seminar
co-sponsored by the Chicago and Urbana campuses of the University of Illinois
Race, Proletarianization, and Industrial Unionism in the Southern Lumber Industry, 1929-1938
William P. Jones, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
October 11, 2002, 3:00-5:00 pm
Why did the CIO’s 1938 southern organizing drive focus almost exclusively on textiles? According to Robert Zieger, the focus was logical for three reasons: the size of the industry, the militancy of the workers in the 1929 and 1934 strikes, and the tactical advantage of an all white work force not hampered by Jim Crow segregation. However, the lumber industry employed nearly the same number of southerners, mostly African Americans, and lumber workers supported militant organizing drives in 1913 and 1919. How, then, can we explain the lack of organizing in the southern forests? This paper argues that AFL and CIO organizers avoided the southern lumber industry in the 1930s because they believed the history of slavery and Jim Crow had rendered black employees too dependent to challenge despotic employers. Whereas many liberal union and civil rights activists came to view unions as complementary to the fight against racism in the 1940s, the consensus in the 1930s was that organizing black workers would accomplish little more than enflaming white racism. A small group of black radicals challenged these ideas in the 1930s, however, the AFL and CIO did not support union drives in the southern lumber industry until after 1941 in the context of a tight wartime labor market and strengthened federal labor laws.
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