By the end of World War II, it was clear to many in the Congress of Industrial Organizations that a Southern organizing drive had to be undertaken, both to consolidate the impressive gains labor made during the war and to remove the South as a non-union haven for “runaway” Northern businesses. The task of organizing the North could not be completed until the South was organized. Thus began Operation Dixie, a drive into twelve Southern states from 1946 to 1953.
Inasmuch as the American South had a long-standing reputation as a region particularly unreceptive to organized labor, Operation Dixie was not a challenge for which union activists had anything approaching unbridled enthusiasm. Everyone knew it was a great gamble. Operation Dixie would in fact become a delicate balancing act for a labor organization increasingly beset with internal tensions and conflicting priorities, and confronted by an aggressive business community and a rightward shift in the national political climate.
The CIO also confronted problems posed by the peculiarities of the South. A cultural and economic insularity characterized the region, with relatively little in-migration to the area since the Civil War, a rigid caste system based on a hierarchy of race, class, and gender, and a level of economic development that in many ways more closely resembled the nineteenth than the twentieth century. In addition, textiles, the South’s largest industry, was even more resistant to unionization than its counterpart in New England; it was especially competitive in the South, resulting from the relatively small units of production, chronic shortages of operating capital, recurrent cycles of overproduction and low prices, and a large pool of unemployed and underemployed workers from the mountains and marginal farms of the South. Even beyond these factors, the South had fostered a set of closely interwoven relationships between industrialists, politicians, law enforcement officials, religious leaders, and the press—all of which could be mobilized in concert, quite beyond the level of cooperation commonly found among the same sectors of society in the North.
My purpose in this study is not so much to “wrap up” the many social and cultural threads that intertwine in Operation Dixie, a task that would require a number of community studies. Rather, my intent is to open up the topic by setting in place the broad historical framework, both national and Southern, within which the men and women of the CIO and their corporate opponents lived through the daily realities of the struggle.
At the heart of the narrative is, quite simply, a story: the unfolding drama of planning for conflict, the conflict itself, and, rather abruptly, defeat. This story is told primarily through the organizers who staffed the drive, from their correspondence with workers, their peers, and superiors, and from extensive interviews with retired organizers who were active in Operation Dixie. It is through them that one can see how this massive organizing campaign played out on a daily basis in the towns and factories of the region. And it is through them and the cultural context into which they intruded that the responses of Southern workers take on tangible historical meaning.
A word about the place of women in Operation Dixie. Although women workers were a central factor in the textile industry, the industry most critical to the campaign’s success, most of the organizers sent South by the CIO and its member internationals were men. Though such unions as the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) hired some women organizers, CIO organizers did not challenge the inherited “place” for women in the work force and within organized labor to the same extent that they challenged racial barriers and prejudice. A notable exception was the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers (FTA), which had a number of black women on its organizing staff. This is not to say that women were not instrumental in the success of certain organizing campaigns; it merely attests to the fact that women and their problems did not hold a distinctive place either in the minds of most male organizers or within the administrative echelons of organized labor. So in looking at Operation Dixie through the eyes of its organizers, it is through a predominantly male perspective that one sees.
Considering their generation, it is not surprising that the women interviewed for this study did not complain of their isolation within organized labor. In their view, all organizers were there for the same reasons. They negotiated contracts with wage differentials for men and women, because, in the words of one woman, “It never occurred to us to do it any other way.”
Several women noted that perhaps they had had a better understanding of what motivated women workers than did male organizers; for example, they were more likely to account for the demands of a woman worker’s “double day” in her decision to attend or not attend a nighttime union meeting. Beyond that, however, they stopped seeing themselves as different from their male counterparts. Scholarly studies of women in textiles, tobacco, and the automobile industry have begun to acquire a place in the historical literature. It will have to be in their capacity as workers in those industries, rather than as active participants in Operation Dixie, that the history of Southern working women will be written.
With these emphases in mind, what follows is a broad overview of a complex organizing campaign waged over a twelve-state region. Strategic decisions made by the CIO’s Executive Board in Washington and by CIO international unions in a dozen locales, and tactical decisions made by the CIO’s Southern Organizing Committee at the drive’s headquarters in Atlanta—all had an important bearing on the outcome. But the ultimate decisions were made by organizers, on the ground each day in the South. In a sense, they know best what happened to Operation Dixie, for they lived through it as no one else did.
Operation Dixie happened at the juncture of a number of significant American historical developments: the tide of conservatism that is often the aftermath of American wars; the erosion of the New Deal coalition; the wave of anticommunist hysteria; the social change stimulated during the war, particularly among women and minorities due to wartime labor shortages; and the wartime growth of business and organized labor. Had Operation Dixie succeeded, the later course of American history might have been quite different. Clearly, the CIO’s purge of its own left wing brought it into closer political alignment with the AFL and paved the way for their merger in 1956. This brought to an end the tradition of aggressive organization among those who previously fell outside the bounds of craft unionism, i.e., minorities, women, and semi- or unskilled workers. Further, a CIO victory in the South might have hastened the civil rights movement by at least a decade. A successful Operation Dixie could have dramatically altered the predominance of conservative Southern politicians in state and national legislatures. And certainly, union membership for Southern workers would have created the potential for shifts of economic power to those in the South who had never known any.
What follows is an analysis of the process through which Operation Dixie intruded upon the politics and culture of postwar America, and then disappeared. For the nation, it was but a moment; for organized labor it was a decisive juncture whose long-term meaning is only now becoming clear.