As I write this in 2018, the U.S. is experiencing one of the widest gaps between the rich and poor since the Gilded Age. Working people who struggle to make ends meet have little power to dictate the terms and conditions of their work. Labor unions do not have much standing in the workplace, nor do they command much attention in public discourse.
Such was not always the case. Seventy years ago, in the middle of the twentieth century, nearly 40% of U.S. manufacturing workers belonged to a labor union. Labor unions that had organized under the umbrella of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) had made a tangible difference in the quality of life of millions of working people, and industrial unionism had become a major force in American politics and society. What happened to change all of that?
In popular understanding, the decline of unions began in the 1970s and 1980s, when globalization and the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs decimated labor’s ranks, and when the anti-union stance of the Reagan administration empowered employers to break strikes without fear of federal-government intervention. But while these events explain the most visible and severe losses in union membership, one must look a generation earlier to uncover the forces that first set back the newly organized labor movement. As Barbara Griffith’s path-breaking book The Crisis of American Labor: Operation Dixie and the Defeat of the CIO makes clear, it is in the decade after World War II that one uncovers one of organized labor’s most decisive defeats: the CIO campaign to organize the South, labeled “Operation Dixie.”
The failure of Operation Dixie was so distressing for the CIO that for a generation after it ended neither historians nor labor activists ventured to articulate its meaning or significance. Until the publication of Griffith’s book in 1988, pieces of the story had been told but no one had provided an overview or badly needed perspective. Part of the reason observers struggled to assign meaning to Operation Dixie was that its goal embodied a paradox: it was a campaign both to expand labor’s power and to prevent its decline. The heady victories of the CIO in the 1930s in the steel, auto, and coal industries had led the union organization to believe that it could extend its reach to embrace southern workers. These hopes were tempered, however, by the fact that in some industries (particularly the textile industry), unions had been losing power as jobs and plants moved from New England to the South where wages were lower. Thus the decision to organize southern workers was a defensive move as much as it was an expression of CIO idealism.
This social and economic landscape was made more treacherous when, in the late 1940s, business organizations throughout the country began a major offensive to reverse the gains that workers had made during World War II. These realities meant that the CIO, a union then barely a decade old, was beginning a bold new campaign in a region known for its anti-union culture at the same time that the business climate was becoming more conservative.
The whipsawing of expectations caused by the convergence of these factors was experienced most keenly by the labor organizers assigned to the Operation Dixie campaign. These men and women had the job of translating the CIO’s plans into concrete actions on the ground. Operation Dixie brought them face to face with the aspirations, the fears, the cultural constraints, and the stark injustices that comprised the lives of southern workers. It is in Griffith’s interviews with these organizers, filled with pathos, that one grasps the fundamental significance of the book: its exposure of what the CIO was up against. The tragedy of their failure is compounded by the fact that many of those organizers saw themselves as politically progressive, motivated by a commitment to make real their vision of a just society. In the South, they were in for a painful awakening.
It is to Griffith’s credit that she resists locating the campaign’s failure in any one place. Instead, she lays out the economic and cultural forces arrayed against southern workers. There was, first, the sheer economic power of employers whose businesses were run like company towns. To graphically illustrate this point, Griffith notes that 17 organizers and union members were physically assaulted during the first 5 months of Operation Dixie (p. 104). To this could be added the active opposition to the CIO in the southern press and pulpit. Without anything like today’s internet or social media, these institutions overwhelmed communities with negative messaging about unions. The combined and in many cases integrated spectrum of forces arrayed against the CIO seemed to almost guarantee its failure.
But Griffith also addresses the CIO’s weaknesses. Although leaders of Operation Dixie made it a priority to staff the campaign with native-born southerners, they could not avoid the clash of cultures that occurred between northern-bred CIO staff and the workers they were trying to organize. Griffith also deftly chronicles the ways that the CIO’s purging of its left wing damaged some of the gains union organizers had made. Among the most challenging of the CIO’s dilemmas occurred when organizers tried to navigate the racial terrain of the South. Griffith notes, on the one hand, that CIO organizers found their most receptive audience among black workers. But although the CIO spoke out against race prejudice at a national and regional level, campaign leaders also feared the alienation of white workers, or the hostile reaction of local white communities if they were to be outspoken in favor of racial equality in a particular drive. The result, Griffith describes, was a campaign at war with its own racism (p. 66). The story is a sobering lesson in the power of inherited culture to prevent an insurgent idea from taking root.
Since the publication of The Crisis of American Labor, research on southern labor organizing has uncovered pockets of committed southern unionism as well as a small but dogged pro-union spirit among southern religious liberals in the years following World War II. Yet the fact remains: the campaign failed to orchestrate the transforming moment that it hoped would shift the momentum in the South in favor of unions. Faced with this defeat, the CIO packed up its belongings and left the South in 1953, seven years after it had arrived. As it turned out, the end of Operation Dixie was not merely the end of the CIO’s attempt to bring unionism to the South. The drive’s collapse also coincided with the peak in the CIO’s membership nationally. The year following the CIO’s departure, 1954, was the first year the CIO witnessed a decline in its overall membership. While subsequent membership numbers fluctuated, the CIO never again commanded the power it did at the end of World War II.1
The Crisis of American Labor speaks to our current condition with clarity and prescience. It speaks to the power of racism as a tool of the powerful to position workers against each other. It demonstrates the power of organized religion and the media as tools for commanding loyalty and for characterizing unwanted influences as an “other.” And it speaks to the choices on the part of workers, given the economic fragility of their situations, to stick with what they had rather than put their trust in something uncertain. All of these realities, once seen as a peculiarity of southern regional culture, now reverberate in our national political culture.
Today students of southern labor and indeed of twentieth century America routinely turn to Operation Dixie as a touchstone for grasping the complicated shift in the fortunes of American labor, and of American politics in general, in the crucial years after World War II. Microfilms of the Operation Dixie Papers, the originals of which are part of the Manuscript Collection at Duke University, are now available at dozens of libraries across the country. There has been an outpouring of scholarship on post-World War II labor organizing in the South; on post-war southern politics; on the role played by race, religion, and anti-Communism in recent southern labor history; and on the role played by the migration of capital on the ability of workers to organize unions. This subsequent body of work has deepened, clarified, and extended our understanding of these topics. But Griffith’s analysis continues to provide an enduring foundation for appreciating the complex ways these forces shaped labor’s drive to bring southern workers into its fold.
In the end, The Crisis of American Labor continues to deliver on its purpose: to “open up the topic by setting in place the broad historical framework . . . within which the men and women of the CIO and their corporate opponents lived through the daily realities of the struggle” (p. xiv). It is in the chronicling of those daily realities that Griffith makes her most singular contribution. In light of the complex nature of the forces that Griffith identified as defeating Operation Dixie, one finishes the book with respect for the CIO organizers who, against all odds, tried to make a difference.
JANET IRONS is Professor of History at Lock Haven University.
1. Timothy J. Minchin, Fighting Against the Odds: A History of Southern Labor Since World War II (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2005), 60.