The UAW is breaking GOP brains in Dixie Skip to content

The UAW is breaking GOP brains in Dixie

“They’re truly astonished that workers might not trust their corporate overlords with their working conditions, pay, health, and retirement.”

6 min read

“Southern autoworkers aren’t listening to the GOP’s BS any more.”

That grabber headline on a recent Thom Hartmann musing sent me to my old copy of W.J. Cash's 1941 book, The Mind of the South, a controversial and consequential study of Southern society.

“The UAW’s successful unionization effort ... at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee — the first successful unionization effort at a car factory in the South since the 1940s — is breaking the brains of Republicans in that region,” Hartmann wrote in The Hartmann Report online. “They’re truly astonished that workers might not trust their corporate overlords with their working conditions, pay, health, and retirement.”

For decades, Southern industrialists and their allies in politics, the press, and the pulpit, successfully turned most workers against unionization. Cash wrote that it was widely believed that factories “were their owners’ to do with wholly as they pleased, without regard to anything but their own will, just as a thirty-acre farm was a farmer”s or a house was the householder’s. The master of the mill had the right to set wages and hours at whatever figure he chose. And if the workman didn't like them – this was a free country, and it was his right to reject them or to quit.”

Paternalism was also reflected in a pre-union vote statement from Bill Lee, Tennessee’s GOP governor, and five other Southern Republican governors – all of them fiercely anti-union Trump loyalists. Hoping to rally their constituents against the UAW’s plan to unionize a number of Southern plants, they claimed that “a successful unionization drive” would halt job growth “in its tracks, to the detriment of American workers.”

The statement also said, “In America, we respect our workforce and we do not need to pay a third party to tell us who can pick up a box or flip a switch. ... The experience in our states is when employees have a direct relationship with their employers, that makes for a more positive working environment. They can advocate for themselves and what is important to them without outside influence.”

Cash wrote that factory owners “clung stoutly to the notion that merely operating [factories] ... on any terms they entitled themselves to” merited “the complete gratefulness of workman and public” and adulation “as leading patriots of the South. And the people, long accustomed to that viewpoint, accepted it so absolutely that the prevailing attitude toward [striking workers] ... was that they were grossly disloyal, first to the mill, and then — if you listened closely — you sometimes hear it come out quite explicitly, to the South as such.”

So, according to employers and their allies — then and now — workers who unionize for better pay, benefits, and working conditions are not only ingrates, they’re unpatriotic. Conservatives commonly bash unions as un-American.

Here’s more from Cash: “What aroused the most militant feeling of patriotic resentment against the strikes was the universal assumption in the business community and the people in general that the preservation of cheap labor was imperatively necessary to Progress and that the safety of the South itself was bound up with Progress.”

In their statement, the governors also equated a lack of unions with progress. “We have worked tirelessly on behalf of our constituents to bring good-paying jobs to our states. These jobs have become part of the fabric of the automotive manufacturing industry. Unionization would certainly put our states’ jobs in jeopardy.”

As it was when The Mind of the South was published, the still largely non-union South is the poorest section of the country.

Anyway, the 73 percent pro-union vote would have scrambled the gray matter inside old-time Dixie Democratic noggins, too. These white Southern Democrats also feared unions as dire threats to the region’s white supremacist Jim Crow system.

When Cash’s book came out, Southern governors — nearly all of them union-despising white supremacist Democrats — were seeking to lure Northern industry to the old Confederate states by promising pliant, union-free, low-wage workforces. As evidenced by their statement, GOP governors — and other politicians — in Republican Red Dixie do likewise today.

While white supremacist Southern Democrats openly race baited, Southern GOP politicians and their allies usually prefer dog whistling, which, of course, like-minded white Southerners understand. In their statement, the half dozen governors also said the union would “threaten our jobs and the values we live by.”

Historically, when white politicians — Dixie Dems of yore or Republicans nowadays — talk of “values” they mean conservative white values. Similarly, when Donald Trump promised to “Make America Great Again,” he wanted whites to hear “Make America White Again.” Millions got it, especially in the old Confederate States. (Besides racism, Trump “values” include sexism, misogyny, nativism, anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice, and religious bigotry.) 

In a union everybody is supposed to be equal, so overt race-baiting was a big part of the Dixie Democrats’ antiunion pitch to white workers. Racism, overt or covert, has ever underpinned Southern opposition to unions. “The labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said.

Murray State University historian Brian Clardy echoed King’s observation. “Wages, contracts – we’re talking about equity. We’re talking about fairness without regard to race,” said Clardy, a member of the United Campus Workers of Kentucky, an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America. 

He also said white conservative politicians in the South have always feared unions as a danger to white dominance. “Black and brown workers making the same amount as whites in a union – that’s equality and a big reason why there is so much resistance to organized labor.”

The racism is generally more subtle these days.

At the same time, the South’s political and economic elites have always relied on conservative white evangelical pastors to preach an anti-union message on Sunday mornings. Wrote Cash: “It was widely felt in all classes that the strikes constituted a sort of defiance of the will of Heaven. Repeatedly, I myself heard more or less definitely expressed ... the conviction that God had called one man to be rich and master, another to be poor and servant, and that men did well to accept what had been given them, instead of trusting to their own strength and stirring up strife.”

Clardy, an Episcopalian, said conservative evangelicalism is rooted in the idea of a “superior-subordinate” relationship. “Any time that workers assert their rights, their dignity, these Christian churches are going to buck against that because it goes against their theology. It is a very twisted theology.”

Added Clardy: “Jesus was not a free market capitalist. If you look at His words, if you look at the Gospels, Jesus talks about love, compassion, fairness, and dignity. Jesus spoke out against hoarding and avarice. He spoke out against oppression, including the oppression of women.

“He lowered the bar with regard to social equality. He took up with the people who, in those days, were considered the dregs of society. To hear that Gospel distorted to make Jesus more like Jerry Falwell bothers me greatly.” 

For years, preachers, politicians, and press lords smeared unions as communist Yankee imports. Now that the “Evil Empire” is gone, they mostly call unions “radical” and “socialistic.” But some stick to the old “communist” standby.

The governors’ statement also said they “have serious reservations that the UAW leadership can represent our values.” The UAW is proud it doesn’t represent Trump Republican values. Not only does the union stands foursquare against racism, it also steadfastly opposes bigotry in all forms.

Wrote Hartmann: “Republicans appear committed to politically dying on a number of hills that time has passed by. Their commitment to gutting voting rolls and restricting voting rights, their obsession with women’s reproductive abilities, and their hatred of regulations and democracy in the workplace are increasingly seen by average American voters as out-of-touch and out-of-date. Elitist. Arrogant.

“So they write increasingly frustrated rage-rants about ‘democratic socialists’ and the evils of ‘union bosses’ while the people in their states are choosing unions, reproductive freedom, and a clean environment.

“Will they ever wake up and change their policies to ones supported by the majority of Americans?

“As long as six corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court continue to keep bribery legal, and morbidly rich CEOs continue to hate unions almost as much as they dislike their own workers, I’m not holding my breath … and you shouldn’t, either.”

Clardy isn’t. Neither am I.


Originally posted on the Kentucky AFL-CIO site.

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Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

Arlington, KY



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