South's Anti-Union Mentality Fading as Economy Changes

UPS strike is one example of how the South's views on labor relations are shifting

Outside a large United Parcel Service facility, a crowd forms a picket line. Staccato chants fill the air. Union members blow "fighting for the future" whistles in protest.

It's Day 4 for striking Teamsters. Across the nation, sidewalks and parking lots host similar scenes as UPS and labor negotiators remain at an impasse.

But here in the capital of the historically anti-union South, the strike carries special symbolic importance. It and other union activity point up some of the profound economic changes the region has undergone of late and perhaps provide lessons for the future of America's struggling labor movement.

As more of the nation's manufacturing and population base has shifted to the South, unions have moved more aggressively into the region as well - a phenomenon often overlooked amid publicity about a pro-industry attitude that has allowed Southern states to woo manufacturing giants such as BMW and Mercedes to the area.

"The South is very important to the national union scene," says Kate Bronfenbrenner at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. "So much work has moved there..."

Historically weak unions

A generation ago, the UPS picket lines and rallies that now dot Atlanta would have garnered more ridicule than sympathy.

For two reasons, unions held only a crumbling foothold in the region until the 1970s. First, industry in the South has traditionally depended on low wages. Second, politics have been dominated by business leaders, who have held down unions.

Race and the lack of ethnic diversity also played a role in keeping unions out of the political structure.

"In the North," says historian Jonathan Prude, "different ethnic groups organized themselves occupationally, so the stake in having a good wage became bound up in ethnic politics and in ethnic self-consciousness."

In the South, by contrast, race often kept workers from forging solidarity. And management used race as a dividing tool. "For workers who talked of unionizing, the retort often was, 'We don't need you, we'll hire black workers,' " says Professor Prude at Atlanta's Emory University.

That all began to change as the civil rights movement improved race relations, as high-tech jobs began moving south, and as the region entered an economic boom that has drawn in millions of outsiders.

But even today, the South's political and business structures remain formidably opposed to unions. Most Southern states are so-called right-to-work states, meaning that no one can be required to join a union.

Even after a group of workers votes to unionize, the union cannot force them to pay dues. In addition, the majority of the nation's 13 states that don't have laws protecting unions are in the South.

Lessons for the movement

In some cases, says Ms. Bronfenbrenner, those obstacles have made Southern labor campaigns models of what today's national labor movement should look like in a time of union decline.

"They're organizing right," she says, mainly of recent pushes to unionize textile workers in North Carolina. "They're using workers to help organize, focusing on issues of justice and fairness, and doing the hard work of one-on-one campaigning," she says.

But many observers say unions have major hurdles to overcome in both the South and the rest of the country.

Numbers of union members have been in dropping across the nation since the late 1970s. They are declining across the South as well, though the downturn began later and is happening at a slower rate than in the rest of the country.

To some observers, it's not that unions are more accepted in the South today, but that they are less supported in other regions. "I think it's fair to say ... that the rest of the country is becoming more like the South," says Leonard Carlson, an economics professor at Emory University.

Others see a future with more union activity in the South. "There are signs of ferment out there in a number of the Southern industries," says Leon Fink, history professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

He says poultry and hog-processing plants could be hotbeds of organizing, not only because of the difficult working conditions, but also because of a new worker culture.

Today, these jobs are typically performed by blacks and Hispanics, who have a history of banding together to attain justice, rather than by whites, who tend to value independence.

"There's a background of struggle that can blend into new forms of organization here," Professor Fink says.

Even if unionization does not increase dramatically, Fink foresees a heated debate over unions' role - one that won't end with the UPS strike.

Union issues "are going to be at the forefront of national the agenda for a long time," he says.

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