How Unions Won The South | Crooked Media
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April 27, 2024
What A Day
How Unions Won The South

In This Episode





UAW wins big at Volkswagen in Tennessee – its first victory at a foreign-owned factory in the American South

UAW strikes at General Motors plant in Texas as union goes after automakers’ cash cows | AP News

Welcome to Operation Dixie, the most ambitious unionization attempt in the U.S. | by Meagan Day | Timeline | Medium

Racial divides have been holding American workers back for more than a century – The Washington Post

Manufacturing jobs are defying expectations – The Economist

Union Membership, 1939 and 1953

Textile Union Fight to Organize Stevens Plants Shifts to Greenville, S.C. – The New York Times

The UAW wants to recruit Southern auto workers. Here’s why that failed in the past

In a seminal development for Wisconsin’s economy, manufacturing has begun returning home

Nissan attacked for one of ‘nastiest anti-union campaigns’ in modern US history

How the South Became Anti-Union – Flagpole

Union organizing effort and success in the U.S., 1948–2004 – ScienceDirect





Erin Ryan: Max. Everyone I know who is in any way involved with unions is absolutely losing their minds this week. 


Max Fisher: Oh yeah, the Volkswagen thing. 


[clip of VW union workers] Union now! Union yes! 


[clip of unnamed VW union worker] It’s the great. It’s the greatest feeling that I’ve felt like in a long in 13 years. Okay. This is wonderful. 


Max Fisher: Those are workers at the VW plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who just voted to form a union. 


Erin Ryan: Right. This is a really big deal. And not just for auto workers. In a way, to have a union form at an automotive plant in the South is a big deal, kind of for anyone who works in America. 


Max Fisher: Yeah. Even if you’re not a line worker at a southern auto factory, this could matter for you. 


Erin Ryan: I have a feeling that most people listening are not line workers at Southern Auto Factories, but it’s not going to be obvious why this is a big deal unless you understand why the South, as a rule, doesn’t unionize, and what that has to do with the entire rest of the U.S. economy. 


Max Fisher: But once you see it, you might end up cheering like those folks in the video, too. [music break]


Erin Ryan: I’m Erin Ryan. 


Max Fisher: And I’m Max Fisher. This is How We Got Here, a new series where we explore a big question behind the week’s headlines and tell a story that answers that question. 


Erin Ryan: Our question this week, why are unions finally breaking into the notoriously anti-union American South? 


Max Fisher: That’s going to bring us to some bigger questions, too. Like, why have unions been in such severe decline in the US? And could that maybe start changing? 


Erin Ryan: The story we want to tell you is how and why the South became so anti-union in the first place. 


Max Fisher: Because this is not peripheral to that bigger story of union decline in America. It’s actually pretty central to it. 


Erin Ryan: All right, let’s get into it. 


Max Fisher: Okay. So you might say that there are three big chapters to this story. And the first of those chapters starts all the way back in the late 1800s. 


Erin Ryan: In other words, for as long as there have been unions in America. 


Max Fisher: Yeah. Back then, the southern economy was mostly farms and textile weaving. 


Erin Ryan: I have a feeling, Max, that race is about to feature heavily in all this. 


Max Fisher: Yeah, boy does it. You will remember from history class that, of course, as a result of the Civil War, large numbers of newly emancipated southern Black workers started competing with southern white workers for jobs. 


Erin Ryan: It’s a big economic change. And for farm owners, too. 


Max Fisher: There’s an argument that everything that happens in the South after this, with Jim Crow laws and the Dixiecrat hold on power and the exclusion of southern Black voters, is, on some level, a labor economic story. 


Erin Ryan: Okay, it’s minute three. And How We Got Here makes its first veiled reference to Karl Marx. Not bad, not bad. 


Max Fisher: Look Erin, I’m just trying to keep up with you. 


Erin Ryan: You were saying white workers faced more wage competition. White landowners had to pay for labor. The response was Jim Crow, which forced Black workers into poverty wages and horrific work conditions. 


Max Fisher: So southern Black farmworkers started to, with the help of trade associations that came down from the North, form their own unions as a way to demand things like fairer pay. 


Erin Ryan: They also had support from prominent abolitionist leaders like Frederick Douglass, who called unions the next big step in emancipation. 


Max Fisher: One of those first unions was formed in 1887 by Louisiana sugar farm workers, and their demands were pretty modest, like a daily wage of $1.25. 


Erin Ryan: That’s about $3 an hour in today’s dollars. 


Max Fisher: White workers in the South saw unions like this as a threat to the higher pay and higher social status that they got from being white and white elites saw it as a threat to their hold on power. What if Black Southerners went from organizing for better wages to organizing for the vote? 


Erin Ryan: This is, of course, part of where the KKK came from. 


Max Fisher: Some of those Black sugar farm workers went on strike. A local judge declared martial law, and white vigilantes shot and killed 60 of the strikers and then buried them in a mass grave. 


Erin Ryan: Here’s a bit of Americana lore for you. One of the sugar farm owners, a guy named Andrew Price, was spotted participating in the massacre. He faced no charges, and a year later, white voters in that same town elected him to Congress. 


Max Fisher: Cool, cool. Love to read American history. 


Erin Ryan: Not to bring up Karl Marx again. But if religion is opiate for the masses, then in American history, racism is kind of the the meth, I would say. 


Max Fisher: [laughing] Well there were other incidents like this of Black workers trying to unionize and getting gunned down in Arkansas in 1919 and North Carolina in 1929. 


Erin Ryan: But it’s not just that Black workers were being prevented from unionizing. White workers in the South were resistant to it, too. 


Max Fisher: To explain why, here’s a historian named James C. Cobb. He’s an emeritus professor at the University of Georgia, and he’s written a bunch of books about the political economy in the South. Our producer, Emma Illick-Frank, talked to him. 


[clip of James C. Cobb] Well, they certainly politicians as well as employers used the bugaboo of of unions being in favor of race mixing, as they called it in all their propaganda. And some of the white workers, most of them were not used to working beside Black people. And the you know, the argument to them was, if you’re in a union, they’ll have as good a job as you do. And, you know, you may find yourself actually working for a black person. 


Erin Ryan: So racism. Join a union and it might, God forbid, elevate Black workers alongside white workers. 


Max Fisher: Yes. Though Professor Cobb emphasized that white southern elites were driving a lot of the effort to block unions, their entire hold on power, after all, relied on keeping poor and working class people divided along racial lines. And unions threatened that. 


[clip of James C. Cobb] Let me put it this way it’s hard to imagine the extent to which the institutions of government in the South were committed to keeping unions out, from the local sheriff to the state patrol, from the mayor to the governor. They use every facet of their office and their their authority, against union organization. I mean, Clemson University taught a union busting seminar for several years, teaching executives how to keep their plants from being unionized. And Clemson’s a state university. It’s just not some kind of primitive cultural thing with southern white workers that that, you know, you can’t just explain this failure to unionize solely on that basis. 


Erin Ryan: There are so many instances of things in American history that are nice and people like that we didn’t get. 


Max Fisher: Mm hmm. 


Erin Ryan: When you look back on it and you’re like, why can’t we have this nice thing? The answer is racism. Racism is why we can’t have the nice thing. 


Max Fisher: Yeah, well, we mentioned that this story can be divided into three chapters, and that was chapter one. 


Erin Ryan: Got it. The early years of American unions from the Civil War up through the 1930s, a period when racism and Jim Crow led southern white workers and elites to cooperate in shutting unions out of the South. 


Max Fisher: The result was that by the time labor unions really took off in America in the 1930s and ’40s, there was already this long history of cultural antagonism to unions in the South. 


Erin Ryan: This is chapter two of our story, the Union boom years from the ’30s through the ’60s. This is a time when organized labor was stronger than ever. But there were also some new barriers to unions going up in the South in addition to the old ones. 


Max Fisher: This is part of the story that is a little bit more driven by industrial economics and economic policy. 


Erin Ryan: Okay. Go on. 


Max Fisher: So here’s a big one. When FDR passed the National Labor Relations Act, the law that created a lot of the union and collective bargaining rights we still have today. Southern politicians negotiated to get agricultural workers and domestic workers excluded. 


Erin Ryan: Those sectors dominated the South’s economy. So this cut off a lot of Southerners from America’s big labor rights revolution, which southern political leaders didn’t want in their states. 


Max Fisher: It also shielded the South from what became an explosion in Union membership after World War Two. Thanks to the postwar economic boom, factories are sprouting up across the North and the Midwest. Unions strengthened by FDR’s new laws won over a lot of those factory floors. 


Erin Ryan: But there were relatively few factories to unionize in the South, which, owing to its reliance on agriculture, hadn’t industrialized to the same degree. 


Max Fisher: I’ve got some stats here that really show the gap between the North and the South. 


Erin Ryan: All right, lay them on me. 


Max Fisher: So between 1939 and 1953, which is the peak of that manufacturing boom, the number of unionized workers in New York State more than doubled, from a little under one million to over two million. 


Erin Ryan: Rough math, that’s got to be close to half of working adults in New York. 


Max Fisher: Yeah. Nationally, 35% of working adults were in unions as of 1953. That year was actually the peak of union participation in the country. 


Erin Ryan: Okay, so that’s an industrial northern state and now a southern agricultural state?


Max Fisher: Okay. North Carolina, same years, 1939 to ’53, went from just 25,000 union workers to 84,000. 


Erin Ryan: That is barely enough to tailgate outside an SCC football game. [laughter] So the South was getting totally left behind by the organized labor wave. 


Max Fisher: Yeah, the Teamsters, who were one of the biggest unions in the world at that point. 


Erin Ryan: Still are. 


Max Fisher: Right? Still are. In that 1939 to ’53 window, they recruited 700,000 new members nationally. Would you like to guess how many of those were in the South? 


Erin Ryan: 700,000 nationally, I’d say maybe 100,000 or 200,000 in the South. 


Max Fisher: Across all of Texas, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. Just 6000 new teamster members. 


Erin Ryan: Okay, but there must be some unions in the South by the 1950s. 


Max Fisher: There are some textile unions, and West Virginia has one of the highest membership rates in the South, thanks to mine workers. Overall, during this period, the union participation rate across the South was about half of what it was nationally. And that ratio has actually held, it’s consistently been about half of whatever the national rate is. 


Erin Ryan: Southern states, we should say, also all passed so-called right to work laws during this period. 


Max Fisher: Yeah. And just to explain, right to work laws allow workers in unionized workplaces to opt out of union membership or paying dues. They’re intended to make it harder for unions to form or sustain themselves. 


Erin Ryan: Okay, so to circle back on something, we were talking earlier about the role of Jim Crow and institutionalized racism, in keeping unions out of the South for so long. 


Max Fisher: For basically a century. Yeah. 


Erin Ryan: So you would think that the rise of the civil rights movement in the ’60s would smash those barriers and allow unions to finally come in, but that’s not what happened. 


Max Fisher: The reason that civil rights failed to pave the way for organized labor in the South is still debated, but everyone agrees that these two movements have had a complicated relationship. Often, they’ve been natural allies. 


Erin Ryan: When Martin Luther King Jr was jailed in Birmingham, for example, it was the United Auto Workers union that sent down officers with bail money. 


Max Fisher: But other times they worked at cross-purposes, especially in the South. 


[clip of James C. Cobb] That’s their interests, just ah well in the broader sense, their interests would seem to coincide, in the practical sense, at that point, they didn’t. 


Erin Ryan: That is, again, James Cobb, the historian of the South’s political economy. 


[clip of James C. Cobb] For one thing, the union movement was so weak. The last thing a civil rights leader would have wanted in the South was an affiliation with the unionization movement. I mean, they had enough trouble as it was, they were already being called communists, and I don’t think they would have had anything to do with it, even if the unions were ostensibly supporting the civil rights movement, you know, any point person involved with the unions would have understood that, that, you know, this is not something they can openly embrace or encourage. 


Max Fisher: And this played out in other ways, too. Unions were seen as associated with the Democratic Party, and the Democrats had become hated by a lot of southern whites for pushing civil rights. So that fed into suspicion of unions. 


Erin Ryan: And while all this was happening, unions were getting more and more deeply entrenched in the North and Midwest. They’re building cultural ties, familiarity in local communities, all of which gives them a kind of resilience there. 


Max Fisher: This will much later play into union’s troubles expanding into the South, where there isn’t that familiarity. But you’ll see what I mean when we get there. 


Erin Ryan: We’re approaching the ’70s, which marks the end of chapter two of our story and the start of our third and final chapter. 


Max Fisher: Yeah. So to sum up chapter two, the South managed to cut it’s self off from what was otherwise a revolution organized labor throughout the rest of the United States. 


Erin Ryan: It did this through regulations and economic policies that are still very much with us, and still barriers to unionization in the South. 


Max Fisher: And the South also did this through in a weird and inadvertent way, timing, by industrializing so much later than the rest of the US, it staved off the wave of union organizing that came with factories elsewhere. Which brings us to chapter three from the 1970s to today. [music break]




Erin Ryan: A few big economic changes all happened at once to set this off. 


Max Fisher: The South’s big textile industry completely imploded. Garment making jobs moved overseas and everyone knew they were never coming back. 


Erin Ryan: At the same time, a big bad recession hit the U.S. and Europe. That led manufacturing companies in both places to start looking for ways to cut costs. 


Max Fisher: Southern leaders thought they saw a way to make all these problems solve each other. 


Erin Ryan: Was it through a big football game? 


Max Fisher: [laugh] That’s a great guess. Uh. No. The the South had finally industrialized. 


Erin Ryan: Oh. Way to hustle, guys. Way to keep up. 


Max Fisher: So southern leaders went to corporations in northern states and in Europe with an offer. They said, hey, relocate your factories to the American South. Our labor is cheap because our economies are still mostly poor, rural. And if you’re worried about safety standards, or a costly strike, if you’re worried about worker blowback, if you have to close a factory, then don’t, because we don’t really have unions down here and we don’t want them. 


Erin Ryan: It is diabolical. Max, I know you didn’t want to do an accent, and that’s probably wise, but just know that as you were speaking, I heard you in the voice of Charlie Daniels singing Devil Went Down to Georgia, [laughter] specifically the part where he narrates the deal with the devil. 


[clip of song The Devil Went Down to Georgia] The devil went down to Georgia. He was looking for a soul to steal. He was in a bind because he was way behind, and he was willing to make a deal. When he came across this young man sawing on a fiddle and playing it hot, and the devil jumped up on a hickory stump and said, boy, let me tell you why. 


Max Fisher: I was wondering how much of that song we’re gonna hear. [laugh] Well, okay, that is what this is. It is a deal with the devil. And in the late ’70s and early ’80s, a lot of companies said yes, and they moved their factories to the south. 


Erin Ryan: There’s a name for this practice. It’s called offshoring. We typically think of offshoring as an American company moving its factory off its shores. 


Max Fisher: Right. 


Erin Ryan: To China or Mexico. But the south was one of the first. 


Max Fisher: Yeah, the unions did try to follow these factories down, but the Nixon administration had just weakened a bunch of the FDR rules meant to support organized labor. 


Erin Ryan: God, what a dick. 


Max Fisher: He’s yeah. He is. 


Erin Ryan: This was also thanks to the recession, a weak labor market that made workers easier to replace and gave them less power at work than they’d had during the strong labor market of the postwar boom years. 


Max Fisher: Another factor is that southern states had built up a lot of their factories out in rural areas. This is something they were able to do because of more recent advances in electrification. This is another perk of industrializing late, it gave those factories access to cheaper rural labor, and in theory, also made them less likely to unionize because they were far away from cities that might have other unions. 


Erin Ryan: The point is that offshoring factories became the new economy of the South, and a lot of those factories were run by European carmakers. 


Max Fisher: Yeah. After decades in which factory and union had been synonymous in America, the South ended up with a whole bunch of factories, but almost no unions. 


Erin Ryan: The Business Council of Alabama described it as a perfect three legged stool for economic development of loose business regulations, cheap workers and, quote, “the lack of labor union activity and participation.” 


Max Fisher: Remember that all of those barriers to unions we mentioned in the earlier parts of this show are still in place. Racial divides, right to work laws, cultural distrust of unions as the tool of integrationist and democrats. 


Erin Ryan: But now there’s a new one too. Southern leaders have explicitly promised to keep out unions as a foundation of the entire region’s economy. 


Max Fisher: And they started making good on that promise pretty quickly. In South Carolina in 1977, state leaders successfully fought Philip Morris’s plan to build a cigarette plant that would have created 2600 jobs for the sole reason that Philip Morris plants were union. 


Erin Ryan: Anti-unionists versus the cigarette factory. Has there ever been a more clear cut team nobody situation? Sacklers versus the cartels maybe.


Max Fisher: Oh that’s a good one. 


Erin Ryan: Yeah. 


Max Fisher: Yeah that’s it. 


Erin Ryan: It’s it’s so dumb because it’s not even like the Philip Morris people were anti-union. The– 


Max Fisher: Right. 


Erin Ryan: Yeah the state deprived its own citizens of thousands of union wage jobs that this company wanted to give them. 


Max Fisher: And South Carolina had a big ally in this fight, too. Michelin, the French tire maker, had just set up its own nonunion factory in this same South Carolina town, and they helped to fight the Philip Morris plant. Both Michelin and South Carolina feared that if even one Union factory set up, it would push up wages for the whole area, and it might even lead Union sentiment to spread beyond that plant. 


Erin Ryan: European factories became a huge presence in the South, and they still very much are now with a lot of Japanese and Korean companies in there, too. 


Max Fisher: Especially carmakers, and especially starting in the ’80s. 


Erin Ryan: The ’80s also being the start of the bad times for unions in America. 


Max Fisher: At the start of that decade, about one in four workers was a member of a union. 


Erin Ryan: That’s already down from one in three during union’s peak in the ’50s. 


Max Fisher: By the end of the ’80s, it had dropped from one in four to less than one in six. 


Erin Ryan: All right, here he comes. The guy we bring up on every show. 


Max Fisher: Oh, Karl Marx again?


Erin Ryan: No, no, the other one, Ronald Reagan. 


Max Fisher: Oh, yeah. 


[clip of Ronald Reagan] It is for this reason that I must tell those who fail to report for duty that this morning they are in violation of the law, and if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated. End of statement. 


Erin Ryan: What a dick. 


Max Fisher: [laughing] That was from 1981, when Reagan ended up firing 11,000 air traffic controllers for striking. 


Erin Ryan: This signaled what became a big change in treatment of unions in the US. 


Max Fisher: Reagan followed Nixon in further weakening those FDR era protections for unions. It became a lot easier for companies to bust unions or to discourage them from even forming. 


Erin Ryan: This is a big part of the story of why unions declined in America, but it’s not the whole story. 


Max Fisher: Globalization is, of course, the other big part. Advances in communication and transportation made it more feasible to move plants overseas, just as cheap, skilled labor pools were coming online in Asia and Central America. 


Erin Ryan: At the same time, the American economy was shifting away from manufacturing jobs, which were mostly union to service sector jobs, which mostly weren’t. 


Max Fisher: Okay. So up to this point, we’ve mostly talked about the forces arrayed against unions that made things hard for organized labor. But this one, this is one where the unions take some blame. 


Erin Ryan: Remember back to those union boom times from the ’40s and ’50s, when the wind was at their backs and they marched through one factory after another. 


Max Fisher: But they did not march through the service sector of the economy, restaurants, retail, typing pools, bank tellers. 


Erin Ryan: Yes, the yucky parts of the economy where workers were disproportionately likely to be women, which made the male dominated unions disproportionately likely to ignore them. 


Max Fisher: And that turned out to be a pretty big own goal for organized labor in America, because the service sector would, by the ’80s, really take off. Software, health care, finance. 


Erin Ryan: Media. 


Max Fisher: Yeah. Erin, you and I are both in a union. 


Erin Ryan: So many meetings. 


Max Fisher: So many meetings but I love them all. And the first big newspaper union formed during the Great Depression, partly because reporters noticed that unionized printing press operators made more than them. 


Erin Ryan: But most of the service sector never unionized, and most jobs in America are now service sector jobs. So as that sector has grown, union’s share of the workforce has shrunk. 


Max Fisher: This became an especially big problem for unions in the South. It’s one thing to try to organize nurses or retail workers in, say, Pittsburgh, where everyone knows someone who’s been in a union. They know how unions work. They’ve seen the value of it. 


Erin Ryan: But try the same thing in Charlotte or Dallas, and you’re going to face more skepticism from communities that haven’t had that first hand exposure. 


Max Fisher: That’s also why companies and managers in the South have had an easier time scaring workers with claims that unionizing will cost them their jobs. 


Erin Ryan: Yes, it’s become a mainstay of anti-union propaganda to say, just look at what happened to Detroit, as if the decimation of Detroit auto jobs had been caused by unions rather than by, you know, the automakers offshoring those jobs to union free places like Mexico. 


Max Fisher: Or Alabama. 


Erin Ryan: As of 1990, 15% of all auto jobs in America were located in the South. Today, it’s double that at 30%. Meanwhile, the share of auto jobs in the Midwest has dropped from 60 to 45%. 


Max Fisher: Which is to say the South, opening itself up as an anti-union offshoring center started to hurt organized labor, not just in the South, but in the whole country. 


Erin Ryan: That’s the big takeaway of the third chapter of our story about the South making itself the anti-union alternative to the Midwest. And nothing illustrates that, like the auto industry. 


Max Fisher: Yeah. The auto industry’s shift to the South has displaced thousands of what would otherwise be union jobs. 


Erin Ryan: All of this is why the question of whether the South stays union free is also a question about the fate of organized labor in America. Because if the South keeps this up, then it can continue chipping away at unions nationwide, luring away more and more union jobs and converting them into nonunion jobs. 


Max Fisher: But if unions could finally break into the South, then there would no longer be this union free zone that employers could escape to. Any company that wanted to operate in the U.S. would have to accept that their workforce might, maybe, possibly could unionize. 


Erin Ryan: But southern states see this, and they’re fighting back. 


[clip of Phil Bryant] And I can tell you something else. I don’t think we need a union to come in there and tell us how to make a better automobile. [cheers and applause] They can get back on the Bernie Sanders bus and go back to New York and I’ll pay their way. We’re doing just fine. Thank you very much. 


Erin Ryan: Yeah. The American South very famously doing better than the state of New York. 


Max Fisher: [laughing] That was uh, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant at a public event in 2017. Uh. The next part of his speech wasn’t captured on video, but he went on to urge Mississippians, especially ones working at a big Nissan plant in the state, not to vote for unions or they would end up, he said, losing their jobs. He said, quote, if you want to take away your job, if you want to end manufacturing as we know it in Mississippi, just start expanding unions. 


Erin Ryan: A week later, as has happened over and over again in southern auto factories since the ’80s, the plant’s 3500 workers voted against unionizing. 


[clip of unidentified Nissan worker] When we started this, I mean, my whole line was just, they were just yes. But when Nissan started bringing in those anti-union videos, I seen my coworkers just the look on their face, Miss [?] I just can’t do it. 


[clip of unidentified Nissan worker 2] I’m afraid of losing my job. Right now I got job security for 15 years, sir we have not had a layoff. We have never missed a beat. 


[clip of unidentified person interviewing Nissan employees] What do you think of their campaign? 


[clip of unidentified Nissan worker 2] They don’t have one. We’ve been treated like you know they want to say we treated when they treated Black people like slaves. I have been driving an [clap] Infinity for 15 years. I make great moneys. More money than people with degrees make down here. 


Max Fisher: Those were two of the Nissan workers talking to Vice news around the time of the vote. And these are explanations that labor activists say you hear all the time at these southern factories. I’m making good money better than most of my community. I can’t risk that. 


Erin Ryan: Something labor activists stress is that these southern factories are mostly in low income and rural communities, where people might be less than a generation removed from poverty. That can make people understandably risk averse. 


Max Fisher: Especially if the only unions you’ve ever heard about are the ones from Detroit. You know, where all the factories closed. 


Erin Ryan: Southern states have other tricks to suppress unions, too. Some, like Georgia, even bully companies out of recognizing unions by threatening to revoke subsidies if they do. 


Max Fisher: A lot of these states hand out hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies and tax incentives to these factories. For a big carmaker, losing that can be even scarier than a strike. 


Erin Ryan: All of that brings us to the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. The United Auto Workers have been trying for years to unionize the plant, and for a long time, it looked like the southern anti-union playbook was working. 


Max Fisher: VW had opened the plant in 2011 and got 85,000 applicants for just 2000 jobs, which is to say, the people who ultimately got hired have said that they feel very lucky to be there, and they don’t want to risk being seen as a union troublemaker and losing their spot. 


Erin Ryan: When that plant first opened, though, VW came out and said it actually wanted some sort of worker representation like they had at their plants in Germany, so it seemed like a union might finally happen. 


Max Fisher: Until state leaders came out against it. Remember, the view in the South is that allowing any unions would undermine their pledge to stay union free. There is a fear that the South, if it lets in unions, could trigger a mass relocation of all those factories to some other even cheaper location, probably abroad, that would beat the South at its own game. 


Erin Ryan: Whatever their reasons, suddenly VW wasn’t so union friendly anymore. They refused to voluntarily recognize the union. This meant that the union could only form if it won a vote from the majority of workers. 


Max Fisher: Exactly the sort of vote that unions have lost in southern factories over and over again. 


Erin Ryan: They held a vote in 2014 and they did lose it. Then they held another after years of organizing outreach in 2018, lost it again. 


Max Fisher: But after 2018, a few big things changed. And not just in Chattanooga. These were national changes, which is why people think the story of this one plant might suggest that the future could be getting less bleak for unions in the South, and maybe even for the US as a whole. 


Erin Ryan: Covid is a big part of this. The labor market tightened way, way up, which is great news for workers collective power. 


Max Fisher: At the same time, problems with supply chains mean that Americans were suddenly more reliant on domestic manufacturing. That’s good for unions, because even with the South swallowing up manufacturing jobs, factories left in the North and Midwest are still heavily union. 


Erin Ryan: Popular support for unions has been spiking, too. They’re now at 70% approval, according to Gallup, even though union membership is at an all time low of only 10%. 


Max Fisher: The reasons for this are complicated. People tend to think more favorably of unions when the economy is strong, for example, but it helps embolden unions that are already emboldened by the labor market. 


Erin Ryan: You may have noticed this. Strikes and other labor actions have been up ever since the pandemic. According to one count, they jumped by 52% from just 2021 to 2022. 


Max Fisher: And something else, the UAW had its first ever direct election, and the new leadership seems to be much more popular with potential recruits like those VW workers. 


Speaker 7 We’ve got the power. And when we launched our stand up strike, we’ve outsmarted, we’ve out organized corporate America and won a future for tens of thousands of workers. And we’re going to keep going until we win social and economic justice at the big three and beyond. 


Erin Ryan: That’s UAW president and the Caitlin Clark of organized labor, [laughter] Shawn Fain, speaking to union members in Chicago last fall. 


Max Fisher: Specifically, he was talking about a historic strike that the UAW led across all three of the so-called Big Three American automakers of Ford, GM, and Chrysler. 


Erin Ryan: That they held the strike at all was a big deal, but it also worked. After six weeks of work stoppages, the UAW autoworkers won their biggest raises in decades. 


Max Fisher: That victory, specifically, seems to have really resonated with people at the VW plant in Chattanooga. Workers held a third vote over unionization and approved it by 73%. 


[clip of unidentified VW worker] Everybody started seeing what we could get when the big three went on strike. And they’re said, wait, hold on. If they can get all this, we should too. We do the same job, just in a different location. 


Erin Ryan: This is great news, but we’re still left with the question. Does it indicate more like this to come? Maybe even a crack in the Great Southern Wall hemming in unions?


Max Fisher: Which again, would be a really big deal for everyone, not just auto workers. When there are more unions, wages are higher across the board, work conditions are better, people tend to live longer and healthier lives even, and they’re less prone to far right politics, which has always had a special power to appeal to people who feel left behind. 


Erin Ryan: And the southern anti-union economy has been a big part of holding unions back everywhere. But it’s not totally clear whether that’s cracking yet. 


Max Fisher: There’s some ways in which the VW plant was unusually inclined to unions, and it took even them a decade to get there. Still, there is some reason for optimism. 


Erin Ryan: For one, the contagion effect that southern leaders have feared for so long could turn out to be real. The UAW breakthrough with the Big Three inspiring VW Chattanooga workers to support unionization seems like evidence of that. 


Max Fisher: The strong labor market is another big tailwind for unions, too. At the same time, there have been some even bigger economic shifts, like a big decline in offshoring. 


Erin Ryan: Yes, this is huge. Factories are not fleeing abroad the way they used to. 


Max Fisher: China is no longer the draw for American factories that it used to be. Its economy has grown and now its labor is too expensive. Other countries, like Vietnam or India still offer cheap labor, but no one can really replicate China’s supply chains. 


Erin Ryan: Speaking of supply chains, they are still a mess. Which is more good news for American manufacturing and therefore American unions.


Max Fisher: We’re even starting to see what economists call reshoring. That’s when factories come back to the US. It’s the opposite of offshoring. And if you have not heard the term before, that’s because it’s pretty unusual. 


Erin Ryan: It’s also impossible to like, imagine like how do you shore again?


Max Fisher: Well Wisconsin’s doing it. 


Erin Ryan: Maybe it’s becoming a thing. 


Max Fisher: Not in big numbers yet, but there are factories spinning back to life in parts of the upper Midwest. 


Erin Ryan: Put another way, at least for the moment, the manufacturing industries race to the bottom is on hold, which is bad news for the southern scheme to undercut those unions with nonunion workers. 


Max Fisher: As for whether this Chattanooga vote is going to usher in a wider trend, we’ll have a hint of that pretty soon, actually. The UAW is holding another unionization vote at a Mercedes plant in Alabama just next month. 


Erin Ryan: And there you have it. Chapters one through three of the struggle of organized labor in the South to form unions. Chapter four TK. Now let’s go out with these local ABC news affiliate interviews with workers at the Mercedes, Alabama plant. 


[clip of montage of ABC affiliate interviews with workers at Mercedes plant in Alabama] We’re just as good as any worker anywhere. Mercedes makes billions in profit off of our labor. And you know, we just we just looking for a for a fire deal. I believe Mercedes will become a destination, employer again. People wanting to come here again. Right now, it’s they’re having trouble keeping people on the line. They, we have new groups of people coming in every week. Uh. And people just aren’t staying anymore. It’s really about an Alabama discount. And that’s not just about money. It’s about the workers here in Alabama for the same work that that all the auto workers in the whole country uh do. 


Max Fisher: How We Got Here is written and hosted by me, Max Fisher and by Erin Ryan. 


Erin Ryan: It’s produced by Austin Fisher, Emma Illick-Frank is our associate producer. 


Max Fisher: Evan Sutton mixes and edits the show. 


Erin Ryan: Jordan Cantor sound engineers the show. Audio support from Kyle Seglin, Charlotte Landes and Vasilis Fotopoulos. 


Max Fisher: Production support from Adriene Hill, Leo Duran, Erica Morrison, Raven Yamamoto, and Natalie Bettendorf.


Erin Ryan: And a special thank you to What a Day’s talented hosts Tre’vell Anderson, Priyanka Aribindi, Josie Duffy Rice, and Juanita Tolliver for welcoming us to the family.