Facing South

VOICES: Southern oligarchy and the labor unions

mitch_mcconnell_elaine_chao.jpgBy Joseph B. Atkins
From The Progressive Populist

Cheap labor. Even more than race, it's the thread that connects all of Southern history -- from the antebellum South of John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis to Tennessee's Bob Corker, Alabama's Richard Shelby and the other anti-union Southerners in today's U.S. Senate.

It's at the epicenter of a sad class divide between a desperate, poorly educated workforce and a demagogic oligarchy, and it has been a demarcation line stronger than the Mason-Dixon in separating the region from the rest of the nation.

The recent spectacle of Corker, Shelby and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky leading the GOP attack on the proposed $14 billion loan to the domestic auto industry -- with 11 other Southern senators marching dutifully behind -- made it crystal clear. The heart of Southern conservatism is the preservation of a status quo that serves elite interests.

Expect these same senators and their colleagues in the U.S. House to wage a similar war in the coming months against the proposed Employee Free Choice Act authorizing so-called "card check" union elections nationwide.

"Dinosaurs," Shelby of Alabama called General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler as he maneuvered to bolster the nonunion Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai and other foreign-owned plants in his home state by sabotaging as many as three million jobs nationwide.

Corker, a multimillionaire who won his seat in a mud-slinging, race-tinged election in 2006, was fairly transparent in his goal to expunge what he considers the real evil in the Big Three and U.S. industry in general: unions. When the concession-weary United Auto Workers balked at GOP demands for a near-immediate reduction in worker wages and benefits, Corker urged President Bush to force-feed wage cuts to UAW workers in any White House-sponsored bailout.

If Shelby, Corker, and McConnell figured they were helping the Japanese, German and Korean-owned plants in their home states, they were seriously misguided. The failure of the domestic auto industry would inflict a deep wound on the same supplier-dealer network that the foreign plants use. The already existing woes of the foreign-owned industry were clearly demonstrated in December when Toyota announced its decision to put on indefinite hold the opening of its $1.3 billion plant near Blue Springs in northeast Mississippi.

The Southern Republicans are full of contradictions. Downright hypocrisy might be a better description. Shelby staunchly opposes universal health care -- a major factor in the Big Three's financial troubles since they operate company plans -- yet the foreign automakers he defends benefit greatly from the government-run health care programs in their countries.

These same senators gave their blessing to hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to the foreign automakers to open plants in their states, yet they were willing to let the U.S. auto industry fall into bankruptcy.

In their zeal to destroy unions and their hard-fought wage-and-benefits packages, the Southern senators could not care less that workers in their home states are among the lowest paid in the nation. Ever wonder why the South remains the nation's poorest region despite generations of seniority-laden senators and representatives in Congress?

Why weren't these same senators protesting the high salaries in the financial sector when the Congress approved the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street? Why pick on blue-collar workers at the Big Three who last year agreed to huge concessions expected to save the companies an estimated $4 billion a year by 2010? These concessions have already helped lower union wages to non-union levels at some auto plants.

The idea of working people joining together to have a united voice across the table from management scares most Southern politicians to death. After all, they go to the same country clubs as management. When Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker warned of Democratic opponent Ronnie Musgrove's ties to the "Big Labor Bosses" in this year's U.S. Senate race, he was protecting the "Big Corporate Bosses" who are his benefactors.

The South today may be more racially enlightened than ever in its history. However, it is still a society in which the ruling class -- the chambers of commerce that have taken over from yesterday's plantation owners and textile barons -- uses politics to maintain control over a vast, jobs-hungry workforce. After the oligarchy lost its war for slavery -- the cheapest labor of all -- it secured the next best thing in Jim Crow and the indentured servitude known as sharecropping and tenant farming. It still sees cheap, pliable, docile labor as the linchpin of the Southern economy.

In 1948, when the so-called "Dixiecrats" rebelled against the national Democratic Party, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina declared war on "the radicals, subversives, and the Reds" who want to upset the Southern way of life.

Seven years later, Mississippi's political godfather, the late U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland, told other prominent Southern pols during a meeting at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis that the South will "fight the CIO" (Congress of Industrial Organizations) and unionism with just as much vehemence and determination as it fights racial integration.

Eastland, Thurmond and their friends lost the integration battle. Their successors are still fighting the other enemy.

Joseph B. Atkins is a veteran journalist, professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press (University Press of Mississippi, 2008), a book that details the Southern labor movement and its treatment in the press. A version of this column appeared in the Hattiesburg (Miss.) American and the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger.

(Photo of Sen. Mitch McConnell and his wife, former Bush administration Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, from the website of American Rights at Work)


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re: VOICES: Southern oligarchy and the labor unions

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re: VOICES: Southern oligarchy and the labor unions

Everything is relative. Jeff Davis was considered very much a liberal in his day. Without getting into the very controversial issue of slavery suffice it to say that linking Bob Corker to Jeff Davis is a great inservice to Mr. Davis.

re: VOICES: Southern oligarchy and the labor unions

Republican leaders in the South are nothing more than Neo-Confederates. They STILL believe that they can establish a country outside of the Union. Note: Mark Sanford of South Carolina enforcing the old, very old, Southern policy of "nullification" as he nullifies the Federal Government's recovery bill for his people. The Republican Party's Southern Strategy which they have been practicing since Richard Nixon is rising it's ugly head in defiance of the Union's policies. They will fail again, as they did in the Civil War, but, they, themselves, believe that the Civil War isn't OVER.

re: VOICES: Southern oligarchy and the labor unions

Ah..the South..sweet magnolia's in bloom and plantations..complete with modern day slavery..rich white folk..the genteel sipping their mint juleps while the "slaves" toil in the fields....life is sweet in ole' Alabama....(Tennesee, Missouri, Kentucky...) except for them damn slaves and that (N-----!) Black Man, in the White House says we must pay them (those slaves, peons, the working class) a decent (livable) wage (will that mean Scarlet won't have her 10 million dollar débutante party this year..?)...(and horrors)..provide health care...just like they were humans or something!!! Oh the unfairness of it..the inhumanity!!!!

re: VOICES: Southern oligarchy and the labor unions

Mr Durham, I doubt you would find the subject of slavery to be controversial if you were enslaved. You would find the matter to be rather black and white, so to speak. You would find it to be simply wrong.

re: VOICES: Southern oligarchy and the labor unions

I have concerns that the North can't smell it's own stink whenever this issue comes up. Remember, a slave was an expensive piece of "machinery" that the intelligent owner had to keep running. An Irish immigrant factory worker you could work 12/6 for near-survival wages and if an arm got ripped off in the lack of any factory safety standards, there was always another poor Irish waiting at the gate for the job. Still a lot of "townies" in the larger cities, aren't there? I highly suspect they have generational trauma the same as African-Americans still feel the ripple effect of slavery through time.

Not every white person in the 19th century lived in a mansion. If they did, the odds are it was a closet in the attic that was 40 degrees in the winter and 120 in the summer and they were up at four for morning duties and turning down madam's bed at night before they called it a day. We ignore the story of working class white trauma at our peril. Very "Gangs of New York", I suspect it is the source of much working class Republican support. They embrace through ancestral experience the Republican ideal that life is every man for himself and, so, they reject collective Democratic initiatives.

re: VOICES: Southern oligarchy and the labor unions

I have been trying to tell the world this since I left S.C. at the age of 21. It is a hateful place, a racist place and the elite white element uses the poor white workers from the other side of the railroad tracks who labor in their mills and other industries against the minorities there. Because they are ignorant and have been kicked around so long that they think it MUST be attributed to those people of color.
My mother worked in a cotton mill her entire life....no health insurance for her or her family, only a week's vacation every year, and the 'boss man' comes and rouses you out of your bed and takes you to work in his car (to make sure you get there)if you dare to stay home because you have pneumonia.
And if you ever breathe the work 'union', you are black-balled and can never get another job in S.C.

re: VOICES: Southern oligarchy and the labor unions

This is not a "working class white trauma...," but an elaborated American tragedy where economic class is far more relevant than skin color. Anyone who actually believes that people like McConnell are 'fighting' for their grievances rather than the oligarchy (McConnell and his corporate overlords), will let Mitch and friends realize that the propoganda is still working and that 21st century form of 'slavery' is still protected. Don't people get tired of working so hard every day, living from paycheck to paycheck (sometimes, if they are lucky), having little to no benefits or medical care, desperately under resourced schools, and minimal resources available to them and those they love while Mitch and his friends subvert economic hope and planning to support their own lifestyle and raw power?

No, this is not race based, though race is still very much a component part. Race 'baiting' is critical to the oligarchy inasmuch as it helps keep the struggling economic classes at each others throat rather than letting them talk together towards the realization that they have a common target; that is, the service economy, low wages with no health care and those persons whose wealth is predicated on the uninterrupted continuation of this system of sustained misery. This article by Joseph Atkins is important and I very much hope that it is read and given the consideration is deserves.

re: VOICES: Southern oligarchy and the labor unions

You could suppose these white men were brought up to just hate the word Union. Hatred passed on from generation to generation since 1861.

re: VOICES: Southern oligarchy and the labor unions

Need I mention the Republican Party's Southern strategy, first promoted by Nixon to use racism to divide the economic serfs of the South so they could be kept down by the oligarchs. The poor whites were assured of nothing else but that the blacks would not get ahead of them. Read Kevin Phillips on the subject.
Sen Byrd of Virginia was quoted as saying "50 cents and a pail of lunch (per day) is good enough for any man"
And it always amuses me to see old pickup trucks running around with Republican bumper stickers. Still being played like prison punks.

re: VOICES: Southern oligarchy and the labor unions

"Antebellum South of John C. Calhoun?" Old John C. was long dead before the war started.

re: VOICES: Southern oligarchy and the labor unions

Calling this a "Southern" problem is misguided, and divisive. After fifty years in Florida and five in Chicago, plus stints here and there in the Navy, I can tell you that a poorly-educated workforce and an oppressive demagogic oligarchy are universal national problems. The wealthy WANT their slaves kept stupid and desperate.

The so-called "Big Three" took a hit not because of unions, but because they were arrogant and unresponsive. It wasn't "Southerners" portraying anyone who drove a fuel efficient car as an anti-American liberal wimp. It wasn't Southerners who artificially drove up the price of oil through speculation.

The reason wages are lower in the South is because costs are lower. My house in Florida is five times the size of my apartment in Chicago, and the yard is more than fifty times as large, but it's one-third the price, and never mind the property taxes. (Why do politicians and developers get away with claiming that bringing in more people "expands the tax base," when it's plain to anyone who can breathe air that the more people you get, the HIGHER the taxes get?)

The war isn't between the North and the South, or between unions and non-unions. It's between the ultra-wealthy, terrified of having to compete on a level playing field, and those who do the actual work, who could run the corporations ten times as well if they were given half a chance.

Imagine how far George Bush would have gotten if he hadn't been backed by family wealth and daddy's CIA. Probably even a fast-food joint wouldn't have hired him to clean out the grease trap. Now imagine your car mechanic, regardless of what part of the country he's from, having the idiotic gall to have a luxurious private plane fly him to D.C. to beg for money.

AIG didn't make an enemy of everyone on the planet because of unions or cheap labor. Class warfare, greed, and eye-popping idiocy knows no state boundaries.

re: VOICES: Southern oligarchy and the labor unions

re: VOICES: Southern oligarchy and the labor unions

Seems that there are some Southern States that need to get their act together:

re: VOICES: Southern oligarchy and the labor unions

........and Toyota weems to be leaving its southern buddies to go north it would seem...The CAW is just "licking its chops"!


re: VOICES: Southern oligarchy and the labor unions

the word "antebellum" literally means "before war"