FOLLOWED BY -
REFLECTIONS ON [HOPEFULLY] REAL-STUFF DIXIE LABOR ORGANIZING [HUNTER
GRAY/HUNTER BEAR: JANUARY 29 2004] DIXIE ORGANIZING
PUBLISHED IN MAY DAY 2004 ISSUE OF THE SOCIALIST UPDATED 1/07/05
UPDATE NOTE BY HUNTER JULY 26 2007:
Unions have been mentioned -- by Sam, among others --
in this flowing discussion on RedBadBear. I certainly see unions as
absolutely critical to the protection and enhancement of any working person
-- and to that of the workingclass in general. And I also see the unions --
and all essentially democratic and grassroots social justice organizations
and movements -- as most fundamental in effecting and maintaining and
continuing positive social change. [I have to confess that I have a
life-long wariness of "politicians" and bureaucrats -- each of which [and
sometimes melded together] -- seem inevitably to drift toward
authoritarianism and mediocrity and more authoritarianism.
A few years ago, I wrote out some of my basic thoughts on Unions. It is moderately lengthy, and drew some solid discussion. Here is the Link to our website page on all of that [including much of the salient discussion.] In the several years since I wrote this, the crises in individual and collective living have obviously worsened. Unions, at least in the 'States, have generally continued to lose ground -- and image as well. And again, generally, bona fide [hard and tedious] grassroots organizing has waned, sometimes to the very edges of Death Valley.
Vision and the Old Revival Spirit -- and committed and savvy grassroots justice organizers of all kinds -- well, those make up the ticket to New Genesis and far beyond. [And not contributions to pie-cards and politicos.]
In Solidarity, Hunter [Hunter Bear]
Couple of key-note things:
One is, awhile back, I [to my surprise] found myself increasingly unwilling to dwell extensively on the Old Southern Civil Rights Movement. Eldri and I, who came into the Deep South in the latter summer '61, were there as Movement activists for six years. My demonstration and arrest and jail record is quite respectable [Eldri was arrested, too] and we were enjoined in injunctions [which we defied]. I was beaten in various ways, shot at [and shot back a couple of times], on "death lists," hospitalized with serious injuries, etc. This and more happened to lots of people. And, since it's certainly important to get Movement history down accurately, I do spend plenty of time with students and writers.
But we are always especially glad to see old Civil Rights activists tangling with contemporary social justice issues -- and thinking in futuristic terms.
The second thing was a most negative comment from a member of a discussion list following my latest posting on the hard-driving efforts of copper workers and retirees to secure contract and pension justice in Arizona from the huge copper bosses. The workers are led primarily and effectively by Local 937, San Manuel Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, formerly Mine-Mill and now, since the '67 merger, in United Steelworkers of America. But they remain very conscious in the positive sense of the old, fighting Mine-Mill traditions.
Anyway, said this Sour Fish,"99.9% of the members of this list don't care a bit about the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers." I don't believe that for a moment -- but, Adios Fish.
Now I'm always much glad, believe me, to shoot the breeze on the Old Civil Rights Movement Days and the various personalities that graced the geography. Honoring folks, commemorations -- fine. But that good Old Movement will not come again.
HUNTER GRAY [HUNTER BEAR] Micmac/St Francis Abenaki/St Regis Mohawk -- and United Auto Workers and United Association for Labor Education
REFLECTIONS ON [HOPEFULLY] REAL-STUFF DIXIE
BY HUNTER GRAY [HUNTER BEAR]: [JANUARY 29 2004]
NOTE BY HUNTER BEAR:
Attached is a short piece of mine -- Reflections On [Hopefully] Real-Stuff
Dixie Labor Organizing. I did it a little less than a year ago, eventually
seeing it published in the May Day 2004 issue of The Socialist magazine
[SPUSA]. I'm now sending it out on a few discussion lists -- most of which
seem as languid recently as Sleepy Lagoon. One dimension that isn't at all
quiescent in some quarters is, "Where-to the labor movement?" That
discussion [and various mailings and pronouncements] bubbles along, very
predictably given the debacle of last early November -- but the real
question is, what will come of all this yeasting and fermenting? A
little more on that in a moment.
On the South, the dear old Bloody South with its several unique regions, I
have to say that I do like it. And, despite its predominately current
political coloration, I have for it a great deal of basic faith. After all,
Eldri and I saw it initially in the latter Summer of '61 when most of Dixie
was truly an American Horror. And when we left, years later in the Summer
of '67, it had come a long and Sunny way indeed -- but there are certainly
big stretches of trail yet to travel. [We do maintain our Southern
connections, not the least of which is my Life Membership in the Mississippi
Historical Society where I am in at least theoretical association with a
raft of old and poisonous enemies.]
But on the Labor Movement, my yearning faith is ever-tested -- as it has
been since I was a kid, just out of the Army at the beginning of '55,
making my life long commitment to consistent social activism. I joined
unions in earnest at that point, have belonged to at least one and sometimes
more ever since. But I consistently have to remind myself of Clarence
Darrow's comment about militant Western labor and its sometimes alleged
excesses. "I know its cause is just."
Well, it is a test of faith. The much bandied about stats tell -- union
membership in the USA is down to 13% or so [it was in the mid-30s percentage
wise in '55], with only about 8% of this in the private sector. And there
have always been these discussions about, What To Do?
In 1949 and 1950, the Left unions -- almost a dozen vital internationals --
were purged from the Mainstream Waters of CIO. "Communism" was the much
touted reason for this blood-letting, but even at the time -- and certainly
today -- this was and is seen as having been a spurious rationale for
self-serving pie-card nest feathering and raiding by the
conservative-to-moderately-liberal unions. In any case, this sacrificial
ritual -- which destroyed most of the Left unions -- hardly enhanced the
fortunes of the Respectables. The traditional enemies of labor remained, as
they always do, deadly foes.
In 1955, AFL and CIO more or less merged. This was heralded as the
beginning of a Labor Resurrection. Things continued downhill.
More recently, we have the touted panacea of inter-union "mergers" -- which
can hardly be called fresh grassroots organizing. And things continue
And now, after last November especially, we hear more analyses and
"Too many different unions to be effective. Reduce the numbers into only a
few biggies." Actually, I have heard this considered since at least the
1960s -- and rejected. Few unions indeed would be willing to thusly
surrender their autonomy and unique identity. Inter-cooperation can be
developed, even in a fairly formal structural fashion, and there can be
principled mergers, but there is no evidence that "Big Is Better." Even the
great prototype, the IWW, had distinctive and essentially autonomous
industrial unions in its One Big Union. Solidarity can be learned and
practiced without cannibalism, however veiled.
So again, we hear today that if A is done and followed by B and then C, the
Labor Movement will then "move out." Every time I have heard that -- move
out -- and I have personally been around now for some many years, nothing
has moved in that bailiwick unless it's moved backward.
We "Move Out" by direct organizing: the person with shining eyes and vision
and the union pledge cards and literature who faces the mine or the factory
or the fields or the bureaucratic bastions -- and then indeed "moves out" by
moving forward. How many organizers and their expenses could have been
funded for a very long time by even a moderate percentage of the
many, many tens of millions poured into, say, the recent political ritual?
I don't, believe me, demean appropriate political action. But that is not
Genesis -- and Organizing certainly is: fresh, grassroots stuff. At the
"point of production." And if it's really democratic, a sensible, radical
class struggle ethos will certainly arise -- and remain.
And that has to be accompanied by Service -- genuine and enduring service
to the workingclass.
And that's the Real Genesis. That's the trail to the Sun.
Let's look now at the South and Labor. And yeah, I am still hopeful.
The basic reason now that the South [and there really are several different Souths in the geographical and socio-cultural sense] is so relatively unorganized, union-wise, is that mainline American Labor simply won't make the investment in intensive, pro-longed union organization and servicing of locals. It hasn't for many decades. The one major effort, the CIO's Operation Dixie [ its high point was 1946-1948] spent a million dollars, hired 400 organizers, did organize a few hundred local unions in lumber, textile, and tobacco. Then, in the face of increasingly explicit racism -- and the mounting Cold War atmosphere -- Operation Dixie faltered and failed.
That was more than a half century ago.
The most basic and enduring historical reasons feeding the hostile and often virulently anti-union atmosphere in the South -- cynical use of racism by the power structures to divide workers and keep unions out, scab laws, the Taft-Hartley Act, surviving feudalism, extremely antagonistic anti-union local jurisdictions especially at the town and county levels -- are all still very much part of the often tortured economic and social scenery.
But the Civil Rights Movement -- its countless demonstrations and
litigation, egalitarian civil rights acts at the Federal level, organized
political action -- always fueled by the high courage of a vast throng of
Blacks and their allies -- have put racism and its attendant dimensions on
the skids. Its demise may be at whatever glacial pace -- but it's no
longer the dependable anti-union "silver bullet" weapon that it was for so
many openly inflamed generations. And even in the Old South of the 1910s, the IWW could organize interracially and effectively in the Louisiana lumber woods; and, in the 1930s and 1940s, a left union like Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers was able to organize very effectively on a completely integrated and egalitarian basis -- even in such absolutely racist and repressive bastions as the Birmingham/Bessemer iron mining district. But that took financial resources -- and very much courage and visionary commitment.
Most unions were simply afraid to buck the racist status quo.
But now essentially, the AFL-CIO and most of its components simply don't
want to invest in what it takes: much money, many good and creative
and courageous organizers, and first-rate lawyers and publicists.
In the latter stages of the Civil Rights Movement, especially in the late
'60s and well into the '70s, many opportunities existed for unions
to work directly and in close partnership with grassroots civil rights
organizations -- which often and eagerly proffered their hand. But, with a
few significant exceptions, Labor simply got scared.
Internationals with Southern organizing traditions, such as International
Woodworkers of America and International Chemical Workers Union, were
backing away from the South in the late '50s and very early '60s even as the Civil Rights Movement had barely hit its stride. Still others, such as
United Packinghouse -- which had provided much direct food and
financial assistance to the Movement and had many attendant civil rights
contacts -- decided by the mid-60s against following through with any
substantial unionization efforts. [I am personally quite familiar with
those three examples, as well as several others.]
When, up briefly at Akron from Mississippi, I directly [and politely]
challenged Walter Mitchell, the Anglo Alabamian who was International
President of the Chemical Workers, on his relative lack of any
substantive organizing in the Deep South and talked about the current
responsibilities of unionism, I received an intense hot-eyed glare and the
angry comment, "Shee-It! That's kid talk." He was a good man who soon
enough apologized, later quietly contributed funds to our burgeoning Jackson Movement of 1962-63, and in the latter '60s ordered any still segregated ICWU locals to integrate immediately or jump ship. But there was never any really ongoing and effective Southern unionization from his International.
On the Southern battlefield itself, good and dedicated people like an old
friend, the late Claude Ramsay, President of the Mississippi AFL-CIO, fought the very good struggle for decades -- but it was extremely tough and lonely. Increasingly, his efforts, and those of his associates, were reduced to attempting to lobby an extremely hostile state legislature -- usually without any success.
Thus Labor, so far, has largely missed that great complex of opportunities
given it by the Civil Rights Movement: e.g., substantial, local grassroots
community organization; smashing the hardest and most recalcitrant hard lines of resistance to constructive social change; desegregation in many areas and the beginnings of some genuine traditions of integration.
Talk always continues in Labor circles about "organizing the unorganized,"
but it frequently has a pie-in-the-sky ring and if bona fide unionization
efforts are almost always thin everywhere, they are certainly
virtually absent in most of the South. There have been some victories in
Dixie -- but they are still only scratches in the red soil and pine needles
and mill towns.
The South -- Deep, Border, Middle, or Urban or Rural -- is a tough and
expensive crucible for any genuine social justice endeavors. And it can
still be sanguinary.
But those settings all abound with thoroughly exploited Blacks, Whites,
Hispanics, Native Americans, and immigrants from abroad.
AFL-CIO and many of its components certainly have a good deal of money -- as witness their many substantial non-organizing project expenditures. Direct, grassroots organizing is Genesis -- and the South and other recalcitrant regions have to be organized sooner or later.
There are still many, many locally viable and living activist components
of the old Civil Rights Movement around. New grassroots community
organizations certainly continue to emerge. And much of this would
certainly be delighted to work with bona fide egalitarian, hard-hitting,
and visionary unionism.
It requires a very long-term, militant and affirmative commitment of many kinds -- especially from Labor itself.
History reaches out to us, tells us again that it's time to Organize
and Fight -- hard and consistently -- wherever such are needed. Its
hand and grip are still strong and far from skeletal at this point.
But we must now take those Winds of History, and ride with
them into the Four Directions and the Sun.
HUNTER GRAY [HUNTER BEAR] Micmac/St Francis Abenaki/St Regis Mohawk -- and United Auto Workers and United Association for Labor Education
When you cut to the bone and cut away the college degrees, academic and other titles, published books and articles, ours is essentially a working
class and Indian family. We consistently join unions -- and we always
support them with the greatest vigor.
It's critical to always keep fighting -- and to always remember that, if one
lives with grace, he/she should be prepared to die with grace.
GOOD QUESTIONS AND MY RESPONSE 1/07/05
Sent: Thursday, January 06, 2005 4:24 PM
Subject: the south
Hunter, I saw your column on organizing in the south. I think you raise some
very important points. It would be useful to know what you think the
potential for organizing in the south amounts to - are there substantial
numbers of workers there whom the AFL is ignoring that they are not ignoring
in the north? I am not trying to be argumentative only wondering how much
potential there really is with this approach. For example, perhaps there
are large pockets of plants there that have not been organized that could be
but has the AFL really ignored this and behaved differently in the south
Response by Hunter Bear:
Thanks very much for your note. The South and all of the various Souths
hold a great deal of potential for labor unionism and much else. In
addition to its old time industrial and related units and new homegrown
stuff, there is the ever flowing myriad of run-aways from the North.
AFL-CI0 has never been willing to invest substantial funds in organizing in
Dixie -- there are some older precedents for the funding of direct
organizing by the Federation in other parts of the country. Most of the
individual internationals are afraid of really investing in Southern
organizing campaigns -- I mean, investing what it takes -- especially when
it comes to the generally recalcitrant [and sometimes violent] smaller
cities, towns, the rural areas. Missing generally in union approaches in
the Southern context are affirmative and outgoing thrusts by the union
organizers. If an invitation comes, say, to the organizer's international
or to the organizer himself/herself, an organizer might go forth -- but not
necessarily with the wherewithal really needed to win. In my opinion, good
organizing means [among other things] "hustling" -- going out and stirring
up business --wrangling an invitation. Again, the potential in the South
for unionism is genuinely great.
An old and good friend of mine, the late radical poet John Beecher
[originally from Alabama], once taught at Santa Clara. His wife,
Barbara [now in western North Carolina], called us a few days ago and we had
a very long visit.
In Solidarity - Hunter
HUNTER GRAY [HUNTER BEAR] Micmac /St. Francis Abenaki/St. Regis Mohawk
Protected by Na´shdo´i´ba´i´
In our Gray Hole, the ghosts often dance in the junipers and sage, on the
game trails, in the tributary canyons with the thick red maples, and on the
high windy ridges -- and they dance from within the very essence of our own
inner being. They do this especially when the bright night moon shines down
on the clean white snow that covers the valley and its surroundings. Then
it is as bright as day -- but in an always soft and mysterious and
remembering way. [Hunter Bear]