Whistling Dixie

In the mid-1980s, I began investigating why the 13 original Confederate states (whose standard of living was uniformly poor) remain so stubbornly and vehemently anti-union. Given the undeniable historical contributions that organized labor has made to the Working Class (a quaint term that has become largely irrelevant), this palpable hostility makes little sense.

Yes, even though the South has the lowest union density in the country, a handful of union facilities do exist in the region. That’s a fact. And yes, there have been a few close-calls (“respectable defeats,” as the AFL-CIO prefers to label them) for big-time American unions seeking certification, most recently the UAW’s attempt at organizing a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, which was narrowly defeated. But by and large the South remains a bastion of anti-unionism.

Apparently, the majority of Southern folk would rather remain underpaid, under-benefitted, and marginalized than be represented by a labor union. It’s stunning really. Incredibly, some of these good people would rather go through life with a total of eleven teeth in their head than partake of a union dental plan. Don’t laugh. I’ve met these people. Bad teeth is a badge of honor for them.

As part of my investigation, I interviewed dozens of transplanted Southern employees (both hourly and salaried), spoke to academics (sociologists and economists), AFL-CIO professionals, a former U.S. Cabinet member (Robert Reich, Clinton’s Secretary of Labor), the vice-president of a paperworkers union in Memphis, a Teamster organizer, an SEIU organizer, and an HR manager of a Fortune 500 facility located in South Carolina.

The question I posed to each of them was simple and direct: Why does the South hate labor unions? Oddly, several people initially balked at the word “hate,” believing it to be too demeaning. Because our mothers raised us not to “hate” anyone, we’re uncomfortable with that word. Only after I directed them to a dictionary and they saw that “hate” was defined as “an intense dislike” were they willing to proceed.

Their responses boiled down to three explanations, two of which were rational enough to make sense, and one of which, while understandable, seemed a bit farfetched. Let’s get the farfetched explanation out of the way first.

Because the South is inordinately proud of its unique “rebel” history, and because it was the Union that humiliated the Confederacy, and the Union army that invaded their homeland, and Union troops who murdered their best young men, and Union soldiers who raped their fairest women, there’s no way in hell they’re going embrace anything called a “union.” It’s a matter of semantics. Farfetched or not, this was one reason I was given.

The other two explanations were more compelling.

(1) Pride. I was told that because Southerners so admire self-reliance, resourcefulness, individuality, and the old-fashioned virtue of not asking for anyone’s help, they tend to despise all forms of collectivism (except that which is associated with churches). In short, they view unions as a form of communism or socialism or, at the very least, a shameful and debilitating form of welfare.

One could almost respect that point of view if it weren’t for the fact that the South—both rural and urban—relies on the largess of the federal government just as much (or more) than any other region of the country. “Self-reliant” or not, yank them away from the government teat, and they would starve.

(2) Race. Although Dixie likes to remind us that, in regard to race relations, they have improved dramatically, they still have a ways to go. Even though it is no longer a criminal offense for a black man or woman to place their African lips on a drinking fountain that is used by white people, the South still has a ways to go.

Consider: The single most repellant thing about union jobs is their equality. Unions mandate equal pay for equal work. Whether man or woman, black or white. And despite the South’s obvious improvements in their civil rights record, it goes without saying that that whole “equality” issue is still a problem for Johnny Reb.

The way many white Southerners view it, if labor unions insist that a white man can’t make a higher wage than a black man doing the same job, then why have a union? After all, if being white no longer makes you superior to black people, what the hell’s the point?

David Macaray is a playwright and author of four books, the latest of which is How To Make Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows (everything you wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask).

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