In a stunning victory last week, workers at Blue Bird bus manufacturing in Fort Valley, Ga., voted 697 to 435 in favor of forming a union with the United Steelworkers of America.
Blue Bird, a subsidiary of Cerberus Capital Management, is just 90 miles south of Atlanta and Peach County’s largest employer. The win at Blue Bird on May 12 is the largest private-sector manufacturing victory in the South since the 2008 union victory at Smithfield Foods in Tar Heel, N.C.
Blue Bird, and other manufacturers, are slated to receive huge public subsidies from both the $1 trillion infrastructure package, a $280 billion measure to rekindle a domestic semiconductor industry, and the Inflation Reduction Act, which included $370 billion for clean energy to combat climate change. Thanks to the Biden administration, these federal subsidies come with various “strings attached,” including prohibitions against interfering with workers’ decisions to form unions and, in some cases, provisions for card check recognition.
Industrial Policy = Organizing Opportunity
Readers might be surprised to learn that in 1950 there were over a half-million manufacturing jobs in Manhattan alone and south of 55th Street. Those jobs—and millions more in Northern cities from Boston to San Francisco—are long gone. So it’s hardly surprising that much of the intelligentsia in these areas hard hit by industrial dislocation would characterize the United States as a “postindustrial” economy. But we must not fall prey to myths: The country still has a huge manufacturing base—especially in the auto industry, where it is strategically important for workers to organize and have collective bargaining rights.
In fact, the United States remains second in the world to China in manufacturing—and right behind China in auto production, with over 1.1 million workers. However, while most auto workers once held jobs in the Midwest’s Rust Belt, many of them now work in the Southeast.
Example of the shift abound: VinFast Automotive has promised 7,500 jobs at its future electric vehicle assembly plant in Chatham County, N.C., and Toyota projects hiring 2,100 workers at its new electric vehicle battery plant near Greensboro.
While US manufacturing employment as a percentage of overall employment has slipped from 25 percent in 1955 to about 8 percent today, manufacturing remains a crucial source of profits for the US investor class. Many other sectors, like the service and IT industries are also dependent on the strength of the manufacturing economy.
The victory in Georgia at Blue Bird, the growth of manufacturing (especially auto) in the South, and—in particular—the massive infusion of federal subsidies make a compelling case for socialist activists in “blue” state strongholds to consider relocating to organize in the South.
The new reform leadership at the UAW, along with the growing militancy of Southern workers, creates new possibilities for a Southern upsurge. UAW President Shawn Fain recently wrote, “If the government is going to funnel billions in taxpayer money to these companies, the workers must be compensated with top wages and benefits. Our members should have rights to this work.”
North and South Carolina—two of the states with the lowest union density—are both growing centers of manufacturing. Site Selection Group, a management-consulting firm, recently ranked the Carolinas as the best states in the country in which to locate manufacturing. While all Southern states have low union density, Southern workers are hardly docile or subservient. In Dublin, Va., 2,900 UAW Local 2069 members employed by Volvo North America struck in April 2021 and rejected three tentative agreements before finally returning to work months later. The militancy of these UAW members in rural Virginia is an indication that the future of the UAW and labor could be very bright if more union density can be built in auto assembly and related industries in the South.
Sadly, the UAW, formerly one of America’s largest unions with its 1.5 million members, is now reduced to about 383,000. The decision by UAW leaders to organize academic workers outside of its traditional auto jurisdiction resulted in membership growth of about 100,000. Ironically, that decision led to an infusion of newly radicalized workers, many of whom were leaders of democratic change in their union. Our hope is that these new members will also want to see a renewed role for the union in organizing not-yet-union autoworkers.
The grassroots movement that led to the March 2023 election of new UAW leadership set the table for a renewed focus on the organization of the domestic auto industry. As a result of shifts in auto production noted above, much of that organizing will take place in the South.
As the map illustrates, the industry is highly concentrated in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and surrounding states. By our calculations, there are more than 100,000 auto assembly jobs in just eight Southern states.
The unsuccessful drives at both Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 2014 and 2019, and the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., in 2017 showed that it is not enough for out-of-town staff to extol the virtues of unionism aided by outside religious and political celebrities. Successful organizing requires deeply rooted, worker-led campaigns with strong community support.
It will also require careful analysis of the entire industry and its suppliers. While there are more than 100,000 auto assembly workers, there are thousands more parts manufacturing employees who are often at strategic choke points in the supply chain. For example, a Johnson Controls strike in 2002 at a seat manufacturing facility shut down production of SUVs. It may not be the assembly plants that are crucial to collective bargaining strength but instead a critical supplier manufacturer.
Linkages to other workers in other industries are also important. Rail logistics systems, particularly the Norfolk Southern Railroad, have created protocols and special routes for the timely transportation of auto parts and product. This rail system, which is largely unionized—although divided among multiple craft unions—could be a vulnerable chokepoint if workers in auto parts and assembly begin to rise up. There is no replacement for the strategic thinking and energy that young talented socialist organizers could contribute to building labor power. That is the role that industrial salts can play.
An essential ingredient for organizing
If the UAW and the labor movement are serious about contending for power in strategic sectors of the economy like manufacturing, then “salting” in the auto industry must be considered a key task. There is no substitute for politically motivated workers organizing their coworkers from the inside of a facility.
Our hope is that well-educated workers who have earned their spurs in contract campaigns and strikes at large universities and elsewhere will now get auto jobs and make their mark in the industrial South. The social and cultural barriers will be significant—but no more so than those facing the Freedom Riders who helped to transform politics and end Jim Crow in the 1950s and ’60s.
Many of the positive advances made by groups of Amazon workers are due to the presence of conscious salts. Already three unions are working with networks of young salts who are aiding and abetting this massive task. The UAW will also need a similar corps of committed young activists who have the analysis and determination to take on the not-yet-union auto and parts industry in the South. The success of this initiative will not only strengthen our trade unions but also help to break the grasp of the neo-Confederate oligarchy on the politics of the red-state South.
There are already significant models for organizing in the South that could be embraced by the UAW and other unions. The Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW), backed by the SEIU, was founded last year. This new union, as its name implies, is focused on service industry workers’ taking action by filing grievances, marching on the boss, and striking irrespective of their legal status as a labor union.
A similar effort, initiated in 2012, is the Southern Workers Assembly. SWA draws on the lessons of Operation Dixie, the 1940s initiative by the CIO to organize Southern workers. Both SWA and the USSW put the fight against racism and discrimination front and center—historically the Achilles’ heel of Southern labor.
It’s time to say goodbye to icy winters and frozen fingers and leave the urban centers where heavy manufacturing is a thing of the past. If enough young people are motivated to head to the South, where the US industrial base has been shifting, a far more powerful UAW is possible. And a far more powerful working-class movement will be the result!