Mississippi Believes It Can Be Organized. Does Anyone Else?
Under-resourced and overlooked, the South is tired of waiting for organized labor.
Two blocks from the Mississippi State Capitol in downtown Jackson, Robert Shaffer, head of the state AFL-CIO, sits on a couch in his office trying to explain how unions could become more powerful in Mississippi. “It’s just,” he says, then pauses for an uncomfortably long time. “It’s difficult.” It’s not that Shaffer doesn’t know how to do it. His problem is getting anyone to believe him.
In 1946, full of vigor from the postwar boom of organized labor, the Congress of Industrial Organizations launched Operation Dixie, the most ambitious project to unionize the South ever undertaken. Hundreds of CIO organizers fanned out across the region. The challenges of Southern racism and the frenzied anti-Communism of the McCarthy era ultimately caused Operation Dixie to fail in its goal of ending the South’s status as a haven for cheap, nonunion labor, but the unions did notch some successes along the way. One of the places they were able to interest workers in organizing was in West Point, a small town in northeast Mississippi. There, employees at a Babcock & Wilcox boiler factory began holding union elections in 1952. They lost, but they continued calling elections almost yearly until 1967, when they were victorious by a single vote, joining the Boilermakers.
By the mid-1980s, the plant had 100 percent union membership — no easy task in a right-to-work state where anyone can opt out of paying union dues.
In 2016, the plant shut down. The last of its jobs were shipped to Mexico.
“NAFTA took care of Operation Dixie,” sighs Shaffer, who has a bristly white mustache and the philosophical air of a man who has seen a once-great thing taken away from him. He began working at that Babcock & Wilcox plant in 1969 and became head of the union local in 1984. Today, Shaffer is organized labor’s chief lobbyist in a state where barely 7 percent of working people are union members.
The ultra-Republican Mississippi legislature has made the laws so politically hostile to unions that it’s difficult to think of how it could get any worse. “It’s more defensive than anything else,” Shaffer grumbles about his dealings with state politicians. “Hell, I think they got everything. How do you get any lower than the bottom of the damn ocean?”
Every state in the South today has so-called right-to-work laws on the books — anti-union legislation that makes it harder to build and maintain strong unions. They serve to drive down already paltry union density and exacerbate the region’s high poverty rates.
Periodically (and with great regularity), the labor movement holds a fevered conversation with itself about “how to organize the South.” Implicit in these conversations is the greater question lurking just below the surface: Can the South even be organized?
Like all questions about the South, there is nowhere better to find the answer than Mississippi. Mississippi is the place most defined by the twin struggles of racial justice and labor rights that date back to slavery. Mississippi is also the most impoverished state in America. Nearly a fifth of all Mississippians live in poverty, including more than 30 percent of the state’s Black residents. Working in Mississippi is what inspired the invention of the blues. And the state still seems to live by the words of Delta musician Skip James: “Hard times is here, and everywhere you go, times are harder than ever been before.”
The most recent spasm of interest in the possibility of an organized South arose earlier this year, when the nation’s attention was momentarily drawn to the unsuccessful effort from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) to organize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. Another recent major union vote in the South was August 2017, when the United Auto Workers (UAW) failed in their attempt to unionize thousands of Nissan workers at a plant in Canton, Miss. Both attempts included enormous campaigns targeting more than 5,000 workers in a single location.
The UAW spent more than a decade on the Nissan campaign, only to lose the vote by nearly 2 – 1. Those devastating figures in such a high-profile campaign (coming on the heels of a similar UAW loss at a factory in Tennessee in 2014) fed a grim narrative of skepticism about whether the South was simply a dark and impenetrable place that would never yield to organized labor. Many in the union world think the South’s difficult political atmosphere and its long history of union-busting make it too risky to spend large sums of money on big organizing drives.
Successful organizing in right-to-work states simply takes more ongoing work — and with limited resources, it is easy for unions to want to focus elsewhere.
The actual lessons of that Nissan campaign are far more nuanced, however, and somewhat hopeful. The UAW’s lead Nissan organizer was Sanchioni Butler, a long-time autoworker herself who went to Canton in 2003 to lay the groundwork for unionization. She is candid about the obstacles the union faced from the very beginning, ones that plague the South broadly: a workforce divided between full-time employees and a throng of temps doing the same job for lower pay; thinly veiled threats by management and state politicians to close the plant; and widespread lack of knowledge about unions among workers themselves. One of the reasons the Nissan campaign went on so long is that the union, recognizing what it was up against, was trying to organize not just a single workplace, but the surrounding community.
“It was a community campaign before it was an actual worker campaign,” says Butler, who is now a political campaign organizer for the Mississippi AFL-CIO. “Labor has had a bad rap of, ‘They come in, organize and leave the town in shambles.’ So that was something the UAW was trying hard not to [do].”
In Canton, that meant nurturing an entire parallel campaign to bring along clergy and community leaders to support the union drive — an attempt to build some friendly allies in a conservative, venomously anti-union state. One of the leaders of that effort was Frank Figgers, a bearded, owlish descendant of Mississippi sharecroppers. Figgers, a well-known civil rights activist in Jackson, was a co-chair of the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan, which pulled in clergy members and groups like the NAACP to try to make the soil more fertile for the union drive.
First, the group educated church leaders about the benefits of collective bargaining. Then, workers from the plant spoke up in church to let the congregations know the troubles they had on the job.
For Figgers, there is a straight line from the legacy of slavery to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s to the labor movement today.
“Black workers were the free workforce in this country,” Figgers says. “It took abolishing slavery for Black workers to get anything for their labor. When a union comes in, when collective bargaining comes in, that brings about equity in the workplace. That’s probably why Mississippi as a state has fought against unions for so long.”
Mississippi’s 1890 state constitution definitively snuffed out most Reconstruction-era gains for Black people, ushering in a regime of legalized white supremacy. With it came separate, unequal, racialized pay scales, the effects of which have never been mitigated.
Though the civil rights movement is often misremembered as solely about voting rights, Figgers says, it was also about rights at work — in particular, winning pay equity in the racist South. There is only the barest sliver of daylight between what civil rights heroes Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers were fighting for in Mississippi a half century ago and the task of empowering Mississippi’s vast, low-paid, largely Black workforce today. After years fighting for voting rights, Hamer started a farmers’ co-op in Sunflower County in a bid for economic empowerment. Martin Luther King Jr. spent his later years focused on economic justice and was in Memphis supporting a sanitation workers’ strike when he was assassinated.
While the civil rights movement has now been fully adopted as part of America’s mainstream mythology, the labor movement in Mississippi remains threadbare. Butler says the fear Nissan workers felt when signing union cards is the same fear their parents and grandparents felt registering to vote.
On the other hand, Butler also knows unions are one of the most effective ways to unite Black and white workers in Mississippi — not in a magical sense of making centuries of racism disappear, but in a practical sense of being virtually the only institution in the South capable of making white and Black people work for a shared purpose despite antiBlack racism. Butler says she saw suspicion and resentment between Nissan workers of different races melt away as she talked with them about their shared suffering due to high healthcare costs and job injuries. “At the end of the day, everybody was being mistreated,” Butler says. “They have their own ‘aha’ moment: ‘I didn’t know you went through that. I went through the exact same thing.’”
Despite the union’s loss, the decade-plus of community education work instilled a hunger for labor rights in thousands of people, priming the region for future campaigns. The union is still present in Canton, but has not filed for another union election. (The UAW did not respond to inquiries for this story.)
Mississippi is a state with an infinite capacity for not learning from its own history. Today, when you visit the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in downtown Jackson to learn about the bloody struggles for freedom, you can get a refreshment at the Nissan Cafe — courtesy of a $500,000 donation Nissan made while fighting the unionization campaign.
It is not impossible to build strong unions in Mississippi. Robert Shaffer will tell you it can be done the same way they did it at Babcock & Wilcox: Create a strong culture around being in the union. Stay in constant contact with members. Don’t take any shit from the boss. Be ready to strike.
And never, ever stop fighting.
What Shaffer cannot do is make unions flower across Mississippi; he does not have the resources. The AFL-CIO has no statewide army of staffers to put any organizing plans into action. Sometimes, even the AFL-CIO itself can’t get the attention of unions. Shaffer says that a few years ago, AFL-CIO independently organized a group of hotel workers in Jackson, only for the effort to die out because they couldn’t find a union to take the workers on as members. (The AFL-CIO is a federation of unions and typically does not do direct organizing; the workers needed a union to represent them in order to move ahead and get a contract.)
Offshoring pressures after NAFTA closed many of the state’s big factories, and today Mississippi is made up of relatively small workplaces. Shaffer says most unions don’t find it economically feasible to organize groups of less than 200 workers. The result is very few unionized workplaces for the hundreds of thousands of retail, healthcare, restaurant, warehouse and manufacturing workers in the state, despite the fact that everyone I spoke with firmly believes unionizing could be done if only they had the resources.
Shaffer dreams of another Operation Dixie to produce a new generation of believers. “You can take a group of 25 to start with, and you start building that, and you make them proud of their union,” he says. “It expands. Especially somewhere like Jackson, Mississippi, man. Damn!
“I just get so frustrated, because I don’t got the power to do that shit,” he says. “It’s a business decision now. A hundred years ago, it was a decision for the people.”
Even in Mississippi, there are some islands of union power. One is in Carthage, where the RWDSU represents a large Tyson poultry factory. Since the plant unionized in 1993, more than 1,100 of its current 1,800 workers have become union members. Latunya Love, a friendly, resolute woman from the nearby crossroads town of Sallis, has worked at the plant for 16 years. She spent 15 of them as a union rep.
A union is still not a panacea for a Mississippi poultry worker. Love, who works on the line, knife in hand, checking breast meat for bones, makes $15.05 an hour — if she hits her incentive pay. The biggest complaint among workers at the plant, she says, is the pay. The plant has stayed open through the entire pandemic, despite Covid-19 outbreaks and deaths. When the company hung up a wreath, Love knew another worker died.
Still, the union helps make the job of standing shoulder to shoulder all day slicing and dicing poultry more tolerable. Workers at the Carthage plant get more vacation days and better benefits than their nonunion counterparts, and Love’s position as a union rep gives her a direct line to management she didn’t have at other jobs at McDonald’s and AutoZone. Every week, Love talks to the plant’s orientation class, urging dozens of new workers to sign up and join the union. She has even traveled to Alabama to help RWDSU organize workers at a car rental chain.
Though Love is part of one of the state’s few large union companies, she knows working people in the South are a long way from the promised land. “It’s like they’re scared of the union in Mississippi,” Love says. “The South is very scared. They’re scared of change.
“If where I work at took that union away, everything that we have negotiated in this contract is gone. They can put you back to whatever they want to give you for money. They can take away your vacation. And you won’t have nothing.”
In the summer of 1965, farmworkers in the Mississippi Delta went on strike. With the help of civil rights organizers, more than 1,000 people formed the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union and launched a momentary wave of labor activism that saw poor agricultural workers walking off the job and building Strike City, an encampment where dozens lived in tents for months to protest low wages. Today, near a curve in the Bogue Phalia, a tributary of the Big Sunflower River outside of Leland, Miss., you can find the neatly mowed vacant field where those workers made their stand. The tiny street it sits on is called Strike City Road. Aside from that, all that is left is the memory of an extraordinary, quixotic stand for justice. In the end, the only thing they won was a footnote in history.
For poor Black farmworkers in the Mississippi Delta, some things have not changed in the past half century. Agricultural workers were excluded from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act when it was passed in 1935, and they still are. Traditional labor unions for Delta farmworkers are virtually nonexistent. As those who stubbornly held out at Strike City realized, the path to building power here must be conceived of very broadly (or not exist at all).
Mississippi’s agricultural economy remains one of large white (now corporate) landowners and poor Black workers. But there is a movement to turn that dynamic around. Down a long dirt driveway off a country road outside of Clarksdale is the lovely farm of Ernestine and Dorfus Young Sr. Along with vegetables, they grow their own grapes, sell their own wine and have an idyllic, enclosed space to host local events. There, I met a group of women who are part of Mississippi’s only Black women’s farming cooperative, a project of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative (SRBWI) that aims to help the small farmers scattered across the Delta region turn their farms into viable businesses.
The women in the co-op each have their own reasons for becoming farmers. Ernestine Young left Mississippi as a child in 1965, part of the migration of Black people to the North in search of better opportunities. After 20 years in Minnesota, she was drawn home and bought a piece of land to grow almost everything you can think of.
Likewise, Nadean Randle grew up on a farm, left to have a career, then came home to take care of her sick mother and returned to farming, lured by love of the land. After 25 years of working for the Department of Veterans Affairs, “I bought a tractor, a pickup truck and a shotgun, and called myself a farmer,” Randle laughs.
Cora Burnside, mayor of itty-bitty Arcola, Miss., began growing veggies because her town is a food desert; she wanted fresh produce to hand out to local elderly people who have a hard time buying healthy groceries.
Patricia Porter and Lillie Melton, who each raise poultry on small farms near Lexington, share a lifelong love of chickens that is as strong as any career passion in the world. “I didn’t realize I cared so much about chickens until my father passed away,” says Melton, who grew up watching him tend to the birds when she was young. “I realized I enjoyed dealing with poultry!”
The SRBWI began nearly 20 years ago, funded by foundation grants and at times, the federal government, as a broad project to help Black women in the South improve their lives. The farmers’ co-op grew out of conversations with women about what they needed and has helped farms get state certifications, offered tech support and helped combine products for market. The group has a commercial kitchen in Clarksdale to help women turn their home cooking into food businesses. The co-op also has a goal of building enough capacity to sell produce to major grocery chains.
The SRBWI sewing collective, like the farming co-op, is another effort to turn the skills of women in the region into sustainable income. “Both of these organizations have been moving forward for laying the groundwork for potential ways for African American women in these communities, where so much has been [extracted], to make a living,” says Carol Blackmon, a consultant who helps run the SRBWI. “To make a way out of no way for themselves.”
Co-ops are one way Mississippi’s historically poor working people can build collective power in a land where unions are few and far between. Another is through a worker center, the catchall term for labor rights groups that aim to serve people unions don’t reach.
In 1995, Jaribu Hill, an attorney from New York, went to Mississippi on what she thought would be a two-year fellowship. She’s still there. Hill was so struck by the suffering of working people in the Delta that, in 1996, she founded the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights (MWCHR), an organization she still leads. It does organizing, advocacy and training work on human rights issues ranging from housing to healthcare to workplace safety to support for big union campaigns — whatever is most pressing for poor Black workers in what Hill calls “a really hellish region and a horrifically backwards state.”
Decades spent running the MWCHR have given Hill ample firsthand knowledge about why the labor movement in Mississippi can feel so anemic. The nonprofits and funders who pay attention to the deep South, she says, tend to focus on issues of race and economic development — important, but often lacking in a working-class and labor focus. Mississippi’s poverty and racism can, in a bit of bitter irony, suck up all of the attention and effort necessary to build the kind of worker power that could be the most effective tool for addressing Mississippi’s myriad inequalities.
Hill is passionate on the subject of organizing the South— its possibility and its absolute necessity. She wants Mississippi’s workers to be in unions. Until they are, she insists, the entire labor movement must devote itself to the task of changing the South in a way that it never has since Operation Dixie died an untimely death.
“If the South is not being organized, there is no real labor movement,” Hill says. “You cannot say with a straight face that you’re organizing workers, and you’re not organizing the South.
“You can’t call yourself a true revolutionary if you say the struggle is too hard. … If you think it’s hard for you, think about those who have to suffer through it!”
There is a widespread sentiment within organized labor — often spoken only in private — that investing a large amount of money in the South is irrational because there is more bang for the buck in less hostile regions. Proof of the ubiquity of this belief is in the fact that big union campaigns in the South are so rare that each one becomes major national news.
But not a single person I met in Mississippi thought workers there could not be organized. Again and again, those on the front lines said with absolute certainty that labor organizing in their state — where working people are intimately familiar with racism, poverty and political hostility — is an opportunity just waiting to happen. The project of organizing the South is not waiting for the South itself to change; it is waiting for the resources to make the change happen.
The labor movement in Mississippi does not need sympathy. It needs money. It needs organizers. And it needs a long-term commitment to stay until the work is done.
“There has to be some real investment here regarding bodies from unions,” says Sanchioni Butler, who dedicated so many years to the Nissan campaign.
“The bottom line is, somebody’s gotta believe in doing it from the ground up,” says Robert Shaffer, who leads the state AFL-CIO but lacks the resources to create the kind of strong working shop in which he spent most of his working life. “Until then, it ain’t gonna happen.”
“The minute you say, ‘I wanna build this for the union,’ the South is not gonna let you do it,” says Latunya Love, whose 15 years as a union rep have been a labor of love while working the poultry line. “They need some more resources.”
Mississippi is what 200 years without public investment looks like. It is a state in which the power relationship between enslaved people and slaveholders is replicated generation after generation by the descendants of each. It is a state of small towns that comes by its patina of decay honestly, where centuries’ worth of racist atrocities lie barely concealed beneath the rich black soil. The working people who remain in Mississippi, who have hung on after all of that, should rightly be seen as gold for the labor movement. If organizing the South is difficult, there is nobody more ready to do the difficult work than they are.
“Every day while our people were enslaved in this country, from 1619 to 1865, every day people resisted enslavement,” says Frank Figgers, for whom civil rights and labor rights are the same thing. “Every day, people woke up in the morning hoping that today would be the day when slavery would be abolished. Every day, people woke up and did what they could, with what they had, where they were.”
Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.