In 1946, Winston-Salem’s tobacco stemmers took to the picket line. They were mostly black women, all of them are poor. They held signs with photographs of the lean-to houses they lived in, underscored with the words “Would you like to live here?” Another picket sign read, “Fatback: 75¢. Our Labor: 50¢. We can’t make ends meet.”
The tobacco company bosses were nowhere in sight, but the strikers knew they had them quaking in their boots. The telltale sign was the police officers hovering nearby, batons in hand, waiting for the slightest disruption so they could descend.
The American labor movement finished the 1930s on a high note. In the Roaring Twenties, an era characterized by rapid wealth accumulation and steep economic inequality, waning membership and unsuccessful organizing drives painted a bleak picture for unions. But labor’s luck began to change during the Great Depression, when working people, fed up with the greed and excesses of American elites, showed renewed interest in organizing their workplaces.
In 1934, three huge and successful strikes happened nearly simultaneously in San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo. The next year, workers got another boost: Roosevelt’s National Labor Relations Act required businesses to recognize and bargain with unions in their midst, so long as those unions followed a set of rules to establish legitimacy. Union membership grew, and as the 1940s approached, there was a good reason for optimism.
But corporations don’t roll over easily. In response to the upsurge in union activity, business owners began seeking greener pastures and relocating their factories to places with fewer unions — that way, they could keep benefits threadbare, wages low, costs down, and profits high. In the early 1940s, unions started to face a major problem: businesses in the union-heavy North and Midwest were simply leaving for the largely unorganized South.
Many unions responded to the migration of industry by softening their stance and attempting to show employers they could play nice. But the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) had a different idea. Maybe the answer to the problem wasn’t to appease the bosses but to organize the South. They called this plan Operation Dixie.
Despite a rich history of labor struggle, the South was largely unorganized in the middle of the 20th century. In part, this was because employers had taken advantage of racial divisions to pit black and white workers against one another. Many labor historians argue that Jim Crow laws were at their root a method of keeping workers segregated and therefore sowing division, preventing solidarity, and using racism to maintain the class hierarchy. If, for example, white workers threatened to strike in order to improve pay or working conditions, black workers desperate for a job would be brought in to replace them. Since black and white workers didn’t have relationships with one another, they couldn’t form the bond necessary to plan ahead and prevent this from happening, for their mutual benefit.
Another reason the South lacked robust unions was that the labor movement preferred to organize skilled workers over unskilled ones. Starting in the 1890s, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a powerful umbrella group that brought together most of the major unions, focused mainly on workers with highly technical jobs that required a lot of training and knowledge, like carpenters, metalworkers, and miners. This was strategic on some level — the more irreplaceable the worker, the more power they have to make demands of bosses, demands that can theoretically improve life for the entire working class. But it had consequences: due to entrenched racism and sexism in society, most of the better-paid skilled workers were white men, which meant that black and female workers were left out.
But the CIO was started specifically in response to this oversight. Its goal was “industrial unionism,” which meant organizing an entire industry at once, including both its highly paid skilled workers and its low-paid unskilled ones. The CIO wasn’t reluctant to organize the people who were paid rock-bottom wages to sweep shop floors, pull levers, or pour cement. In fact, they saw organizing these more “expendable” workers as the key to victory for the labor movement.
Enter Operation Dixie. CIO president Philip Murray called it “the most important drive of its kind undertaken by any labor union in the history of this country.” In 1946, it recruited 250 organizers to go into the South and unite the workforce — black and white, skilled and unskilled — under strong unions. The idea was that, once the workers were united, the factory bosses would no longer have the opportunity to use divisions to the detriment of the workers there — or anywhere.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was a city of mansions and slums. The local elites lived in three-story houses on magnolia-lined streets while toiling tobacco workers lived in shotgun shanties along dirt roads. Phillip Koritz, a radical unionist from New York City whose Russian Jewish immigrant parents had been sweatshop organizers, was sent to Winston-Salem by the CIO in 1946. When he arrived, he recalls, “I knew we were in for a fight.”
In the local factories, the lowest-paid unskilled workers were the stemmers, who separated the tobacco leaves from their stems by hand. Eighty percent of them were black women, and their pay started at 54 cents an hour. Some of the white workers weren’t paid that much more, but they were constantly subjected to messages from management that heightened their apprehension of black workers. One black worker remembers:
The company preached to that white worker. They would take them in the office, they would hold group meetings with them in their homes, the white preacher was advising the people: “You’d better stay out of that union. They’re going to turn that thing into open violence. You’re going to have to eat and sleep with them black men, your wife and daughter.’’
As the Greensboro, North Carolina, the paper put it:
It was the system, and it always worked in tobacco, textiles — everywhere. Divide and conquer. Keep the black workers resenting the whites for that 10 cents more an hour they made. Keep the white workers resenting the black workers for working so cheaply and making them fear for their jobs. Keep them separate. That way, they never get to join forces in a … shhhh. Real union, black and white.
There was already a local union, Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco and Agricultural Workers, but when Koritz arrived, it was in poor shape. The CIO’s plan was to build this union so that it had real power — and to do that, they would have to integrate it. Koritz set to work helping Local 22 recruit both black and white members. The racial animosity was so intense that people were scared to organize with one another, so it was set up as a “biracial” union — basically two organizations in one. Two representatives were elected to each position in the union: one black and one white. Thus, over the course of a year, Koritz and the other Local 22 union organizers performed the slow and steady task of building racial solidarity in the workplace for the first time.
After an intensive organizing drive, Local 22 drew up a list of demands and was ready to go on strike at the Piedmont Leaf Tobacco Plant. Most of those who decided to strike were the black women stemmers — a complete departure from the AFL skilled-worker model, but exactly the demographic the CIO had in mind. The leader of the largest tobacco company in town, R.J. Reynolds, networked with the local paper to get negative press coverage for the strike. “Communist Union Collusion in City is Exposed,” read one headline.
As the strike heated up, police began to arrest union members for violating Jim Crow segregation laws, unlawful protest, and resisting arrest. The police were violent with the strikers, physically shoving a pregnant black woman, Margaret DeGraffenreid, into a police car and detaining Koritz for resisting arrest when he put his hand up to defend against an officer’s billy club.
But the workers persisted, and the strike lasted from July until September. Despite corporate attempts to use the media to turn public opinion against the strike, it enjoyed an enormous amount of community support. In the end, the strike was successful: the workers got the raise they fought for and even paid holidays.
The Winston-Salem strike was one of many CIO agitations that year. It seemed that Operation Dixie might just work.
The Winston-Salem strike was successful, but the ending wasn’t necessarily a happy one. Koritz and DeGraffenreid were both found guilty of resisting arrest. The prosecution portrayed DeGraffenreid as a violent picketer and Koritz as a communist agitator. They were sentenced to a road crew and a working farm, respectively, and forced to perform physical labor as prisoners.
This was a harbinger of things to come. The relationship between local business elites and the carceral state was complex and impenetrable in the South, and CIO organizers and the workers they unionized faced similar repression wherever they went. The media would red-bait them, the bosses would stonewall them, the Ku Klux Klan would harass and intimidate them, and the police would arrest and imprison them. The CIO was simply unprepared for the hostility of the Jim Crow South toward any movement that sought equality among blacks and whites, and workers’ rights for all.
The anti-communist persecution of union organizers in the South became so extreme that the CIO caved to pressure and in 1949–50 expelled eleven left-leaning unions. It was an attempt to show the public that the CIO wasn’t in fact communist, but the reality was that left-wing radicals like Koritz were some of the best organizers in the CIO in the 40s. The CIO began to purge its top talent, which may have helped its image but severely hindered its operations on the ground.
The purge continued throughout the McCarthy era to come, and the labor movement suffered the consequences. Not only did it fail to organize the South, but its strategy became ossified, bureaucratic, and rigid in the absence of visionary leadership, leading to the transactional and compromise-oriented “business unionism” of the late 20th century.
The South remains largely unorganized, and that reality continues to pose problems for the labor movement nationwide. Since union participation is at an all-time low and labor is in crisis, some have suggested that it’s time for a new Operation Dixie. Many of the obstacles to organizing the South would still remain — segregation, racism, militarized police, fears of socialism and communism — but Winston-Salem showed that it is possible.