Today’s guest columnist is Eli Cohen.
When I first saw that Amazon’s biggest unionization effort to date was taking place here in Birmingham, I couldn’t believe what I was reading.
I grew up in Birmingham. Even as a child, I was politically involved, travelling to Montgomery to visit lawmakers at the capital, and later to learn the dark sides of our history at the Equal Justice Initiative.
I was no expert, but I thought I understood Alabama politics. I didn’t know everything, but I was confident Alabama was not going to be the site of Amazon’s first domestic union showdown. But as voting begins at the company’s Bessemer facility, that is exactly what’s happening.
We all know Alabama is a deeply conservative state, largely pro-business and anti-union. Alabama is one of 28 states with so-called “right-to-work” laws, meaning any employee can choose not to pay union dues. Our state’s history follows a similar trajectory, but we shouldn’t take the absence of major victories as a sign that labor organizing did not take place.
In fact, Alabama has a robust labor history, much of it in Bessemer itself. This union effort surprised me, but the more I learned about our history, the more I realized: maybe it shouldn’t have.
International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (1930’s)
According to Robin D.G. Kelley, Professor of History at UCLA, Alabama’s labor history can be traced as far back as the 19th century, when the Knights of Labors served as an informal protective network for black and white workers alike.
But the highpoint of Alabama’s labor history was the 1930’s, and its strongest incarnation was the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. Often called “Mine Mill,” IUMMSW was an interracial, though predominantly black, union in Bessemer, who successfully organized workers at the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI), Sloss-Sheffield, and the Woodward Iron Company.
Historian Robert Korstad called this period one of “civil rights unionism.” In Bessemer’s iron ore mines, there was a real “working-class-led, union-based civil rights movement,” where black workers “combined class consciousness with race solidarity.” Buoyed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency and The New Deal, “civil rights advocates increasingly looked to mass unionization as the best hope for overcoming the tangle of oppression that excluded blacks from full participation in American life.”
Synonymous with Mine Mill was its larger-than-life leader, Autaugaville native Ashbury Howard. Under Howard’s leadership, Mine Mill Local 123 became both one of the most powerful and most militant unions in the region. Historian S. Jonathan Bass writes of Howard:
Bessemer’s most recognizable civil rights leader, Asbury Howard, embraced violence as a necessary means for achieving racial equality. “Armed resistance paid off more than a peaceful approach,” he said. Blacks in Bessemer would fight back with guns instead of nonviolent actions and words because the “majority . . . understood that type of talk.” Since the early 1930s, Howard was an outspoken agitator and one of Alabama’s most controversial radicals. He embraced unionism, avowed Communism, and proclaimed Christianity.
It’s critical to remember that while these movements were both radical and avowedly leftist, they were also tailored to local culture and custom. Karl Marx may have wanted to “abolish religion,” but these unions saw no conflict between their Christian faith and their faith in unionism. Bass also writes, “In Bessemer, one participant at a Mine and Mill meeting observed that ‘if you substitute God for union, devil for employer, and hell for unorganized, you would have a rousing sermon.’”
It’s important to qualify the connection that can be made between Mine Mill and today’s unionization effort at Amazon. Almost a century separates the two movements. Mine Mill no longer exists, and Amazon is a completely different sector of the economy, with little relation to what’s left of the mining labor movement.
But unions can jump sectors, with lineages that are defined by other aspects, such as geographic location, tradition, or political leaning. Professor Kelley told me that, “The RWDSU is politically, ideologically, tactically, a descendant of Bessemer’s International Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers.”
The Public Employees Organizing Committee (1970’s)
Though Birmingham is most well-known for its civil rights history, the movement was not confined exclusively to the summer of 1963, as popular history typically remembers. While the Birmingham Campaign was a catalyst for national civil rights victories, many local concerns were left unaddressed and continued into the late 60’s and 70’s. Though the movement lost its national spotlight, many local campaigns continued. One such outgrowth was the Public Employees Organizing Committee (PEOC), a union of hospital and nursing employees that attempted to organize at UAB and other local hospitals and nursing homes in the 1970’s.
According to Professor Robert W. Widell Jr., the PEOC represented a new and more expansion vision of civil rights, building on the successes of the 1960’s, but also aware of the era’s limitations.
Though the PEOC was a direct descendent of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, it may have had more in common with the “civil rights unionism” of the 1930’s. Organizers of the PEOC certainly celebrated the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, but they proved that national legislation was not enough. While it increased access to rights for Alabama’s black population, it did not solve many long standing issues. Their protest pushed an even more encompassing idea of equality—not just freedom from Jim Crow, but freedom from poverty, access to civil services, and equality of opportunity.
The lead organizers of the PEOC were Dorothy and James Farrior, two black UAB employees who began hosting meetings in their home, along with Alex Hurder, a white conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, who, as a result, was doing mandatory service at the Spain Rehabilitation Center. Professor Widell Jr. writes:
The workers positioned themselves as part of not just a (re)emerging labor movement, but an expanding black freedom struggle. In her remarks to the March 1972 rally, for example, Minnie Crenshaw [a PEOC member] directly connected the organizing drive and the black freedom struggle by invoking one of the movement’s most well-known anthems. ‘We shall overcome,’ she said, ‘only when we all come over and join.’
The PEOC eventually unionized as Hospital Workers’ Local 1318, and was successful in reinstating a number of wrongfully terminated employees across the region. But their more ambitious goals of bargaining on behalf of all the city’s medical workers were never realized. Met with fierce opposition from hospital administration, elected leadership, and the Birmingham police, the PEOC was unable to sustain itself into the 1980’s.
During that time, the broader economic trends of both Bessemer and Birmingham was one of near complete deindustrialization. Sloss Furnaces closed in 1971. Tennessee, Coal and Iron Co. (TCI), a subsidiary of US Steel, laid off thousands of workers in the 1970’s and by 1982 ceased operating altogether. Pullman Standard, the train car manufacturer at the heart of Bessemer’s downtown, closed in 1981.
In 1887, Bessemer was founded as the fever dream of mining and steel baron Henry F. Debardeleben. Nicknamed the “Marvel City,” the city’s promoters boasted that it had a future “brighter than any city in the South” and showed promise “without parallel in the history of American towns.”
A century later, as the entire U.S. economy transitioned from heavy industry to a largely service economy, Bessemer suffered heavy job losses. By the 1980’s some estimates put the unemployment rate around 30%, among the worst in the country.
The city’s economic prospects remained weak until only recently. But Bessemer’s cheap real estate and cheap labor attracted major distribution centers for companies such as Amazon and Lowe’s. Bessemer’s mayor said the contract with Amazon was the largest in the city’s history. But in Bessemer, steel’s legacy is never far. Amazon purchased the land for its facility from U.S. Steel, the parent company of TCI.
The latest high-profile unionization effort in Alabama was at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance. It ended in 2019, when after years of organizing; the union was unable to file an election petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In 2020, Union membership nationally was at all-time low, barely above 10 percent.
Professor Robert Widell Jr. pointed out that with each economic shift, it can take decades for workers in new industries to develop enough of an identity to unionize. When Mine Mill was successfully striking in Bessemer in the 1930’s, heavy industry already had a many decade history of union organizing.
Logistics does not have the same degree, and the tech industry has been anathema to unionization until just a few months ago. While Bamazon Union does have numerous historical antecedents, they are making a path distinct from anything before. “Labor organizing is the constant,” Widell Jr. told me, “What changes are the conditions…the political landscape.”
History alone cannot predict the political landscape today, much less the outcome of the upcoming election. But contrary to the prevailing narrative, Alabama does have a substantial labor history; one that was both interracial and progressive. Today, with the formidable pressure on Amazon, the new Democratic control of the Presidency and Congress, and the unique circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic, that labor history may bode well for the current union election underway in Bessemer.
Eli Cohen recently completed a Watson Fellowship, traveling to India, Nepal, and Myanmar to study the intersection of technological development and political power. Before that, he produced public radio at WBHM and studied US Congress at The Brookings Institution. Eli graduated from Pomona College in 2019. He is a Birmingham native. https://www.elibenton.co/
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David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
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