Covering for the Bosses


Book by Joseph B. Atkins, foreword by Stanley Aronowitz; University of Mississippi Press, 2008, 224 pp.

THE SOUTHERN MODEL OF LOW WAGES and harsh anti-union labor relations, supplemented by lavish subsidies to corporations, even from the poorest states in the union, has defeated the social welfare protections of Northern states created by unionism and the New Deal. The South, more than ever, sets the terms of America’s social contract between labor and capital.

The South’s commanding economic role became visible during last year’s debate over federal aid to GM and Chrysler, highlighted by Southern senators claiming that excessive United Auto Worker wages had largely brought on Detroit’s crisis. They insisted that only massive wage cuts imposed immediately by the federal government would address the problem. Not coincidentally, the Senators most vehemently pushing for the wage cuts and a denial of federal help were Richard Shelby (R-AL), Bob Corker (R-TN), and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), all of whom have non-union "transplant" auto factories in their states from firms based in Japan, Korea, and Germany.

Even more broadly, the Southern model of all-powerful management, docile low-wage labor, and public subsidy-fueled operations has also become the dominant form of U.S. capitalism exported around the globe, argues Joseph Atkins in his compelling Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press.

Playing a crucial role in promoting this low-wage Southern model has been the media. The region’s media has almost invariably been part of a "solid phalanx" of powerful interests—a unified business community, elected officials, the clergy, and other opinion shapers. Southern newspapers and radio stations joined forces to relentlessly battle unions, the New Deal, and civil rights for African Americans. Southern media acted as uncritical stenographers transmitting and amplifying the crudely racist views of segregationist politicians like Strom Thurmond and Theodore Bilbo, who viewed the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO), the civil rights movement, and communism as equal partners in a grand conspiracy to destroy the Southern way of life.

The media in the "Deep South" was particularly vicious. Former AFL-CIO President Claude Ramsay declared in 1966 that, "The press in Mississippi has to be rated as the worst in the nation. This is especially true as far as the Hedermann papers in Jackson are concerned. The Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger have probably done more to retard this state than any other single institution. These papers have for years kept the race issue alive and have added more fuel to the flames of racial hatred."

Eventually, the overt resistance by Southern media to African American rights receded, as it conflicted with the image of a tranquil, cosmopolitan "New South" open to investors from the entire world. Now the Southern press routinely celebrates corporate investments—however richly subsidized by the public—as a beneficent gift to local communities, with few investigations of corporate misconduct or even acknowledgement of unions’ existence and the plight of low-wage workers.

Going back to the days of African American servitude, "Slavery was the same kind of brake on the young labor movement as the unorganized, low-wage South is at present for today’s labor," wrote labor historians Richard Boyer and Herbert Marais in Labor’s Untold Story in 1955. The Emancipation Proclamation freed African Americans, but the end of Reconstruction in 1877 abruptly pulled the rug out under them. Blacks were quickly demoted again, finding themselves as disenfranchised tenant farmers and servants, always vulnerable to being arrested on baseless charges and pressed into convict labor benefitting mining, timber, and steel interests. Slavery had been abolished, but much of the old order was restored.

For white workers, while their acquiescence to capital has often been exaggerated, the powerful influence of Pentecostalism infused them with a sense of "the inevitability of social domination," as Atkins cites sociologist and ex-labor organizer Stanley Aronowitz. This brand of religion combined "a deep-lying mysticism, the authority of…the preacher, the emulation of Jesus’s suffering, [and] the importance of humility over success," writes Atkins.

This outlook heavily colored white Southerners’ response to the industrialization of the South. Efforts to unify the races in common struggle were greeted with suspicion by racist white workers and with outrage by their bosses. Campaigns by populists in the late 1800s and early 1900s to organize both black and white workers and farmers were met with fierce repression. Closer to the present, strong advocacy of civil rights by Louisiana’s AFL-CIO President Victor Bussie, who led the organization from 1956 to 1997, cost it 40 percent of its members.

There have been significant exceptions. The coal miners of West Virginia and Pennsylvania—faced with draconian conditions and blatant management efforts to create ethnic divisions among the workers—formed the powerful and racially integrated United Mine Workers. Low wages and merciless stretchouts (speedups) in textile mills in the Carolinas created fertile conditions for union organizing. Despite the hostility of media and other influential community voices, massive textile strikes were waged in 1929 and 1934 in places like Gastonia, North Carolina.

Repression was routinely directed against labor, with the tacit approval of local media and other voices of influence. "Labor organizers and union sympathizers were kidnapped and beaten by mobs and vigilantes as the press, church, and political establishment stood by," Atkins recounts. "Organizers were run out of town." One prominent African-American organizer among Memphis dockworkers, Robert Cotton, was "disappeared."

More generally, Southern capital effectively applied the essential elements of the "Mohawk Valley Formula," made famous by the Remington Rand Corporation in New York State. The Mohawk Valley Formula was explained by the National Association of Manufacturers as "employer mobilization of the public." This mobilization was achieved through newspaper ads, billboards, radio programs, speakers’ bureaus, and films stressing employers’ belief in "Americanism" and "harmony." As Alex Carey noted in his classic, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, this strategy represented, "The subordination of industrial relations to public relations."

With public opinion becoming more important than industrial spies or management goon squads, journalists generally accepted their role as defenders of the economic and racial status quo, although some extremists like the Ku Klux Klan were beyond the pale. "Southern editors won Pulitzers in the 1920s and 1930s for exposing the Ku Klux Klan or corruption in local government," Atkins says. "However, with few exceptions their hard hitting progressive minded journalism didn’t extend to economic inequities and the living conditions of Southern working people. That was largely left to non-Southern writers like Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson."

Southern editors applauded when their states passed "right to work" laws to consolidate the low-wage, non-union economic system. These laws outlawed the union shop, creating an incentive for employers to whittle away at a union majority by hiring anti-union recruits and finding pretexts to fire union supporters. Further, since these laws obligated unions to endure the expense of negotiating for all workers, non-members gained the same pay and benefits as union members without incurring either the cost of union dues or the risk of being targeted for firing. The spread of "right to work" laws was accelerated by the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. So far, 22 Southern and Western states have enacted them.

Following World War II, the CIO launched "Operation Dixie" to organize workers in the South, a task recognized as essential to preventing the South from becoming a low-wage escape hatch for employers. The effort was promptly blasted by Rome, Georgia editorialist William H. Lewis. But Lewis needn’t have worried. Operation Dixie was hamstrung by a shortage of resources, a centralized command structure, and the virtual banning of blacks, women, and suspected Communists from its staff. The failure discouraged labor from devoting major resources to the South for many years. By the 1970s, the South had become the main fulcrum by which corporate America engaged in what the late UAW President Douglas Fraser called in 1976 "a new class war." An onrushing tide of Northern-based firms opened up new non-union subsidiaries in the South, which became the nation’s fastest growing region both in terms of jobs and population. Today, just 3.5 percent of North Carolina’s workers belong to unions and an even tinier 3.2 percent are union members in South Carolina, the lowest figure in the nation.

Parallel to its anti-union efforts, the South launched a sustained effort in the 1930s to lure Northern industries to set up plants in the South by offering a menu of lavish subsidies, including free factories. Mississippi Governor Hugh White called his state’s initiative "Balance Agriculture With Industry, promising low taxes, low wages, and low unionization," as Atkins describes it. The program proved to be a major hit with other Southern states.

This approach to luring industry with subsidies has eventually evolved over the past eight decades into an interstate competition that is essentially a race to the bottom, encouraging low wages, low corporate tax rates, and rich packages of incentives for corporations that don’t need them. Within the U.S., the war among the states now costs at least $50 billion in revenue, estimates Greg Leroy, author of The Great American Job Scam.

But the wisdom of handing out subsidies to major corporations largely goes unchallenged. Even though German automaker Mercedes-Benz’s decision to locate in Vance, Alabama in 1993 ultimately contributed to a disastrous fiscal crisis for the state, the Birmingham News largely set the tone for the Mercedes coverage with its September 28, 1993 editorial, "Wilkommen in Alabama!" As part of the $300 million package, Alabama changed its tax laws to allow Mercedes-Benz to offset construction debt via tax credits and changed the personal income tax paid by employees. As a result, Alabama eventually lost up to $3 billion in revenues to accommodate a company that only paid $65.8 million a year in state and local taxes. The state tax break for Mercedes-Benz alone totaled $173 million.

On the assembly line end of the equation, Nissan workers in Smyrna, Tennessee and Canton, Mississippi were troubled by their lack of any voice on working conditions and compulsory overtime, complaints that received almost no media coverage as a union representation election grew closer.

As Atkins notes, when Nissan announced that it would build a plant in Canton after receiving a record $363 million in incentives from "the nation’s perennially poorest state," Mississippi’s largest newspaper, the Clarion Ledger, was filled with photos, articles, five sidebars, an editorial, an editorial cartoon, and highlighted quotes—"It’s a blessing from God"—all hailing the plant. Particularly appalling was the way that the Clarion-Ledger and other Mississippi media evaluated the costs of a total of $719 million in incentives to highly profitable carmakers. "At the same time Mississippi was pledging $356 million to land the Toyota plant in Tupelo, its state legislature failed to build a burn center for the state, forcing burn victims to continued to be transported to Memphis," Atkins points out grimly. The legislature also rejected a proposal to lower the state’s highly regressive sales tax on food, the nation’s highest, at 7 percent.

Increasingly, U.S. corporations began looking beyond the South for certain kinds of production in fields like clothing, textiles, and electronic appliances, but they have closely adhered to the model that they had perfected in the South. Hence, the region has been hit hard by agreements like NAFTA, which was aggressively promoted by Arkansas-born President Bill Clinton and gained overwhelming support from corporate-friendly Southern legislators of both parties. The most popular destinations for U.S. firms seeking low wages are China (where wages typically run 20 to 40 cents an hour) and Mexico, where labor is a bit more expensive at 70 cents to $1 an hour.

The devastating effects of NAFTA on Mexico’s agricultural and retail sectors produced a vast flood of immigrants, with many settling in the South. Among the states with the largest increases in Latino population between 2000 and 2005 were South Carolina, North Carolina, Arkansas, Texas, Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Many of the new immigrants are employed in industries noted for their low pay, brutal working conditions, and humiliating management practices, such as poultry processing and factory farms. Others are working as non-union construction workers, waiters, hotel employees, and other work with low wages. Their stories should be providing contemporary Southern journalists with a rich supply of stories about their plight.

But such stories have been few and far between. Instead, the most creative and hard-hitting journalism in the South has most often been provided by Southern Exposure, a North Carolina-based alternative and left journal started by Bob Hall and Chip Hughes. In the 1970s, unlike many of its contemporaries, Southern Exposure made a conscious effort to use a language and tone that would be appealing to working people and reach out broadly to those committed to fighting for economic and social justice. In explaining its mission, Southern Exposure pointed to an enduring deficit in most of the South: the absence of "a tradition of unions, civic associations, socially-active churches foundations, or universities which give voices to the dissidents in the community."

As Atkins’s book shows, a crucial component of genuine democracy has been grievously lacking in the South: independent mass media willing to challenge and investigate corporate power and to serve as the voice of those shut up by bosses, shut out of power, and shut down by multinational corporations seeking even cheaper labor.


Roger Bybee is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Dollars & Sense, the Progressive,Multinational Monitor, the American Prospect, and Foreign Policy in Focus.