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Labor Needs a Southern Strategy

In case you haven’t noticed, most of the really good manufacturing jobs still left in the U.S. are being moved to the Deep South.  It’s like a vast animal migration.  Think of caribou.  And why wouldn’t companies want to move there?  Cheap labor, no unions, lax pollution standards, huge tax incentives, lucrative subsidies, and the absence of urban blight.  Hell, it’s a corporation’s dream.

With every major foreign automaker—Mercedes, BMW, Toyota, Honda, Kia, Nissan, Hyundai, Volvo—already having billion-dollar assembly plants in states like Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia, in another twenty years or so, Dixie will be what Detroit was in its heyday.

And with Dixie as the New Detroit, what will the Old Detroit be?  It will be what it is today, only more so: a sprawling urban wasteland, part of the ever-growing Rust Belt.  In twenty years, American college students will speak of the economic vitality of 1960s Detroit the way they speak of the grandeur of Ancient Rome and Athens.

Labor’s only hope is to organize the South.  They need to do whatever it takes to recruit new union members.  Sponsor rodeos.  Sponsor gun shows.  Sponsor chili cook-offs, monster truck pulls, pee-wee sports leagues.  Hire Tennessee Titan and Atlanta Falcon football players to do radio and TV spots.  Start your own record company, produce country music using home-grown musicians, and put a union-made American flag on your label.

To gain a foothold, organized labor needs to embark upon the Mother of All Public Relations Campaigns.  It should consider putting together a racing team and entering a car in a NASCAR event.  The Teamsters and the SEIU should jointly sponsor a “Change to Win” racing team, using local drivers.  What labor needs more than anything is positive exposure, and lots of it.

Unions should begin making conspicuous donations to impoverished high school football teams in the region, offering to buy new uniforms.  The IAM should make a big deal of inaugurating scholarship programs.  The Steelworkers should give $5,000 grants to deserving high school students, naming him or her as their annual “Student of Steel.”
The AFT (American Federation of Teachers) should establish a generous endowment at the University of Alabama, tied in, perhaps, to the formation of a Chair in Labor Relations.  The AFL-CIO should announce that it’s going to donate money for a new athletic facility at LSU.  The IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) should set up vocational apprenticeship programs at community colleges.

Fortunately, one thing Big Labor still has plenty of—at least for now—is money; but it needs to spend that money more wisely.  Big Labor needs to take the cure—it needs to quit depending on sympathetic, smooth-talking Democrats to carry its water.  Clearly, the American South is where their resources should be focused.

Some smart guy (it may have been labor historian Irving Bernstein, in The Lean Years) once suggested that big-time labor unions should move their national headquarters from Washington D.C. and relocate to a large southern city, like Atlanta, Georgia or Nashville, Tennessee.  It’s a brilliant idea.

If you got ten or twelve of America’s largest unions to relocate to the metropolitan South, and offer its employees top wages and benefits for routine clerical work, word would spread.  Working for a national labor union would now be coveted position.  (“Hey, where do you work?”  “I work for the Teamsters.”).

By becoming an integral part of a municipal economy in the Deep South, organized labor will have effectively infiltrated enemy lines without, figuratively, firing a shot (i.e., without anyone even having to join a union).  Brilliant.

The only reason most blue-chip unions in America (the UAW is a notable exception, with its headquarters at Solidarity House, in Detroit) have their offices in D.C. is, ostensibly, to mingle with the nation’s power brokers.  More accurately, it’s a convenient way for slick lobbyists and predatory Democratic politicians to take the AFL-CIO’s money.

But hasn’t that relationship been one sorry, monumental scam?  I mean, what tangible benefits have been gained by being at the epicenter of America’s political power?  In the 62 years since the Taft-Hartley Act—arguably the most anti-union legislation is U.S. history—organized Labor has poured tens of millions of dollars into efforts to get the Act repealed or, at the minimum, significantly modified, and virtually nothing has come of it.

Instead, organized labor continues to be marginalized, national membership rolls continue to be chipped away, and union members across the country continue to be demoralized.

So why stay in Washington?  Why not move to Dixie, where the battles of the next several decades will almost certainly be fought?  At the very least, the commercial real estate will be much cheaper.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Americana,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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