A group of United Auto Workers members attend a news conference in Detroit. Southern states, with their history of cheap labor and all-powerful employers, present a challenge for unions like the UAW. (Photo: Paul Sancya / AP)
Cheap labor. Even more than race, it's the thread that connects all of Southern history - from the antebellum South of John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis to Tennessee's Bob Corker, Alabama's Richard Shelby and the other anti-union Southerners in today's U.S. Senate.
It's at the epicenter of a sad class divide between a desperate, poorly educated workforce and a demagogic oligarchy, and it has been a demarcation line stronger than the Mason-Dixon in separating the region from the rest of the nation.
The recent spectacle of Corker, Shelby and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky leading the GOP attack on the proposed $14 billion loan to the domestic auto industry - with 11 other Southern senators marching dutifully behind made it crystal clear. The heart of Southern conservatism is the preservation of a status quo that serves elite interests.
Expect these same senators and their colleagues in the U.S. House to wage a similar war in the coming months against the proposed Employee Free Choice Act authorizing so-called "card check" union elections nationwide.
"Dinosaurs," Shelby of Alabama called General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler as he maneuvered to bolster the nonunion Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai and other foreign-owned plants in his home state by sabotaging as many as three million jobs nationwide.
Corker, a multimillionaire who won his seat in a mud-slinging, race-tinged election in 2006, was fairly transparent in his goal to expunge what he considers the real evil in the Big Three and U.S. industry in general: unions. When the concession-weary United Auto Workers balked at GOP demands for a near-immediate reduction in worker wages and benefits, Corker urged President Bush to force-feed wage cuts to UAW workers in any White House-sponsored bailout.
If Shelby, Corker, and McConnell figured they were helping the Japanese, German and Korean-owned plants in their home states, they were seriously misguided. The failure of the domestic auto industry would inflict a deep wound on the same supplier-dealer network that the foreign plants use. The already existing woes of the foreign-owned industry were clearly demonstrated in December when Toyota announced its decision to put on indefinite hold the opening of its $1.3 billion plant near Blue Springs in northeast Mississippi.
The Southern Republicans are full of contradictions. Downright hypocrisy might be a better description. Shelby staunchly opposes universal health care a major factor in the Big Three's financial troubles since they operate company plans yet the foreign automakers he defends benefit greatly from the government-run health care programs in their countries.
These same senators gave their blessing to hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to the foreign automakers to open plants in their states, yet they were willing to let the U.S. auto industry fall into bankruptcy.
In their zeal to destroy unions and their hard-fought wage-and-benefits packages, the Southern senators could not care less that workers in their home states are among the lowest paid in the nation. Ever wonder why the South remains the nation's poorest region despite generations of seniority-laden senators and representatives in Congress?
Why weren't these same senators protesting the high salaries in the financial sector when the Congress approved the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street? Why pick on blue-collar workers at the Big Three who last year agreed to huge concessions expected to save the companies an estimated $4 billion a year by 2010? These concessions have already helped lower union wages to non-union levels at some auto plants.
The idea of working people joining together to have a united voice across the table from management scares most Southern politicians to death. After all, they go to the same country clubs as management. When Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker warned of Democratic opponent Ronnie Musgrove's ties to the "Big Labor Bosses" in this year's U.S. Senate race, he was protecting the "Big Corporate Bosses" who are his benefactors.
The South today may be more racially enlightened than ever in its history. However, it is still a society in which the ruling class the chambers of commerce that have taken over from yesterday's plantation owners and textile barons uses politics to maintain control over a vast, jobs-hungry workforce. After the oligarchy lost its war for slavery the cheapest labor of all it secured the next best thing in Jim Crow and the indentured servitude known as sharecropping and tenant farming. It still sees cheap, pliable, docile labor as the linchpin of the Southern economy.
In 1948, when the so-called "Dixiecrats" rebelled against the national Democratic Party, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina declared war on "the radicals, subversives, and the Reds" who want to upset the Southern way of life.
Seven years later, Mississippi's political godfather, the late U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland, told other prominent Southern pols during a meeting at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis that the South will "fight the CIO" (Congress of Industrial Organizations) and unionism with just as much vehemence and determination as it fights racial integration.
Eastland, Thurmond and their friends lost the integration battle. Their successors are still fighting the other enemy.
Joseph B. Atkins is a veteran journalist, professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press (University Press of Mississippi, 2008), a book that details the Southern labor movement and its treatment in the press. A version of this column appeared in the Hattiesburg (Miss.) American and the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger.