by Hamish O’Brien
Socialism is on the rise across the U.S. With the looming threat of environmental catastrophe, rising tide of authoritarianism across the country and the world, rampant xenophobia, increase in right-wing violence, austerity, and union density at historic lows, people are finally starting to fight back. What unifies many of those who fight? Socialism.
As the socialist movement continues to coalesce around the country, we want to contribute to the discussion of what building socialism in North Carolina, and the South more broadly, would look like. In the following, we’ll examine some of the conditions of contemporary working class life in the South, and some ideas for what socialists can do to empower workers and oppressed people to fight those conditions.
Contemporary Economic and Social Conditions in the American South
For the purposes of this discussion, the South is composed of the following states: Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Suffice it to say that these states are characterized by their historical relationship to chattel slavery and the former confederacy, a similar pattern of settlement (slave empires beginning in South Carolina and Virginia which expanded West towards the Mississippi, displacing poor whites to mountainous and less fertile regions), and a broadly defined sense of cultural identification.
According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis data, the 12 states of the South produce about 21% of the U.S. GDP, accounting for about $4 trillion of 2018’s total economic output. By comparison, this is roughly equal to the economies of California and New York combined. Real median income, however, rests slightly below $52,000, about 83% of the national average.
The dominant industries in the region are typical of national trends, with healthcare predominating in most states in addition to extractive industries, agriculture, and their subsidiaries. Manufacturing as a share of GDP in the South also surpasses national averages, second only to the Midwest.
If there’s one great unifier in the American South, it is poverty. The regional poverty rate is 13.6%, with over 16 million people in the region living in poverty. Only 5 southern states have expanded Medicaid, so around 11% of the population in the South has no healthcare coverage, slightly above the national rate. Nine of the South’s states have a rate of household food insecurity above the national figure, and 7 of the 10 most food insecure states in the country can be found in the South. Given the disproportionate burden of social reproduction on women, it’s especially relevant that men tend to make about 10.5K more a year than women for the same occupations in these states.
But blanket poverty does not describe the US South in its entirety. Five of the ten most unequal cities (income-based) in the US are in the South, a disproportionate representation based on population. This stems in part from the way in which Southern cities attempted to diversify their economies during the neoliberal eras while rural areas continued reliance of extractive industries or agriculture. This has implications for building movements in the South because it leads to a deep town-country resentment and inequality that is a challenge to overcome.
Of the 12 states in the South, all are right-to-work, 5 have no state minimum wage laws, and only 3 have set the minimum wage higher than the federally mandated $7.25 an hour. As far as union density is concerned, only West Virginia exceeds the national average of 10.7%, and 6 of the 10 states in the country’s bottom quintile for union density are in the South.
None of this data means anything, however, without seeing it through the lens of race. Outside of the Appalachian states, the population of each Southern state is more Black than the national average. Further, the majority of the country’s total Black population resides in the South, despite many Southern states having relatively small populations. Nine southern states have many majority Black towns, counties, and cities in them. The latino population across the South is highly uneven, but makes up a significant portion of the population in Florida, Georgia, Virginia, and North Carolina and faces draconian laws throughout the region.
Of note here is the disproportionate impact of the 2008 crisis on the economic security of Black people. According to the Urban Institute, middle aged Black homeowners were three times more likely to lose their homes during the recession, a nightmare that continues to terrorize the Black working class. An investigation by the ACLU showed that home equity decreased 25% more for Black households than white households. Additionally, home equity is a much larger proportion of total household wealth for Black families than whites. Racist predatory loan practices made Black families 50% more likely to have experienced foreclosure after the crisis. The massive cuts to the public sector have also disproportionately impacted Black communities: Black people are 30% more likely to have a public sector job than whites. Overall, the crisis was a wholesale theft from one of the most oppressed populations in the south.
Any analysis of the south must also include the key ways in which undocumented agricultural and service sector labor and the attendant oppressive laws and repressive police practices that shape southern economies. Undocumented workers make up more than 5% of the labor force in four southern states (FL, GA, NC, VA). They are primarily employed in agriculture, hospitality and food-service industries. In order to ensure their hyper-exploited status, Southern states have some of the most punitive anti-immigrant laws in the nation. Three of the five states in the nation to bar undocumented youth from receiving in-state tuition are in the South, and three of the six states with virtually complete integration of ICE and the local police are also in the South. The continued hyper-exploitation of Black and Latinx people underlies the emerging reputation of the South as having “a business-friendly climate.”
“Recovery” since the 2008 Recession
In the South, recovery since the recession has been varied. Extractive industry-based states like West Virginia, Kentucky, and Louisiana fared moderately well up until the drop in global fuel prices, with unemployment never surpassing 10%. In most every other state, however, unemployment climbed above 10% early on, and did not dip below this level until late 2011. And according to the EPI, in most Southern states, the ratio of Black to white unemployment is around 2:1, making the “recovery” even more lopsided.
With the rise of the Tea party in 2010, many states rejected federal recovery measures, and instead were punished by crushing austerity, and deregulation. Like many states across the nation, this money stolen from public coffers has not been returned, leaving a skeleton of the former social safety net and weak public sector employment. In 2018, 4 of Forbes Magazine’s top 10 states to do business in were in the South, North Carolina leading the way having attracted two Amazon distribution centers, bio-tech firms, and a Chinese tire manufacturer to set up shop. This is primarily due to lax regulations and some of the lowest labor costs in the industrialized world. The vast majority of this work to make Southern economies attractive to capital has been done by the Republican party which has enjoyed near one party rule in many southern states since 2010. It is worth noting that the end of the Reconstruction era had the same dynamic: Redeemers winning office in the wake of a massive economic crisis which resulted in deregulation and stripping Black people of their political rights.
To sum up, we can observe that in terms of economics and demographics, the South has certain peculiarities combined with conformity to many macro-trends across the U.S. Of these peculiarities are its heavily racialized rates of poverty and income inequality, compounded by food insecurity, low wages, low union density, and low rates of insurance. Each of these economic factors have a heavily racialized character as well. The objective need for radical transformation in the South should be clear in light of the brutal economic and social regime imposed on workers detailed above.
The State of Struggles:
It would be hard to do justice to all the struggles against the above described state of affairs, so this essay will focus on the character of a few key arenas of particular concern for socialists: labor, race, and voting. We will also touch briefly on environmental struggles which have become particularly acute in many locales.
Labor in the South
As discussed previously, right-to-work laws are on the books in every state in the American South. This does not mean, however, that there’s been a foreclosure on labor struggle. It just means that workers have that much more of a hump to get over to win a contract or a fair deal.
The most high profile private sector union campaigns in the South since the recession have been three failed campaigns in auto and plane manufacturing: at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, TN; at Boeing in Charleston, SC; and at Nissan in Canton, MS. The Boeing campaign was led by the International Association of Machinists (IAM) union, while the fledgling United Auto Workers (UAW) union took up the torch in Chattanooga and Canton. Similar themes emerged from both, although each campaign had very different circumstances: top-down organizing by the international unions, extensive anti-union campaigns by the companies and state politicians, and premature votes. These struggles, however, are likely to continue. IAM recently won a foothold at Boeing (although it may be overruled), and auto manufacturing, especially in rural areas in the Deep South is booming thanks to low union density and laissez-faire labor laws which have resulted in high injury rates at southern plants. Outside of manufacturing, the Fight for $15 had a considerable presence in the South which has largely dissipated since the 2016 elections, however labor actions continue in this sector.
Public sector labor struggles of note are teachers struggles, most notably in West Virginia, but also in North Carolina, and Baton Rouge, LA where teachers voted to authorize a strike in protest of Exxon Mobil’s bid for tax exempt status. Other southern states including the state with the country’s lowest union density, South Carolina, recently saw a one day teacher walkout in Columbia.
A final interesting development in this arena is an ongoing Communication Workers of America and Service Employees International Union initiative to unionize higher education systems throughout the South, most recently at Elon University. Campaigns thus far have been marked by shop floor activity and political activity (the origins for several states unionization came out of campus involvement in local living wage campaigns).
While socialists in many Northern and Western states are having rich debates over whether or not to use the Democratic ballot line, in the South the question of simply being able to vote is perhaps the largest electoral concern for folks on the Left. A key component of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was struck down by the supreme court 2013, ending federal oversight of voting restrictions in Southern States and opening the floodgates of racist voter suppression in states held hostage by Republican supermajorities.
On the flip side, southern activists have been leading the charge to restore voting rights to felons, with successful campaigns in both Virginia and Florida. Southern states have some of the strictest criminal codes and highest rates of incarceration, so these wins should certainly be seen also from the lens of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and prison abolition movements. Many of these organizations were involved in solidarity work around Trayvon Martin and Troy Davis before pushing through these measures.
Much of the front-line fighting against climate change and the struggles directly tied to that fight occurs in the South. The increasingly devastating hurricanes that continue to ravage the Gulf Coast and Florida Coast line (not to mention the mid and upper South) pose a direct threat to millions of Southerners. Indeed 2018 witnessed the worst toxic blue/green algae on both coasts of Florida in decades. The Gulf Coast is still reeling from the impacts of the BP oil spill, and pipeline projects from West Virginia to Louisiana have been met with resistance from coalitions of indigenous and multi-racial rural communities. There are also active, and occasionally successful, campaigns against offshore drilling in Florida and Georgia.
Tasks for Socialists:
The struggles highlighted above must be seen from both the point of view of how far the left has come in the region, and how far it still has to go. All struggles remain sporadic, flare ups occurring more regularly than sustained movements, but all leaving valuable organizations and activists in their wake who continue to carry struggles forward. For marxists, this clarifies a set of tasks and political orientations in order to merge more directly with the social movements challenging the ravages of neoliberal capitalism in our region. Of particular note is the centrality of anti-racist politics, the need for mass-based and labor organizations, and a strategic orientation around elections, together which will form key components of the emergent Southern Left.
Currently, each of these remain siloed to a large degree. Mass based organizations like the New Virginia Majority, the Moral Monday Movement, and the Poor People’s Campaign quickly tied themselves to the Democratic Party channeling mass energy largely into electoral campaigns and disappearing almost as quickly as they arose. Each prove the potential for mass mobilization in the South, but also illustrate the trappings of mass organizations that cannot connect the dots of activity between elections. Northern liberal money comes pouring into a select few southern states, namely Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, during election years, sometimes proliferating out into semi-independent organizations, but the money disappears just as quickly as it arrived, leaving activated people across the region left in the lurch in the process. Leftists in the South seeking to combat the hegemony of the Democratic party, and build struggle outside of the electoral arena have a major uphill battle to combat this trend by building mass organizations accountable to people not parties and donors.
As discussed before, this likely will not come in the form of trade unions or traditional left formations due to legal constraints facing both private and public sector workers. There is also a major historical hurdle, in that Southerners have long been resistant to institutions they see as foreign or not acting on their immediate needs, and the institutions that are home-grown and respond to immediate needs are often disbanded by racist violence, law enforcement, or fear-mongering campaigns. This does not mean, however, that the potential for mass organization has been foreclosed upon. Anti-racist organizations focused on base building such as the Southerners on New Ground, Dream Defenders, the Southern Workers Assembly based in Charleston, and others are bright lights in this regard.
As concerns labor organization, Southern workers have responded to low union density by waging fights through minority organizations, such as North Carolina’s United Electrical Workers Local 150, the Workers Dignity worker’s center in Nashville, or IAM’s minority union at Boeing in Charleston. While the organized left has played a role in the formation of each of these, it can do much more to amplify and reproduce the models they present across the region, and bringing them into contact with each other.
Combinations of organizations like these have proven instrumental in the electoral arena as well. North Carolina’s Durham for All has proven effective at electing progressive city council members, and holding them to account on a range of issues, while subsequent coalitions like Durham Beyond Policing have succeeded in winning measures like divestment from police training with the Israeli Defense Force, raising wages for public sector workers, lifting a ban on collective bargaining, and stopping increases to police budgets. In the face of extremely reactionary state governments, these must be seen as major wins for the Left.
The key question facing socialists in the South in the coming years will be how to merge with already existing Southern movements, and building networks that draw these forces together and help them reproduce themselves in ever more distant corners of the region. Much of the traditional knowledge inherited from the Northern Left will not apply to the South, which means experimentation and assessment based on local conditions in this new period is essential. The tasks facing the Left in the South are immense, but it should be encouraging to all who consider themselves part of the Left that we are growing. While this growth has largely been siloed in separate arenas of struggle, there is now a larger collective body of experience and struggle within each silo that can now be compiled to inform future action. The Piedmont Left Review hopes to play a part in compiling the experiences and struggles of the left in the Triad and beyond to inform activists seeking to build a better South than the sick and tortured one we know today.
Hamish O’Brien [he/him] is an organizer in Greensboro, a grad student, and is ashamed to have been born in the North.
- This is typically the body of states used by statisticians when developing data sets.
- Chattanooga: http://labornotes.org/blogs/2018/01/why-do-auto-workers-union-drives-keep-failing-rank-and-file-view Canton: http://labornotes.org/2017/08/why-did-nissan-workers-vote-no Charleston: http://labornotes.org/blogs/2017/02/viewpoint-boeing-vote-was-not-referendum-organizing-south11. https://www.seattletimes.com/business/boeing-aerospace/flight-line-mechanics-at-boeing-south-carolina-vote-to-join-the-machinists-union/
- http://www.labornotes.org/2018/11/teacher-strike-threat-backs-exxonmobil, https://ucw-cwa.org/our-history, http://ucwga.com/our-history.html
- Atlantic Coast Pipeline: https://www.facebook.com/noacpva/
- Bayou Bridge Pipeline: https://www.facebook.com/LeauEstLaVie/
- http://ieefa.org/bipartisan-florida-opposition-to-offshore-drilling-plans/, https://www.savannahnow.com/news/20180403/anti-offshore-drilling-measures-fail-but-coastal-georgia-lawmakers-vow-to-keep-trying