The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, December 31, 2004

The Southern bolt from labour further explained

It was only on December 19 that I was talking about the essential role of senators from the Confederacy (Theodore Bilbo the only absentee) in overriding Truman's veto of Taft-Hartley.

Now, I come across a 2001 paper (PDF) The Southern Imposition: Congress and Labor in the New Deal and Fair Deal by Sean Farhang and Ira Katznelson which describes the process of which that Taft-Hartley roll call was the culmination.

Since it's the only thing I've read on the subject, I'm naturally not best placed to judge the piece: but its argument accords with my limited knowledge of the period, and it contains plenty of fascinating corroborative detail whilst being in no way a bald and unconvincing narrative!

For instance, it tracks the exclusion of agricultural work from the scope of labour laws from the NIRA onwards. Southern labour was disproportionately agricultural as well as disproportionately Negro; Northern Democrats colluded with their Southern colleagues thus to deprive large swathes of Southern Negroes of labour rights as a quid pro quo for Southern support of the New Deal legislation (p20).

Once the Southern block had definitively broken away, the arrangement fell away - with Dennis Chavez's 1946 FEPC bill (p39).

The breaking-away process is fascinating: although the Republicrat coalition was supposed to have been in place by 1938, following the court-packing business, the piece notes that Southern Dems were still on board with the New Deal sufficiently to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, despite the threat to racially based wage differentials offered by its minimum wage provisions.

But this support was posited on an agricultural exclusion and a union organising effort that, during the 1930s, had remained largely ineffective in the South (p33).

The retreat started soon afterwards: Howard Smith [1] chaired the 1939 House Special Committee to Investigate the National Labor Relations Board which produced a bill curbing the Board's powers which passed the House with Southern Democratic support but failed to reach the Senate floor (p35). And that just a year or so after the FLSA went through.

By the end of the war, whose requirements had sucked from the South millions of its Negroes, the climate was much more favourable to unionisation, and the notorious Operation Dixie put the wind up a South already contending with returning Negro servicemen, an unfavourable Supreme Court ruling on white primaries, the odium-by-association of Nazi race policies and a general sense that Jim Crow was on borrowed time.

Now, race trumped everything; and the 1946 mid-term results were providential in supplying the numbers to carry an anti-union bill over Truman's inevitable veto.

(Keith Finley's thesis Southern Opposition to Civil Rights in the United States Senate: A Tactical and Ideological Analysis, 1938-1965 - previously praised here - is still available, I see.)

  1. The Virginia Congressman, not the New Jersey senator.

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