This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 4 No. 1/2, "Here Come a Wind." Find more from that issue here.
Labor education in the South has had only limited acceptance and has developed a relatively narrow base of support through the years. Outstanding efforts in the '30s and '40s by independently-based schools — like the Highlander Training School and the Southern Summer School for Women Workers — added significantly to the movements of those years. And some international unions were able to supply adequate funds and staff to undertake education among their own members.
Until recently, however. Southern universities have consistently failed to respond to the challenge of education among working Southerners. Today, as unions are expanding in the South, some educational systems are changing their adult education programs to meet labor's specific needs.
Through a combination of history and political expediency, Alabama emerged —together with West Virginia— as the leader in this trend. Through the years, organized labor has been stronger in Alabama than perhaps any other Southern state (see Alabama profile). And Barney Weeks, current president of the Alabama AFL-CIO, has built on the state's tradition with outstanding leadership. For 15 years Weeks raised the issue of university-supported labor education, but with no success. Finally, in 1971, Weeks and other labor leaders were able to gain the support of Gov. George Wallace for their proposal. Wallace, of course, was courting labor at the time, looking for favors which could add to his stock as the "working man's friend." While Wallace went on to build his national campaign, Weeks joined with leaders at the University of Alabama in Birmingham to begin the arduous process of taking labor education to people throughout Alabama.
In 1971, the Alabama legislature established the Center for Labor Education and Research at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Labor's goal, and the legislative intent, was to provide university - level, non-credit continuing education programs, designed and implemented to meet the needs of workers; and to offer consulting, research and information services that carry the resources of the university to workers throughout the state. Formed as an autonomous section within the School of Business, the center initially received about$130,000 per year through regular university appropriations. In August 1972, I was named director. We began to establish the center and to conduct workshops throughout the state.
Birmingham, Summer of '72 - Our first one-day conference on local union leadership, more of a PR operation than a serious educational enterprise. Excellent mixture of unions and people. Forcefully struck by black delegates as they responded to the lectures with "Amens" and "Yes brother,” etc., much as they would in a church. Same experience repeated several months later at a conference of Safety Committeemen of Steelworkers.
Talked with a black man, 44, with two children in college. He had spent 20 years in the "mill." Today he spoke as a middle-level union representative. I asked him why he stayed here when so many anti-black feelings and actions exist.
"I live here," he said, "this is my home. My family and friends are all here. Besides, you should have been here 20 or even 10 years ago. Then it was really rough. Things are better and getting even more so. It's a long way from being real good, but a long way from real bad, too.
"I worked around and I worked some pretty bad jobs, and they treat blacks a hell of a lot worse without a union. People, including blacks, really don't understand what the union can and can't do. The district and national officers have almost always tried to do right. And union politics made a difference, particularly at the local level. I've always been a union man and been better off for it.
"I know I'm almost surely going to stay in the mill because of the money and pension stuff. But I've done hard physical labor all my life and I'm tired of it. I don't think my kids will live here. I think when they get out of school they may go someplace else to work, probably not the North. Atlanta is the big city now, not Detroit or New York. They're going to have it better than we did and that's good."
Until 1972, there had been no extensive university-related labor education conducted in Alabama. Both Auburn and the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa had housed week-long union workshops, but no sustained programs nor any significant commitment of resources existed. The Center at UAB currently represents the most comprehensive professional endeavor in this field in Alabama, and serves as a model for other university-based programs in the South.(See the accompanying listing and description of other programs.) The center staff now consists of the director and six other full-time faculty and appropriations have increased to $200,000 per year.
Western Alabama, on the Mississippi Border — We set up a steward training course, combining five locals of three different public sector international unions. It worked surprisingly well. They were obviously cooperating rather than competing.
Class was held in Central Labor Council headquarters on an isolated back street in the black section of town, next to a funky grocery store with a shoeshine stand out front. Only a few blocks from KKK headquarters.
Very positive reaction to the film Inheritance from both blacks and whites. The one exception, not really strong, but an uncomfortable reaction, from one of the officers who had been involved on the wrong side during the march from Selma to Montgomery. He's a good trade unionist, just having great difficulty overcoming a lifetime of racist teachings and attitudes. Not an uncommon reaction among local union leaders. Psychologically it's an extraordinarily difficult journey.
A black woman in the class was so anxious for teaming that she didn't even want to take our usual break or quit when the time was up. They were very low-wage workers, and both white and black had been consistently exploited. It was obvious that the union gives them a new lease on life.
One white male, 28, an assistant business agent for the largest of the unions in the class, was very sharp and articulate. Born and raised in the area, he was just beginning to learn his job and understand what unions are all about. We talked about how he got his job and his feelings about it.
"I'd been offered a supervisor's job," he remembered, "the same time I was offered this one and I thought this would be more interesting. I like representing the people much more than enforcing management rules, most of which are a bunch of shit anyway.
"I'm not making as much money as I could in management, particularly when you work the kinds of hours we do. When a member has a problem he wants it solved right now and expects you to do it whether it's midnight or Sunday morning. They're paying my salary, such as it is, and expect round-the- clock service. We try to give it to 'em, but it's hard on your family. Also it looks to me like it's kind of hard to go very high in a labor organization. At best it's slow as hell.
"But don't get me wrong. I like my job. I like to get problems solved. I like to win grievances for workers. It gives me a good gut feeling. I just don't know if I'll do it forever, that's all."
During the center's first year, most activities were directed toward planning and organizing the center's operations. Suitable facilities were secured and equipped, instructional supplies and equipment gathered, a labor library developed and consultants retained to aid in determining the role and scope of the center. Labor leaders— Barney Weeks and Howard Strevel, director of District 36, United Steel Workers of America — joined with university officials and myself to develop staff and shape the program.
Jim Goode joined the staff after 25 years with the labor movement in Michigan with the Pipefitters and the UAW Education Center. Coming South was a homecoming of sorts. Jim's father had migrated from Tennessee to Michigan years before to find work. And closer to home, we added Doug Davis, a Church of Christ minister from Mississippi with labor education experience and a doctorate in communications.
Northwest Alabama — An after work, four-hour class with 15 women and one man. Business agent for the union was attractive woman, 45, impeccable attire and make-up. Tougher than steel. Her parents were tenant farmers. Married and deserted at an early age, children to raise, relatively little education, no training. She has never stopped fighting, has organized and serviced locals for 12 years. Very bright, natural wit, articulate and virtually fearless. She had strong feelings about her work.
"I get more problems," she claimed, "from the people I represent than I do from management. The managers know that I know my business. I'm honest with them, but I don't take any ugly mouth and they know they have to live up to the contract.
"Practically all the-rank and file and even some of the stewards don't understand that we can't get settlements or problems solved that are outside the agreement. Much of what they want done, or the gripes they have about supervisors, are not covered in the contract. Oh, you can sometimes work something out to please everybody on an informal basis, but not very often. Then they hold me personally responsible and say I'm not doing my job. You can only do so much. I try to let it roll off me and concentrate on the important matters."
Most of the center's offerings are directly related to the day-to-day functioning of trade unions. We offer regular sessions in collective bargaining, grievance handling, communication skills, occupational safety and health, labor law, labor history, economics and politics. The programs vary. Short courses (one night a week, two hours per night, for six weeks) are usually geared to the needs of shop stewards — recognizing grievances, general contract language, parliamentary procedures. Weekend conferences and longer institutes are designed for business agents and full-time union staff — preparing and presenting grievances for arbitration, pre-strike publicity techniques such as how to write a press release, skills in negotiating contracts.
Some of the programs are on the campus at Birmingham, but the bulk of our work is conducted at night and on weekends in union halls, community centers, local college or high school facilities throughout the state. And we work with unions ranging from the Steelworkers to Government Employees (AFGE). By taking the programs to the home areas where they are needed, at a time and place convenient to workers, we feel we are in the best tradition of workers' education.
West Central Alabama — Six-week steward training class, 45-50 people — men and women, young and old, eight different unions. No blacks. Classroom was in the basement of VFW Hall. Woman showed up at fifth session and said she won a grievance the previous week on what she had learned in the class. The possibility of inter-union cooperation in organizing and political activity was apparent — one group of three drove out of Mississippi 60 miles to the class each week. Follow-up classes planned.
North-Central Alabama — Newly organized electronics plant where two previous organizing attempts had failed. Very bitter relations between company and union and many bad memories on both sides. An all-day and evening session on grievance handling and local union administration for 35 workers, men and women. Very responsive and eager to be able to handle their own problems. Only one student with prior union experience.
Many had been working six days a week, ten hours a day for two years. Most of the women were married with children and continue to have full home-maker duties after work and on off-days. Strong feelings of hope for their children to have it "better than us."
One young woman, an outstanding natural leader, was fired by the company in all three organizing campaigns. Now back at work and full tilt for her fellow workers.
"It was easy to see we needed some kind of help at the plant," she said. "Management did whatever it wanted and there wasn't anything you could do about it. I didn't know much about unions until I talked with the organizing committee. Then I knew that's for us. "I've had a lot of problems being so active for the union. The company has tried to run me off plenty of times, but the union supports me and I keep coming back. I'm a good worker and I watch my step — don't give 'em an excuse to fire or discipline me — but I watch that contract and I keep organizing in the plant and doing my union work after hours.
"And I still take care of my family. The kids help a lot themselves, and my husband is a good guy. He may resent my union work from time to time, but he doesn't say much about it and he works hard too.
"I've been plenty frustrated and I might have quit if I didn't believe we were right. Also, management keeps me mad most of the time and that helps keep me fighting."
During the first year of operation, the center provided 35 programs of different kinds for approximately 1,000 local union leaders and active members. After the center's budget was enlarged in 1973 and new faculty members hired, the scope of the program increased. By March, 1976, the number of sessions and participants had more than doubled yearly and virtually every town and city of any size throughout the state had been host to one or more of our offerings. In addition, we provided a significant number of programs in Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and Mississippi. The center has hosted southeastern regional training programs for a number of international unions and the AFL-CIO. This kind of regionally-oriented work is rapidly expanding as the center becomes more well known.
Central Alabama — Saturday all-day steward training class for government employees' local. Beautiful April day. We expected 20 students; 35 showed up and we ran out of material. Good mix of young-old, male-female, black-white, experienced and uninitiated. Also some eight or nine different occupations represented.
Ten members of one union showed up in classes set up by another union. They have shown an obvious desire for education, fighting against the hierarchy of their own union.
This kind of situation crops up occasionally in labor education throughout the US. It is a result of differences in resources, ability and commitment of various unions. There are some regions, districts or locals of even the best unions that do not provide the kind of service, support and protection that their members are entitled to. And this happens in the rural South where a single business agent or international representative covers widely dispersed small locals within large geographic areas. Fortunately, this attitude is not prevalent in the bulk of union leadership. Quite the contrary. We've found much better "official" support than I had had or observed in the Midwest.
Labor education tends to grow and feed upon itself. As the number of local sessions expand, there is increased pressure for regional projects. These in turn develop new contacts and create an environment within which the local programs can expand further. Several Southern schools — including the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Kentucky at Lexington — found the successful Alabama experience a helpful model on which to build.
The rapid growth and comparative success of the center can be attributed to a number of factors: sufficient financial support from the legislature, a concerned and progressive labor leadership, a dedicated and competent professional staff, a university administration that views continuing education as an integral part of the total urban university thrust, and, of course, student participation that is openly and enthusiastically supportive of relevant programs provided in convenient forms.
Southeastern Alabama, on the Georgia line —We arrived in town late, met by local representative who told us not to eat dinner. We went out to the plant where a strike was on — 30 on the picket line. There's a barbecue pork — whole hog, and a spicy stew, everything in it. Barbecue rack was on old bed spring; five gallon cauldron on bed of coals. Pick-ups lined the roadside — beer and moonshine under the tarps in the back of the trucks. Shorty, the local cook, concocted a barbecue sauce of lemons, catsup, cranberries, mustard, onions, milk — unknown proportions of each. We ate at midnight. Shorty cut the pork with a very suspicious looking fishing knife. Who cares? Food was wonderful and by this time we're beyond concern. Shorty told us to come back in July for a goat barbecue.
The next day we were to have two three-hour classes for 25 steelworkers. The word had spread and we picked up 15 clothing workers as well. The other instructor developed throat trouble and retreated to the hospital. I did a six hour stint interspersed with frequent trips to the john. Head and stomach were shot forever, but there was no place to hide. Had to hang in there because the students were hungry for the class and were participating like hell. The contracts and procedures of the two unions were different in some respects, but we worked back and forth and kept it rolling. On the second day, second instructor returned to the effort (after we split a quart of Maalox) and finished in a blaze of mutual enthusiasm.
An older woman hugged and kissed me and said, "Nobody ever came here before to help us like this, we just never expected it from the university." It was a long drive back to Birmingham, but it seemed short.
The enthusiasm of the students stirs a certain optimisim within ourselves and within the growing labor movement. And concrete successes — like improved contracts and better representation at the local level — indicate some bettering of conditions. But, for the most part, the program really makes only a minor dent.
We are a long way from being the first to labor in this field in the South, yet every day we touch virgin territory. We are in our fourth year of operation and have trained, in one fashion or another, 6,000 local union officers and rank and file workers. We feel good about it, yet it is the merest ripple on the sea of workers. Our program reaches only the organized workforce. That leaves — in Alabama alone — 78 percent of workers without this particular kind of help. It is just one more item on a lengthy list of things Southern workers do without.
/*-->*/ /*-->*/ Higdon Roberts is a professor of labor studies and education at the Center for Labor Education and Research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He was a trade-union activist for 14 years in the railroad, ware housing and construction industries. (1981)