Striking Out Against Big Tobacco

A movement extinguished: A Duke historian chronicles the short life of Local 22, a feisty tobacco union.

Robert Korstad had many places to dig as he researched a historic labor struggle in Winston-Salem, North Carolina--one that pitted a fledgling union of largely impoverished black workers against manufacturing giant R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. He interviewed dozens of union workers and activists who had fought for wage gains and better working conditions throughout the 1940s. He probed federal records. He pored over aging newspaper articles.

He also turned to one particularly precious source of knowledge: his father.

In 1950, Karl Korstad had helped lead a last-ditch, and ultimately unsuccessful, effort to preserve Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers (FTA) at Reynolds. "The union experience was the high point of my father's life in many ways," says Korstad. "He talked about the experiences all the time, and he drew lessons from those days that he tried to pass on to my brother and me."

These days, it's the younger Korstad who is passing along those experiences to a new generation of students and scholars. An associate professor of public policy studies and history at Duke, he is the author of Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth Century South. The book, recently published by the University of North Carolina Press, offers a dramatic account of the Winston-Salem union movement that galvanized thousands of disenfranchised men and women before withering under the pressures of the Cold War. It was a struggle, Korstad contends, that influenced the trajectory of the civil-rights movement of the 1960s and also had powerful implications for labor, women's rights, and the economic and social landscape of the South today.

It's a story told resolutely from the viewpoint of the blacks who made up the majority of Reynolds' work force. And it's one that builds on themes of race and class in previous books by Korstad, who has also written Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World and Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Talk about Life in the Segregated South.

"I wrote this book partly to chronicle the people and events that had been so meaningful to my father and, through him, to me," says Korstad. "But, more importantly, I wrote the book because this heroic struggle was in danger of being lost to history."

Nelson Lichtenstein, a history professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, praises Korstad for his unique approach in the book--examining the substantial links among labor, civil rights, and the evolution of the Southern economy, instead of treating those issues in isolation. "We often put things in boxes, but one of the great things about this book is it integrates it all into one story," he says.

Yale history professor Glenda Gilmore believes Korstad has transformed an unusual intersection of family history and scholarly interest into groundbreaking work. The book's "strong narrative voice never strays from the workers' point of view, accomplishing what some have thought impossible: a rendering of twentieth-century American politics, labor, and social struggle from the perspective of poor black people," Gilmore wrote in a review of the book. It will become, she continued, "the standard by which future studies of Southern communities and African-American activism are measured."

Striking conclusion: celebrating the end of the 1947 strike, right; crowds gather, left, outside plant to protest, 1948

 Striking conclusion: celebrating the end of the 1947 strike, right; crowds gather, left, outside plant to protest, 1948. Photo: courtesy of Winston-Salem Journal


The book mentions Karl Korstad, a Minnesota native who came south for military service during World War II, only a couple of times--partly because the elder Korstad's involvement with Local 22 came near the end of the unit's existence and partly because Robert Korstad wrote the book to document the workers' struggles rather than to serve as a family memoir. Still, Karl Korstad's passion for social justice clearly informs page after page of the writing of his son. While stationed at an army base in Charleston, South Carolina, Karl Korstad began helping out with union efforts at a local tobacco plant. He eventually landed in Winston-Salem as an organizer and regional director for the FTA. In 1949 and 1950, he was deeply involved with Local 22's work at Reynolds, trying primarily to persuade white workers to join the union. Robert Korstad remembers it as "a pivotal moment in my family's history.''

Indeed, the strong personal bonds that Karl Korstad developed during his work with Local 22 helped persuade him to settle permanently in the South after the union's collapse in 1950. Staying allowed him to keep in closer touch with friends who continued their fight for civil and workers' rights in Winston-Salem. Korstad, who had done graduate work at Syracuse University in the late 1930s and had, at one time, considered pursuing a doctorate in English, chose instead to move his family down the road to Greensboro, where he opened a landscaping and nursery business. (A number of people who had worked on behalf of Local 22 ultimately opened small businesses, Robert Korstad says. For some, that option offered the freedom to earn a living and still have time for activism. For others who had been blacklisted by local employers because of their union work, it was one of the few choices available.)

Robert Korstad, born in 1948, was too young to recall firsthand his father's union work. But he learned of it later from his father and from Robert Black, a black worker and union leader at Reynolds, who was fired after the union's demise, had trouble getting a job elsewhere, and ended up working for the family's nursery business for more than ten years. Both men served as role models for the younger Korstad, who sometimes joined them in their work. They told him stories of the strikes and negotiations and battles to build a union culture. In one instance, Reynolds supervisors tried to discourage white workers from joining the union by tapping into the "linked bugaboos of racial mingling and violence,'' Korstad writes.

Robert Korstad

 Robert Korstad. Photo: Les Todd


Robert Black told him, "The company preached to that white worker. They would take them in the office, they would hold group meetings with them in their homes, the white preacher was advising the people: 'You'd better stay out of that union. They're going to turn that thing into open violence. You're going to have to eat and sleep with them black men, your wife and daughter.''' Such stories, Robert Korstad says, helped instill in him a heightened awareness of the tremendous inequities that continued to exist in his own community and throughout the South.

As the younger Korstad grew older, his intellectual fascination with the Winston-Salem union movement also began to emerge. He started to probe the larger context of the events that he had heard so much about over the years, and they became the topic of his doctoral dissertation at the University of North Carolina. By the time of his father's death in the mid-1990s, Korstad had decided to write a book about the struggle. He and his father had traded ideas about Local 22's work for years--not always agreeing, for example, about the strategies the union had used to build up its core base of black members at R. J. Reynolds, while also reaching out to wary white workers there. They had talked about Korstad's hopes to document the union struggle, and Karl Korstad played an important role in helping his son understand the inner workings of Local 22. With his father gone, Korstad's views began to take clearer shape. "I had to, at some point, really develop my own voice and interpretation and analysis of the process," he says. "It was a book I had to write from the perspective of my generation."

The book opens with the events of June 17, 1943--the day that a small group of black women, fed up with the low pay, lack of respect, and overbearing foremen in Reynolds' factories, took action. Angered by the mistreatment of one of their colleagues earlier that day, they returned to the factory floor after lunch and refused to continue working. Their courage proved infectious, prompting a group of male workers in a neighboring room to join in almost immediately. One of those men, thirty-eight-year-old James McCardell, stepped forward and told the foreman, "If these women'll stand up for their rights, I'm with them." Within moments, McCardell, who had felt ill for a week, fell to the floor, dead of a cerebral hemorrhage.

The explosive mix of the work stoppage and McCardell's sudden death, which some workers blamed on Reynolds' culture of pushing employees to their physical limits, caused long-simmering resentment to boil over. News of the strike spread quickly throughout the company's plants, fueling a passion for unionism that had been diligently stoked for years by organizers. Within days, the workers had pulled off the unthinkable: They had shut down the operations of one of America's industrial giants and found themselves sitting across the table from Reynolds executives, demanding changes during a strike that lasted six days. "The willingness of thousands of black workers to walk off their jobs at some risk to themselves and their families represented a rare and remarkable moment in Southern history," Korstad writes. "The walkout, membership drive, and the mass meetings gave them reason for hope. Out of such hope, Local 22 would be born."

By late 1943, Reynolds employees had voted to establish a union. By 1944, the union had negotiated successfully for higher wages, paid holidays, and seniority rights. And, as Korstad demonstrates, the movement rapidly became about much more than merely squeezing concessions out of a highly profitable company. Soon, the union's influence was felt not just on the factory floors but throughout Winston-Salem. Local 22 encouraged increased political participation, registering thousands of black voters. It rejuvenated the local chapter of the NAACP and took the lead in electing a black minister to the city's Board of Aldermen, making him the first black candidate to defeat a white opponent for elected office in the South since the turn of the century. Of Reynolds' 12,000 workers at the time, nearly two-thirds were black, and half were women. Both groups, long forced to the margins at work and in civic life, seized the chance to finally be heard.

"From the outset, the union blurred the boundaries between home and work, sacred and secular, play and politics, consumption and production," Korstad writes. "In a society in which the exploitation of black laborers went hand in hand with their exclusion from politics and most social services, black unionists could hardly avoid linking workplace issues to community concerns." Korstad details those workplace issues, from management systems that consigned blacks to the lowest jobs while reserving the best for whites, to the sexual exploitation of female workers. He quotes Robert Black on the company's environment of sexual harassment: "If there was a good-looking woman, even the black women, in that plant, and even if her husband worked in that same department, and that foreman wanted to pat on her or wanted to play with her or take her out to the office, [he would]. Those foremen would take one of these good-looking Negro women out to his desk and maybe hold her there for an hour, and all of these hundreds of people just looking.''

Striking conclusion: celebrating the end of the 1947 strike

 Striking conclusion: celebrating the end of the 1947 strike. Photo: courtesy Reference Center for Marxist Studies


Korstad also provides extensive historical context, tracing the growth of Reynolds as part of a larger industrial revolution in the South that began after the Civil War, an era that also saw the rise of a rival tobacco baron in Durham--James B. Duke. Korstad explores the segregated political, business, and social worlds of Winston-Salem and the inner workings of R.J. Reynolds itself, as it consolidated power in the tobacco industry. Korstad says he attempted to get Reynolds' side of the story by asking permission to examine its archives. But company lawyers, concerned that Korstad's research might turn up evidence that could be used against Reynolds in current anti-tobacco lawsuits, denied the request. A Reynolds spokesperson told Duke Magazine that the company is not familiar with the contents of Korstad's new book.

A place at the table: Local 22 representatives, seated in the foreground, attended the sixth Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers international convention in Philadelphia, 1947

 A place at the table: Local 22 representatives, seated in the foreground, attended the sixth Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers international convention in Philadelphia, 1947. Photo: Parker-Condax, courtesy of Robert Korstad


Union workers at Reynolds went on strike again in 1947. With the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union growing, however, Reynolds and its allies fought back by focusing on the Communist Party's ties to Local 22. Korstad terms the party an "important ally" of the union and notes that it had recruited several dozen of Local 22's leaders. Still, supporting the Soviet Union, Korstad says, was the last thing on the minds of many of Local 22's black leaders, who saw a strong rallying cry in the Communist Party's call for equality among races. Despite the campaign to discredit it, the union won another wage increase. But the taint of Communism and the persistent efforts of Reynolds management to defeat the union ultimately took their toll. Karl Korstad felt that toll personally. He had previously succeeded in organizing support for workers striking against the American Tobacco Company in Charleston, South Carolina. But this time, in Winston-Salem, talk of Local 22's Communist ties scared away many supporters, especially Southern liberals. Karl Korstad "approached labor supporters in New York and Washington but could inspire nothing like the interest that the Charleston strike had stirred,'' Robert Korstad writes. (Karl Korstad's work on behalf of labor later attracted interest of another kind. In 1958, he was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which was wrapping up its investigations of "1940s Southern activists.")

In 1950, as Korstad and other union supporters struggled to find support for Local 22, the National Labor Relations Board made a controversial ruling that prevented black seasonal workers--a crucial component of Local 22's base--from voting in a recertification election for the union, but allowed lower-level white supervisors to do so. By that time, Reynolds had also succeeded in cutting enough jobs filled by blacks and hiring enough white workers to forge a 50-50 racial split in its work force, a strategy that dovetailed with McCarthyism to undermine the union. In a close vote that year, Local 22 lost the right to represent Reynolds workers. Never again would the company sign a collective-bargaining agreement. "In the end," writes Korstad, "the breakup of the workers' movement in Winston-Salem and in the United States required an extraordinary feat of political repression. It was the post-World War II red scare that finally silenced dissident voices and contained political debate."

The death of Local 22 and the broader civil-rights and unionism movements across the South had an impact that continues to be felt today, Korstad argues. Cut off from its union ties, the civil-rights movement found itself in the 1950s and 1960s fighting mainly for individual rights, such as the end of discrimination at voting booths and in education and public places. But, he says, the movement never truly attacked or resolved weighty issues of economic inequality that impoverished many blacks then and still do now in Winston-Salem and elsewhere--the very issues Local 22 had tried to advance. Conservative legislators faced little resistance as they enacted labor laws that to this day keep wages in the South low relative to the rest of the country and discourage unionization.

Korstad also contends that McCarthyism separated women's-rights activists from an important ally--the racially diverse, working-class wing represented by the women of Local 22--and left their movement open to accusations of being racially exclusive and favoring the middle class. "All the ills that beset America cannot be chalked up to the outcome of the struggles of the 1940s," Korstad writes. "But that outcome does stand as a watershed. And the United States is distinguished by the lowest rates of unionization and the most miserly social provisions in the industrial world."

For now, Korstad hopes that his book about the union workers and activists at Reynolds can help keep alive a passionate belief passed along to him by his father: that the possibility of change for the better always exists and that courageous people pulling together can make it happen. "We still have a long way to go before we realize the dream of economic justice and political democracy,'' he says. "I think the events in Winston-Salem of the 1940s can better help us understand where we have been, where we are today, and where we need to go."

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