Employers in the American South have long had a thing about cheap labour. In fact, for the first 90 years of the country’s history they got it for free, and that was worth fighting for. They lost, of course, but that didn’t diminish their passion for peonage.

After the Civil War, employers came up with various creative ways to keep labour cheap, from sharecropping to company stores. Working people often found themselves unable to re-pay debt, and were trapped in an essentially work-without-pay cycle.

But perhaps most important was what has been described as the new slavery. States passed strict vagrancy laws that allowed black men to be picked up off street corners and sentenced to prison. States then leased convicts to local planters and industrialists providing dirt cheap labour for employers and profit for the state. Of course all of this suppressed wages for white workers as well.

As Jamelle Bouie writes in The New York Times, “The history of Southern political economy is to a great extent a history of the unbreakable addiction of Southern political and economic elites to no-wage and low-wage labor.”

Needless to say, this good old southern tradition has meant especially fierce opposition to labour unions. A hostile attitude from government, including right-to-work laws, has succeeded in keeping the unionization rate (and wages) low.

Now the wall of Southern anti-unionism has suffered a major breach. Last week workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee voted overwhelmingly to join the United Automobile Workers union, the first nonunion auto plant in a Southern state to do so.

The landmark victory comes only six months after the UAW won record wage gains and improved benefits from the Detroit automakers. The union has long represented the American companies and has organized some heavy-truck and bus factories in the South, but has failed to organize the two dozen automobile factories owned by foreign companies. Until now.

The union will now turn its attention to the other factories. UAW President Shawn Fain exulted, “Tonight we celebrate this historic moment in our nation’s and our union’s history. Let’s get to it and go to work and win more for the working class of this nation.”

Further victories could have profound effects for Southern auto workers and workers in the South generally. According to Harley Shaiken, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, “It sets an example that would resonate across the industry, and across other industries where there’s a large presence of nonunion workers.”

Needless to say, Republican governors of Southern states don’t share the optimism. The governors of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas issued a joint statement saying unionizing would jeopardize auto jobs in their states. Alabama’s state Business Council responded by setting up an anti-union website.

Overall, however, Americans are becoming more union-friendly. Seventy percent now support unions compared to only half earlier in the century. Even almost half of Republicans now approve of unions.

The need has rarely been greater. This has not been the greatest century for working people. While productivity increases along wth the GDP, the gains accrue unevenly. Incomes for those in the upper income brackets have risen steadily while those for the middle class stagnate. It’s been a long time since the rising tide raised all boats.

A major reason for this is the decline in union membership. Unions contribute to equality because they provide a necessary counterweight to both the market power of big business and the political power of big money.

A great deal more union organizing is the best hope for reducing inequality and restoring a strong middle class in the U.S.

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