The Mississippi AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations) is the political arm of AFL-CIO affiliated unions and their members located within the Magnolia State. The Mississippi AFL-CIO lobbies state agencies, endorses candidates for statewide office, and educates and mobilizes its members in support of such liberal goals as union security, progressive taxes, improved public services, and civil rights. But low union density within the state has required the Mississippi AFL-CIO to reach beyond its official membership in efforts to be politically effective. The Mississippi AFL-CIO has encouraged voter registration and voting among its members and has funded and organized registration and voting drives among such progressive allies as African Americans not in the union. It has defined its constituency as extending beyond its official membership to advance liberal candidates and policies in a state that has often has been hostile to them.
The Mississippi AFL-CIO was originally named the Mississippi Labor Council, AFL-CIO and was founded in June 1957. (The name changed to its current one in 1962.) The organization was formed as a result of the merger of the Mississippi State Industrial Union Council, which was affiliated with the CIO, and the larger Mississippi State Federation of Labor, which represented AFL local unions statewide. Although relations between the two state organizations had been antagonistic and competitive, they agreed to combine their political resources to defend themselves from the antilabor politicians who dominated the state government in Jackson. The first president of the organization was Ray S. Bryant, a Hattiesburg firefighter. In 1959 he was succeeded by another former AFL member, Claude Ramsey, who had served previously as president of Paperworkers Local 103 at the Moss Point International Paper plant on the Gulf Coast. Ramsey remained the organization’s president for the next twenty-six years; in 1962, the group changed its name to the Mississippi AFL-CIO. Ramsey worked tirelessly for black equality, the national Democratic Party, and labor unions in a state whose leaders reviled all three.
In 1961 the state council increased dues and passed a long-term eighteen-point legislative initiative, the Program of Progress, designed to increase the group’s political muscle. But Ramsey believed that given labor’s low membership in the state, the success of labor’s new legislative program depended more on black enfranchisement than anything the state council could do for itself. Consequently, the Mississippi AFL-CIO allied with civil rights groups in the 1960s—and paid dearly for doing so. Local unions and their members who supported segregation repudiated Mississippi AFL-CIO endorsements and disaffiliated from it. Membership fell from twenty-six thousand in 1960 to sixteen thousand in 1966. Less than 50 percent of the statewide AFL-CIO membership was affiliated with the Mississippi AFL-CIO. The state organization survived financially only because of subsidies it received from the national group.
As the turmoil over civil rights that rocked the state in the 1960s subsided, the Mississippi AFL-CIO regained its footing. Membership in the state federation increased from its nadir in the 1960s to about twenty-seven thousand in 2000. The building trades, which had always had a powerful voice within the state federation, were now joined by public employee unions as influential affiliates. In addition, the Mississippi AFL-CIO’s courageous stand on civil rights gave it credibility with emergent African American leaders. But electoral and legislative success continued to elude the state federation. Even though the Democratic Party no longer dominated state politics, antilabor conservatives remained in control, having switched to the state’s resurgent Republican Party. Moreover, the organizing environment has shown little improvement.
As of 2000, union density in Mississippi had declined to just 5.5 percent of the nonagricultural workforce, the fourth-lowest total among the states, and even many unionized workers were not members of the Mississippi AFL-CIO. More than half of the state’s AFL-CIO membership in the twenty-first century has remained unaffiliated with the state federation.
- Alan Draper, Conflict of Interests: Organized Labor and the Civil Rights Movement in the South, 1954–1968 (1994)
- Robert S. McElvaine, in Southern Workers and Their Unions, 1880–1975, ed. Merl E. Reed, Leslie S. Hough, and Gary M. Fink (1981)
- Donald C. Mosley, in A History of Mississippi, vol. 2, ed. Richard Aubrey McLemore (1973)