In May 1946 the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) launched Operation Dixie, a unionization drive in the American South. Under the leadership of the CIO Southern Organizing Committee, Operation Dixie was an interracial campaign to increase labor’s power in the region and close the southern wage differential. Although the campaign achieved some success and continued until 1953, it failed to affect a significant portion of the southern workforce. Historians attribute this failure to the Red Scare, the Taft-Hartley Act, and deep-seated regional racism. In spite of those difficulties, the CIO made substantive efforts throughout Mississippi. Robert Starnes, a native of Hazlehurst and a graduate of Mississippi College, was the statewide CIO director and led the campaign from Jackson. Knox Walker served as his assistant.
Starnes and Walker achieved their greatest success at the Laurel-based Masonite Corporation. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) represented the workforce, but the union contract was set to expire in June 1946, and new elections were called for 27 June. The AFL, CIO, and an independent union formed by Dick Goff competed for the workers’ support. On 22 June, in the midst of the competition, the AFL called a strike, a move that CIO organizers charged was intended to win workers’ allegiance rather than economic gains. Whatever the strike’s motivations, the CIO won the election, receiving 812 votes to 637 for the AFL and 92 for Goff’s union. With this victory, the CIO began to negotiate a new contract while the strike continued. The strike did not end until 12 August, after workers signed a new contract. The success at the Masonite Plant enabled the CIO to unionize eleven other plants in Laurel over the next two years.
A second CIO effort took place at the Stonewall Cotton Mills, where, as at Masonite, the AFL contract was about to expire. New elections were set for May 1947, and the CIO claimed that the AFL had colluded with the mill to limit workers’ wages and benefits and that the CIO could bring better pay, safer working conditions, and improvements in the mill village. However, this election went to the AFL, which received 272 votes to 244 for the CIO and 96 for “no union.” The CIO claimed that the election results were inconclusive, called for a runoff, and appealed to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB approved a runoff, which the CIO won 261–109. The company protested that the second round of elections had been “illegally ordered and held” and demanded another vote. During an NLRB investigation into the company’s claims, North Carolina’s Erwin Cotton Mill Company purchased the Stonewall Mills. The NLRB rejected the protest, but the new owners refused to recognize the CIO since the election occurred prior to their acquisition of the company. A court rejected this claim, and the CIO began negotiations on a new contract.
The CIO made similar efforts to help the state’s large agricultural workforce. The Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers of America, a CIO-affiliated union, created organizing committees in each Delta county and staged a successful strike against the Buckeye Cotton Seed Oil Plant in Corinth. The International Woodworkers of America, another CIO-affiliated union, added 3,887 new members in Mississippi in the late 1940s, the largest increase in the lumber-producing South.
But some CIO efforts garnered less success. In September 1946 the union attempted to win over the workers at the AFL-affiliated Grenada Industrial Company. The local press opposed the CIO and claimed it was communist, while locals attacked union organizers. The CIO denied the charge of communism and defended its right to organize but nevertheless lost the election, 297-122. The AFL continued to represent the workers.
Despite this and other failures, CIO organizers in Mississippi made among the largest relative gains of any organizers in the South. According to Van Bittner, national director of Operation Dixie, the CIO achieved more success in Mississippi than in any other southern state. The union participated in approximately ninety elections between June 1946 and January 1949, winning fifty-seven, losing twenty-five, and withdrawing from eight. Those achievements, however, were not enough to overcome the regional difficulties, and the CIO discontinued Operation Dixie in Mississippi by the end of 1949.
- Barbara Griffith, The Crisis of American Labor: Operation Dixie and the Defeat of the CIO (1988)
- Michael Honey, Mississippi Quarterly (Winter 1991–Fall 1992)
- Michael Honey, Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights (1993); F. Ray Marshall, Labor in the South (1967)
- Eugene Roper, “CIO Organizing Committee in Mississippi, June, 1946–January, 1949” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 1949)