Labor Day remains important holiday in state
By By Steve Flowers
Alabama experienced the wrenching throes of the Great Depression like the rest of the nation. There were tragic stories of devastation that paralleled those illuminated in the classic novel, "The Grapes of Wrath." On the other hand, I have heard many old timers who lived during the Depression say we never knew there was a depression in Alabama. We were poor before the Depression so there was no marked difference to our standard of living. We had plenty to eat but heard of people jumping out of buildings in New York City committing suicide because they were millionaires one day and penniless the next.
These Depression era ramblings resonate pretty accurately because most Alabamians lived off the land. Most of our ancestors were farmers and most had modest farms where they grew all their staples and food. Therefore, the Depression probably did not change their standard of living. In fact, it could have helped them buy their Sunday suit and pair of shoes for the year at a reduced price.
The South was an agrarian region. There was very little industry in Alabama. Eight out of 10 Alabamians, black or white, made their living on the farm. Although they had enough to eat they were very poor compared to the rest of the nation. It was a hard life with very little discretionary income.
World War II brought America out of the Great Depression. The country had to become industrialized in a hurry to survive. Most of Alabama's young yeomen farmers were drafted or enlisted in the military. They saw the world and were exposed to a vast new world of glamour and opportunity they had never seen in their forty acres and a mule. They came home aspiring to more than their fathers had experienced. They wanted out of their poverty but they also loved their native Alabama roots. The best of both worlds was about to occur. Industry came to Alabama.
The post World War II economy expanded into the heart of Dixie. The discovery of iron ore in Birmingham made it the Pittsburgh of the South. The Magic City became one of the south's largest cities overnight. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal programs transformed the Tennessee Valley from an impoverished Appalachian region to a vibrant industrial area that would later attract Werner Von Braun and the Redstone Arsenal. The northern part of Alabama became the largest population base in the state due to this industrial expansion. Today it is still home to the majority of Alabamians.
A new generation of post war Alabamians moved from the farm to the factory. They also went a stage further than the rest of the south. They all joined labor unions. Alabama became the most unionized state in the south.
Every major industry in Alabama was served by a unionized workforce. The steel mills of Birmingham were Alabama's largest employers. The steel workers' union ruled supreme. The state docks in Mobile boomed with the economic expansion. The dock workers were all unionized. The explosion of new automobiles desired by Americans created the need for tires. Tire makers looked to Alabama and built major plants here. B.F. Goodrich landed in Tuscaloosa. Goodyear settled in Gadsden and Opelika. These tire plants became the largest employers in these three cities. They were all unionized by the Rubberworkers Union. The paper mills in Tuscaloosa were unionized. Reynolds Aluminum built their largest plant in the world in Sheffield. It became the premier employer in the Tri-Cities. The workers were all union. The massive Tennessee Valley Authority, which harnessed the vast natural water of the Tennessee Valley, gave employment to an array of north Alabamians. These TVA workers were all members of a union.
The Black Belt planters were like ostriches with their heads buried in the sand when they wrote Big Jim Folsom off as a buffoon in the 1946 Governor's Race. They dismissed the fact that Big Jim had won the overwhelming endorsement of the AFL-CIO. However, they quickly realized that their Alabama had changed when Big Jim crushed their candidate in the Democratic Primary which was tantamount to election. Big Jim became Governor of Alabama because of the endorsement of organized labor.
The American and world economy has changed in the past 70 years to where labor endorsements and dominance has diminished. However, as we approach Labor Day in Alabama it is still an important organization in our state
Happy Labor Day.
Steve Flowers is Alabama's leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 70 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the State Legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.