All in the Same Boat: Fighting for Capital in Gadsden, Alabama, 1900-Present
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Following World War II, in the estimate of the Congress of Industrial
Organizations (CIO), one out of every six people in the city of Gadsden, Alabama
belonged to the union, making it the “best organized CIO city in the US.” At
midcentury, as most southern communities were growing more antiunion and more
conservative, workers in this city of 60,000 in northeastern Alabama insisted that they
had the same interests as union workers elsewhere and looked to a liberal Democratic
Party and robust federal government to bolster them. In the late 2010s, little evidence
remains that Gadsden and Etowah County were once so different from the rest of the
South. White people here often vote for Republicans. Unions have all but vanished. Development officials openly brag that 94 percent of
industry in the county operates unorganized.
A visitor to Gadsden today might find it hard to believe that the community was
once perhaps the most pro-CIO city the world has ever known. Yet those who came to
study Gadsden in the late 1940s and early 1950s, to see it as a union town, like the
famous American author John Dos Passos, had to reckon with a transformation even
more difficult to conceive: just a few years before their arrival, the city was perhaps the
most anti-CIO town in the country. In the mid-to-late 1930s, it was dangerous to give
even tacit support to the federation. On more than one occasion, workers joined with
police and civic leaders to literally run organizers out of Alabama. But this antiunionism
represented even yet another sea change: in the late 1910s and early 1920s, Gadsden had
also been something like a union town.
The purpose of this dissertation is to use Gadsden as a case study to come to
terms with the historical forces that have turned its feeling about unions upside down
and inside out. When the residents of Gadsden changed their minds
about unionism, for the most part, they did so as a community. This consensus was not
the result of shared values; neither was it compelled by the dominance of local elites. It
was, to the contrary, an outcome of Gadsden’s relationship to the out-of-town capitalists
who sustained it. For all but a few exceptional years in the twentieth century (when
Gadsden could be a union town), residents here have had to fight for capital against
people from communities like their own. In both of the cases in which this working class
city has forsaken unionism, it was because, and only because, that was what American capitalism demanded of it.
Wood, Brad (2020). All in the Same Boat: Fighting for Capital in Gadsden, Alabama, 1900-Present. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/20935.
Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.