All in the Same Boat: Fighting for Capital in Gadsden, Alabama, 1900-Present

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2020

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Abstract

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.

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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.

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