Tobacco Unionism historical marker

Tobacco Unionism (J-115)

Strike by leaf workers, mostly black & female, June 17, 1943, 1/2 mile W., led to seven years of labor & civil rights activism by Local 22.

Location: Martin Luther King Jr. Drive at Fourth Street in Winston-Salem
County: Forsyth
Original Date Cast: 2012

The 1940s were a fertile period for labor organizing in the tobacco industry, inspiring a movement for workplace democracy that fed directly into the nascent civil rights movement. African Americans in the Winston-Salem tobacco industry formed the United Tobacco Workers Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Works of America—Congress on Industrial Organizations. Their allies included a few hundred white workers in those factories, much of the rest of the black population in the city, and an assortment of activists from around the state and nation.

The labor organizing began with a grassroots sit-down strike on June 17, 1943, in Plant #65 of the R. J. Reynolds Company, then the largest tobacco manufacturing facility in the world. The factory was on Chestnut Street between First and Third Streets. The workers were primarily African American women who did the stemming of the leaves. Over the next seven years, Local 22 and the Winston-Salem workers played leadership roles in the union-based movement. The movement forwarded the “Southern Front,” a loose coalition of labor unionists, civil rights activists, and southern New Dealers who saw a strong labor movement and the re-enfranchisement of the southern poor as key to reforming the South.

Local 22 drew strategically on ideas and resources from all streams of activism. In the end, the movement in Winston-Salem, like the national movements of which it was part, foundered during the Cold War era. The last collective bargaining agreement was reached on June 7, 1947. Organizers supported the presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace in 1948. In 1950 a National Labor Relations Board ruling stripped the union of its last rights to represent workers.

Robert Rodgers Korstad, Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth Century South (2003)

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