Twenty years before the now-famous March on Washington, workers in Winston-Salem were fighting for their rights through Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers-Congress of Industrial Organizations (FTA-CIO).
Local 22 was an interracial union of workers and their supporters who demanded better treatment, wages and benefits from tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds. The actions of the courageous union will be commemorated on April 20, when a coalition of Occupy Winston-Salem members, local activists and community members will join together for the unveiling of a state marker denoting the 70th anniversary of the 1943 sit-down strike Local 22 members organized.
“We thought that’d be a great way to get some light shed on the history here, but also relate it to some current struggles,” Local 22 Marker Committee member Will Cox said of the historic marker. “There’s so many industries right now, there’s no real accountability. I think workers feel pretty much under attack, not just by the economy, but by big corporate interests. We want people to see there’s a way to do this, you just have to get organized.”
Cox, an x-ray technician and member of Occupy Winston-Salem, said the Local 22 accomplished things that few believed were possible in those days.
“It was a working class movement,” commented the longtime activist. “…Over 50 percent of the workers (involved) were black females, and the majority of the workers there were black, but the union was interracial, which during Jim Crow was pretty remarkable.”
As a former labor organizer and longtime community advocate, Linda Sutton said she has great respect for the organizers of the Local 22.
“We knew of it because it was the only time that I know of that the union was organized at R.J. Reynolds,” she said of Labor 22.“…People have tried since then to get organized, but it hasn’t come to fruition.”
Sutton, a field organizer for Democracy NC, said the era when the union was formed made its success doubly impressive.
“Back in those days, you had to be really brave to do something like that,” she declared. “In the ’40s – 20 years before Martin Luther King and the Voting Rights Act and all of that – that took a lot of nerve. It took a lot of stamina, and it took a lot of bravery for black women to stand up like that.”
Cox, an Appalachian State University alumnus, said the Local 22, which represented 10,000 of RJR’s 12,000 tobacco workers at the time, galvanized the struggle for equality in factory settings and political arenas statewide and served as the inspiration for countless other civil rights activities in the Twin City and beyond. Union members encouraged civil engagement, causing the local NAACP chapter’s membership to swell to the largest in the state, and helping to pave the way for the election of Kenneth R. Williams to the city’s Board of Aldermen.
State Sen. Earline Parmon says she owes her career in part to the legacy of Local 22 and the late Velma Hopkins, Parmon’s mentor and one of the union’s leaders. Hopkins’ political involvement expanded from the union to other social justice issues of the day, including voting rights and integration, Parmon said.
“She very much was a part of the changing fabric of this community, from civil rights to the labor movement – the whole gamut,” she related. “… She was very influential in many of the things that happened in the early days that changed the political landscape of Forsyth County.”
Parmon said Hopkins and other former Local 22 members paid dearly for their role in empowering the labor force.
“I heard them often talk about what it felt like to have their life threatened and to be labeled as communists,” she related. “Many people had to leave town and went to other places to live because it was unbearable what they went through … because of trying to start the union. She (Hopkins) often said she was black balled and labeled as a communist.”
Over the course of roughly seven years, Local 22 managed to secure $18 million in increased wages and benefits for tobacco workers, Cox said. The Local 22’s reign was ended by a 1950 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that stripped the union of its last rights to represent workers.
The effort to make the marker a part of the Winston-Salem landscape was greeted favorably, Cox reported. Among the organizations that lent their support to the effort was The Ministers Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity. Rev. Willard Bass, the organization’s president, said he and fellow members of CHANGE’s Clergy Caucus read “Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South,” a book by Robert Korstad that details Local 22’s work, several years ago.
“We learned a lot as a community by reading that book and saw how the community worked together to bring about positive change,” he said. “…It gave me hope that such a thing worked then and it can work again now.”
Upon learning the story of Local 22, Bass said Ministers Conference members jumped at the chance to support the creation of the historical marker, which will be unveiled in April amidst a series of activities commemorating the movement.
“This is something that we definitely wanted to endorse. There’s a lot of history there for our community, and we felt that it played a significant role in the way that corporations treat hourly workers, specifically RJR. I think it really helped shape their policy,” Bass said. “…It’s important that we continue to tell those stories so that our community as a whole can benefit from it.”
Organizers are currently recruiting former Local 22 members and relatives to take part in Local 22 commemorative festivities. For more information, contact Cox at 336-255-1515 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Sutton at 870-2168. For more information about the Local 22 movement, visit www.local22nc.com.