Unfolding the Map
We travel with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) through Uniontown and Demopolis, making for Mississippi. I will reflect on the ironies of the names of both places. If you would like to see where they are located, click the thumbnail of the map at right.
"Uniontown, Demopolis. The Tombigbee River and blue highway 28."
Blue Highways: Chapter 3, Part 6
Uniontown and Demopolis, Alabama
It's ironic that there is a town named Uniontown in Alabama, since Alabama is a so called "Right to Work" state. The name of Uniontown actually replaced the town's earlier name, Woodville, when a local planter suggested the change. So in that case, I'm guessing that the "union" in Uniontown stands for the United States, or our union.
But it's still ironic to me. What is a "right to work" state? Such a state, and there are 22 states with such laws, prohibit workers' unions from negotiating contracts with employers that mandate that employees join the union and pay union dues.
The whole question of unions and their value is a complicated one. Lately, as our country has taken a rightward course, unions are more often than not seen as problems. Employers see them as hassles to deal with, and as being bad for business because they negotiate higher wages, benefits and other types of conditions that cost money. As a more conservative voice is heard across America, unions have been feeling the effects. Union membership is down, partly because of the right to work laws in so many states. As membership is down, dues go down too, and union power in American politics has become weaker.
Not that unions haven't made their own problems. Corruption within unions used to be widespread, and in the heydey of unions, some of their activities bordered on the criminal, if they weren't already so. Unions had the power to not only influence but intimidate politicians. Some politicians knew that if they wanted to be re-elected, they had to do what the unions wanted.
What complicates the history of unions for me is that unions did great things for American workers. Union organizers, often at the risk of their lives, brought unionism into such industries as mining, autoworking, steel manufacturing and all the heavy labor industries. Strikes were common, and many of those strikes were deadly with police and private security using force to put them down. However, over time, those industries transformed, becoming safer, better paying and more efficient overall. With unions watching, exploitation of workers became a relic of the past. Unions were responsible for demanding that companies institute 8 hour workdays, health and retirement benefits, safe working conditions, and many of the things that workers today, whether supportive of unions or not, take for granted.
Arguments are made today that unions aren't needed, because we are more enlightened people. But capitalism is not about enlightenment, it's about profit. In the United States, where unions are restricted, there tends to be lower wages. Companies still often employ threatening tactics to keep unions from forming, such as firing workers (often for other stated reasons) for associating with union organizers. In foreign countries, particularly in the developing world, lack of unions or weak unions have meant that child labor, wages that don't meet subsistence needs, and extremely unsafe working conditions still exist. In Mexican maquiladora factories, women have claimed that in some factories they will be fired if pregnant, and have been required to show their used feminine pads to prove that they aren't pregnant. You would not see that in a factory that had been organized by an effective union.
When I was in high school, I saw unions as an impediment. I worked at our local lumber mill in the summer for a little over a $10.00 per hour wage. In 1982, that was a kingly wage for a high school kid. But I didn't appreciate that, nor did I appreciate the health benefits as I was a healthy young kid. All I knew was that I was required to join the International Woodworkers of America and that a portion of my check went to the union. That bothered me. Also, the union was threatening a strike that summer. I didn't like that, because I wouldn't be able to work, and I asked my father, who was management at the mill, what would stop me from working anyway. He forcefully told me no. Working would make me a "scab" and possibly put me in danger. Luckily, the strike never came. But I didn't appreciate, as I do now, some of the contributions that unions made so that my job there was so lucrative and safe.
I'm not saying you should or should not support unions, but in the argument over whether they should exist or not, I think that if one wants to join a union, they should be able to without fear of consequences. I also think that despite union missteps over the years, we should put their accomplishments in the proper historical context. They helped make America what it is today.
Demopolis, on the othe hand, brings to mind classical Greece. Another irony - it was founded as the "City of the People" by French expatriates from Haiti who were fleeing a slave rebellion there. So, a name that implies classical democracy and freedom was founded by people who were fleeing a rebellion that freed untold numbers of slaves and made them full citizens in a new republic! I'm not saying that Demopolis doesn't have other attributes that reflect the classical world, but I have to say I love these little ironies.
If you want to know more about Uniontown and Demopolis
Next up: Scooba, Mississippi