The Story Of Mine Mill Reporter Julia Simon tells us about a radical miners' union in Birmingham, Alabama. It laid the foundation for civil rights organizers in the South, and holds lessons for the future of labor.
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The Story Of Mine Mill

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The Story Of Mine Mill

The Story Of Mine Mill

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

What's good, y'all? This is Gene. And it's that time of the year again, the time of the year when you're thinking about giving, you know, getting something nice for your moms or your uncle or your little ones or for bae. Aw, aren't you so sweet? Well, since you're in that spirit, right now, of giving, consider this a little nudge to give to your local public radio station. If you rock with us at CODE SWITCH, you know how often we turn to the tweets you send us, and we turn them into whole segments. You know how often we respond directly to the emails that you send our way.

The concerns you have, the questions you want answered, that's all the stuff we want to know, too. That's part of the mission of public radio. It's in the DNA of it - thoughtful, community-oriented journalism. So when you support your local public radio member station, it goes a long, long way to making our podcast, and other podcasts like it, possible. And those member stations can only do what they do because they are supported by listeners just like you. So keep showing your support for your local member stations. Go to donate.npr.org/codeswitch and give. That's donate.npr.org/codeswitch. All right, y'all, on with the show.

Just a note, this episode contains language that some people may find offensive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby. Today, we're joined by reporter Julia Simon.

MERAJI: And not too long ago, Julia was in Birmingham, Ala., with us, and she took us up a mountain covered in red dirt called Red Mountain.

DEMBY: Activate them glutes and quads - all cicada everything.

MERAJI: And a little boy just went ziplining over our head in the tree canopy. That was amazing.

DEMBY: That was crazy.

MERAJI: So, Julia, why did you bring us here?

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Is this all fun and games?

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: We're here because of this red stuff, because of the iron ore. And it's not just iron ore. In this area, you have dolomite, you have limestone, you have coal. These are all the materials you need to make steel. So a hundred years ago, you don't just have that. You have all this cheap labor from the nearby farming communities.

DEMBY: I feel like this is about to get really morbid and dark, and it's about to be - have something to do with the cheap labor we were just talking about.

SIMON: It's going to get a little dark. Red Mountain - it's the middle of Jim Crow. These woods were covered with iron ore mines and miners, who were, for a moment, in a radical union - a union that, because of the steel industry and its allies, did not last.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: On this episode, were going to tell a story about what happened on this mountain in Birmingham, Ala.

DEMBY: It's the story of an interracial union in the South that emerged against all odds and went up against a powerful industry headquartered in the north. And this union would change Birmingham and America as we know it.

MERAJI: We're going to turn the show over to Julia Simon, who brings us the story of Mine Mill.

SIMON: This story of Mine Mill carries all the way to today. But we got to start at the turn of the last century. The biggest steel company around in Birmingham was Tennessee Coal and Iron, TCI.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: In 1907, middle of the banking crisis, U.S. Steel, this huge steel conglomerate from Pittsburgh, they buy TCI. TCI later becomes a subsidiary of U.S. Steel. Flash-forward, 19-teens, World War I is ramping up, America needs steel, and they need that Birmingham iron ore to make it. Those Birmingham iron ore miners? Living in workers villages.

ROBIN D G KELLEY: That's a euphemism for, basically, ghettoized company towns.

SIMON: Robin D.G. Kelley, professor of history at UCLA.

KELLEY: You know, 80 percent of the iron ore miners were black.

SIMON: These workers saw labor movements happening all around them, including this union out west. It had a lot of social justice ideas, and it was called the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers - Mine Mill.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: In 1918, the Birmingham workers get Mine Mill to come on down, help them organize. Among the organizers, a black man, Ulysses Hale; a white man, Edward Crough. The steel employers - not happy. A company-aligned vigilante group kidnapped both of the men, beat them up. They let Crough go, but they tarred and feathered Hale and told him to get out of town. Next time, they said, it will be a necktie affair. Brian Kelly is a historian at Queen's University in Belfast. He says the vigilante group formed by the steel employers, it didn't just go away.

BRIAN KELLY: The vigilantes become the basis of the Jefferson County Ku Klux Klan.

SIMON: So the TCI and U.S. Steel creates this vigilante group that then becomes the Jefferson County KKK.

KELLY: Correct. But yeah, the Klan has its origins, really, in the attempt by the employers to break up the union.

SIMON: So with the KKK around in the '20s, Birmingham unions are quiet. Organizing is under attack all over the country. It's a good time to be The Great Gatsby, a bad time to be a union organizer. But after the stock market crash in the 1930s, there's labor unrest, Roosevelt, the New Deal. It's a new day for unions, and in 1933, a group of Birmingham iron ore miners say, we're going to give Mine Mill a try again. Here's Robin D.G. Kelley.

KELLEY: Pushing forward a kind of democratic vision, not just for workers but for all of Southern society and the nation, and that's what made them dangerous.

SIMON: The early '30s - Jim Crow, the KKK's still around, TCI has spies everywhere, as do the other steel employers - Sloss-Sheffield, Republic Steel. So these Mine Millers, they were secretive.

KELLEY: Because of the presence of black workers, the location for a lot of the union activities happened to be in black communities and black churches.

SIMON: Do you write that they also met in the woods, too?

KELLEY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, yeah. The woods, that's a great place to meet.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLEY: It goes back to slavery.

SIMON: These black and white miners met in stealth mode, up in the woods, up on Red Mountain, and they set forth this egalitarian agenda.

HORACE HUNTLEY: That union designated in their charter that the officials of the union would be split between black workers and white workers.

SIMON: This is historian Horace Huntley. He said if the president was white, the vice president would be black. And sometimes...

HUNTLEY: So if the president was black, the vice president would be white.

SIMON: Black president, white vice president? In Jim Crow Alabama, and in most of America at this time, this was not done. The steel employers were looking at this egalitarian union, and they were losing it.

HUNTLEY: If black and white workers organize together, then they become unified, and the company cannot divide them from each other.

SIMON: So they were really mad (laughter). The company was super mad because...

HUNTLEY: Oh, absolutely. And they were, basically, attempting to control the lives of these men, and usually race worked very well for them. So therefore, it becomes problematic if the white status quo is not able to keep that wedge between those black workers and white workers.

SIMON: The anti-Mine Mill propaganda began. As Brian Kelly and Robin D.G. Kelley write, TCI and U.S. Steel didn't just have spies in the Klan. They had black ministers on their payroll, preaching sermons where the takeaway for congregants was, don't join Mine Mill. TCI bought off some black newspapers. And there was the red-baiting. There were communists in Mine Mill, but these Mine Mill guys weren't these Soviet agitators, as the steel employers were suggesting. Robin D.G. Kelley says the red-baiting from the employers was part of a bigger propaganda strategy.

KELLEY: Because, you know, when the elites talk about social equality as a threat, social equality doesn't simply mean equal wages, equal working conditions. It means that black men are going to sleep with white women. And that was the thing that incensed white people across class lines, and they knew it was like a trigger. I mean, Mine Mill was deemed the union of communists and nigger lovers. So to be white in Mine Mill was to be a nigger lover, basically.

SIMON: And scaring away white people from Mine Mill, for the company TCI, this also had to do with the fact that they had their own union called The Brotherhood of Captive Miners. The Mine Millers called them The Popsicle Union because the company gave them popsicles at meetings. So you have this competition. Mine Mill's organizing, trying to become the official union, and TCI, the company, wants their guys, the Popsicle guys, to be the official union.

KELLEY: So The Brotherhood of Captive Miners increasingly became something of an arm of the company.

SIMON: Mine Mill had these strikes, trying to get recognition, in 1934 and again in '36. On the mountain we were on, Red Mountain, it was a battlefield. People were hiding underground in the mines from the gunfire.

KELLEY: A lot of violence erupted between striking miners and all of the deputies in the private security forces, as well as members of - guess what - The Brotherhood of Captive Miners.

SIMON: TCI fired more than 150 strikers. Things did not look good for the Mine Millers. But then the union got help from above - from the federal government. In '35, the Roosevelt administration passed the Wagner Act, created the National Labor Relations Board. So the Mine Millers, they have all these issues with TCI. They petition this board in '38, they get their decision, and the board decided to force TCI to hire back the miners and give Mine Mill a collective bargaining agreement.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And so this radical interracial union, in the middle of Jim Crow, became the official union. At their height, they have 5,000 black and white miners in the union. And they get higher pay, better working conditions. Horace Huntley, the historian, his dad and granddad were in Mine Mill, and as a kid in the '40s, he would go to this barbershop near the mines.

HUNTLEY: And I remember, old men always coming in. They would always be talking about activities that had taken place in the mines and all, but I didn't understand any of that jargon. But it was exciting, and it was something that I could relate to, even as a child.

SIMON: Mine Mill was getting black people thinking differently about race. And those black miners were getting white miners thinking differently, too. When Horace interviewed old Mine Millers for his Ph.D. thesis, he went to their houses, including Phil Tindle, a white Mine Mill organizer. Here's Horace again.

HUNTLEY: He lived in the iron ore mining camp. He and other white miners, such as Phil, they were different kinds of people, you know. They didn't hold one to a position based upon their color. And that was unusual for Alabamians in the 1930s, '40s, '50s and '60s and, to some degree, even today.

SIMON: But the Mine Mill way of treating folks, it would not stand. A group of forces came together to take down Mine Mill, and they started from the inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: When the National Labor Relations Board helped make Mine Mill the official union, as Horace says, a lot of those white Captive Miners, those Popsicle guys, had not been super excited about joining Mine Mill.

HUNTLEY: And, of course, one of the main issues of Mine Mill was equity injustice within the society, and they were in total opposition to that. But they still came into Mine Mill with this idea that they could take Mine Mill and make it something that it was not.

SIMON: So they came in, and was the company like, ha-ha, like, we have our insiders now?

HUNTLEY: Right. But, see, you still have a predominantly black workforce.

SIMON: But the company, TCI, had a plan to change that. First, they opened this facility in a place called Wenonah.

HUNTLEY: And there were 400 workers there. All of those workers were hired, and all of them were white workers.

SIMON: In 1938, Mine Mill was 80 percent black. By 1948, over 50 percent white.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELSIE CULPEPPER: They hired those men to kill Mine Mill.

SIMON: That's the voice of an actual Mine Miller named Elsie Culpepper. It's from a University of Alabama-Birmingham Media Studies Department video of him. He passed away five years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CULPEPPER: It was so designed that there were never too many whites that worked in the mines. They hired all those white men, and they killed Mine Mill.

SIMON: We reached out to U.S. Steel, which owned TCI and was the largest employer of iron ore workers in Birmingham at the time. TCI is not around anymore. U.S. Steel's PR department responded that they did not have access to the historical data and were not in a position to comment. But they added that U.S. Steel's code of ethical business conduct stresses the company's commitment to treating others with dignity and respect, conducting themselves without regard to race, color, religion, et cetera.

We should note here, it wasn't just U.S. Steel-TCI that killed Mine Mill. It was also Washington. That red-baiting didn't go away. After World War II, the late '40s were very anticommunist. In '47, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act that, among other things, prohibited labor leaders from being in the Communist Party. Everybody had to sign this loyalty oath, saying that they weren't in the Communist Party, and Mine Mill didn't sign. And the Congress of Industrial Organizations, they kicked them out. This was bad for Mine Mill. They didn't have funds. They could no longer appeal to the National Labor Relations Board. They were on their own.

So around this time, 1949, back in Birmingham, there was an election to decide which union would represent the iron ore miners. Would they stick with Mine Mill or get folded into a bigger union - the Steelworkers, USWA? Remember, at the time of the vote, the union was now majority white, and that local KKK that grew out of steel employer-sponsored vigilante groups, it was still around. The night before the vote, about 100 Klansmen rode by the Mine Mill office, waving torches, sounding horns. Here's Horace Huntley.

HUNTLEY: USWA were infiltrated by Klans members. They were totally anti-egalitarian. They were committed to seeing that Mine Mill not succeed any further on the mountain.

SIMON: On Red Mountain?

HUNTLEY: On Red Mountain.

SIMON: The next day there was a vote. You may guess what happened, but here's the late Elsie Culpepper.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CULPEPPER: They voted to have U.S. Steel. They voted out Mine Mill.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Mine Mill became the USWA, but the Mine Mill spirit did not disappear.

DEMBY: More after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. And we're back with the story of Mine Mill. Here's reporter Julia Simon.

SIMON: So to recap, after U.S. Steel, TCI's machinations, the Klansmen in the USWA, plus the red-baiting in Washington, Mine Mill is basically squashed. But that's not the end of the story. In the '70s, Horace Huntley, the historian - he was a grad student - he's interviewing all of these Mine Millers for his thesis. And this guy said something to him.

HUNTLEY: I remember one old man. He was the president of the union. And he told me - he was about 5-foot-5, but he had a voice like King Kong. And he told me, he says, son, let me tell you. If not for Mine Mill, Martin Luther King could not have come to Birmingham.

SIMON: Horace is like, whoa.

HUNTLEY: And when he made the statement, I sort of questioned it. But after I did research, I found out that what he was talking about was organization. Mine Mill laid foundation for the movement that would eventually evolve in this part of the world.

SIMON: And if you look into the biographies of so many of these Birmingham civil rights leaders, you see. Fred Shuttlesworth, his stepfather was an iron ore miner. He grew up in the mining district. And the mining district, the Mine Mill area, for decades before the civil rights movement, it had already been abuzz with ideas about social justice. That's the excitement that Horace felt as a kid in the barbershop. It was Mine Mill.

HUNTLEY: It then would make it possible for black people to change their perspective on how they would deal with the question of race and racism.

SIMON: OK. So it was really - it wasn't necessarily about, like, skills for writing, you know, pamphlets. It was more about a way of thinking.

HUNTLEY: A way of living. Looked at Mine Mill as being a total way of life because of the equity and justice that they exuded. So no, it was not like they were being trained for organizing, but being trained for life.

SIMON: But Mine Mill itself, it had become the United Steelworkers, the same union with the Klansmen tooting their horns before the Mine Mill vote. To talk about what happened with that union, I met Judge U.W. Clemon. Judge Clemon's an attorney, a former state senator, the first black federal judge in Alabama. His dad was in the United Steelworkers union, grew up in Birmingham.

U W CLEMON: In a town that was owned by U.S. Steel, the company town.

SIMON: When Judge Clemon was an attorney in the '70s, his law firm was part of a big lawsuit brought by black workers against Birmingham U.S. Steel plants. And Judge Clemon's dad's union, the United Steelworkers, was brought in, too. Turns out, the steelworkers, there were some issues with racist job structures.

CLEMON: And since the union representatives were largely white, they could pretty much negotiate whatever kind of contract they wished to the advantage of their white members so long as it was not open and notorious.

SIMON: It all did become open - the racially separated seniority system, the fact that union grievance committees weren't always taking discrimination grievances seriously. That lawsuit from Judge Clemon's firm, it led to a 1973-1974 federal consent decree that affected the entire American steel industry. That consent decree created a more transparent hiring and promotion system that the industry uses to this day.

To meet the United Steelworkers today, I headed to the old Birmingham Coke factory. It's like a kind - like, what you'd imagine. Like, a cartoon smokestack going up into the blue sky.

DANIEL FLIPPO: What that is, is actually, it's called ABC Coke.

SIMON: OK.

FLIPPO: And they take coal, and then they process the coal to produce a product that is called coke. Then it's put into the furnace...

SIMON: I'm talking to Daniel Flippo, director of the United Steelworkers District Nine, covers all the Southeast U.S. plus the Virgin Islands. Daniel's brought me here, not for the coke factory but for the cafeteria down the road. We go inside.

Thank you. We've got our yellow trays.

All wooden booths, photos of old steel furnaces on the walls. We sit in a booth. Daniel insisted I put pepper sauce in my greens.

FLIPPO: Drink it up a little bit.

SIMON: No. I don't want to drink - it's so perfect.

Even though they are delicious as they were...

OK. A tiny bit. They're bright green peppers in this...

FLIPPO: Just taste that, what you've got on there...

SIMON: OK. Let's see.

FLIPPO: ...And if you don't want any more, that's fine.

SIMON: OK. Let's see.

Around us, patrons, mainly white, but a few white and black guys sitting together. We're looking at some of the last Birmingham steelworkers since the rise of automation in the early '80s.

FLIPPO: Well, here in Birmingham, the steel mill - in the day, you would have 10, 15, 20,000 people working in a steel mill. Right now in the valley, not 600.

SIMON: But while over the past few decades the steel mills have shrunk, the steelworkers' union has absorbed all kinds of other unions.

FLIPPO: In my district, I have 55 primary paper mills, about 22, 23 different nursing homes. And as far as race, runs about 35, 38 percent African-American.

SIMON: So then what does that mean that your leadership is reflective?

FLIPPO: Not yet. We're still working to get to that point. But we do have the thought process.

SIMON: Yeah. You know, I hear thought process and I feel like some people might hear that and roll their eyes. You know?

FLIPPO: (Inaudible).

SIMON: That was off mic, but Daniel just said, I don't blame them. He suggested I call Pittsburgh.

FRED REDMOND: Yeah. My name is Fred Redmond. I'm the international vice president of human affairs for the United Steelworkers union.

SIMON: Fred is on the Steelworkers executive board with Daniel. Out of 20, they have one woman, two Latinos. He's the only African-American. Fred says when it comes to the union and race, you can't let them off the hook. Remember, this is a union with a history of having KKK members. Fred says, over the years, it's been hard to fight that culture, especially in leadership.

REDMOND: Our union was predominantly white male. OK? They believed in the God bless the Confederacy, you know, and all that shit. Excuse my language. OK?

SIMON: That's OK.

But Mine Mill, he says, even if they weren't around in name, those Birmingham miners had an influence, especially on something called the Ad Hoc Committee for Black Steelworkers, which pushed for that anti-discriminatory consent decree in the '70s.

REDMOND: I think they were light-years ahead of the progressive thinking of the union leaders during that period of history. They were just a little bit above their time. You know?

SIMON: Well, if you think the Mine Millers of the '30s you could see what you guys were doing today, what do you think they would say?

REDMOND: Probably that we're not doing enough. I think that they would question some of the political decisions that we have made. I think we blew an opportunity to really embrace the Occupy Wall Street movement. You know, we, I think, haven't done enough to speak out on issues such as immigration. If the Mine Mill workers was alive today, I think they would encourage us to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement. And there's a discussion right now about the future of work, the so-called gig economy. And I think if the Mine Mill workers had a voice today, they would be encouraging us board to continue to build a union that reflects the dynamics of society. You know?

SIMON: As the steelworkers think about unions and the future of work, Fred says Mine Mill can teach them how to focus on the real priorities for labor and the real enemies of labor.

REDMOND: And it's not immigrants and it's not blacks, but it's the economic system that just don't work for workers. The role of a union is to be part of a larger movement towards social and economic justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Fred says, now as they rebuild the movement, they're looking back to those guys on Red Mountain.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: That's our show. And there's so many people to thank for this one. Special thanks to Rib Williamson (ph), Robert Woodrum (ph), Daniel Letwin (ph), Joe McCartan (ph), Colin Davies (ph), Howard Scott (ph), Henry McKiven (ph), Alan Draper (ph), Katie Bradford (ph), T.C. Macklemore (ph), Rick Youngblood (ph), Darryl Dewberry (ph), Jim Baggott (ph). And the biggest thanks to Edward Scott (ph).

DEMBY: Please follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. Naturally, we want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. You can always send your burning questions about race with the subject line, ask CODE SWITCH. Sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/codeswitch, and subscribe to the podcast over at NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

This episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan and Sami Yenigun.

MERAJI: It was edited by Sami Yenigun and Steve Drummond.

DEMBY: And shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam, Maria Paz Gutierrez - I don't know if I'm going to get that accent right.

MERAJI: Better.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Kat Chow, Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates, Leah Donnella and Adrian Florido. Mayowa Aina is our Kroc Fellow. Our intern is Andrea Henderson. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Peace, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Hey, y'all. This is just a reminder to donate. To keep showing your support for your local member station, go to donate.npr.org/codeswitch and give. That's donate.npr.org/codeswitch.

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