Excerpted From: Kathy Rong Zhou, The Last Black Tobacco Union: Local 208, Segregated Seniority, and the Integrating South, 73 Duke Law Journal 209 (October, 2023) (360 Footnotes) (Full Document)


KathyRongZhouThe last tobacco manufacturer in Durham, North Carolina, was also the site of its last Black tobacco union. Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company (“L&M”) had existed in downtown Durham in some form since 1884. The city was a force of the segregated tobacco trade that emerged after the Civil War. Union soldiers--and soon, the country--had developed a seemingly unquenchable taste for the South's bright leaf tobacco. To meet this demand, manufacturers like L&M kept operations efficient and proper. Every tobacco worker had their place. White men operated the machines that had so revolutionized the cigarette industry. White women donned tidy uniforms to work in the cigarette department, where they inspected cigarettes and prepared packs for sale. Meanwhile, Black men and women “were put on occupational ladders that led nowhere.” They were paid less and fired more. They worked where they were allowed, which was mostly in the leaf department. Black men furnished the heavy labor, and Black women provided the hand labor.

These worker hierarchies were vestiges of slavery. Companies' segregated labor practices--their systems for hiring, firing, promotions, wages, and seniority-- embodied, and were founded on, past discrimination. When the labor movement collided with Southern tobacco in the 1930s, Black and white tobacco workers mobilized into segregated unions. They were effective. The ensuing era saw major labor reforms, Durham's desegregation, and the election of L&M workers to Durham city government and to the national tobacco union. But L&M would not eliminate its most oppressive policy: its segregated system for worker seniority. White workers had access to twenty job classifications, but Black workers could access only five--those positions with the least pay and security. Among other effects, this system ensured that Black workers would always be laid off before white workers. It would take one Black union, Local 208, three decades of organizing before L&M finally addressed this practice.

The start-to-finish history of Local 208 embodies the post-Civil War, pre-Civil Rights Act era of Black Southern tobacco labor. Local 208's fight spanned executive orders, a federal lawsuit, and a mediated settlement. During this time, the federal government increasingly pressured Southern industry and labor to desegregate, which resulted in the fast absorption--and erasure--of Black unions by their white counterparts. Steadfast, Local 208 refused to lose its organizational base from which to fight. Merging with the white local would leave Black workers outnumbered, effectively eliminating Black workers' rights to bargain, contact union officials, and make appeals to government agencies. Thus, until L&M adopted a more equitable seniority system, Local 208 would not merge.

A few historians and student theses discuss Local 208: Dolores E. Janiewski in presenting the gendered and racialized Southern tobacco hierarchy; Stuart Bruce Kaufman in assembling a retrospective of the Tobacco Workers International Union (“TWIU”); Beverly Jones and Claudia Egelhoff in compiling workers' oral histories; Jean M. Cary in interviewing former Local 208 members; and Marion Elmira Dries in delving into the TWIU International archives.

The story of Local 208, here, illustrates the effect of segregated seniority systems and the fraught impact of federal desegregation initiatives. And it underscores the need for legal remedies that can reckon for past discrimination: Local 208 knew that integration, alone, would not restore to Black workers their lost jobs, wages, or seniority. This chronological history of Local 208 spans the origins of segregated unions in Southern tobacco; union successes upon federal protections for organized labor; Local 208's long fight for seniority rights; and, finally, its aftermath.

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During and after Local 208's forced merger, a series of lawsuits broadened Black workers' access to remedies under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discriminatory employment practices. In Quarles v. Philip Morris, Inc., a Virginia court struck down a tobacco plant's seniority system because “Congress did not intend to freeze an entire generation of Negro employees into discriminatory patterns that existed before the act.” This “rightful place theory” allowed workers to sue to be placed into the seniority that they would have had, were it not for past discrimination. Two years after, Dorothy Robinson, a Black tobacco worker at Lorillard Tobacco Company in Greensboro, North Carolina, won a suit for seniority rights. The “departmental seniority system which limited, segregated and classified Negro employees in lowest paid departments so as to deprive them or tend to deprive them of employment opportunities and adversely affect their status as employees, because of their race,” violated the Civil Rights Act. The court required plant-wide seniority and ordered backpay for all affected Black Lorillard workers. In “one of the most important cases won by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the early post-Civil Rights Act era,” the Fourth Circuit upheld the ruling, “acknowledging the connection between past discrimination and present effects.”

These landmark decisions came too late for Local 208. Local 208's was the largest resistance to the forced mergers of Black and white TWIU unions. After Locals 208 and 176 finally merged, the TWIU lauded itself for “mov[ing] quickly and unambiguously to take the federal government's civil rights program at its word and to reverse deeply divisive racial traditions in the International.”

But immediately after the forced merger in 1968, Black membership in the integrated Local 176 dwindled. At least one former Local 208 official resigned from the union because he “did not think the white-dominated union was properly representing black workers.” Black members were “almost completely powerless in the white union”: out of nine elected Local 176 Committee members, only one was Black. Janiewski argues that in desegregated factories like L&M, “racial and sexual segregation continued in force.” Although federal reforms “equalised ... opportunities at the entry-level [,] ... better jobs remained in the hands of middle-aged white workers.” Both within and beyond factory walls, white men and women still resisted any changes that diminished the gap between Black and white: “one retired worker refused to return to visit the factory because too many blacks worked in her old department.”

By the late 1960s, tobacco manufacturers were facing a war on tobacco. In 1986, L&M shut down a great deal of its tobacco production, “retiring or firing hundreds of Durham employees.” What remained of L&M--Durham's last tobacco manufacturer--moved its factory operations to Mebane, North Carolina, in 1999.

The decline in tobacco also precipitated the decline of tobacco unionization: in 1979, the TWIU underwent its own merger with the Bakery and Confectionery Union.

To woo white workers, the TWIU embedded the South's racial hierarchy into its collective bargaining. As NAACP Labor Director Herbert Hill noted, “labor organizations [had] become the institutional defenders of white male workers' job expectations, expectations which ... are based in large part upon the systematic deprivation of black workers.”

Having a dedicated Black union allowed Local 208 to mobilize and make labor, political, and civil rights gains. But these gains could not transcend the discriminatory origins of the tobacco-plant hierarchies nor white workers' staunch refusal to broaden access to Black workers. Federal initiatives enacted to combat industry discrimination often exacerbated Black workers' plight. Federal agencies offered oversimplified solutions that overlooked the effect of past discrimination. Integration, alone, would not restore jobs to Black workers laid off after automation. It would not restore wages to Black workers who chose to take pay cuts and climb the white occupational ladder. And it would not restore seniority to Black unionists forced to merge with their white counterparts.

Local 208 was the last of any Black TWIU local to merge. Without plant-wide seniority, merging with Local 176 would have left Local 208 members at the whims of a white, segregationist leadership. Local 208 fought for years because it understood that plant-wide seniority was its only chance to overcome the absolute bar on Black workers' future advancement. Although its long struggle culminated in a faltering merger, Local 208 finally attained true, plant-wide seniority. Its story elucidates the need for legal remedies, embodied in the Title VII litigation soon to follow, that could reckon with past discrimination and its lasting effects.

Duke University School of Law, J.D. expected 2024; Duke University, B.A. 2014.