Lessons from history of Local 22 reverberate through Winston-Salem today

by Jordan Green

Local 22, an integrated union led mainly by African-American women that challenged RJ Reynolds tobacco company to raise wages and improve conditions for tobacco workers in the 1940s, will be honored with a historic marker on Saturday.

The unveiling of the marker coincides with the 70th anniversary of a strike that began in June 1943 when female African- American stemmers spontaneously walked out at RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. in response to a male colleague dying on the job after being denied permission to leave due to illness. The CIO-affiliated Local 22 won job security for senior workers, vacations, wage increases and grievance procedures the following year, according to research compiled by Forsyth County Historic Resources Officer LeAnn Pegram.

A celebration of Local 22 at First Calvary Baptist Church on Saturday will include a panel discussion including civil rights and labor activists, academics and political leaders. The campaigns waged by Local 22 are credited by many with the development of the black middle class in Winston- Salem, advancing civil rights and setting a mold for black leadership that continues in the city today.

“It provided African Americans a political voice in Winston-Salem that they never lost, that they still have today,” said Robert Korstad, a Duke University history professor who wrote the 2003 book Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid- Twentieth Century South and who will be a panelist at the commemoration. “It was a very positive experience in the sense that it brought workers higher wages, better working conditions and forced Reynolds to stay ahead of the game in terms of providing higher wages than their competition. It enhanced the economic viability of the black community in Winston-Salem.”

The black workers mobilized through Local 22 also challenged Jim Crow segregation, and in 1947 helped elect the Rev. Kenneth Williams as the first black member of the Winston-Salem Board of Aldermen since reconstruction.

“One thing that [Local 22’s efforts] did was force the white power structure in Winston-Salem to really relax the real rigidities of segregation,” Korstad said. “It made them realize that change was coming.”

The organizing effort received significant assistance from American communists who were part of the popular front coalition across the nation in the early 1940s — a time when the United States allied itself with the Soviet Union to defeat fascism in Europe. But as the decade wore on, anticommunism gained steam in the United States, and the union eventually fell victim to McCarthyist attacks.

A second strike in 1947 produced more ambiguous results and by 1950, the union was broken. The defeat proved to be a setback for the progressive movement in Winston-Salem, but the gains in working conditions and wages remained as Reynolds — then the city’s largest employer — worked to maintain employees’ loyalty as insurance against future unionization efforts.

“I’m excited that Local 22 is finally getting some recognition,” said Sen. Earline Parmon, a Democrat who represents Winston-Salem in the NC Senate, also a panelist at the commemoration. “What came out of those strikes is the fact that RJ Reynolds went on to become one of the better corporate partners. They began to provide a decent wage, provided better working conditions and healthcare. That all came out of efforts to keep the union out. RJ Reynolds did those things to keep the employees comfortable with siding with the company and to keep the union out.”

Parmon and others cite employment with Reynolds as key to the development of the black middle class in Winston- Salem after World War II.

“Many of us young people had the opportunity to go to college because their parents and grandparents worked there,” said Parmon, who was born in 1943. She also cited the wages provided by Reynolds as key to black workers’ ability to purchase homes and access credit. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, someone with only a high school education could go directly to work at Reynolds and earn a decent living.

“[The labor struggles of the 1940s] had a lasting effect until I would say the 1990s because the efforts to unionize came up periodically and Reynolds continued to provide benefits and wages and to promote African Americans to supervisory positions. That allowed Ben Ruffin to become a vice president.”

Ruffin, who died in 2006, was appointed vice president of corporate affairs at Reynolds in 1989, according to a NC House resolution honoring him. He was elected the first African-American chair of the UNC Board of Governors in 1998.

Korstad said that many of the leaders of Local 22 were blacklisted after the union was broken, and had to move away from Winston-Salem to earn a living. One exception was Velma Hopkins, an educated working-class woman described by Korstad as a “club woman,” who stayed on and became a mentor to succeeding generations of black leaders.

“She was a foster mom to many kids,” Parmon said. “She was the woman who walked Gwendolyn Bailey, the first African-American student at Reynolds High School, to class. I guess I was one of those who became her mentee in terms of community involvement.”

Hopkins made such an impression on Parmon that the senator said she acquired the nickname of “little Velma.”

“She talked about how she was labeled a communist and how the majority community tried to ostracize her and diminish her leadership in the black community,” Parmon said. “She talked about a visit from Paul Robeson. I heard her talk about his visit, the threats on her life, just the kind of things she had to endure because she wanted to help. RJ Reynolds [company] and others in the community, the paternalistic leadership of the city, those who set the tone tried to diminish her leadership by blackballing her. She continued to stand up in the community by doing voter registration drives. She eventually leased the old Reynolds hospital and provide an opportunity for political groups to meet there.”

Hopkins did not run for political office herself, but for decades her support was key to any aspiring black politician in Winston-Salem.

“Ms. Hopkins was the person that people would come to when they were getting ready to run for office,” Parmon recalled. “She was the person to get advice and support from.”

Walter Marshall, a Democrat who represents District A on the Forsyth County Commission, does not recall Hopkins — or, for that matter, Local 22 — in such a flattering light. In the early 1970s, Marshall was a young and recently married public school teacher with an interest in politics. He and his wife purchased a house on Highland Avenue, and learned after closing the purchase that they had become Hopkins’ next-door neighbors.

“I found out she was one of the political kingpins,” Marshall said. “She controlled the candidates for the precincts. I made friends with people in the projects. I got 50 citizens from the Cleveland Avenue projects to come to the precinct meeting, and they voted me in as chairman of the precinct. I was not her choice.”

Marshall described a system of political patronage controlled by four “kingpins” in predominantly black areas of Winston- Salem, Hopkins being the most powerful among them. Controlling who was elected to chair precincts was an important lever of power in the community.

“The precinct chair controlled a lot, including who the government did business with,” Marshall said. “They controlled the precinct and controlled the political purse strings on Election Day.”

Marshall also takes a dim view of Local 22’s organizing efforts, arguing that the organizing effort was compromised by communist involvement and the union’s defeat represented a setback for progress.

“It divided the community,” Marshall said. “It divided the city by its being infiltrated by the communists.

“The impact was more negative than positive,” he added. “They didn’t get to carry out their agenda because of that outside involvement. We didn’t have our own media at that time to tell our own story. It did a lot to hurt the union movement across the South.”

Will Cox, a healthcare worker and activist with Occupy Winston-Salem, said the idea to commemorate Local 22 gelled around the time the group was picketing Reynolds American and Novant Health to protest layoffs last year. While protesting against downsizing by the US Postal Service, Cox spoke with Richard Koritz, a labor leader and retired postal worker whose father came to Winston-Salem in the 1940s to work on the Reynolds campaign. Koritz recommended that Cox read Korstad’s book.

“I’m surprised I didn’t know about this book until about a year ago,” Cox said. “I knew there was a struggle. I had no idea the significance of it. As I turned the pages, I said, ‘This is absolutely wonderful. Why the hell don’t other people know about it?’” Michael Hill, director of research at the NC Office of Archives and History, said Korstad suggested that Local 22 deserved a historic marker at an event in Rocky Mount in 2011 to commemorate Operation Dixie, an unsuccessful effort by organized labor to unionize the South in the 1940s. Korstad and Cox took responsibility for applying for the Local 22 marker.

The marker will be unveiled on Saturday at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and East 4th Street, a block from a local historic marker commemorating the Winston-Salem Chapter of the Black Panther Party. The NC Highway Historic Marker Advisory Committee unanimously approved the marker, with language crafted by Hill. The state spent $1,566 to have the marker made at a foundry in Ohio.

Separately, the Forsyth County Historic Resources Commission has also approved a historic marker commemorating Local 22. Historic Resources Officer LeAnn Pegram told YES! Weekly in January that the marker will be placed in front of the historic RJR Factory Complex 64 on East 5th Street between Vine and Linden streets when renovations are complete.

Cox said he is inspired by the how black workers created an integrated, multiracial union in the 1940s to combat Reynolds’ efforts to pit seasonal, black workers against full-time white workers to maintain advantage and maximize profits. He sees workers today in industries ranging from healthcare to news media as confronting a different but equally daunting challenge, namely to maximize profits by compromising the quality of patient care and journalistic coverage.

“This is why worker-led mass movements, things like Local 22 and Occupy are so important,” he said. “It’s not just Occupy; it may be something else tomorrow.”

Korstad said he’s gratified that the struggle of Local 22 is getting recognition 10 years after the publication of his book.

“I’m thrilled to see this new recognition, and I’m also thrilled to see a new, young generation be able to draw on that legacy and find lessons from the past, from that struggle,” he said. “That’s why I wrote the book — because I thought there were important things to learn about how to do things today.”


A celebration of Local 22 will be held at First Calvary Baptist Church, located at 401 Woodland Ave. in Winston-Salem, on Saturday at noon.