Tobacco union honored in Winston-Salem

by Jordan Green

Larry Little (holding microphone), a founder of the Black Panther Party chapter in Winston-Salem and former city council member, unveiled a historic marker honoring Local 22 with Richard Koritz (wearing cap), an elected state officer with the National Association of Letter Carriers, on April 20.

Local 22, a union organized and led primarily by black women, forced Reynolds Tobacco Co. to improve working conditions, raise wages and implement benefits such as paid vacation time, during a series of campaigns in the 1940s. Even after the National Labor Review Board decertified the union in 1950s, Reynolds continued to offer competitive pay and benefits because of the threat of unionization, said NC Sen. Earline Parmon (D-Forsyth), a protégé of one of the organizers.

Robert Korstad, author of Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid- Twentieth Century South, and Will Cox with Occupy Winston-Salem, made the application with the state of North Carolina for the marker, which is made of forged aluminum by a foundry in Ohio.

Forsyth County Commissioner Walter Marshall was among several Democratic elected officials who attended the unveiling and a related panel discussion at nearby First Calvary Baptist Church.

Marshall criticized the movement led by Local 22 in a comment to YES! Weekly earlier this month.

“It divided the community,” he said.

“It divided the city by its being infiltrated by the communists.

“The impact was more negative than positive,” Marshall 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.”

Without mentioning Marshall by name, Koritz unloaded during the panel discussion at First Calvary Baptist Church.

“There was one statement by somebody that was disparaging of Local 22,” Koritz said. “And I just want to say this: The core of Local 22 never — I repeat — never deserted it. Under the harshest pressure of the anti-communist hysteria, the McCarthyite hearings, they never deserted Local 22. And anybody who wants to say different is lying or they just don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”

— Jordan Green