In the 1950s, company management at a poultry plant in Gainesville owned by industry pioneer Jesse Jewell led a violent mob against workers trying to unionize under Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen.
Jewell is famous for making Gainesville the “poultry capital of the world” with innovations in production.
A National Labor Relations Board trial examiner found the company liable for instigating a riot, but the plant remained union-free.
Today, participation in labor unions is lower than ever.
Unions have always struggled to make a foothold in the South, compared with the Northeast, Midwest or West.
“If you look at the states that have right-to-work laws, they are states that have long been more conservative (politically),” said Douglas Young, a political science professor at the University of North Georgia in Gainesville.
There was a time in the mid-1960s when about 12 percent of Georgia’s workforce belonged to unions. But that number has now fallen to less than 5 percent.
Nationwide, only 1 in 10 American workers now belong to a union, half the rate from the early 1980s.
Right-to-work laws prohibit workers from being compelled to pay union dues or join a labor group as a condition of employment.
Young said these laws have become more common as corruption within union management and growing public distrust grows over public sector labor groups, such as teachers’ unions.
And that makes Labor Day seem like something of a relic from a time in American history when unions were strongest.
“People forget that union organizers were literally killed for demanding minimum wage, overtime pay, an end to child labor and so many things we take for granted,” said Brian Aycock, a Gainesville resident and labor advocate. “The 40-hour work week was hard earned, but we now see it as just the norm.”
More Americans are likely to consider Labor Day the unofficial end of summer as they are to memorialize the sacrifices of these workers.
But that doesn’t mean unions have no impact. They are leading the fight for minimum wage increases and keeping jobs from being shipped overseas, Aycock said.
“I wish people would think about those things on Labor Day, and the unions and activists who continue to fight for a better life for working people,” he added.
Young, though a supporter of right-to-work laws, said he respects the potential unions have as a check and balance to the private sector, and he believes that workers should have the right to unionize.
“I absolutely think (unions) do have a proper role to play,” he added.