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labor Organizing Rural Manufacturing Workers Matters

The diversity of manufacturing workers, even in rural communities, makes an organizing committee meeting a rare and important place: a space where people can sit down face-to-face and confront their differences.

Photo by Spencer Davis

It’s no secret that the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States has steadily declined over the past few decades, replaced largely by low-wage work in the service sector. But in many rural communities, manufacturing is still the most important part of the local economy. In fact, manufacturing jobs account for 21 percent of all earnings for rural communities, more than triple the income from farming work. Manufacturing represents a particularly important source of employment for workers of color in many rural communities. 

For generations, manufacturing positions were the best jobs available to many working people. They set the pace of wages for other employers who competed to attract the same pool of workers. But while factory jobs are still among the best employment opportunities in some rural communities, they no longer guarantee workers an entry point into the middle class. 

A 2016 study by the UC Berkeley Labor Center found that “a third (34 percent) of the families of frontline manufacturing production workers are enrolled in one or more public safety net programs. The number is even higher for those employed through staffing agencies — fifty percent — similar to the rate for fast-food workers and their families.” In the automotive sector, seventy percent of workers are employed at plants that manufacture auto parts, where the median income is 25 percent less than that that of final assembly workers. Fully one-quarter of parts workers make less than $14.47 per hour. It is not uncommon to hear about manufacturing workers quitting their jobs to go work at the local Walmart, where wages are similar and the work is less dangerous.       

Over the past few decades, urban areas have seen steep declines in the number of manufacturing jobs. Many rural communities have, too. But some rural areas have actually experienced substantial growth in the manufacturing sector. Companies establishing manufacturing operations in the United States for the first time have generally chosen to locate in rural areas, largely in the South but also in more rural parts of Ohio and Indiana. Established U.S. manufacturers have also sought out rural communities (largely but by no means exclusively in the South) to build low-wage, largely non-union plants. They often choose states  — Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina — with among the highest proportions of Black residents and among the poorest labor protections. 

Organizing campaigns that focus on rural manufacturing workers can play an important role in tackling economic inequality, systemic racism, and gender inequality. Rural manufacturing is one of only a handful of spaces in many of these communities where people from different backgrounds sit down face-to-face to work toward a common goal. Organizing these workers will test the labor movement’s creativity and stamina, challenging us to be much more intentional in how we train our organizers, particularly in how to address systemic racism in their campaigns. But if we rise to the challenge, organizing the rural manufacturing sector has the potential to sow the seeds of significant social and political change.  

Rural Manufacturing: A Deliberate Choice

Companies locate their manufacturing facilities in rural areas to maximize access to markets while limiting exposure to worker organizing. Take, for example, a plant that manufactures seat frames in Clanton, Alabama, in tiny Chilton County (population 44,000). Clanton sits just off I-65, one of the two major interstate highways (along with I-75) that make up “Auto Alley.” These two north-south roads allow parts suppliers to quickly ship products to numerous assembly plants from as far south as Alabama to as far north as Michigan. 

There are only one or two large manufacturing employers in the area, which pay marginally more than the service-sector alternatives. When organizers talked to workers at the plant several years ago, it employed roughly 1,000 workers, many of whom started at just nine dollars per hour. Workers are often reluctant to organize around dangerous working conditions, arbitrary firings, unfair policies, or poverty wages for fear of losing their jobs or being passed over for one of the handful of better-paying management or skilled trades positions.

Turnover is typically high at non-union manufacturing plants because of the at-will employment system. Companies know there is a ready supply of workers willing to drive long distances to replace those who run astray of the company’s arbitrary disciplinary and attendance policies. Consequently, workers don’t have relationships with each other outside of work, further hampering their ability to organize. They are not likely to belong to the same churches or local organizations, many of which do not support organizing campaigns anyway.  

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The lubricant that makes this system work is the presence of temporary staffing agencies, which allow employers to prosper using a business model that depends on low wages, high turnover, and a seemingly never-ending supply of new workers. Several years ago, when an organizer visited a plant in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to inquire about work, she was told the plant was “always hiring” through one of four temporary agencies. (Murfreesboro itself is more an exurb of Nashville than a rural community, but many workers at the plant travel twenty miles or more from small towns to the south and west.) Such arrangements are not uncommon. To meet the constant demand for workers, manufacturers turn to one or more temp firms to cast the broadest possible net. Why so many? Some have connections in certain towns or with specific groups of workers. One might specialize in Latinx workers. Another might be a go-to source for hiring workers who were recently incarcerated. Some even have contracts to provide prison labor.

Temporary agencies can exercise tremendous control over local employment opportunities. A single well-connected staffing agency may be the only game in town for job seekers. If a temporary worker develops a reputation as a “troublemaker” who knows their rights, the agency may be reluctant to re-assign the individual to another client. That means temporary workers feel they must accept difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions with little hope of improvement. Since many temporary jobs are hardly temporary at all — it’s not uncommon for temps to work months or even years before being hired as a direct employee — the system creates a permanent underclass. And because temporary workers are more likely to be people of color, this system not only creates economic hardship but also reinforces patterns of systemic racism.

The situation is not, however, hopeless. There are strong incentives for certain types of manufacturing to remain in the United States. Today, most manufacturers rely on “just-in-time” manufacturing systems. Rather than maintaining large (and expensive) inventories of component parts, many parts are delivered just hours before they are used in final assembly, allowing manufacturers to quickly meet consumer demand. As a result, suppliers need to remain within a few hours’ drive of their customers — meaning it is still possible for the U.S. labor movement to raise the standards for many manufacturing jobs. In fact, it is essential, as low-wage manufacturing jobs in rural areas drag down the standards for local service workers as well as manufacturing workers in urban areas.

It’s About More Than Economics

A few years ago, workers at a manufacturing plant in far northeastern Alabama organized their union with the UAW. Halfway through the campaign, the organizing got stuck. The workers knew it. “You know why we’re not winning, right?” asked the worker who had first started the campaign, a welder who earned more than many in the plant. He waited a few moments for his point to sink in. Every person at the meeting — held in a community center that was once a segregated school for the town’s Black children — was white. “These are people we grew up with,” he said. “We went to school with them. Why aren’t we talking to them now?”

The diversity of manufacturing workers, even in rural communities, makes an organizing committee meeting a rare and important place. There are too few spaces anywhere in the country where people can sit down face-to-face and confront their differences, but that is precisely what must happen if workers are going to build the majorities necessary to organize unions. 

And yes, manufacturing plants in rural areas really are diverse — not all the time, for sure, but more often than most people think. As the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us, there are concentrations of Black and immigrant workers at many rural meatpacking and food processing facilities. But those aren’t the only types of rural manufacturing facilities that employ workers of color. Take, for example, four of the states with among the largest numbers of non-union auto workers: Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina. All these states are among the least urbanized in the country. In all four, nearly one out of every five Black workers is employed in manufacturing — second only to the education and health services sector.  

The conversations that take place in organizing committee meetings about race and gender are messy, imperfect, and sometimes even ugly, but they start to build connections among people who don’t usually have the opportunity to connect. They are also essential to collective action, as communities usually contain people who are different from each other. The labor movement, the UAW included, needs to do a better job training our organizers on how to effectively confront systemic racism; we also need to be more intentional in our commitment to having these conversations as a part of our organizing campaigns. If we do, there is no doubt that union organizing campaigns, perhaps especially in rural communities, can become an important space to plant the seeds of deeper political changes.

In the end, those white workers in northeastern Alabama reached out to their Black co-workers. And, eventually, a strong majority of workers voted to form their union. No, it didn’t reverse centuries of racism. But it did start a new chapter for workers in that town and at least opened up the possibility for a different future.

How Might We Do the Work Better?

At the UAW, we’re just starting the process of rethinking our organizing program to be more effective and more geographically focused. This process includes reimagining how we approach organizing in rural communities. The principles that are guiding us in this process include:

   * Maintain a sustained presence. Hot shop organizing does little to build long-term power. We need to resist the practice of parachuting into a community and leaving if workers aren’t ready in that exact moment to organize their union. We underestimate the degree to which a union organizing campaign creates a buzz in a community. Word spreads fast in industrial parks, and workers who are involved in a campaign talk about it with family and friends, some of whom work in the same industry. Winning at scale will require taking advantage of the moments when organizing is on the lips of workers; this is the time to make contacts and start building long-term relationships. A sustained presence will better position organizers when something happens to spark workers’ interest in making change.

   * Learn from organizations that are already on the ground. While rural areas may not have the same organizational infrastructure as urban areas, there are groups that have been committed to organizing in these communities for years (as this issue of The Forge demonstrates). We need to listen to them about what works and find ways to create mutually beneficial partnerships. A person may first be activated by a fight in their community, see the power of collective action in that context, and only later think about applying the same principles to making change at their workplace. Conversely, we have an obligation to help workplace activists understand their role in making positive change in the broader community. 

   * Connect workers across worksites. By focusing on single-worksite campaigns, we have missed an opportunity to build a larger movement of non-union workers who want to make change. We need to do more to connect workers across worksites as a tool for building leaders, reducing fear, and creating hope that change is possible. The UAW has long had success establishing worker-led councils that connect union shops to each other so workers who are employed by the same company or who manufacture the same type of product have a space to strategize. When there is the opportunity, we have connected workers who are in the process of organizing their union to these councils. While these meetings can be powerful, they are not sufficient to build momentum in organizing campaigns. Perhaps our growing familiarity with tools such as Zoom will make it easier to connect workers digitally, but our experience suggests that we need to focus on building local worker networks and find ways (once it is safe) to get workers together in person. 

   * Build on incremental victories. Every social movement relies on incremental victories to sustain itself. Union organizers sometimes lose sight of the importance of these victories and view them as momentum killers. In areas where workers have seen very few victories, however, we need to celebrate these successes and use them to build our campaigns. We have rarely done enough, for example, to take credit when employers raise wages to try to kill an organizing drive. We should expect that will happen and do more to educate workers and the public about why this happens. Yes, these changes may be temporary if workers don’t ultimately form their union and win a contract, but the fact remains: we have demonstrated the power of worker solidarity with our actions, not just our words. 

Our success in developing a new organizing model will depend not just on the quantity of leads we get from workers who want to organize their union but also on the nature of those leads. There are plenty of workers who call or email the UAW wanting to organize their union, but it is often difficult to develop leads at the most strategically important employers or plants. Even if a lead does come in from a key worksite, the worker who picks up the phone to call the union or responds to a digital communication is often not a leader with the inclination to talk to their co-workers and build the organizing committee. 

The path forward actually requires a return to basics. Organizing is about building relationships and developing leaders. But going back to basics doesn’t mean doing everything exactly the same. Building a plan to organize rural manufacturing workers will test our creativity like never before, but it may also yield long-term results that few today would ever expect.

Cindy Estrada is serving her third four-year term as a UAW Vice President and currently heads the Fiat Chrysler, Independent Parts and Suppliers (IPS), Organizing, and Women’s Departments. 

Chris Schwartz has worked as an organizer, researcher, and campaigner in and out of the labor movement for more than 20 years, including as an assistant organizing director tor the UAW and as a campaigner for the Service Employees International Union.