April 17, 2003

Thurmond Speaks on South

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In an effort to educate the Cornell community about unionization and labor markets in the South, the Southern Organization at Cornell sponsored a conference yesterday in Ives Hall featuring speakers, a debate and Southern cooking.

Michael Thurmond, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Labor, was the keynote speaker at the event. Thurmond was introduced by Gage Stille ’05, president of the Southern Organization.

Thurmond is the first African-American to be elected to the position and the first African-American to be elected to a statewide non-appointed office. Thurmond also recently wrote a book entitled, Freedom: An African American History of Georgia 1733 to 1865, which will be released next month.

Thurmond opened his speech with words of hope for improving the current labor situation in the South. “I bring belief of great hope and great promise for the South,” he said.

However, Thurmond said, “the reality is that 90 percent of Georgia workers are not organized.”

Thurmond outlined the history of the South, including the civil war. According to Thurmond, “slavery was not just a Southern institution,” but instead one that included “Northern business interests and Southern labor interests.”

Thurmond said that Americans still face some of the same prejudices and challenges that existed during the time of the civil war. According to Thurmond, the battles of the civil war are still going on “even though the guns … fell silent decades ago.”

He added that out of the civil war and the civil rights movement has emerged “a new South, a South that was forged by [both] blacks and whites.” Noting the struggles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, Thurmond said, “without struggle there will be no progress.”

According to Thurmond, increased change in the South will come with creating more jobs. “We need to continue to seek economic growth,” he said.

According to Thurmond, competition is inevitable between states for big businesses to move into areas where jobs are needed, and each state must keep its citizens’ best interests in mind when competing for these businesses.

In practice, however, “we are back to seeking jobs in almost any way possible,” Thurmond said.

When asked about the differences between Democratic and Republican party policies on unionization and labor in Georgia, Thurmond said that Southern labor issues are “not as clear as Republican and Democrat, black or white,” and that in the end legislative decisions must come down to the interests of the worker. “At the end of the day you want a better working environment for your workers.”

Thurmond encouraged students to consider working for change in the South. “We need young scholars and organizers to move south,” he said. Thurmond called the South “the great new frontier.”

A panel discussion preceded Thurmond’s speech. The panel outlined the history of labor relations and unionization in the South, and discussed current issues that Southern workers face.

Panel members included Prof. Vernon M. Briggs, industrial and labor relations (ILR), whose speech was entitled, “Rural Southern Labor Markets: Human Resource Issues of Past, Present, and Future;” Prof. Lance Compa, ILR, who spoke on “Freedom of Association: The Evolution of Worker’s Rights in the South;” Prof. Nick Salvatore, ILR, whose speech was entitled “Cotton, Migration, and the Urban World: The Legacy of the 1930s and 40s;” and Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, ILR, who spoke on “The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in the South: Can it Effectively Protect Workers Rights?”

Other notable participants in the conference included Reverend Kenneth Clarke, director of Cornell United Religious Work, ILR Dean Dr. Edward Lawler and Robert Harris, vice provost for diversity and faculty development.

Another highlight of the evening was a labor debate between Cornell Republicans Chair Ryan Horn grad and Cornell Democrats President Michael Akavan ’05. The debate was introduced by Dr. Philip Lewis, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Each debater answered questions concerning unionization and other Southern labor issues.

Akavan spoke of the need for Southern unionization, saying that union organization “increases productivity.” Akavan discussed statistics about poverty in the South, and said that “in this type of context, Southern policy will never be solved in a legislative arena.”

Horn disagreed with the need for unionization, saying that “the U.S. has embraced the fact that a free market works best.”

The conference concluded with breakout presentations from student organizations, including the Minority Industrial Labor Relations Student Organization (MILRSO), the Black Southern Students Alliance (BSSA), La Asociacion Latina (LAL), Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MECHA) and the Cornell Organization for Labor Action (COLA).

Archived article by Kate Cooper