Kathy Rong Zhou


After federal reforms in the 1930s protected the right to organize, the Tobacco Workers International Union made quick work of mobilizing the American South. Its unions, though segregated, made strides. Yet Black unions’ collective bargaining gains could not transcend one of the South’s most oppressive employment practices: segregated systems for worker seniority. One Black union, Local 208 at Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company in Durham, North Carolina, fought for seniority rights for more than three decades. During this time, the federal government increasingly pressured Southern industry and labor to desegregate. Steadfast, Local 208 refused to merge with any white union until its members attained a more equitable seniority system. This start-to-finish history of Local 208 demonstrates how federal desegregation initiatives both encouraged and interfered with Black workers’ fight against discrimination. Embodying the post–Civil War, pre–Civil Rights Act era of Black Southern tobacco labor, Local 208’s decades-long fight presents a precise illustration of the need for the landmark Title VII remedies soon to come.

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