October 16, 2017

New Southern Strategies: Employment, Workers’ Rights and the Prospects for Regional Resurgence

The southern United States has long been dismissed as an economic backwater, a bastion of cheap labor, antiquated industry, and slow growth. This perception dates back to the antebellum period, and has been reinforced by more recent narratives of southern distinctiveness and southern exceptionalism.

The South, however, has never been as insulated and globally disconnected as popular stereotypes would have it. From the cotton exports and the textile production of the long nineteenth century, to the high-tech automotive and aerospace manufacturing of today, the South has been as much a part of the global economy as any other US region, and southern workers have been important contributors in its globalizing networks of production. Far from being a region unto itself, the contemporary South and its labor force are integrated into global supply chains across a number of major industries, and within the US economy the region is a growth pole that increasingly attracts industry, jobs, and investment.

Focusing on Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, this report by NFG's Funders for a Just Economy assesses a range of economic indicators affecting quality of life in the South, examines some of the corporate strategies that are driving these changes, and presents some of the efforts underway in the region to improve economic opportunity through labor organizing and strengthening workers’ rights. This report does not attempt to provide an exhaustive inventory of current labor rights struggles. Rather, it identifies examples of innovative strategies and campaigns, and sets these against key economic indicators and trends in economic restructuring.

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About the author
Nik Theodore is Professor of Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Senior Fellow at the Great Cities Institute, and Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Research in the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs. His current research focuses on economic restructuring and labor standards, and he has been a lead researcher on national projects examining conditions in low-wage labor markets, including day labor, domestic work, temporary staffing, and the state of workplace protections in in low-wage industries.
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