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Southern Labor Studies Association to host first N.C. conference at University

The Old Well, complimented by late summer flora, stands tall on August 7, 2022.

The Southern Labor Studies Association is scheduled to host its tenth-ever conference since 1976 this week — and for the first time in North Carolina. 

Taking place on Sept. 9 to 11 at the University's Graham Memorial Hall, the conference is titled “Putting Workers First: Southern Labor from 1619 to COVID-19.”

The academic organization works to promote connections between scholars and labor activists, and to educate the public on the history of southern labor. For example, the SLSA supplies teachers in public schools with materials about the history of the working class.

“I think this conference will be really worthwhile for anyone interested in questions of work and labor of economic justice, racial justice, because it will explore the past of the South and its history in terms of labor,” Erik Gellman, UNC history professor and host of the conference, said.

Gellman said that a variety of perspectives will be discussed — including topics such as feminism, immigration and disability, as well as policing, civil rights unionism and sexuality. 

The conference was originally scheduled for 2020, but had to be postponed due to the pandemic.

While some of the original speakers from the 2020 schedule remain in attendance, the association put out an additional call for proposals a year ago and received a “tremendous” response. 

“It wasn’t hard to put the conference program together because there were just so many great panels, and a real diversity of panels as well,” Gellman said.

One speaker in particular, Laura King of Auburn University, is taking this opportunity to share research about the unionization of a textile mill in Alabama. Her dissertation paper focuses on the presence of paternalism in the mill’s work environment.

“(Paternalism) is this idea of owners having this mentality of ownership over their labor force, and believing that because they’ve afforded them these opportunities and provided them with housing, schools, medical care, that as a result, the workers are in their debt,” King said.

One group that Gellman noted is Black Workers for Justice who he said will share about their careers in N.C. over the past four decades.

The conference will give attendees a chance to hear from over 50 speakers in over 25 different topics.

There will be workshops following presentations of works-in-progress to provide space for discussion. A reception will be held on both days, as well as dinner on the final day. 

In between topics on Saturday, a plenary session will concur where Duke University Professor Emeritus Robert Korstad’s award-winning book, “Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South,” will be celebrated.

Korstad is also co-president of the SLSA and will commentate on a panel about Civil Rights Unionism. 

There will also be publishing exhibits highlighting recent books on Southern labor studies.

There are already over 150 people registered for the event and rooms are expected to be full, Gellman said. 

One of those students, Joseph Kelly, a UNC senior, said that he has a critique assignment to complete about the conference for his history class. He said that he's going into the weekend with an open mind. 

“I’m hoping I kind of get a better idea of what different people do at their respective schools, as well as their individual styles and topics of research,” he said. 

The event kicks off Friday, Sept. 9 at 1 p.m.

Those interested in registering for the event can register on the SLSA’s website

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