Going South, Coming North tells the story of Morristown

Morristown, Tennessee may not be the center of the global capitalism, but what has happened to it since NAFTA was implemented pretty much tells the story of the impact that NAFTA and today’s brave new world of unfettered and unregulated capitalism has had on workers on both sides of the US/Mexico border. Morristown: in the air and sun, a 2007 documentary film by Anne Lewis (a fellow TSEU member), tells the story of people who live in Morristown and how their lives have been altered by NAFTA.

Here’s how Anne describes her documentary:

Filmed between 1991 and 2006 and based primarily in the mountains of east Tennessee, Morristown explores the lived experiences of workers from Tennessee and Mexico who speak about their lives, work, disappointments, and hopes. These conversations are combined with scenes in Tennessee factories, fields, union halls, Mexican-owned stores, workers’ homes, city parks, and employment agencies. The documentary travels to factories and locations in Ciudad Juárez, Chihauhau, and Los Martínez, Guanajuato, Mexico. Morristown concludes with a stunning union victory in 2005-2006 among immigrant workers at a large poultry processing plant.”

To tell this story, Anne gathered and shot hours of video footage. But because of the constraints of documentary filmmaking, she had to whittle most of it out of the final version. Thinking that the footage that didn’t make it into the final version might be useful to labor and immigration activists and scholars, Anne and Fran Ansley, her humanities advisor on Morristown, recently published a multimedia essay entitled “Going South, Coming North: Migration and Union Organizing in Morristown, Tennessee” in Southern Spaces that makes available some of the information left out of Morristown.

The essay includes a narrative about the filming of Morristown, a summary of the film itself, video clips, and a list resources, links, and print material that should be useful for those who want to learn more about Morristown and the impact that  NAFTA has had on both sides of the border.

Morristown, located just south of the Virginia border, has been on both sides of the movement of capital and labor. In the 1930s and 1940s, local workers moved north looking for work in the industrial factories. When capital began moving some of these factories south to avoid dealing with unions, some found their way into Morristown.

Eventually capital sought even cheaper labor and began moving much of the work in Morristown across the Mexican border and into the maquiladoras that sprung up like grass after a thunder shower after NAFTA was enacted. But jobs weren’t the only thing that NAFTA exported; cheap agricultural products flooded the Mexican market displacing millions of Mexican farmers and farm workers. They made their way north looking for work, and a good number of them ended up in Morristown where some got jobs in construction, some in the local service industries, and some at a new poultry processing plant owned by Koch Foods.

The new arrivals weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms, and Morristown spends some time interviewing locals about their fears and prejudices against the new immigrants. It also looks at a project that began nearly two decades ago to try to bridge the gap between immigrant and native workers in eastern Tennessee, an effort that led to cross border trips by some maquiladora workers to Tennessee and by some native Morristown workers to Reynosa, Mexico, home to hundreds, maybe even thousands, of maquiladoras.

Morristown also tells the story of a successful union organizing drive at Koch Foods. Like most poultry processing plants, the work at Koch is hard, the hours long, and worker safety only an afterthought for the bosses. These conditions led workers at Koch to seek out a union to help them organize. They found the Union of Food and Commercial Workers.

The organizing campaign took more than a year but eventually was successful. They campaign was marked a strong effort to build community support among native workers outside of the plant and a strong organizing committee among workers inside the plant that successfully resisted employer intimidation.

Both “Going South, Coming North” and Morristown present an alternative narrative about the lives of working people that differs markedly from the dominant narrative of today’s discourse. The dominant discourse describes a deep divide between people from different cultures, a divide that can’t really be overcome but only managed through individual acts of kindness and charity. “Going South, Coming North and Morristown on the other hand show that the economic machine that drives people apart can also bring people together when they join together to resist the machine.

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