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ENC Workers Facing Small Wages, Little Organization

Rocky Mount Telegram

Last Monday – Labor Day – marked the unofficial end of the summer season and a final chance to partake in its pleasures.

But as reports of stagnant wages, underemployment, and rollbacks on workplace discrimination protections persist, reminders of Labor Day’s original purpose have begun resurfacing. 

Chris Thomas has this.

This is what organized labor sounds like in eastern North Carolina. It’s a Lodge Meeting for the AFL-CIO’s District 110, headquartered in Havelock.

It’s a rarely heard sound throughout the state. North Carolina is the second least unionized state in the country with only 4.1 percent of all workers affiliated with a union of some kind. The national average is 11.1.

“You don’t see it taught in schools, the labor – the history of labor, how people fought for the 40 hour work week…”

That’s Tony Cruz – Central Labor Council President for the Eastern North Carolina branch of the state’s AFL-CIO. He’s also a member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (also known as IAM).

“…how people fought for workplace safety protections. Child labor, overtime after 40 hours – time and a half. A lot of the things, holidays, medical coverage for employees as a benefit. Retirements and pensions, all of these things that labor unions fought for and, in many cases, died for, bled for. It’s not really taught.”

It was something relatively foreign to Ruth Ann Bonebreak, also of Havelock, before she joined the IAM’s. She’s currently the District Lodge’s secretary and worked as an office secretary before that.

“And I saw from the management standpoint how they treated the employees. And when I had the opportunity to actually become a member of the union, get out of the secretarial trade, I realized after looking at the negotiated agreement that things just weren’t right.”

These days, the jobs in eastern North Carolina are where unions usually aren’t. The U.S. Labor Department reported occupations with among the highest rates of employment in North Carolina – including Sales and Food Preparation and Service – are also among the least unionized nationwide and have the lowest wages on average.

Agriculture, fishing, and forestry – engrained in eastern North Carolina’s culture and economy – is the least unionized category in the country. Only 25 individuals, nationwide, in those occupations are represented by a union in the U.S.

Stats show a strong correlation between higher wages and union membership – which means reports of job growth across the state aren’t necessarily reports of job quality growth, especially in more rural areas like eastern North Carolina.

Economist for the NC Justice Center Patrick McHugh.

“A lot of that economic activity is increasingly clustered in a few urban areas across the state. And so, even while statewide, the unemployment rate has come down, and employment is up, there’s still lots and lots of communities that are worse on than before the recession and some communities that have even lost ground over the last year.”

The unemployment rate has dropped throughout much of the state but eastern North Carolina still has some of the highest rates. Late last month, the North Carolina Department of Commerce reported the Rocky Mount, Fayetteville, Greenville, Goldsboro, and Jacksonville Metropolitan Statistical Areas had the highest rates of unemployment in the state.

“The simple fact of the matter is there are more folks looking for work today than there were before the recession started. And you wouldn’t expect that to be the case after one of the longest periods of uninterrupted growth nationally...that shouldn’t be the case, that we’re still seeing a huge chunk of folks – nearly a quarter-million North Carolinians looking for a job today. So, that’s not the sign of a healthy labor market.”

But that doesn’t stop some from organizing. UE 150 founder and retired drug abuse center worker Don Cavellini is one of those people.

He believes low union membership in North Carolina can be attributed to something more insidious.

“The conditions that employers have workers under is deliberate ignorance of their benefits so that even when there’s a federal law that covers everybody, like the National Labor Relations Act (1935) in the private sector and the Family Medical Leave Act (1993), FMLA…well educated, at least formal educated, employee, like a nurse, does not know they can avail themselves of unpaid family leave.”

UE 150’s membership is mostly made up of factory workers and state employees – especially from the Department of Health and Human Services. They’ve recently organized rallies and campaigns for better pay in Rocky Mount and Kinston.

State workers are barred from collectively bargaining with their employer in North Carolina. Mr. Cavellini said that forced UE 150 to get creative.  

“There are various ways to pressure employers, especially if it’s the government because ultimately, we vote for our bosses.”

North Carolina is what’s known as a “Right-to-Work” state – a loosely defined term incorporating 25 additional states that have strong checks on union power.

People like Mr. Cruz and Mr. Cavellini are staunch opponents.

But George Leef of the right-leaning Pope Institute believes it’s misunderstood. He’s an expert on the subject and wrote “Free Choice for Workers: a History of Right to Work” and said those laws were passed to protect workers that are unwillingly part of unions.

“Workers who’d been voted into a Union by majority vote but who didn’t want to pay for the dues at least could keep their jobs and not be fired.”  

Large unions or “Big Labor” as Dr. Leef calls them, have a long history of strong armed intimidation tactics to keep “rank-and-file” members in line and non-members off the shop floor altogether.

The “Right-to-Work Movement,” Dr. Leef says, started in the south in the 1930s and 1940s as the Labor Movement approached its zenith north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

North Carolina was among the first states to adopt “Right-to-Work” laws and the movement has grown to include states where labor once loomed large.  

“I think what it reflects is a growing discontent with ‘Big Labor,’ its agenda, and more and more workers are feeling ‘you know, we…want to exercise our rights and they’re getting in touch with their elected representatives and state capitals and saying ‘we like the freedom to make up our own mind whether unionism is something we want to pay for or not.”

Like Mr. Cruz and Cavellini, Dr. Leef emphasizes the fact that unionizing is not illegal in “Right-to-Work” states and gives some credit to unions for bettering working conditions in America.

Just not all.

“Safety…was improving and continued to improve with or without unions across the whole of America. Working conditions have improved because it’s in the interests of employers to make sure their workers are content whether they have unions or not.”  

Historian and factory worker Jim Wrenn of Rocky Mount, however, says unions have been one of the few sources of recourse for workers in North Carolina – especially black workers.

“I’d say the union has overcome a lot of racial divisions and has always tried to fight for racial unity of workers in spite of those forces out there that would instigate racial division.”

Eastern North Carolina is home to several historic markers paying tribute to organized labor – one in Tarboro for the Knights of Labor of the late 19th century and another to Operation Dixie in Rocky Mount in 1946, the year before North Carolina passed its initial “Right-to-Work” legislation.

Both predated major milestones in the Civil Rights Movement and were led, primarily, by black workers for justice – on and off the clock.

“One of the big issues going on then was the sexual harassment of these white foremen harassing the black, female workers…and this union movement gave workers the opportunity to stand up to the harassment of the white foremen.”

Wrenn said race and labor are intertwined and have overcome severe pushback in eastern North Carolina and will continue to do so.

“We see a new Labor Movement on the rise. The $15 minimum wage was seen as maybe impossible a couple years ago but now we’re seeing victories in this movement.”

Allan Freyer of the North Carolina Justice Center believes these are exciting times. His employer writes a yearly “State of the Worker” report.

“We are at a point where workers are increasingly recognizing that they need better bargaining positions, stronger bargaining positions in order to keep their job, protect their job, earn better wages (and) get the benefits that are increasingly vanishing.”

Organized Labor and “Right-to-Work” factions will most likely continue clashing in the region for years to come, even as they claim the same goal: better conditions for workers and a better life for their posterity.

I’m Chris Thomas.