September 2, 2018
Organize the South
Worker organizing past and present is the cover story of the Labor Day 2018 issue of Creative Loafing Charlotte, featuring quotes from North Carolina State AFL-CIO President MaryBe McMillan, IBEW Local 379 President and state AFL-CIO Vice President Scott Thrower, and Ben Lee, chairman of the Charlotte Labor Day Parade Committee.
— MaryBe McMillan (@marybemcmillan) August 30, 2018
“A Look at Labor Conditions and the New South’s Historic Ties to Organization” begins in 1929 with the story of the Loray Mill textile worker strike and the murder, by company men, of union leader and single mother of four, Ella May Wiggins, in nearby Gastonia, North Carolina:
Decades later, Wiggins’ great-granddaughter Kristina Horton wrote a book titled The Martyr of Loray Mill. Horton begins the book with a reflection on the death of her ancestor.
“My great-grandmother was murdered, killed while trying to improve the lives of her children,” Horton wrote. “No one was convicted for her murder, nor was anyone convicted for the numerous other crimes committed against textile strikers that year in the South.”
The story continues in 1934, when 1,000 union delegates gathered for a meeting of the North Carolina State Federation of Labor in Charlotte to rally support for the ongoing efforts of textile workers to address low pay and dangerous working conditions by exercising their freedom to join together in union:
Inflamed with a sense of injustice, laborers and representatives threw their fists in the air with enthusiasm while the space filled with the voices of leadership. One of these leaders, R. R. Lawrence, was the president of the North Carolina State Federation of Labor, and he gave the crowd a call to action.
“The hour has arrived when the fight must go forward. We fight for the Lord and for our families,” he said. “Many sacrifices will be required of you in this fight. No fight can be won without sacrifices. I know you are ready to make them.”
The next day, 65,000 workers walked out of their jobs. Over 200 mills in the Carolinas were closed and 60,000 operatives sat idle.
Those who rose up in the Southern textile mills and risked everything for better conditions paved the way for the rights we have as workers today. But the fight hasn’t ended.
Today, 84 years after that textile strike, many people are still facing difficulty when it comes to working conditions, wages and benefits.
Decades of organizing by unions of working people in North and South Carolina and elsewhere in the early-to-mid 20th century resulted in the passage of landmark federal legislation like the Fair Labor Standards Act, which instituted a federal minimum wage, overtime pay, and the 40-hour work week, Social Security, and the National Labor Relations Act, the law that guarantees the right of most workers in the United States to take collective action in the workplace, form and join unions, and collectively negotiate with their employers as equals.
In recent decades, however, the violent suppression of worker organizing by companies and law enforcement acting at the direction of company-bought elected officials has given way to new forms of suppression like the failing to raise the minimum wage and weakening laws meant to protect workers and our freedom to join together in unions.
“The worst thing is when [employers] fire workers who they know are trying to organize and rally their coworkers into a union,” McMillan said. “And it’s illegal to fire a worker for trying to organize, but our system is so broken that it takes years for these cases to go through the National Labor Relations Board and the court system. And there really is no justice when it takes five or 10 years for a unjustly fired worker to get their job back.”
The result of this lack of accountability is a weakened working class, which weakens the city’s economy. The ripples of economic injustice are felt by families across the community.
McMillan called the current minimum wage, $7.25 an hour in North Carolina, a “poverty wage,” and said she believes that all workers should earn a living wage to support themselves and their families without public assistance.
“It would be good not just for those workers to earn more money, but it’s good for our economy,” she said. “Because when workers earn more, they’re going to spend more at businesses and they’re going to pay more in taxes. That means more tax revenue for government. It’s good all around for the economy when working people have more in their pocket.”
Labor Day is about honoring the historical roots of and continuing the organizing being done today by unions and community allies in Charlotte and in other cities and towns across North Carolina to raise the state minimum wage, combat wage theft, and empower working people to join together to fix their jobs and strengthen democracy inside and out of the workplace.
That’s why, since 1999, the Charlotte Labor Day Parade Committee has organized the largest and one of the only Labor Day parades held in North Carolina with the support of unions like IBEW Local 379. “It’s important to us, and I do believe it’s important to the people who aren’t in a union,” said Local 379 president Scott Thrower:
“This is the one day of the year that we actually take time out and celebrate what labor has done for us. So I hope we continue to have it for next 100 years and it doesn’t go away.”
Ben Lee of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, is the chairman of the CLDPC:
Lee thought back to the working conditions that past laborers fought for — the 40-hour workweek, healthcare and vacations. It was not an easy fight. That’s why Labor Day is an important day for us to remember the sacrifices people made in pursuit of better conditions for their families and future generations, he said.
“To organize, it takes some personal strength to risk what you got to organize a union or workers group … You’re going to have to band together and use your personal fortitude if you’re going to risk what you got to organize. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is,” Lee said.
That includes the Southern laborers who rose up and fought tooth-and-nail for better conditions. Whether a worker is in a union or not, it’s important to remember the people who risk their lives and their livelihood to secure the laws and regulations that we have today.
Now, it’s important to keep the celebration of Labor Day alive in an effort to never forget what people such as Ella May Wiggins fought and died for.
McMillan has faith in the future of labor laws and workers’ rights, with the recent upswing of coalitions, faith groups and organizations that are working to raise wages, educate workers and advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves.
“I’m hopeful. I think that young people are fired up and more women than ever are running for public office,” McMillan said. “Working people want things to change in this country and in this state. And I believe that we’re going to see significant changes as a result of this election.”
Read “A Look at Labor Conditions and the New South’s Historic Ties to Organization” and share this post on Facebook and retweet this tweet.
Learn more about the 2018 Charlotte Labor Day parade at https://www.facebook.com/events/225123311605949/.
Join the fight to enact a $15/hour minimum wage in North Carolina at https://raisingwagesnc.org/.