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North Carolina Labor History Revealed

Jeremy Sprinkle
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Bringing North Carolina's rich history of worker organizing to light

UPDATE: NC Labor History Revealed now has its own website with more information and our new limited-series podcast! Find it all at or click here.

North Carolina’s low union density today belies its rich history of worker organizing since the birth of the American labor movement in the 1800s, but a new project by North Carolina's labor federation aims to bring that history to light.

The North Carolina Labor History Exhibit is a collection of 13 panels that illustrate the struggles and victories of people working in unions to secure their fair share of the wealth they create in North Carolina from the days of the Knights of Labor in the 19th Century to the formation of the Duke Faculty Union in 2016.

The North Carolina State AFL-CIO produced and unveiled this exhibit at its 60th Annual Convention in September 2017 and redesigned the exhibit in 2019. We are making the exhibit available to libraries, museums, union halls, and other public spaces so people today can learn about the struggles and victories their fellow North Carolinians met on the road to secure our freedom to join together in the workplace for a better life.

Each large-format, full-color panel tells the story of working women and men who, when pushed to their resistance point by textile magnates, tobacco giants, and multinational corporations, sought hope in solidarity with each other--sometimes at great personal cost. People like Ella May Wiggins, a mother of five who died when armed vigilantes fired into a crowd of demonstrating workers at Loray Mill in Gastonia in 1929, and Moranda Smith, an African American woman who led tobacco and textile workers to resist economic exploitation and the racial hierarchy in Winston-Salem in the 1940s.

No story told about the way we work in North Carolina would be complete without including the tales of everyday people who achieved extraordinary victories by working together. Victories like at Smithfield Foods in Tar Heel in 2008 when 5,000 people won the right to collectively negotiate for a better life after almost 17 years of trying, or when 8,000 farm workers overcame their exclusion from federal labor law protections with the signing of the largest collective agreement in North Carolina history, ending a 6-year boycott of Mt. Olive Pickle Company in 2003.

Requesting to display the exhibit

The North Carolina Labor History Exhibit can be displayed in full or in part, depending on the needs and available space of community groups or organizations wishing to display the exhibit.

Here are the panel titles. Click the thumbnails at the bottom of the post to get a closer look at each panel.

  1. Early Unions in North Carolina
  2. 1929 Loray Mill Strike in Gastonia
  3. 1929 Tragedy in Marion
  4. 1934 Textile General Strike
  5. Local 22: Civil Rights Unionism in Winston-Salem
  6. Operation Dixie
  7. J.P. Stevens Boycott and the Real "Norma Rae"
  8. 25 Years of Struggle: Cannon Mills Union Victory
  9. Victory at Smithfield
  10. Mt. Olive Pickle Boycott
  11. United Automobile Workers of North Carolina
  12. Faculty Forward! at Duke University
  13. Crossing the Color Line: Labor & the Civil Rights Movement in Durham

Each professionally printed, retractable banner measures 33” wide x 80” tall. Each banner stand has a footprint of 33" wide x 10" deep. If necessary to accommodate smaller spaces, panels can be arranged back-to-back. Just let us know using the “Additional Information” section when submitting your request to display the exhibit.

Complete this Google Form to ask to display the North Carolina Labor History Exhibit in your community:

For more information about the exhibit, contact Jeremy Sprinkle at 919-833-6678 or [email protected].