October 1, 2020
In 2020, a convention unlike any other
Over 200 delegates and guests met over Zoom to hold the North Carolina State AFL-CIO’s 63rd annual convention on September 24th and 25th. Speakers included Sara Steffens, Secretary-Treasurer of the Communication Workers (CWA), Fred Redmond, International Vice-President of the Steelworkers (USW), Governor Roy Cooper, U.S. Senate-candidate Cal Cunningham, NC Attorney General Josh Stein, and Jessica Holmes, candidate for NC Labor Commissioner.
NC AFL-CIO President MaryBe McMillan opened the convention with a call for workers in general and union members in particular to seize the opportunity for change. “We can inspire people to action at a time when complacency and inaction stand in the way of desperately needed change. We can seize this moment and we can build a bigger, bolder, broader labor movement. A movement that leaves no worker behind. A movement that can change this country now and for the future.”
Many speakers stressed the importance of North Carolina in what will be a tightly contested vote to elect federal and state leaders who will pass pro-worker legislation. Candidates highlighted their plans for workplace safety, raising wages, and ending the 60-year state ban on government-employee collective bargaining.
Politics today, policy wins tomorrow
Political victories can lead to policy wins, as has been the case in Virginia, where the state AFL-CIO led an effort to flip seats in the state legislature and elect a Democratic governor during midterm elections. Doris Crouse-Mays, President of the Virginia AFL-CIO, and Elizabeth Guzman, Delegate to the Virginia Legislature talked about how patience, planning, and persistence opened the door to progressive policy change when, in 2019, Virginia voters elected pro-worker majorities in the state legislature. Since then, Virginia has repealed the ban on public sector union contracts, raised the minimum wage, and was the first state in the nation to enact an emergency infectious disease standard to protect workers during the pandemic.
Jessica Holmes for NC Labor Commissioner
Jessica Holmes, a union member, has a chance to replace 20-year incumbent Cherie Berry as Commissioner of the North Carolina Department of Labor. Berry, who decided not to seek reelection, has led a state Department of Labor which has been notoriously lax on employers by cutting breaks on fines for campaign contributors, failing to defend workers from illegal employer retaliation, turning a blind eye to rampant wage theft, and refusing to issue standards to keep workers from contracting COVID-19 on the job.
To help elect champions like Jessica Holmes, NC State AFL-CIO board members and staff shared opportunities to get involved in labor’s 2020 political work: phone banks, postcard campaigns, voter registration, and education around vote-by-mail.
Convention attendees congratulated nurses at Mission Hospital in Asheville for their successful NLRB vote for representation by National Nurses United. Lesley Bruce, a nurse at Mission, spoke to delegates about their win during a global pandemic and despite an aggressive union-busting effort by the largest for-profit hospital corporation in the United States. Bruce recognized the perseverance of nurses and organizers involved and the support and pressure provided by the community and local politicians.
This long campaign was made more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Our conditions went from being really bad to worse. We were not only fighting for our patients lives but our lives,” Bruce said. “At the same time HCA ramped up their union busting. We were taken away from patient care and made to sit in captive-audience meetings.” Nurses voted overwhelmingly in September for representation by National Nurses United.
Later in the program, MaryBe McMillan presented UAW Local 2404 in Charlotte with the 2020 P.R. Latta Rank-and-File award for their successful strike against General Motors for a new contract in 2019. UAW 2404 President Marc McQuillen accepted the award on behalf of members and thanked fellow union members for joining their strike in solidarity.
Resolving to do better
Delegates also adopted a package of resolutions to guide the work of North Carolina’s labor federation in the coming year, including Resolution #4: Standing Up for Racial Justice. Delegates and board members spoke on the importance of building solidarity across racial differences.