Labor pains

Contrary to popular belief, Labor Day wasn’t always about cookouts and watermelon-seed-spitting contests.

When Asheville’s first Labor Day parade marched down Patton Avenue back in 1894, factory workers would commonly grind away for 14 hours, six days a week. But organized labor was already making inroads here in the mountains: By 1902, many local workers had joined unions, including stonemasons, plumbers, bricklayers, carpenters, joiners, even barkeeps and retail clerks. In fact, the nation’s first major child-labor legislation, passed in 1916, came about after local and national labor groups convened a national organizing meeting in Asheville, according to a 1994 article by historian Dan McCurry in Haywood County’s The Enterprise newspaper (now The Enterprise Mountaineer). The 1929 East Marion Cotton Mill strike, in which six workers were killed, was what stunted the first flowering of unions here, McCurry writes.

According to 2005 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership in North Carolina’s work force today hovers somewhere around 2.9 percent — about a half-percent higher than South Carolina, which ranks lowest in the nation. The national average is around 13 percent.

When asked about the state of organized labor, Curtis Shew, president of Local 3601 of the Communications Workers of America, doesn’t pull his punches, declaring: “I think all of America is at the beck and call of the rich. Companies spend millions on trying to keep the unions out. Why? They want to keep their spending down. They don’t want to pay for your health care.”

Thanks to decades of struggle, workers in Shew’s union enjoy higher wages and more benefits than similar, nonunionized industries, he says.

At the same time, Shew worries about what the future holds for organized labor. “History repeats itself,” he notes. “We’ve always been as strong as our members. As long as our members are willing to stand up, we can do anything. But we’ve got a lot of young ones who have never had to fight for what they’ve been given.”

The primary challenge facing the local in recent years was the 2001 closing of a call center in Asheville, which slashed about 250 jobs: nearly half the union’s membership. “That’s just business,” Shew says regretfully, noting that it’s not something the union has much say about.

Shew says the primary reason union membership in general has suffered in this area is outsourcing. “Laws like NAFTA absolutely killed us. Back when it was about to be passed, Ross Perot told us, ‘You’re going to hear a huge sucking sound.’ Well, we’re still hearing it.”

In 1998, Dayco — a unionized rubber plant once located in Waynesville — shipped their operation to Mexico, leaving an environmentally degraded, 30-acre Brownfields site in its place. Despite that loss, Haywood County still boasts one of the most prominent unions in the area, thanks to the Smoky Mountain Local 507 of the United Steelworkers of America, composed largely of the more than 1,000 employees of Canton’s Blue Ridge Paper Company mill. In 1999, a worker buyout granted mill workers 40 percent ownership of the company, in exchange for a 15 percent pay cut.

“At first we did real well,” says Howard Taylor, president of Smoky Mountain Local 507, who is proud that his company produces what he calls “the best juice carton in the world.” But due to equipment malfunctions and economic fluctuation, he says, the mill “fell on lean times” in recent years. “Still, we’ve got good health insurance and good retirement; a union is what gives you all that. As for the management, they don’t want me here, but I’m here and they’re going to have to deal with me. No corporation likes a union, after all.”

But Darryl Douglas, vice president of human resources at the Canton mill, describes management’s relationship with the union as “very collaborative. When issues arise, we have a good enough relationship that we can resolve them as best we can.” Douglas says his position is unique, in that the plant is partly worker-owned. Typically, he says, relationships between unions and companies look somewhat different. “Because of right-to-work laws, unions are slow to catch on around here. There seems to be a feeling in a lot of companies that union membership doesn’t add any value to the work force,” he notes. These companies’ stance, says Douglas, is that “they’ll provide the best wages and benefits possible, whether or not there are unions.”

North Carolina’ is one of 22 right-to-work states, which means workers cannot be required to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment — even if they receive union benefits.

Larry Sorrells, state president of the American Postal Workers Union, agrees that right-to-work laws have put a damper on organized labor. “If you choose that right not to join, you should have to pay a representation fee to the union,” Sorrells maintains. “We’re the ones who are fighting for all of the benefits.”

Sorrells became a postal worker in 1968 and joined the union two weeks later. He was elected president of the local in 1980, became state president in 2002, and serves as an officer with the state AFL-CIO. The postal workers are “pretty far up the ladder” in terms of wages and benefits, he says, compared with other governmental workers. But it didn’t happen overnight, and over the years, Sorrells says he’s stood on the picket lines to support other locals.

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