Labor pains: WNC unions at a crossroads

UNION DAYS: Approximately 90 workers and organizers of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees of America, Local Div. No. 128 pose for a picture in April 1913. Despite North Carolina’s status as one of the least unionized states in the country, current-day local union chapters such as ATU 128, have a long history of organizing and advocating for workers’ rights in the Southern Highlands. Photo via the Norh Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville North Carolina

In Western North Carolina and across the country, labor unions seem to be a dying breed these days, and many local residents don’t seem overly concerned about it. Yet WNC’s complex history of unionization stretches back to the late 19th century. From high-profile labor disputes and the emergence of “right to work” laws to the decline of many union-heavy industries in the latter part of the 20th century, the region has been a microcosm of the fate of organized labor in the United States.

And as the local economy continues to evolve amid a tense political landscape, labor advocates here are fighting to keep unions alive — and initiating new strategies that they say are aimed at ensuring workers a fair piece of the pie.

Pioneering locals

“Asheville had one of the oldest Central Labor Union chapters in the U.S., founded in 1881 — five years before the birth of the American Federation of Labor,” notes local author Travis Byrd, who’s written several books on North Carolina labor history. “Delegates from the area were at the convention in 1886 that created the AFL as a national umbrella for labor organizations.”

Early unions here were among the country’s first local affiliates. The local chapter of the bricklayers’ union was No. 1 in the nation; other pioneering locals included those for barkeepers (No. 101) and electrical workers (No. 23).

“It was just like the North was at one point,” says Mark Case, former head of the WNC Central Labor Council and a member of the American Postal Workers Union. “Haywood County was one of the most unionized counties in the country.” Asheville, meanwhile, “was the leading union [city] in the whole state.”

In the early 20th century, however, Northern manufacturers began moving into the region seeking cheaper labor, and by the 1920s, a kind of war was playing out between anti-labor forces and different unions competing to recruit new members. Matters came to a head in the “Summer of Dynamite” in 1929, when strikes and violence broke out at textile mills in Gastonia and Marion; Byrd chronicles these doings in his book Unraveled (see Cost of Labor: Revisiting the Marion Massacre, Oct. 8, 2015, Xpress). Amid a climate of dirty politics and union-busting, the violence and the lukewarm response of union organizers left a bad taste in the mouths of many locals, creating a more fertile ground for anti-union forces to spread their message.

“North Carolina does not want … a riotous interference with the right to work” declared a Sept. 8, 1934, editorial in The Asheville Citizen that lauded Gov. John Ehringhaus’ use of the National Guard to suppress labor strikes.

LABOR UNREST: Mill workers and residents face armed National Guard troops in front of the Marion Manufacturing textile mill during the 1929 strike. Violence would eventually break out between guards and striking workers, leaving six workers dead and souring the people of Marion on the idea of labor unions for generations to come. Photo via North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, North Carolina
LABOR UNREST: Mill workers and residents face armed National Guard troops in front of the Marion Manufacturing textile mill during the 1929 strike. Violence would eventually break out between guards and striking workers, leaving six workers dead and souring the people of Marion on the idea of labor unions for generations to come. Photo via North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, North Carolina

Ironically, the term “right to work” had been used by the AFL in a 1930 “Organize the South” campaign. The 1934 editorial, notes Byrd, who’s writing a doctoral dissertation on the origins of the state’s labor laws, “is the first instance I’ve found in any contemporary media of the use of the term ‘right to work’ in conjunction with the exercise of state power. A subtle shift in language and its meaning began to take hold in the minds of those who made public policy, those who ran the factories, and those who labored in the mills and went to the polls on Election Day.”

The rise of right-to-work laws

The labor conflicts of the 1920s also set the stage for the enactment of right-to-work laws in North Carolina. These statutes, passed in 1947, prohibit contracts requiring workers to join a union or make payments to one; they also bar state agencies from entering into collective bargaining agreements and limit agricultural workers’ right to organize. Currently, 28 states have such laws on the books.

Proponents say it’s a basic question of fairness. “Right to work is a simple concept: Every worker should be able to decide for him or herself whether or not to join and pay dues to a union,” says Caleb Young, communications manager for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. “It doesn’t stop anyone from joining a union or paying dues if they want to; it’s just about giving individual employees freedom of choice.”

These provisions, Young maintains, are in line with the wishes of most American workers: A 2014 Gallup Poll found 71 percent support for right-to-work laws, including 65 percent of Democrats; in the same poll, 77 percent of Democrats also supported unions.

Ben Wilterdink, the director of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Commerce, Insurance and Economic Development Task Force, agrees with Young. “Workers are undoubtedly better off when they have a real choice; right to work guarantees this choice by protecting their right of free association without fear of losing their job,” says Wilterdink, whose organization lobbies state governments and provides sample legislation promoting a conservative agenda.

“The problem is, the boss man has millions of dollars and the worker has nothing,” says professor David Zonderman of N.C. State University, a specialist in labor history. “That’s an argument from the 19th century. You can say ‘liberty of contract’ — that every man is free to bargain how he wants — well, not really, when there’s such phenomenal power and wealth imbalance.”

Wilterdink, though, also asserts that right-to-work laws spur economic growth. “In the 35-year period between 1977 and 2012, right-to-work states grew their employment by 105.3 percent — more than double the 50 percent growth experienced by states without right to work.”

Maybe so, but “workers in states with so-called right-to-work laws consistently have lower wages, higher poverty, less access to health care and poorer education for their children,” notes MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s North Carolina chapter. Data from the U.S Department of Labor and the U.S Census Bureau, she points out, indicate that in 2016, nonunion members earned 79 percent of what unionized workers made.

In a Feb. 6 op-ed piece in the Washington Examiner, however, Wilterdink disputed this statistic, writing, “States without a right-to-work law … actually have less purchasing power when you account for cost-of-living differences.”

But numbers aside, labor advocates say, right-to-work laws are flat-out unfair. Brian Ball, secretary-treasurer of Local 61 of the Teamsters Union, says they “are essentially ‘right to be a freeloader’ laws” that give “employees the right to not join a union but receive the benefits the union has achieved for its dues-paying members. Can you imagine going to the Chamber of Commerce and telling them you want to join their business organization and you want all the benefits they offer for free?”

Perhaps not surprisingly, unions are generally more prevalent in the 22 states that don’t have right-to-work laws, Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows. Of the 25 states with the most union members, only five — Michigan, Indiana, Nevada, West Virginia and Kentucky — have right-to-work laws, and the latter two only passed those laws this year.

Nonetheless, argues Jim Palkovic, vice president of Local 128 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, there’s strength in numbers. “You’ll hear people say they can go in by themselves and negotiate a better deal or defend themselves,” he says, adding, “You may be able to do that, but [management] pays more attention when 50 people are standing in the doorway rather than one.”

Following the money

Despite right-to-work laws, union membership remained strong in WNC and throughout the South into the early 1980s. Sexton Dale, a member of the International Chemical Workers Union since 1964, says he was attracted to the unionized SGL Carbon Plant in Morganton because it offered “the best pay and benefits in the area.”

Before that, he explains, “I spent about four years in the furniture industry; the first chance I got, I went to the Carbon Plant.” And at nearby nonunion plants, Dale maintains, “Wages and everything stayed close to ours, because they didn’t want the union voted in.”

John Murphy joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in 1982 while working in Tampa, Fla., to ensure a stable future for himself and his family. But over time, as he got more involved in the organization’s regional activities, he realized the deep impact unions could have on workers’ lives.

“I’m reluctant to draw parallels to churches, but the church isn’t the building or even the preacher: The church is the congregation,” says Murphy, who moved to Franklin in 2008 and became regional coordinator for the Carolinas in 2012. “That’s kind of how the union was to me. The members looked out for one another; we helped each other out.”

Matt Ballance joined the Asheville Fire Fighters Association (Local 865 of the International Association of Fire Fighters) shortly after graduating from the academy in 2008. For professional firefighters, he says, “Having the IAFF at your back is a big thing.” Since becoming the Asheville chapter’s secretary-treasurer in 2012, Ballance says he’s seen similar enthusiasm among new recruits, whose union participation is “almost 100 percent. They want to be involved, want to be in the know, and want to have a hands-on role in issues affecting them.”

Palkovic, meanwhile, says right-to-work laws can sometimes draw nonunion workers into the fold. “When they get in trouble and the union defends them, they usually see the benefit of having the union membership; they view it more as an insurance policy for their job.”

Josh Rhodes, president of the WNC Central Labor Council, puts it this way: “It’s like a seesaw. On the one end is the employees; management’s on the other end. If management’s got you up in the air, you’re held hostage. With a collective bargaining agreement, you’re not on the end of the seesaw by yourself — you’ve got your co-workers with you to balance it out.”

Fall from grace

But as WNC’s manufacturing and textile industry jobs declined beginning in the 1980s, union membership in the region also waned.

The workforce at the SGL Plant, says Dale, has fallen from a high of about 550, the vast majority of whom were union members, to roughly 100 today. “The steel industry’s lost so much, and a lot of the specialty carbon stuff we did, they no longer do,” he reveals. “It’s just a shell of what it used to be.”

Exact numbers are hard to come by: Few official tallies exist at the local level, and chapters are often reluctant to share that information, says Rhodes, whose organization serves as an umbrella for AFL-CIO-affiliated unions in the area. He pegs total union membership in the region at about 6,000.

A list of the major active unions in the Asheville metropolitan area (Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties), based on U.S. Department of Labor statistics for 2015-16. This does not include public employees’ associations, which cannot engage in collective bargaining negotiations under North Carolina law.
A list of the major active unions in the Asheville metropolitan area (Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties), based on U.S. Department of Labor statistics for 2015-16. This does not include public employees’ associations, which cannot engage in collective bargaining negotiations under North Carolina law.

In many cases, the decline has been dramatic.

The Communications Workers of America “used to have around 1,500 members; now they’re down to about 110,” notes Case. “My union, the American Postal Workers, has dropped from 270 to 150 locally.” The restructuring of the American Enka plant in the early 1980s, he adds, was “the biggest punch.” From about 1,500 members at the union’s height, enrollment is now down to about 120.

Statewide, union membership has declined from a high point of 9.4 percent of the workforce in 1979 to a low of 1.9 percent in 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And today, at just 3 percent of the workforce, North Carolina has the second-lowest union membership rate in the United States, behind only South Carolina.

Without the examples that unions can provide, however, improving wages and protecting workers becomes more challenging, argues Vicki Meath, executive director of Just Economics. “In other places around the country, we’ve seen that a rising tide can lift all boats,” says Meath, whose organization advocates for higher pay in Asheville and environs. But in Buncombe County, “We have more of a race to the bottom than a drive toward the top.”

Misconceptions and shifting attitudes

Although the decline of traditionally union-heavy industries such as textiles and manufacturing may shed some light on dwindling union membership, the question remains: Why aren’t more of today’s workers forming or joining labor organizations?

One reason, says Byrd, is the shift from permanent, salaried employees to an hourly, subcontracted workforce. “Transient employees are less likely than full-time, stable workers to invest the time and commitment required to build an effective organization,” the labor historian maintains.

That’s what happened with the unsuccessful 2012 campaign by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to unionize workers at the Asheville Sitel Call Center, says Murphy, who was involved in the effort (see “Sitel Workers Mount Historic Union Organizing Drive,” Aug. 1, 2012, Xpress). “The bulk of the Sitel workers were younger folks that probably weren’t locked in on a career,” he explains. Given the company’s high rate of turnover, “Employees didn’t see the benefit of building a union at their workplace to make their future there.”

In addition, he continues, “years of misinformation” by anti-labor groups have given many people misguided ideas of what unions mean and what rights workers have. When he began working with the union, Murphy recalls, “My aunt heard about it and chewed my ass out: I was going to become a communist in her mind. It’s not that much different today in some people’s minds.”

Many workers, he continues, mistakenly believe that North Carolina’s right-to-work laws prohibit forming unions. “The person has to be educated so they understand that this is an option,” Murphy asserts. “You can’t do that usually in a five-minute conversation on the front porch.”

In addition, says Hunter Ogletree, executive director of the WNC Workers’ Center, undocumented immigrants, who account for a growing percentage of the local low-wage workforce, often fear that their employer will report them if they get involved with union organizing efforts. “Companies know this and use it to their advantage to create unjust work environments,” says Ogletree, whose organization provides support and education to Latino workers in Franklin, Asheville and Morganton.

Public-sector workers

North Carolina is one of only two states that expressly forbid their government agencies to enter into collective bargaining agreements with employees, and that restriction also hinders private-sector union activity, says Case.

The result, says former state Rep. Patsy Keever, “is basically collective begging.” “When I was elected to the Legislature in 2010, I was just astounded by the animosity toward the teachers and the NCAE,” remembers Keever, who also served as president of the local chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators.

Case, meanwhile, maintains that because of state employees’ high visibility, when they’re allowed “to be a union member, and the rights they obtain by being a union member, it promotes and grows the cause. Until North Carolina has the right to organize for their state employees, the unions are not going to grow.”

Nationally, public-sector workers across the country are more than five times more likely to belong to a union than private-sector workers, according to a 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

FOUNDING DOCUMENTS: The original charter of the Amalgamated Transit Union 128, on display at their office. Retired International VP of ATU Gary Rauen says that in addition to serving their members, ATU 128 serves as “the eyes of the community” for bus safety and cleanliness. Photo courtesy of ATU 128
FOUNDING DOCUMENTS: The original charter of the Amalgamated Transit Union 128, on display at their office. Retired International VP of ATU Gary Rauen says that in addition to serving their members, ATU 128 serves as “the eyes of the community” for bus safety and cleanliness. Photo courtesy of ATU 128

Changing strategies

With less direct power at the bargaining table, labor organizations often turn to lawmakers in hopes of influencing public policy.

“We have to be much more in tune with building working relationships, creating dialogue between ourselves and the people making decisions affecting our members, and educating them on the issues that affect us most,” says Ballance of the Fire Fighters Association. “Facts, logic and education are the biggest weapons we have.”

But while rallying the membership and other forms of political activity may be ways to indirectly affect public policy, recent elections in union-heavy states have revealed a growing schism among union members nationwide, Case maintains.

During the last election, he notes, the Henderson County Democratic Party “did more walks, more phone calling, more of everything” yet it couldn’t overcome the ideological divide among union members. “It was kind of like a protest vote: The members wanted something new, and Trump stated a lot of things that Hillary didn’t about workers’ rights and keeping [manufacturing] here in the U.S.”

Ballance, too, is aware of the split and says that to avoid potential conflicts, the fire fighters union chooses its political endorsements carefully. “We don’t care if you have an R or a D in front of your name — if you’re looking out for our overall good, that’s what we’re looking out for. I think that resonates with a lot of our members.”

Current initiatives

And if the future seems bleak for local unions, WNC labor leaders aren’t ready to throw in the towel just yet. Despite the failure of the Sitel organizing drive, notes Murphy, the effort did lead to an “improper labor practice” citation against the company and changes in its workplace policy handbook. (See Sitel Reaches Settlement on Labor Charges; Will Change Policies, Aug. 14, 2012, Xpress.)

And currently, he continues, his union is looking at Southern utility workers who might be interested in organizing; it’s also reaching out to people who are covered by collective bargaining agreements but haven’t joined the union.

“Part of every union’s organizing is to try and get the opportunity to talk to these people that currently, under the law, get to ‘eat their breakfast without paying,’” says Murphy. “We try to convince them it’s in everyone’s best interest, including their own: The economy of scale lowers the cost for everybody and makes it more efficient and better service” for workers.

Similarly, notes Ball, Local 61 of the Teamsters Union is working with the Land-O-Sun Dairies, Wilkes Telecommunications and the French Broad Food Co-op on contract negotiations. The Teamsters are also planning a new organizing campaign for this spring.

In the public sector, three Amalgamated Transit Union representatives — Gary Rauen (the now retired vice president of the international Amalgamated Transit Union), Diane Allen (the president of ATU 128) and Palkovic (the vice president of ATU 128) — met with city of Asheville officials recently to discuss potential changes in the transit system’s management contract, and the union continues to serve as “the eyes of the community” in monitoring bus safety and cleanliness, says Rauen.

“When you have a bus down, you’ve got a route that’s not operating, and that’s huge,” adds Allen. “People are depending on us every single day, and we take that seriously.”

The firefighters union, meanwhile, is lobbying City Council about the city’s decision to discontinue retiree health benefits for employees hired after July 1, 2012, says Ballance. “Our concern with that is we have a very, very large segment of our membership who are going to be retiring 10 or 15 years before they can hit Medicare, in a profession that is scientifically proven to be more dangerous in regard to long-term health.”

And in Raleigh, the state AFL-CIO plans to lobby the Legislature to raise the minimum wage, repeal House Bill 2 and reverse recent cuts to unemployment insurance, McMillan reports.

The new face of labor

In industries where unions either aren’t present or lack clout, other labor organizations have stepped up to advocate for workers’ rights. Since 2002, the WNC Workers’ Center has spearheaded efforts to organize and empower Hispanic workers across the mountains. “We provide a safe space for workers to come together at least once a month to analyze different workplace issues,” Ogletree explains, “and then, collectively, come up with actions to address those issues.”

At the Case Farms poultry processing plant in Morganton, for example, the Workers’ Center is involved in a push to get bathroom breaks for workers. The nonprofit has also contributed testimonials and data to an Oxfam America campaign highlighting poor working conditions at poultry plants across the country (

Closer to home, the Asheville Sustainable Restaurant Workforce, founded in 2013, is trying to organize service industry employees and create dialogue with local restaurant owners on issues of concern, says co-founder Alia Todd. The organization, she explains, aims to boost these workers’ sense of self-worth, telling them, “It’s OK to ask questions, it’s OK to talk about your pay, and it’s OK to advocate for yourself.”

Other local groups, such as Just Economics, work with labor organizers to advocate for better pay. “We definitely have a lot of relationships with labor and a lot of collective, shared interest,” says Meath. “The first issue we’ve worked on as an organization is living wages. Nationwide, unions have been a leader in addressing issues related to a higher wage floor.”

Return to the roots

Ultimately, the extent of public involvement will play a crucial role in the fate of the local labor movement, Case maintains. “I think the everyday resident can look at where their dollars are going, research it a little bit, and see what the union does versus the nonunionized companies.”

For his part, Murphy hopes for a “return to the roots” of labor organizing, citing the Rev. William Barber’s Moral Monday movement as a template for bipartisan community action. “Tip O’Neill said all politics is local; I say all organizing is local,” Murphy says. “As we face the challenges in the future, attracting a variety of support — labor unions, social groups, churches, academics and journalists — will be key.”

Wilterdink of ALEC sees things moving in the opposite direction, however. “With the adoption of a right-to-work law in Missouri and ongoing discussions in other states, we have long passed the tipping point. Worker freedom is on the rise,” he wrote in his Feb. 6 op-ed piece.

For Byrd, though, the current political climate is nothing less than a call to arms to defend workers’ rights. “We face a new Gilded Age, a business-at-any-cost model of economic ‘development’ driven by exploitation and justified by right-to-work doctrine,” the historian asserts. “Workers and union leadership can either roll over or fight. And if we — as citizens and workers — believe in fair wages, an inherent right to workplace safety, and the principle of collective bargaining, it’s up to us to support union leaders’ efforts.”

Check out Xpress’ comprehensive map of unions across WNC at


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About Max Hunt
Max Hunt grew up in South (New) Jersey and graduated from Warren Wilson College in 2011. History nerd; art geek; connoisseur of swimming holes, hot peppers, and plaid clothing. Follow me @J_MaxHunt

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