State of the unions

Labor eyes public employees to bolster ranks that, though they are weak, still stir strong opposition.
By Edward Martin

 

Picket signs bob in a sea of several hundred people milling on the lawn of the State Capitol. “Stop the War Against the Poor!” they read. “Save the American Dream!” Standing at a lectern in a prim blue dress, Doranna Anderson tells the group that she has taught dental hygiene for 19 years in state schools. “We haven’t had a raise in three years. Now the governor wants to give big corporations tax cuts.”

“Go back to Cuba!” Across Morgan Street, a 40ish man in a brown blazer yells into a bullhorn, its roar reverberating off downtown Raleigh’s buildings. “No more unions, no more unions,” his followers chant. On Anderson’s side, a Harley-Davidson slowly rumbles by, a few feet from where a man argues chest-to-chest with a policeman pushing him away from the curb. “But they’re on the sidewalk,” he protests, pointing across the street. “Fuck unions!” the motorcyclist shouts as he passes.

For nearly a century, the emotions flaring here have inflamed North Carolina, divided workplaces and bloodied the landscape. Suburbs sprawl where mill villages stood, but passions are as raw as ever. However, here in the nation’s least-unionized state, the battleground, like the economy, is shifting.

From teachers, firefighters and police officers to garbage collectors and airport security screeners, there are 555,000 public employees in the state. Though the recession and government budget cuts have stunted its growth, the public sector employs more Tar Heels than any other, while manufacturing, once the stronghold of organized labor, has slipped to fourth place. Between 2005 and 2010, nearly 140,000 factory jobs vanished, most going overseas. But jobs such as those of these Raleigh cops aren’t going anywhere. Nor will many of those of the 55,000-member State Employees Association of North Carolina, which organized this rally to support Wisconsin public employees who were stripped of collective-bargaining rights.

“We’re no longer going to have permanent enemies or permanent friends,” says Dana Cope, the association’s executive director. “We’re going to have permanent issues, issues that affect working families.” Though North Carolina is one of only two states — Virginia the other — that prohibits public bodies from bargaining with unions, Cope minces no words about his association being one. “In fact, the association has been a union since founded in 1940. It just never called itself one because of the cultural bias that existed in the state.”

That changed in 2008, when members voted to affiliate with Service Employees International Union. SEIU, which has 2.1 million members, ranks among the nation’s fastest growing, most aggressive labor organizations. “We decided that since we were one of the largest independent associations of state employees in the South,” Cope says, “we wanted to team up with what we saw as one of the biggest and baddest international unions in North America.”

That’s one reason the rally drew a counterprotest almost equal in size. It would have been larger, its tea party organizers say, if they’d had more time: They put it together in 24 hours. Anti-unionism runs deep in this state. It is a plank in the platform of the Republican Party, which now controls the legislature. “Certainly there were injustices in the 1800s, but now the common worker as an individual has every tool they need to stand up for themselves,” says Rob Lockwood, state GOP communications director. He calls unions an anachronism but paints them as a present threat to the commonweal: “Right-to-work states hold a competitive advantage.”

The rally and the reaction to it underscores not only one of the most explosive divides in Tar Heel politics but a paradox: Unions of all stripes are barely a ripple in North Carolina’s labor pool. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show they represented fewer than one Tar Heel worker in 30 in 2010, a rate so low that when Democrats announced in February they would hold their 2012 national convention in Charlotte, more than a dozen national unions threatened a boycott, citing the state’s anti-union laws and hostile attitude toward labor.

Even the convention, which is expected to generate more than $250 million, unleashed bitterness. Unsuccessful Charlotte mayoral candidate Scott Stone, a Republican, and state GOP leaders accuse Democrats of conspiring to use convention contracts to give union construction and service companies a toehold in the Queen City. Unions, Stone says, “do more harm than any other single factor” to the economy. Through mid-December, Democrats say, three contracts had been awarded to six companies, only one of them union. Republicans dispute that.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs North Carolina union membership at about 117,000, 3.2% of the workforce, in 2010, but about 180,000 — 4.9% — were represented by unions. The difference is what labor leaders call “freeloaders.” Since 1947, North Carolina has been a right-to-work state, which means employees don’t have to join unions even if their jobs are covered by a collective-bargaining contract. They don’t pay dues but get the same pay and benefits and are under the same work rules as union members.

Some say the bureau’s membership figure is too low. They point out that the State Employees Association illustrates a new definition of union, one in which strikes and walkouts are not necessarily synonymous with organized labor. “We don’t want to go on strike,” says Don Ragavage, a fire captain and president of the 140-member Local 129 of the International Association of Firefighters in Wilmington. “We’re not against the citizens. They’re the people who pay our salaries.” Firefighters supported a no-strike clause in the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation to streamline union elections that failed in Congress in 2009. “We just want a voice on issues that affect our own and the public’s safety.”

A former Henderson pickle-plant worker, James Andrews has been president of the state American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations since 1997. He calculates that fewer than 225,000 North Carolinians belong to unions, even by a generous definition that includes public-employee groups. That includes roughly 150,000 members and retirees in unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO in a workforce of 3.7 million. The high-water mark of the American labor movement came in 1953, when unions represented 25.9% of the nation’s nonfarm workforce. In 2010, it was 11.9%, down from 12.3% in 2009. Even at its peak, North Carolina never reached that.

At a worn conference table in a house with creaking floors that was built in the early 1900s, he assesses labor’s prospects. This is headquarters of the state’s largest labor organization, just a few blocks down Hillsborough Street from state GOP headquarters. The antithesis of the hyperbolic, fire-breathing labor leader, Andrews, 63, is soft-spoken, as at ease in coat and tie lobbying legislators as in shirtsleeves at local union halls. He laughs, then whispers in a mock, conspiratorial voice: “I’m one of those high-paid union bosses you hear so much about.” He earns about $80,000 a year. His organization has a staff of four and an annual budget “a good bit under a half million — probably closer to $250,000.”

The picture that emerges is one of an institution under siege, scrambling to adapt to changing workplaces while deflecting attacks from formidable foes, including the state itself. The N.C. Department of Commerce, despite promising the AFL-CIO it would end the practice, continues to court out-of-state companies by advertising “the lowest unionization rate in the nation.” “The numbers are low, but they don’t tell all of the story,” says David Zonderman, a professor of history at N.C. State University. “Unions still have some small voice in North Carolina. It’s not as small as their numbers might suggest, but it’s certainly not as big or threatening as their critics say.” Demonized by politicians, trade organizations, industry boosters and a host of other enemies, they’re trapped in a dichotomy: The least-unionized state in America is its most anti-union.

Outside a window of the old house, the morning has turned to gray drizzle. “To hear it most of the time, we’re small and unimportant,” Andrews says. “But when things go wrong, when the economy goes bad, we’re the ones you should fear. We’re going to run business away. We’re going to demand so many rules you can’t function.” He laughs quietly. “I’m the boogeyman.”

 

Hurry, the woman at the chamber of commerce says. “They’re working on it today, and they’re almost finished.” In the mountains northeast of Asheville, demolition crews are carting away the last crumpled red brick of a freshly demolished building. What happened here at Marion Manufacturing Co. in 1929 helps explain why North Carolina has so few union members in 2012.

Sheriff’s deputies shot and killed six unarmed textile-mill strikers and wounded several dozen others in what became known as the Marion Massacre. The same year, the Gaston County sheriff and union leader Ella May Wiggins were killed in violence stemming from organizing efforts at Loray Mill in Gastonia. Mill owners called on the National Guard to break the General Textile Strike of 1934 with bayonets and machine guns.

The legacy, including infiltration by communist organizers, still colors attitudes in North Carolina. “A few years ago, researchers interviewed men and women in their 80s and 90s who hadn’t talked about the 1934 strike for 50 years,” Zonderman says. “Some still talked about their fear: ‘After the strike, we went back to the mills with our tails between our legs and were told to keep our mouths shut.’ Companies said, ‘Try it again and you’ll be in even bigger trouble.’”

The early mills and factories, ventures of Northern industrialists who came South in search of cheap labor and homegrown entrepreneurs seeking to resurrect a region the Civil War had left in ruins, found a ready supply of low-wage workers in the poor families fleeing worn-out farms. This was a pool that would be replenished, again and again, for generations. “You have to ask, low-wage relative to what? It beat working on a tobacco farm,” says Jim Johnson, a UNC Chapel Hill business professor. “When Union Carbide came to Greenville, my dad got a job working there for $7 an hour, when the same plant in New York was paying $20. But we thought we’d died and gone to heaven.” Still, workers and workplaces change, and those low wages couldn’t compete with dirt-cheap labor in other countries. Now it’s not just low-skill jobs that are leaving. “The silent elephant in the room, particularly in the service sector, is the shift of white-collar jobs offshore,” Johnson says. “The same thing that happened on the blue-collar side of the equation is now shifting to the white-collar side. Any job that can be done on a computer lends itself to being done halfway around the world for a fifth or 10th of the cost.”

If a union-free labor force attracts jobs, asks Harry Payne, a former North Carolina labor commissioner, why does North Carolina have one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates? It recently stood at 10.4%, compared with 8% in New York, which, with 24% of its labor force represented, is the nation’s most-unionized state. Ohio — often portrayed by industry hunters as North Carolina’s chief rival in attracting business — has 13.7% of its workers represented. Its unemployment rate: 9%. The answer might lie in the 137,100 jobs North Carolina lost between 2005 and 2010. Most were low-wage, nonunion textile jobs.

“You hear that public unions are bankrupting states,” Zonderman says. “Well, look in North Carolina. We have no public unions [with collective bargaining], but we still have deficits because of the lack of revenue. Last winter, when all this was going on in Wisconsin, the unemployment rate there was 2.5 percentage points lower than in North Carolina, and the deficit, as a percentage of the budget, was almost identical to ours.” But sometimes the facts don’t seem to matter. “The other side just keeps beating that drum.”

 

How else has being the nation’s least-unionized state affected North Carolina? Greasy footprints in black soot are part of the answer: In 1991, trapped chicken-processing workers futilely tried to kick their way through padlocked exits as a flash fire roared through Imperial Foods Inc. in the Sandhills town of Hamlet. Twenty-five died, and 54 more were injured. The plant had moved from Pennsylvania 11 years earlier to escape unions. It had never been inspected for safety.

The owner was sentenced to 19 years in prison for manslaughter. “That fire was not the fault of any employee,” says Payne, labor commissioner from 1993 to 2001. “It took place in a culture that did not value safety at all, one in which workers were scared to death to tell anyone. That’s happening more these days.” Labor Department records indicate that the state inspected about 4,500 workplaces in the fiscal year that ended in July, fewest in a decade. Workplace deaths in fiscal 2010 rose from 34 the previous fiscal year to 48.

In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains nearly 100 miles northwest of Hamlet is a contrasting perspective on workplace safety. In a sprawling plant that dominates the rural community of Cleveland, employees of Freightliner LLC, a division of Stuttgart, Germany-based Daimler AG, build large trucks. “It’s a little noisy,” Corey Hill says, “but everything here is heavy — and loud.”

Hill, 41, grew up a few miles from the plant in Rowan County and graduated from Catawba College in nearby Salisbury. A Freightliner employee for two decades, he is president of Local 3520 of United Autoworkers of America. With about 900 members, it’s one of the state’s largest union locals. “We have a UAW safety representative who does audits in every area of the plant. We’re not 100% accident-free — if you pinch your finger and go to the nurse, that’s reported as an accident — but we haven’t had anything major in the 20 years I’ve been here.”

The impact of unions, or lack of them, is less obvious in a modern building of reddish marble on North Wilmington Street in Raleigh. Some believe that the dry statistics that doze here provide answers. In 2011, N.C. Department of Commerce researchers compiled an economic index that found state median household income of $41,906 in 2009 had fallen from 91% to 84% of the national median since 2004. The drop, the researchers say, was worse than in six states North Carolina considers competitors for attracting business: South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Anti-union forces say low wages allow North Carolina to attract jobs that would go elsewhere, a position the state itself underscores. The Department of Commerce as recently as November advertised “affordable labor” to entice out-of-state companies. In the Freightliner plant, Hill says most workers have “topped out” because of seniority. Average pay is about $24 an hour, nearly $50,000 a year. In contrast, workers in the public sector in North Carolina — about 8,000 firefighters, 33,000 police officers, 210,000 teachers and 88,000 state employees among them — average about $42,000 a year. Higher wages don’t disappear into thin air. They circulate through the economy. In fact, some economists say cheap labor comes at a price: It’s a magnet for fickle employers. “Those industries move here, no question, to escape unions in the Northeast,” says Johnson, who’s also director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center in Chapel Hill. “... If you think there’s a low per capita wage here, look at what they pay in those emerging markets — Mexico, China and the other places.”

The AFL-CIO’s Andrews calls it “a race to the bottom,” one that, in Zonderman’s view, is altering economic strata in North Carolina. “The lack of unions isn’t the only reason the middle class is disappearing, but productivity has nearly doubled since 1980, and real wages adjusted for inflation have remained nearly stagnant. If you want to rebuild the middle class, one way to do it is to have a healthy labor movement.”

If unions are going to gain ground in North Carolina, the Raleigh confrontation might be an early skirmish. The two sides were separated by taut-jawed Raleigh police officers. Ironically, many are members of Teamsters Local 391, based in Colfax, between Greensboro and Winston-Salem. Public employees may be the best hope for Tar Heel labor and the worst nightmare of union opponents.

 

There’s a man in there, neighbors scream as Engine 5 chuffs to a stop. Don Ragavage crawls on his hands and knees into the burning house under cover of water from the fire truck’s powerful hose. Suddenly, the water stops as the engine fails in the 16-year-old truck. A Wilmington Fire Department mechanic had warned this could happen, but when Ragavage and other firemen asked for a new truck, a City Council member had a snippy response: Get a new mechanic.

Another truck arrived, and the homeowner, it turned out, wasn’t in the house. But the city’s stand on safety issues isn’t unusual, union leaders say. “The fire chief and city manager will tell you real quick, ‘This is a right-to-work state, and we’ve got people lined up out the door who want to be a fireman,’” says Ragavage, a 27-year veteran.

A state law enacted in 1959 bars negotiations between public bodies and unions. “Because we can’t have collective-bargaining agreements with municipalities and any other government entities, we have to take a different approach,” says Chip Roth, spokesman for Local 391, whose roughly 8,000 members include police officers in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Wilmington, Reidsville and other cities. “We can still become the public voice of those workers with various police departments, school boards and so on. No, we can’t strike, but I’m not sure how important that is these days. Job actions are pretty rare these days, and the majority of negotiations aren’t that contentious.”

N.C. Department of Commerce researchers say that between 2001 and 2010, private-sector employment statewide dropped 1.6% while public-sector jobs increased 12.3%. Local 391, the bulk of whose members are United Parcel Service workers, is one of the rare unions in North Carolina that’s growing, with membership up 38% in five years. “We did that mainly by organizing in the public sector,” Roth says. And, he adds, with shrewd politics. In North Carolina, that’s the strong suit of a weak union movement.

Republican spokesman Lockwood calls organized labor “the political arm of the Democratic Party.” In the 2008 presidential election, state Board of Elections reports show, labor groups spent about $5 million in North Carolina, mostly for Democrats. Much of that, however, came from out-of-state sources, such as about $1.8 million from SEIU, the parent organization of the state employees union. The AFL-CIO’s Andrews says most of his organization’s contributions were $500 or less.

Since taking control of the state House and Senate for the first time since the late 1800s, Republicans have attempted to end payroll dues deductions for the 70,000 members of the North Carolina Association of Educators. Though not a union, it’s affiliated with the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, which is. Republicans are escalating the attack. They want to amend the constitution to make the state’s right-to-work status irrevocable.

The state’s two largest groups of public employees take different approaches to the new political landscape. After joining SEIU in 2008, the State Employees Association has distanced itself from its traditional Democratic allies and found an open door to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s office and that of House Speaker Thom Tillis. In 2010, it targeted former House Majority Leader Hugh Holliman, a Democrat, after a split over how the state health-insurance plan was structured. “We spent significant resources — probably $200,000 — to support his opponent,” Cope says. Republican Rayne Brown was elected. The teachers group — whose representatives refused comment for this article — remains linked to Democrats.

At the workplace level, union leaders hope, the new generation of public-employee unions will at least be able to act as collective mouthpieces for their members. “Under the state’s general statutes, we can’t negotiate a contract,” Ragavage says. “But we could sit down with the city manager, mayor, City Council, the fire chief and talk about safety issues, the manning of trucks and things like pay studies. We can’t negotiate our pay, but we could discuss how budget cuts affect the safety of our citizens.”

In what could be the biggest paradox of all, Andrews says, the success of North Carolina’s anti-union politicians and employers could revive the labor movement. “Bad employers are good for unions. The historic peak of unions in this nation came out of the Depression, out of bad times, when people said, ‘We can’t take it anymore.’ We’re watching the middle class disappear now, and as it shrinks, you’ve got that rush to the bottom.”

A few months earlier, several blocks away on a Raleigh street corner, two groups — one pro-, one anti-union — had hurled insults at one another. Both sides were well-dressed. One carried signs saying: “No More Unions!” The other: “Save the Middle Class.” Their numbers were about equal.