Opinion

In N.C., organized labor lacks clout

Rob Christensen in “The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics” (UNC Press, 2008):

…[T]he labor movement found North Carolina fallow ground. By 1939 only 4.2 percent of the nonagricultural workforce was unionized, the second-lowest percentage in the nation. North Carolina's industrial wages lagged near the bottom – a function of both the lack of unionization and the dominance of the low-paying textile industry. As late as the 1950s, North Carolina governors were using state power to break strikes….

North Carolina was the least-unionized state in the country in 2004, with only 2.7 percent of its workforce belonging to a union. In Mississippi, by contrast, 4.8 percent of its workers were union members.

The crushing of the labor movement in the 1920s meant that unlike in many northern and midwestern industrial states, there would be little check on the political power of the business community in North Carolina. The General Assembly continues to give business most of what it wants. And with rare exceptions, North Carolina still elects governors with close ties to the state's big banks, textile mills, tobacco companies, and utilities – even though North Carolina is among the most blue-collar states in the country.

Paul Luebke in “Tar Heel Politics 2000” (UNC Press, 1998):

From the 1950s through the 1980s North Carolina pursued an economic development strategy based on recruitment of out-of-state employers. The premise of this strategy, the so-called Buffalo Hunt, was that any out-of-state “game” could be no worse, in terms of average industrial wage and working conditions, than North Carolina's core industries of textiles, apparel, and furniture….

The message from the 1950s on was clear. North Carolina promised relatively low wages, few unions, and few strikes.

…The labor-intensive industries that settled primarily in rural counties required little skill from workers. Industrialists in these areas did not worry about residents' educational attainment levels, literacy rates, or quality public schools.

… From the 1930s through the 1980s North Carolina placed a relatively high priority on spending for higher education compared with the other 49 states, while spending relatively less on K-12 public school education. This was partly explainable because over the years the high percentage of Tar Heels in semiskilled manufacturing jobs such as in textile or furniture factories meant that high schools did not have to worry about the quality or literacy or mathematics skills for many if not most graduates.

Brent D. Glass in “The Textile Industry in North Carolina: A History” (N.C. Division of Archives and History, 1992):

The most powerful obstacle [to unionization of N.C. textile workers] was the political culture of North Carolina's textile mini-state. Organizers noted with frustration … and grudging respect the very pervasive social, political, and economic authority exercised by management over workers.

In Kannapolis and Concord, for example, an intense effort to organize workers at Cannon Mills ran headlong into the presence of company president Charles Cannon. “Uncle Charlie” was both a father figure and policeman. He could inspire love, loyalty and fear among his employees. His control over the 24,000 workers at Cannon Mills included their civic, educational and religious institutions.

He beat the union in 1946 and on every other encounter thereafter by offering workers a sense of security that no union could match. The memories of the disruptive strikes of 1929 and 1934 were too fresh in the minds of many workers to risk another conflict with management, especially against a company such as Cannon Mills, which did provide its employees with a better deal – lighter workloads, better wages, stable employment, good housing at low rents and clean communities – than other textile workers received at the time.

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