How You Win in the South
by MaryBe McMillan
March 28, 2021
This interview with MaryBe McMillan, President of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO, was conducted and condensed by franknews and Payday Report.
MM | I got involved in the labor movement when I was a graduate student in sociology at North Carolina State. I went to grad school, never wanting to be an academic, but hoping to do public policy research and create change by pushing for policies that help working people. While I was in the sociology department, UE Local 150 was organizing service workers on campus — janitorial staff, the housekeepers, and the maintenance workers.
They asked faculty and students to help with the campaign and a bunch of us in the sociology department volunteered.
I was so inspired by the workers’ courage, and I saw the sense of empowerment that they got when they were able to make changes through collective action and coming together.
To clarify, you are taking a nontraditional approach. Collective bargaining is banned in the state of North Carolina for public employees. The UN has actually denounced that ban. So how are you able to do collective action without having collective bargaining?
Even without collective bargaining, workers coming together in numbers can force management to make changes. By coming together, going to the administration, and getting the student body and faculty to sign petitions and come out to rallies, they were able to create pressure and get the administration to make changes. We see it with teachers in North Carolina, who, by joining together to lobby the legislature, have been able to make changes around wages and benefits. It is certainly not the same as collective bargaining, and we're fighting hard to overturn that Jim Crow ban on bargaining, but workers can still make a tremendous change by joining together in the workplace, enlisting community support, and building a movement.
There is supposed to be some Supreme Court case about denying unions access to company properties. I said, “if your union is worried about getting on the company property, then you've got bigger problems.” What's your experience been in the labor movement in North Carolina?
North Carolina is one of the least unionized states in the country. We flip-flop with South Carolina for that unfortunate distinction. I like to say we have a small, but mighty labor movement here.
We learned a long time ago that to get a win for workers in a place like North Carolina we need all the friends we can get.
We have a long tradition here in the labor movement of working in coalition with community partners, with the NAACP, and with the faith community. Many of the victories we have won here, we have won through community organizing and support. I think about the victory that UFCW had with Smithfield Foods in Tar Heel, NC.
Can you tell us about that?
That plant is the world’s largest pork processing plant with 5,000 workers. It took them 15 years to win a union because of how broken our labor law is. But, ultimately they were able to win when they began building a community campaign. They enlisted folks to do rallies outside grocery stores that stocked products from that plant. They got civil rights and faith leaders to request a tour of the facility and to pressure the CEO about issues in the plant.
That's how you win in the South. It takes a lot more than a union to win a union election, it takes a movement to win here in the South.
People think, "oh, there's no union organizing happening in these places that don't have high density." But there is a lot happening.
My frustration is that unions have been too slow to invest in organizing in the South because they view it as too hard, given the legal and political climate here. But the only way we're going to change the country is if we organize workers in the South.
The labor movement talks about the idea of "hot shopping." But, that is not always the best approach.
No, it’s not. Too often, unions want to swoop in and do a short-term campaign. What folks need to realize is that organizing in the South requires long-term investment. It takes building community relationships. I think that you have to go in knowing you might not win the first time around so you must have a plan for how you're going to continue to organize workers, cultivate relationships, and keep fighting.
What sort of challenges do you face when trying to talk to people about why they need a union?
We have such a long history in the South of union-busting and an anti-union climate. There is a lot of misinformation out there about unions. This really is an education process. That is one role we try to play at the state federation. We try to educate the general public about how we've all benefited from unions and the labor movement. We try to inform workers about their rights and the right to organize. That's another area where we need much more investment in the South. Whether it's cultivating relationships with clergy to do more labor in the pulpit and preaching about the moral urgency of economic justice or whether it's launching a popular education program so that folks understand what a union is all about, we need a massive education effort about unions in the South. I think that is critical if we want to make real long-term, large-scale gains among working people and in the South.
Does that hesitation seem to come from fear, or a misunderstanding of what a union can provide?
I think both. I think there is a lot of misinformation out there and there are unfortunately so many examples of virulent anti-union busting in the South--workers illegally fired, harassed, and intimidated. Our labor laws are broken and there are no real penalties to hold companies accountable that harass workers for trying to organize.
During the campaign at Smithfield Packing, the company illegally fired workers. They used race-baiting to divide workers. They stamped "Vote No" on the hog carcasses as they went down the assembly line. Amazon is putting anti-union propaganda in the bathroom stalls at their facility in Alabama. Elected officials in Tennessee told Volkswagen workers that the plant would shut down if they voted in a union. This kind of union-busting has created a lot of fear among workers, no doubt.
To win in the South, it would help if unions would collaborate more. For example, if there's an auto plant and there's a poultry processor down the street or in the same community, the UFCW and UAW should be working together to build community partnerships and to cultivate relationships among elected officials. There are probably workers in the auto plant who have friends in the poultry plant and vice versa.
Unions should not be working in isolation. We should be working together to build a movement beyond a specific workplace.
We are building a Charlotte Airport Workers Committee. There are multiple unions representing workers in the airport and all of them are interested in growing their memberships and improving conditions. We are thinking about ways we can put pressure on the catering companies and the airlines themselves to improve wages and working conditions for their workers. That's a good example of where we're trying to build collaboration and cooperation among unions.
You talk a lot about the need to build movements in order to build unions. How do you think BLM and the Fight for 15 have played a role in doing just that?
I think that the Fight for $15 and the campaign at Amazon are doing a great job of making the connection between labor rights and civil rights. The two can't be separated. The fight for workers in the South is one for dignity and for racial justice both inside and outside the workplace. We all have to be standing together and fighting for both economic and racial justice. We are not going to win one without the other. That is why the Amazon campaign is so symbolic and so meaningful. It is a fight for all working people. If Amazon is allowed to treat workers like robots, surveil them, limit their ability to go to the bathroom, you better believe that other companies are gonna follow suit.
It is so hard for us to imagine a different world or a different way. Unions seem to give people the space and community to do so.
The sense of empowerment that a union creates changes people. That is why I am in the labor movement. It transforms people. I’ve seen people who are timid and shy become outspoken leaders in their unions. Women who had been afraid to leave abusive husbands left their abusive relationships after seeing how they could stand up and create change in the workplace.
I've also seen unions really transform the way white folks think about race. And I think that that's a really important role that unions can play. We bring people together around this common identity of worker.
I think by bringing diverse folks together in a union, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, we create a space to have a conversation that can connect the dots between mass incarceration and poverty and wages and immigration reform.
It forces us to realize why it’s important for all of us to stand together. I have seen so many white union members change from having honest conversations with union members of color about their experiences with racism. And I just think it's so important that unions and the labor movement commit to creating opportunities to have those conversations in our organizations.
Do you feel like the South is in a moment of transformation?
We are in a big moment in the South. The favorability of unions is the greatest it has been in over 50 years.
Folks are fired up. With the pandemic, too many workers have been exploited and exposed to unsafe conditions. People are ready to organize and make change. It is time for the labor movement to make investments here.
Labor leaders say we are for raising wages, that we are committed to taking on voter suppression and mass incarceration and that we want to be the movement for immigrant workers and workers of color. Well, if that's really true, then the labor movement needs to put its money where its mouth is because the South is ground zero for all those things.
For too long we have not had a long-term vision and strategy for growth. I think you see that going back to Operation Dixie. There was no long-term commitment to do the organizing work in the South that was necessary to win union victories.
Any union that is going to undertake a major campaign in the South has to be prepared that the campaign may not be won in months. Maybe not even a year. It is going to take a long-term effort. And I think that's true too about political campaigns as well. Too often, we want to throw down for a few months before an election. That's just not how we can change the political climate in Southern states. It is going to take bottom-up organizing over the long haul.
I think bottom-up organizing is really important. Not enough folks know how to lead from the rank and file in a lot of these unions.
I think the Fight for $15 has done a great job of developing rank and file worker leaders. When there are rallies and events, workers are the speakers, not the paid union staff. And I think to build the movement we need in the South, we really have to follow that model where you are cultivating and developing new leaders and building a solid and lasting organizational structure. We need to grow the movement and keep the momentum going, and you can't do that if there's just one leader. If there is one leader, you don't really have a movement, you have a fan club.
What do you mean by fan club?
There are a lot of charismatic leaders within the progressive movement. It's great that they can inspire people with fiery speeches and rhetoric. But what happens when the speech is over? Do people go home and engage and continue to be mobilized? Is there a structure that they can plug into? Or, are they just enchanted with the personality and rhetoric of this charismatic leader? Some of what we call movements haven't yielded the real changes and results that they could have if there had been the cultivation of other leaders and the development of a real organizational structure.
What does it mean to build?
It is about finding opportunities to open the door for new leaders, especially younger leaders and leaders of color. It's about leadership development, empowering other leaders, and creating opportunities for new leaders to grow and emerge. That means existing leaders need to sometimes step back and give up control and open the door for new ideas and new leaders. A “leader-full” movement is a strong movement and it’s the kind of movement that has the power to change the South and to change the nation.