It has been a tough time for working people in North Carolina. Hit by recession, and by a massive loss of manufacturing jobs even before the recession, many working folks found themselves under- and unemployed. And then along came a Republican-run General Assembly to heap insult upon injury by cutting unemployment benefits with the Dickensian idea that cutting benefits would encourage people to look for work. As if they weren’t looking, and as if the average $300 a week or less afforded them fat times.
Ridiculous and pure partisanship, of course. Because, on this Labor Day and on all others, North Carolinians have worked hard for themselves, their families and in the case of public employees, for their state. At one time, the state’s working people were a virtual cross-section of the jobs across the country, from textile mills to manufacturing to industrial farming to small family farms passed through generations. And the state, thanks to the Research Triangle Park and 16 public universities and a community college system, also had a tremendous choice of professional and high-tech jobs.
What happened? Manufacturing was flummoxed by cheap foreign labor. Family farms still exist, but the huge industrial operations have nearly taken over. There are more high-tech, professional jobs, but new ones are hard to come by. To boot, a new study finds that lower-income workers saw the biggest drops, relatively speaking, in their paychecks since the beginning of the Great Recession. Most are a long way from recovering the economic ground they lost.
The state’s unemployment rate remains above the national average.
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There has been a slow recuperation from the Great Recession. The unemployment rate lingers and has for months at just under 6 percent. And the state is looking for jobs. Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP leaders in the General Assembly have said they want to bring jobs, and toward that end they’ve followed a single-minded mantra to cut taxes for the wealthy and business. But “trickle down” economics doesn’t work, and the explosion in job growth Republicans hinted at hasn’t happened.
And curbing investment in public schools, while appearing to engage in ideological diversions such as the now-defunct anti-gay marriage amendment, isn’t going to help the state’s image, particularly with high-tech companies that value employees and employees’ rights.
So the problem on this Labor Day isn’t with labor. People in the state want to work, and many thousands have gone back to retrain at community colleges. Others have taken jobs that pay less and demand less of their skills because their better-paying jobs went away and never came back.
No, the problem is with leadership and a General Assembly that appears strongly anti-labor. The labor force is also up against the very state department that’s supposed to protect workers from job hazards and mistreatment and the use of “contract labor” to avoid providing needed and deserved benefits. The Department of Labor under Cherie Berry seems instead most interested in protecting business.
Workers have earned this day. The “work ethic” is alive and well in North Carolina. But if this state is to prosper, if jobs are to grow, and if the ones people have are to improve, lawmakers on the state and national level must do more to protect the job security and improve the pay of all workers, particularly those on the low end of the scale. That means raising the minimum wage, and providing guarantees of job security for those who are doing their jobs with diligence.