Rob Christensen

Labor Day is politically incorrect in NC

In North Carolina, Labor Day is a politically incorrect holiday.

On Monday, the state’s top leaders did not hold events marking Labor Day, or issue statements wishing people a happy Labor Day. They pretended it was just a day for cookouts and a trip to the beach.

That is because the whole idea of Labor Day is at the very least awkward in North Carolina.

Labor Day became federal holiday in 1894 in honor of the American labor movement. North Carolina has long been one of the most hostile places in the country to organized labor.

In 2014, only 1.9 percent of North Carolina’s wage and salary earners were members of a union or an employee association similar to a union, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The national average is 11.1 percent.

North Carolina has the lowest rate of unionization in the country. In a region of the country that is unfriendly to unions, North Carolina stands out. South Carolina is close at 2.2 percent. Surrounding states include Georgia at 4.3 percent, Virginia at 4.9 percent, and Tennessee at 5 percent.

The reasons for North Carolina’s extraordinary low rate of unionization are both cultural and political.

The industrialization in the South was historically different from that which took place in the north and Midwest. It tended to take place in small towns, rather than big cities, and it drew its workforce from sharecroppers off the farms rather than from recently arrived European immigrants. All mitigated against collective action.

The South’s industrialization policy was also based on providing cheap labor and cheap land. So governments in North Carolina and elsewhere across the South used their power to discourage unionization, because they thought it would make it more difficult to attract textile, furniture and other industrial plants.

By 1930, North Carolina was the leading industrial state in the South.

North Carolina governors would often send in the National Guard to help break a strike at the request of mill owners. Sheriff’s deputies would use billy clubs and bullets to discourage unions.

At state AFL-CIO headquarters in Raleigh there is still a plaque memorializing the martyrs of a 1929 textile strike in the town of Marion. McDowell County deputies killed six and wounded 25 strikers. All were shot in the back.

One of the few pro labor North Carolina governors was Kerr Scott (1949-53.) Scott, an Alamance County dairy farmer, prided himself as representing the average man.

In 1947 Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act over President Truman’s veto which allowed states to pass laws limiting labor unions. North Carolina was one of the states that passed a so-called “right to work law,’’ which outlawed union or agency shops from requiring new employees joining a company with a unionized work force from having to join the union or pay a fee.

Scott was the first – and so far the only – North Carolina governor to call for repeal of the state’s right to work law, calling it “harsh.’’ But Scott’s effort failed in the legislature in 1949.

During the 1951 legislature, Scott also tried without success to get the legislature to enact the state’s first minimum wage law of 75 cents per hour and a 40-hour week with overtime. But he did try to mediate labor disputes, rather than just sending in the Highway Patrol to break the strike.

North Carolina is one of three states – along with South Carolina and Virginia – that completely bans collective bargaining by public employees, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Some Democratic governors have been friendly to labor. Gov. Jim Hunt tried in 1977 to create a North Carolina labor education center at N.C. Central University in Durham to conduct courses on collective bargaining, grievance procedures, and occupational issues. But it was blocked by business interests.

Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue received strong labor support when she was elected in 2008, especially from the N.C. Association of Educators. Since then, the Republican legislature has been looking for ways to diminish the NCAE such as moving to bar the state from collecting its dues from its pay checks.

There are political consequences of such weak labor. In some state legislatures, labor acts as a check on business power on such issues as taxes, worker safety and unemployment laws. But there is no such check in the North Carolina legislature.

The North Carolina GOP did recognize Labor Day on Monday, by sending out a tweet.

“Happy Labor Day! Today we honor NCians’ hard work and are proud NC is a leader is job creation – 9th in country!’’

No mention, of course, of the purpose of Labor Day.