Kicking Them While They're Down: North Carolina's Never-Ending Assault on Workers

Lige English I Labor Issues I Commentary I June 19th, 2013

At 2.9% of the private sector, North Carolina is the nation's least unionized state. The state has maintained a ban on collective bargaining for public sector workers since 1959. Unions have had to engage in a city-by-city campaign to get check off, the automatic deductions of dues from members' paychecks. The latest partial-victory on this front in Charlotte City comes with a thousand-dollar annual fee for each union that chooses to participate in the program.

One might wonder what's left for the forces of reaction. This landscape already sounds like some nightmare cooked up by the Koch Brothers. But there is a great deal yet at stake for the people of North Carolina and for America more broadly. Unsurprisingly there are a slew of bad ideas making their way through the legislature which are beyond the scope of this essay. There is, however, one particularly frightening idea that may soon be on the ballot.

North Carolina is poised to become the seventh state in the Union to enshrine right to work in the state constitution. They also seek to enshrine the ban on collective bargaining for public sector workers in the state's Constitution. Beyond all this, the reactionaries of N.C. intend on banning the card count method of organizing by constitutional amendment. This goes beyond a moral affront to the working families of North Carolina. This is a clear demonstration that the forces of reaction are intent on wiping out organized labor once and for all.

The Republicans have a supermajority in every branch of N.C.'s government which was ushered into existence largely with the assistance of American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Americans for Prosperity (AFP). These are the same groups responsible for the anti-worker legislation throughout the Midwest and for the Stand Your Ground law in Florida. Indeed the Governor's budget director is a former AFP national director and his foundation is the second largest AFP donor after the brothers Koch. Nearly one-quarter of the N.C. General Assembly has attended ALEC meeting within the last two years.

On the one hand this represents a mere continuation of the longstanding hostility towards the working families of North Carolina. After all, North Carolina's Speaker of the House Thom Tillis made clear in an interview that it is the intent of his caucus that N.C. "…will continue to be the least unionized state in the United States…" On another hand this represents a sharp escalation in the attempt to destroy trade unionism in the state. It has been sufficient to maintain a statutory ban on collective bargaining for public sector workers for over a half-century. Why, then, is it suddenly necessary to establish this truncation of free association in the state's constitution?

This is where the issue takes on a national scope. This is not about breaking the union in one Southern state which is already a bastion for reactionary politics. This is about setting the stage for a drastic and widespread rollback of workers' rights across the country. Clearly this strategy has been in the works for some time. From Wisconsin and Indiana to Nevada and Texas, ALEC and AFP have been involved with undermining workers' rights and removing the floor upholding a minimum standard of living.

Attack after attack has left the movement demoralized and scattered. Two years ago ALEC, AFP, and their political allies provoked one of the most dramatic and significant labor conflicts in recent memory. Unless something changes, the Wisconsin Uprising may be remembered as the last stand for labor in the Republic. Month of demonstrations, occupations of the Capitol building, student walkouts, and direct action became the norm. This winter Michigan, the spiritual capitol of the American labor movement, became a right to work state. The response was rather muted.

But North Carolina isn't WI or MI. It is not one of the states that live in labor lore. It is the state with the lowest union density in the country. So why kick someone while they're down? The most obvious point, and this operates primarily on the micro level, is that it is your opportunity to do maximum damage. This is an attempt to deal organized labor a deathblow in NC.

On a more macro level it is your opportunity to inflict maximum humiliation. The momentum of a movement, for better or for worse, is partially a factor of its perceived strength. The movement got punked in its own backyard before being buried outside of its turf. This sends a clear message to the forces of reaction: strike while the iron is hot. But the attempted humiliation is meant to send an external message as well. Like hanging the deceased victims of war from the ramparts of your fortress, the humiliation is meant as a long term reminder that demise is only the beginning.

This is not about defeating a movement. It is about destroying a movement.