VOICES: 'Unions are our best chance for changing our economy and politics'

MaryBe McMillan

This month, MaryBe McMillan — a longtime advocate of building labor in the South and unions as a force for progressive change — was elected president of the North Carolina AFL-CIO. (Photo: N.C. AFL-CIO.)

This month, MaryBe McMillan made history when she was unanimously elected as the first woman president of the North Carolina AFL-CIO. A native of Hickory, North Carolina, and a leading advocate nationally for building labor's presence in the South, McMillan has served as secretary-treasurer of the state federation since 2005, working alongside outgoing president James Andrews, the first African American to hold that post. After the convention, Facing South publisher Chris Kromm talked with McMillan about the state of labor in North Carolina and the South, and why unions are a key piece of the broader progressive movement.

Your election comes at an interesting time for labor in the United States, the South, and North Carolina. What do you see as the main tasks ahead that you want to tackle?

Even though it's a difficult time for working people, with wage stagnation, and still not enough jobs, and a time where we're unfortunately seeing increased attacks on workers' right to organize all across the country, I think we as a movement have a real opportunity because the public support for unions is higher than in many years past, working folks are looking for ways to finally get their fair share.

So I think it's a real opportunity for us in the labor movement to educate folks about unions and why it's so important that we join together as a movement, both to get our fair share in the workplace, but also so we can have a voice in our democracy and change our politics and policies.

I'm optimistic about the future in North Carolina. I want to see us really invest in more organizing in North Carolina, both in terms of union organizing and progressive organizations. We have a real opportunity to change this state and make it better for working people.

The rest of the country is getting a taste of the anti-union politics we've seen in the South for a long time. Do you think there are any lessons we can share from the North Carolina or Southern experience about how to challenge these attacks?

I think it's unfortunate that we're seeing right-to-work and the anti-union laws of the South spreading across the nation. If we ever want to stop this race to the bottom, we really have to stop it where it started, which is here in the South.

I think there are lessons that unions [nationally] can learn from those that have been dealing with right-to-work and restrictions on collective bargaining for decades, and it is that you have to constantly organize, and you have to enlist all your members as organizers.

In a right-to-work environment, it's a given that you need to make a sales pitch for the union. Those unions that have had high membership rates in the South, they're doing a great job talking to their members, servicing their members, getting other members to talk to non-members. It's a constant culture of organizing.

I think that's something other unions can learn from. It should show folks that, yes, right-to-work — none of us wants that, it undermines the elected power [of] unions. But it's still possible to organize strong unions in a right-to-work environment. We have unions in North Carolina that have a 98 percent union membership rate. So it's not ideal, but it's not impossible.

Recent polls show support for unions has increased lately. Can you talk about why there's this disconnect between the public's perception of unions, and then what we're seeing from lawmakers at the top in pushing right-to-work and other restrictions?

I think it's clear why politicians are trying to push these anti-union laws. They understand that when working people join together, that we are a powerful force, and that's why they try so hard to divide and conquer us.

Working folks have seen their paychecks diminish. It's become more and more this gig economy, where jobs are contingent, there's not much job security, folks are worried about their retirement. I think working folks want their fair share, and they understand that to get that, we need to band together and build a movement. That's why we're seeing increased positivity in attitudes towards unions.

There are also those who say unions just aren't as important today, because the nature of the economy has changed. What's your answer to that?

I would say unions are more important than ever — to grow the middle class, if we want to address the inequality we see in this country, unions are key to that. You can look back historically and see that when unions were strong, the middle class expanded, the economy worked well for everybody.

I believe we as a movement need to look at new organizing models, so that we can reach [workers in] these contingent, "gig" employment arrangements. We need to expand and certainly do more to organize in the service sectors, because that's where we see most of the job growth, in the low-wage service sector.

You've been at the forefront of calls to organize the South. There are those who look at the Boeing vote in South Carolina or Nissan vote in Mississippi, and say it's just going to be too hard. Talk about your message to people who think we don't need to organize the South, or it's going to be too hard.

It takes time and investment to organize in the South, given that we have such anti-worker laws. And now we see these corporate-funded politicians getting into the union-bashing business as well. So it's an uphill battle, but we have seen consistently that when working people stand up, and when people of faith and community leaders stand with those workers, victory is possible.

We saw that with the workers at Smithfield Packing in Tarheel, [North Carolina,] who successfully organized with the UFCW. We saw that with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, who won a historic collective bargaining agreement with Mt. Olive Pickle and the North Carolina Growers Association. We saw it recently with the victory at Duke University with adjunct faculty.

It takes more than just a union to win a [union] election in the South, it takes a whole movement. When we all stand together, working folks win.

There have been some unfortunate disappointments like Nissan. But every day in the South, there are small victories by unions. The UAW is still growing in the South. The retail workers union, I think they've doubled their membership in the South in the last five years.

So it is possible. It takes investments, getting more organizers on the ground, and building alliances with the community.

One of the key ingredients to union success in the South has been support from faith leaders, local communities and the broader progressive community. What would you like the broader progressive community to know about labor, and how that alliance can be strengthened in the future.

I would love to see the progressive community more openly supportive in helping grow this movement. I think they realize that unions are the best way we have to build an economy that works for everybody. Unions aren't just about building power in a workplace, it's also about building power in our democracy, and building a political movement.

If we really want to change our politics, if we really want a real populist movement of working people, than we need to invest in growing the union movement. It's our best chance of changing our economy and our politics.