Asheville’s often thought of as a relatively left-wing spot in the middle of Western North Carolina. So it might seem a bit surprising that, when it comes to labor, Asheville remains a city in one of the least unionized regions in the least unionized state in the country.
Still, that could change. The pressures of low wages, the high cost of living and concerns over working conditions continue to push workers to study their options. Labor advocacy groups are helping Asheville service workers lobby for better pay, while the city is already home to a vocal “living wage” movement.
Union drives aren’t unheard of here and, occasionally, they’re even successful. Asheville firefighters have a union. Stagehands who work the annual Christmas Jam concert have a union. At a local food co-op, its workers are unionized.
The last few years have seen two high-profile union efforts, at the Sitel call center and the Mountain Xpress (full disclosure: a reporter there at the time, I acted as a spokesperson for workers involved the latter), though neither resulted in the creation of a new union.
[Editor’s note: Ashvegas.com recently received an anonymous email alleging poor working conditions at one large local employer. The note claimed workers were demanding improvement and preparing to unionize. The note’s author declined to speak on the record about the issues or the effort.]
Despite common misconception, organizing a union in one’s workplace is not banned in North Carolina — or anywhere else in the country — though “right-to-work” laws here do curb some of unions’ power and prevent some sectors (like state and local government employees) from directly unionizing.
In fact, workers speaking out about their conditions or trying to join a union are specifically protected under federal law. Businesses that fire or penalize employees for exercising those rights can face punishments for violating those laws.
So given the rising concerns about pay and jobs here, and the city’s left-leaning bent, is Asheville about to become a union city?
The shape of a battleground
In some ways, Asheville seems like prime territory for unions. Despite low unemployment and a booming tourism sector in recent years, wages here actually declined over the past decade. According to a 2012 report based on census data, pay in Asheville and the surrounding county is almost $400 a month less than the average North Carolina worker receives. The wages in major sectors like food service and retail are well below the living wage for the area.
Also, Asheville’s one of the least conservative cities in the state. The mainstream political spectrum in city politics starts with moderate Democrats and goes farther left from there. (The Moral Monday protests, to pick one example, have seen massive turnouts here.) As conservatives are more likely to generally oppose unions, it could be argued that the average Ashevillian is by contrast more likely to be generally sympathetic to organized labor or the demands of protesting workers.
Or, as WNC Central Labor Council President Josh Rhodes observes, “Asheville has a lot of potential.”
Unions can give workers access to legal help and resources from a larger organization, as well as collective bargaining, allowing them to push as a whole for improved pay, benefits or working conditions. This can make their demands a lot harder to ignore and once an employer agrees to a deal with a union, they’re legally obligated to keep it.
A look at the area’s largest employers shows that a good number are public sector. Interestingly, federal law prohibits local governments from breaking up pre-existing public sector unions, but state law forbids such workers who weren’t unionized before the ban was passed from organizing. While this means that some small parts of WNC’s government workforce is unionized (Asheville’s transit drivers, for example), the public sector here won’t add to union rolls anytime soon.
But then there’s the Mission Hospitals, Biltmore Company and Ingles. These are all private employers and their workers could unionize.
Indeed, some sectors of WNC and Asheville’s economy already have a union presence. The largest, according to the WNC Central Labor Council, are the local UPS employees (about 1,000 and organized with the Teamsters) and the workers at the Canton paper mill (also numbering about 1,000 and organized with the United Steelworkers). But stage hands, postal workers, bus drivers, the Asheville Fire Department, AT&T line workers, and the employees at the French Broad Food Co-op, just to name a few, also make up some of the area’s unionized work force.
In addition, the same value of location that drives Asheville’s tourism industry also binds employers to the area. If workers in Asheville’s food service sector or the Biltmore Estate unionized, for example, those businesses wouldn’t likely try to up and leave the same way some traditional manufacturing businesses have in the past.
Still, despite a few examples in recent years, union drives remain relatively rare here. As unions are a small slice of the economy, many workers in Asheville are unfamiliar with them or, as mentioned above, are unaware that they’re even legal in this area.
“Here in Asheville, we’ve never had a lot of bad anti-union stuff,” Rhodes notes. “But we’ve still got to change the public image. We’re as diverse as the public is.”
Alongside increasing organization and coordination between the area’s existing unions, Rhodes sees changing that image and informing workers as their biggest challenge. “We hear it a lot: you can’t be in a union in North Carolina because of right to work, which is false.”
Rhodes, part of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, was one of the organizers in the Sitel drive. He adds that while Asheville’s certainly important, the need is even broader.
“I think the country’s primed for unions. Everything goes up and down. At the IBEW, we’ve held steady through the recession,” and membership is now slowly rising, he says. But he notes that some sectors, like call centers, are still “a hard nut to crack.”
Joining a union also takes time. Workers have to contact a union. Then a majority must sign cards indicating they’re interested in that union representing them. Many unions want at least 60 percent of workers to sign such cards before the union files for an official election, overseen by the federal National Labor Relations Board. Then a majority of a business’ workforce has to vote to join the union. While unions do offer many protections, the process can seem daunting at first. It’s worth remembering that despite considerable efforts, neither the Sitel or Xpress drive resulted in a unionized workplace.
In addition, as the fights over the food co-op in the late ’90s show — and at the Mountain Xpress more recently — even ostensibly progressive employers can harshly oppose union organizing (in Xpress‘ case, by hiring a prominent union-busting law firm). When it comes down to it, many local employers might not react that differently to union drives than their counterparts in more conservative cities.
Last month, the state AFL-CIO (of which WNC’s Central Labor Council is a part), held a legislative luncheon, one of five around North Carolina, in downtown Asheville to discuss its main priorities. Representatives from many local unions, along with state Reps. Susan Fisher and Joe Sam Queen, showed up.
No Asheville City Council members attended, but three Canton aldermen did, showing the strength unions still have in that town. Given the climate of the Legislature, the state AFL-CIO is focusing many of its efforts on legislation fighting misclassification. This is when workers are classified in a way — usually as “independent contractors” — that can deny them wages or benefits, even when they’re fulfilling the jobs of more traditional employees.
The practice is illegal, and unions locally and statewide want tighter state laws to curb it. A Raleigh News and Observer series last year raised questions about the issue and a lack of enforcement in North Carolina, as well as the damage done to workers and state revenues. The issue has come up in Asheville before.
Fisher, and some of the others who spoke that day, noted that the problem had the potential to attract bipartisan support, as it deprives the state of revenue, as well as infringing on workers’ rights.
Speaking to media after the event, AFL-CIO state Secretary-Treasurer MaryBe McMillan said that the current Legislature’s actions were hitting workers across the state hard. She noted that the two seats House Democrats picked up in WNC “was a hopeful sign.”
“We see all of North Carolina as a battleground for organizing workers, and we’ve been a really strong voice to national labor leaders saying they have to invest in organizing the South if they want to change the country,” she continued. “I think that given the energy you saw here in this room, there’s a lot of union folks here who would be supportive of helping other workers to enjoy the benefits of a union nad organize.”
At the event, the labor leaders noted that an organizer from Raise Up for 15, an effort to increase wages to at least $15 an hour, especially in fast food, is now living and working in Asheville.
That highlights another aspect of modern labor organizing that could prove key in Asheville: the importance of alt labor groups. While not traditional unions, these advocacy organizations sometimes work with unions and espouse similar goals of increased wages and better protections for workers. The campaigns across the country for better wages for fast food workers, which have involved walk-outs, protests and petitions in cooperation with more traditional labor organizations, are an example of this sort of campaign.
While lacking some of the formal legal powers unions enjoy, alt labor groups also have more freedom to press different companies across entire economic sectors (or a city, for that matter) to accomplish their goals.
Some workers in Asheville are already involved in the Raise Up For 15 effort, asserting they can’t make ends meet on the low wages in the local fast food sector.
“The workload is too much for $7.25; that doesn’t even take care of the cost of living for single parents raising their childern,” Johaunna Cromer, who works at a Hardees in Asheville, asserts about her reasons for joining the effort. If the wages “did go up families can afford food. Housing and take care of their children, pay for daycare education, the list goes on.”
As for working conditions, “corporate needs to see the demands on cashiers, food prep, and dishwashers” and the level of stress they endure for low pay, she says.
Additionally, last year some Asheville food service workers organized the Asheville Sustainable Restaurant Workers, concerned about low pay and conditions in one of the city’s key economic sectors. The organization recently issued a statement noting that while Asheville’s food service sector was seemingly booming, many of the people who make that industry thrive face very different circumstances, and “restaurant workers are often victims of wage theft, the illegal underpayment or non-payment of workers’ wages” due to both unintentional and deliberate practices. To that end, ASRW is organizing a workshop (3 p.m., Feb. 23 at the West Asheville Library) with the N.C. Justice Center to inform the public and workers about wage theft.
And for unions, whose history in the area reaches back more than a century, Rhodes says that people’s attitudes tend to change when they see what organized labor can do.
“I want to get a little more awareness out there,” Rhodes says, and encourages anyone interested in joining a union to call the Central Labor Council if they have questions. “It’s funny, when people do start looking for options, they become really educated on it and they say ‘hey, this is a really good idea.’”
“The way people are being treated, I think things are primed for some change,” he adds. “Labor unions are going to have to be there are the state level and to fight for people’s rights in the workplace.”
But to work, Rhodes says, the efforts have to come from workers themselves first. “When they decide they want to try it, that’s when you get something going. It works best when they’re looking for change.”
David Forbes is a local journalist and editor of the Asheville Blade, a reader-supported site for sharp news and views.