A new report from the research and advocacy group Carolina Forward shines a light on one of North Carolina’s greatest failures: the failure to support hourly workers. In clear, fast-paced prose supplemented by graphics and charts, Carolina Forward runs through the realities that hourly workers face in this pandemic-scarred era. But the failure to do right by working people didn’t start with COVID-19, and it won’t end with the pandemic. Workers, Carolina Forward shows, deserve better from a state that aspires to let the weak grow strong. (Full disclosure: I contributed to this report.)
Carolina Forward begins with a rather startling statistic. Out of a state workforce of 5 million, 2.3 million work for an hourly wage. That amounts to 46% of all North Carolina workers who are subject to the hardships that afflict hourly workers. The percentage of hourly workers by labor market ranges from 38.1% in Raleigh to 53.3% in Goldsboro. There’s a rough correlation between the wealth of a metropolitan/micropolitan area and the percentage of workers who labor on an hourly basis.
Workers who labor hour-by-hour do not fit the stereotype held by many white-collar Americans. Instead of young people working as lifeguards at the beach or servers at seafood restaurants, they are by and large prime-age workers with families. Perhaps not surprisingly, a disproportionate number of them are female or nonwhite. Some of the most vulnerable hourly workers in the state are farmworkers who pick tobacco, harvest sweet potatoes, and labor in the hot sun with virtually no protections from abuses of their labor rights. Former Representative Charlie Rangel described agricultural guest worker programs as “close to slavery.”
Hourly workers face hardships in almost every aspect of their working lives. Most importantly, they receive wages that are hardly enough to live their families out of poverty. The highest–paid hourly workers in the state make a median wage of $10.18 per hour. That’s barely more than what right-wing U.S. Senator Tom Cotton thinks should be the minimum wage in the United States. Hourly workers are also subject to wage theft–for example, making them work off the clock–unpredictable schedules, and limited job mobility. These are workers with barely any leverage to demand a decent bargain from employers who often view them as little more than interchangeable cogs in a profit machine.
In the concluding sections Carolina Forward makes suggestions on how to ameliorate this disgraceful situation. Some of the proposals are quite bold. For example, CF proposes to end the status of North Carolina Labor Commissioner as an elected office and make it an appointed role, as it is in most U.S. states. This would spare workers from another 20 years of anti-labor policy from right-wing commissioners like Cherie Berry. Going further, the report suggests making the first serious effort to repeal the state’s “right to work” statute since the days of Governor Kerry Scott. Right-to-work is the centerpiece of worker subjugation; it’s long past time that we chuck it in the dustbin.
Workers have received little attention from the North Carolina policy community and even less from elected lawmakers. When the political elite deigns to pay attention to hourly workers, it is usually to immiserate them. Think of unemployment insurance cuts and the repeal of what few labor regulations our state once had. But as John F. Kennedy said, “no problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.” North Carolina’s anti-labor status quo was created and nurtured by political and business elites for over a century. It’s time for a new approach.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.