At the height of his cultural influence, Woody Guthrie took an interest in a tiny North Carolina mountain town. In his ballad “The Marion Massacre,” Guthrie sang, ‘Twas in Marion, North Carolina, in a little mountain town; six workers of the textile, in cold blood were shot down.” The inspiration for this song was a massacre in which McDowell County Sheriff’s deputies gunned down six striking workers, none of whom posed a threat to the officers. In going on strike against abusive labor practices, the workers had signed their own death warrants.
The 1930s were the apex of labor violence in North Carolina. In Gastonia, a young mother of five was shot dead for participating in a textile strike. In High Point, Governor O. Max Gardner deployed the national guard to break a strike. But as late as the 1950s, North Carolina was still the least unionized state in the nation. It speaks to the utter collapse of organized labor in this country that N.C.’s unionization rate in the ’50s, 9%, was higher than the national unionization rate today. Our current rate of union membership is barely above 1%.
Perhaps that’s why the international NGO Oxfam recently called North Carolina the worst state in the nation for working people. Taking into account wages, working conditions, and other indicators, Oxfam damned North Carolina as a working person’s hell. The response from our state’s Republican leadership was silence. After all, even the elected Labor Commissioner, Josh Dobson, has spoken to Art Pope’s John Locke Foundation about his robust support for “right-to-work” laws and strong opposition to collective bargaining rights for state employees. Only North Carolina and Virginia forbid their state employees from organizing.
North Carolina has managed to grow in spite of being arguably the most anti-labor state in the country. But that is primarily because housing is cheaper here than in coastal states like New York. Don’t let that fool you into thinking low wages are acceptable: workers in union states make an average of $2,000 more per year than workers in worker-hating states, even after accounting for cost of living. In essence, Northern workers have been willing to tolerate a raw deal from their employers in return for less-expensive housing. Our state’s native-born workers enjoy no such payoff.
That North Carolina has failed its labor force so comprehensively ever since the 1930s is a stain on our state’s moral character. As Robert Reich has observed, there is no point in even having an economy unless most people benefit from it. And in this unequal and underpaid state, the economy’s bounty is largely reserved for owners of capital. Leaders from the newly right-wing North Carolina Chamber of Commerce to the man who was elected to attend to the safety and well being of working people seem contented with a state that has little regard for the people who make it run. Maybe that will change someday, but 90 years of history suggest that will be hard to achieve.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.