Labor Leader MaryBe McMillan on Why Unions Matter

During the month of March, Women AdvaNCe explored the minimum wage in North Carolina. To conclude our series, we sat down with MaryBe McMillan, Secretary-Treasurer at the North Carolina AFL-CIO, who spelled out the process of making pay equality into a reality.

>>MaryBe current headshotMaryBe has been with the NC AFL-CIO — the largest federation of trade unions in the United States — for more than a decade. She has become the strongest voice for organizing unions, establishing fair labor practices, and caring for workers in our state. MaryBe became involved in the labor movement during her time at NC State University, where she received a PhD in Sociology. Inspired by the University janitorial staff’s drive to unionize, MaryBe has made defending the underdog her life’s work.

What’s your role at the NC AFL-CIO?

I do a little bit of everything. I’m responsible for finances, lobbying our congressional delegation, and spending time at the state legislature. I do a lot of public speaking about the benefits of unions, and I advocate on behalf of workers. In short, I do everything I can to build a stronger labor movement in North Carolina.

What’s the state of North Carolina’s labor movement?

Unfortunately, >>North Carolina is the least unionized state in the country. It’s a struggle for workers to organize and bargain here. We have a history and legacy of anti-unionism in this state, and in the South in general.

Textile workers in the 1920s had a hard time of challenging their bosses. Workers shopped in the company store, lived in company houses, and were subject to a large degree of paternalism. Workers who striked in the 1920s got beaten, intimidated, and killed.

This legacy still lasts today. Our current lawmakers are bent on protecting the anti-union laws codified in 1950s. Speaker of the House Thom Tillis has promised to keep North Carolina the least unionized state in the country, and within hours of his first session in the House, filed multiple bills against union organizing.

What’s your opinion of North Carolina’s minimum wage at $7.25 an hour?

We need to fight for an increase. Businesses can certainly afford to pay workers a few more dollars an hour. In Australia, McDonald’s workers make $15 an hour and McDonald’s still makes a profit selling hamburgers there. People need to realize that the minimum wage is completely inadequate to support workers and families.

North Carolinians in particular need to be concerned about the minimum wage. We’ve seen such a loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs– and in their place we are seeing a proliferation of low-wage service and retail jobs that don’t allow people to take care of their families. They have to rely on public assistance to make ends meet.

How does the low minimum wage affect women?

More than two-thirds of minimum wage earners are women. A lot of women try to figure out a flexible job where they can take care of their children and families, and they land on low-wage jobs. It’s unfortunate that our society still devalues the work of women and women don’t get paid what we deserve.

Would raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour solve all NC’s labor problems?

It’s not enough to just have>> Congress increase the minimum wage. Workers shouldn’t be at the mercy of lawmakers to raise wages. That’s why it’s important that workers have a voice to collectively bargain. When workers have a union they can fight for better wages, benefits, and a schedule that allows them time off to see children. If we want to fight for equality, we need to argue for workers’ rights to collectively bargain.

How does collective bargaining level the playing field?

Unions benefit all workers, but people of color and women in particular. Unions enable them to fight for a contract so that all workers are paid equally for the job they do. A contract establishes a clear path for advancement, so all employees can have the same chance at success.

When unions were strong decades ago, the middle class expanded. Wages kept pace with productivity. Since unions have declined, the middle class has shrunk. It hurts all of us when workers’ right to organize is impeded.

What forces are working against unions and fair wages in North Carolina?

There is a well-funded corporate machine doing everything it can to increase profits at the expense of workers. You have the Koch Brother-funded organizations and the>> Art Pope empire, then there’s the John Locke foundation writing papers against increasing the minimum wage and against collective bargaining. People hear from these and then vote against their own self interests. Protecting workers means protecting all of us. And that doesn’t have to be at the expense of corporations. They come together and lobby on behalf of their interests. It’s a matter of fairness that their employees have that ability as well.

How would you solve North Carolina’s wage disparities?

We need to>> organize the South. If you look at the South, this is really where workers are struggling the most. This is where there are the lowest wages. This is where employers come to exploit their workers. It’s unfortunate that the problems in the South don’t stay in the South. Our low wages are driving down wages for workers everywhere. Our bills are the basis for>> ALEC bills across the country.

If we want economic justice in this country we have to take the fight to where it’s most difficult for workers. And that’s here in the South. Otherwise, we’ll see our low wages and our anti-union laws take over the country.

Follow>> MaryBe on Twitter to keep up with the latest from the NC AFL-CIO.


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