The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations is directing its attention to the South.

At its annual convention last September, the AFL-CIO made a long-term commitment to developing a unique organizing strategy in the South—a region historically known for being inhospitable to labor unions. The strategy seeks to bring greater union benefits awareness to workers in the South and dispel qualms and stereotypes about being a union member.

MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO, called the South “ground zero” of labor movements.

“If we can get economic justice here, we can get economic justice through the whole nation,” McMillan said.

The Durham-based Local 77, a chapter of the American Federation State, County and Municipal Employees, is primarily made up of Duke employees, said labor historian Robert Korstad, professor of public policy and history. The union formed toward the end of the civil rights movement, and students and others in the Durham community supported its work. Now, however, Korstad believes the union's influence has weakened.

"The union has been able to hold on, but it certainly doesn’t have the kind of power it should have," Korstad said. "You look at Duke now—they’ve been subcontracting, which weakens power of the union."

On Feb.17, the N.C. State AFL-CIO is sponsoring a panel, hosted at the Duke Center for Documentary Studies, focused on organizing labor in the South.

The panel seeks to give context for why the South is still economically and politically important in labor movements, said McMillan.

Speakers include Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, Angaza Laughinghouse, president of the UE Local 150 of North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, and Justin Flores, vice president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

With a union membership rate of 3 percent, North Carolina currently ranks as the least unionized state in the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Korstad attributed the low union membership rate to the traditional Southern mistrust of unions, which were frequently associated with ethnic workers and the big-city North.

“Southern workers often had complicated ideas about who they were,” Korstad said. “To some extent, they thought of themselves as industrial workers, but they always had one foot on the land.”

Divisions along color lines also contributed to workers’ reluctance to unionize, Korstad said. Canny employers played on racial tensions to keep their workforce divided. Korstad noted that employers often pitted black workers against white workers, a strategy still used today.

“Now, it’s often Hispanic workers against white workers,” Korstad said.

North Carolina state legislation prohibits public employees from collective bargaining and renders written contracts between local governments and unions void. The state’s “right to work” laws against closed shop practices have also limited union bargaining power. Although attempts have been made to repeal anti-union laws enacted in the 1960s and 1970s, few have been successful.

McMillan criticized the state legislature for refusing to repeal decade-old laws limiting workers’ rights to bargain collectively.

“The North Carolina legislature seems determined to make things worse for workers,” McMillan said. “You have elected officials who are actively campaigning against workers’ rights, because they get money from corporations opposed to unions.”

Mark Jewell, vice president of the North American Association of Educators, said that the North Carolina legislature’s limits on public employee bargaining prevented teachers from influencing education laws.

“If we were allowed to bargain, we would not see these sweeping changes—salaries frozen, per pupil expenditures 50th in the nation—it’s embarrassing,” said Jewell. “The state legislature’s done all these things with absolutely no input from teachers.”

Laws banning collective bargaining agreements with local governments have made it more difficult for workers in the public sector to negotiate with their employers, said David Anders, president of the Professional Firefighters and Paramedics of North Carolina.

“Most of the public employees feel like if they can’t force the local government to stick to their agreement, why bother negotiating?" Anders said.

Anders cited instances when local governments would renege on promises, free of legal repercussions.

“They said they would do certain things, but when it came time to do them, they just said ‘We don’t have the money’ or ‘We didn’t consider certain things,’” Anders said. “Now, it’s just one of those things you expect to happen anyway.”

McMillan emphasized the importance of de-stigmatizing and promoting public awareness about union participation.

“We try to make people understand that you interact with union members every day—even if it’s just 3 percent of the workforce,” she said. “The people who deliver your mail are members of unions, as are people who work at the American Red Cross in Charlotte. People have to realize that union members are just normal people trying to get a fair share and provide for their families.”