Fewer than three percent of North Carolina workers belong to a union - the lowest rate in the nation. But a hearty contingent of about 300 came out for the annual Labor Day parade in Charlotte. Many of them also spent the holiday afternoon at an organizing meeting for low-wage workers.
Because of DNC security restrictions, some of the biggest crowd pleasers of the annual Charlotte Labor Day Parade didn't get to participate yesterday.
No car clubs, bike groups, pedicabs . . . "not even Razzles the Clown," said parade organizer Ben Lee.
The parade also didn't march through Trade and Tryon as it typically does. It was confined instead to the route designated for protests during the DNC. Still a dedicated group of high school marching bands and union members participated on foot.
United Auto Workers from the Freightliner Plant in Mount Holly were one of the largest groups. Had it not been for the union, Tony Hawkins says things would have turned out much worse for him during mass layoffs at the plant in 2008.
"It kept me my benefits while I was laid off," says Hawkins. "I had seniority rights to come back. You know they had no choice to bring me back when things picked up."
Some national labor groups criticized the Democratic Party for bringing its national convention to a state with such low union membership and laws that discourage organizing. Locally, union leaders were frustrated the DNC scheduled CarolinaFest on Labor Day, in direct competition with the parade.
But Ben Lee says his top priority was that the parade happen, no matter the restrictions. It's the largest Labor Day parade in the state, now in its 13th consecutive year: a rare opportunity for union members to come out of the shadows and show their strength, says Lee.
"If it's me and my dedicated people walking down the sidewalk, we'll always have a Labor Day parade in Charlotte," vows Lee.
While unions remain key allies of the Democratic Party, the national AFL-CIO declined to support the convention this year, in favor of spending money on its own grassroots strategy. North Carolina members of the postal workers' union marched in a DNC protest on Sunday, demanding the party do more for the working class.
A similar sentiment carried over to Wedgewood Baptist Church Sunday afternoon, where Jaribu Hill rallied a sanctuary full of low-wage workers from across the South.
"Which side are you on!" belted Hill as the crowd joined in her song.
"This meeting is historic in that it's bringing together workers from the South: union workers and non-union workers, immigrant workers coming together in solidarity," explains Hill, who is with the Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights
Southern states rank among the least unionized in the nation, with North Carolina at the bottom, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Multiple workers right's groups organized yesterday's meeting as a chance for workers from the field, to the meat packing plant to the city sanitation system to share ideas about organizing for better pay and conditions.
Leonard Walker came from Tar Heel, North Carolina where he works at the Smithfield meat packing plant. Just in the last few years have workers there managed to unionize.
"We're 68 percent unionized out of 5,050 employees," says Walker.
What difference has it made for workers at the plant?
Walker gives a basic example: before the union, workers would occasionally urinate on themselves because they were afraid they'd be fired for taking a bathroom break.
"Now that the union's there, when you gotta go to the bathroom, go," says Walker.
Walker left Sunday's meeting with new ideas to help his fellow workers understand their rights.
In Charlotte, sanitation workers have picketed City Hall the last four Mondays calling on council to adopt a "Municipal Workers Bill of Rights" that would establish minimum working standards and a union-like negotiation over benefits. They hope the DNC's presence here will draw additional attention to their demands.