by CHAUNCEY K. ROBINSON
North Carolina AFL-CIO President MaryBe McMillan speaking at a rally, with Rev. William Barber on her right. | North Carolina AFL-CIO
ST. LOUIS—Constant attacks on the rights of working people by the current administration occupying the White House have put the labor movement on the defensive across the country. The tough fight to spread the narrative about union power, push back the threat of anti-labor policies, and protect shrinking unions can make the outlook for the labor movement seem bleak.
But North Carolina AFL-CIO President MaryBe McMillan is offering a bit of hope—and faith—for winning more working people to labor. Encouraging unionists to become “evangelists for labor,” she says members need to take a page from the faith community and start spreading the “Good News” of unionization. It’s an approach tailored for the South, but she says it has relevance far beyond.
Speaking at this year’s International Labor Communications Association (ILCA) convention on a panel entitled “Confronting Right to Work and Building a Workers’ Movement,” McMillan offered advice to labor journalists and communications staff combatting the threat of “right to work” in their states. Moderated by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, the panel also included Nora Loreto, representing the Canadian Association of Labour Media; David Cook, president of the UFCW Local 655 in St. Louis; and Megan Parke, director of field services for AFSCME Council 28 in Washington state.
“Right to work” is a policy, that despite its name, has nothing to do with workers’ rights, and everything to do with bosses, industry associations, and lobbyists driving down wages and weakening unions. It’s a policy that currently dominates 28 states—North Carolina included. And if Republicans in Missouri have their way, this state will be next.
McMillan noted that right to work has been the only thing North Carolina, and much of the South, has ever known. Her state has been right to work since 1947—seventy years. Yet, she argued that even if a state is right to work, union members shouldn’t let that deter them from getting new people to join the labor movement.
“For us [in North Carolina], getting people to join the union requires a real sales job. Luckily, we Southerners are natural born evangelists. Successful organizers in right to work states are evangelists. Evangelists who are spreading the Good News about the benefits of membership. Evangelists who are spreading the message of hope that, despite the challenges, working people can win and build strong unions,” McMillan said.
Urging the labor leaders to emphasize the moral high ground, McMillan explained, “We must point out that greed and corruption are wrong. CEOs earning almost four times what workers make… Workers working full time and not making enough to live… all of that is wrong. Plain and simple. Fair pay for an honest day’s work is not a radical idea. It is a moral principle that most Americans believe in.”
Addressing the need to retain current members and attract new ones, McMillan advised, “With our external campaigns, we must let people know what the union can do for them. Our internal campaigns must let people know what the union is doing for them—and they need to know that from day one. Access to new hires is what unions in right to work states fight for. You want them to know they have a union that is fighting for them every day.”
Continuing with the church analogy, McMillan said that after sharing the gospel, union members should not forget the “altar call.” An altar call refers to the tradition in some evangelical Christian churches in which those who want to make a new spiritual commitment to Jesus Christ are invited to come forward publicly. McMillan said the altar call was that final invitation—asking people to commit to the union. But recruiting a person to become a member of the union faithful requires persistence. “Ask people to join, and don’t stop asking until they do,” she urged.
The labor leader noted the need to stay positive with a message of “heaven, instead of a message of fire and brimstone,” and turning current members into “disciples” of the union. People need to be convinced of why the union is good and how it can change their life, not shamed or attacked for being skeptical of joining. “Ultimately our goal is to not just grow membership, but to grow activists who will advocate for the union and themselves.”
“We need a movement,” McMillan pressed. “That’s why you see growing solidarity between Black, white, and brown workers, and between labor, faith, and civil rights movements.”
Emphasizing work with coalitions and faith leaders, along with taking the moral high ground, is not a new concept for McMillan and the North Carolina AFL-CIO. They’ve been supporters of the Moral Mondayscampaign, led by progressive faith leader Rev. William Barber, since its inception. Moral Mondays is a racially diverse coalition of religious believers and non-believers aimed at taking on voter suppression, discrimination, and economic injustice.
Speaking to People’s World, McMillan expounded further on the strategy. “We’ve worked with the Moral Mondays movement since it began. Using the economic issue helps to let people know why we need to stand up for voting rights, for women’s rights, for LGBTQ rights. The same people attacking voting rights are the same people attacking workers’ rights. It has to be not just taking it to the streets, but there has to be a structure, which the labor movement has.” Rev. Barber has recently announced an evolution of Moral Mondays into the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
The role of invoking a moral high ground and faith is no stranger to organizing in the U.S., as many African-American churches in the southern states played a key role in the Civil Rights era as established social and political power bases for African Americans fighting racial oppression. McMillan’s speech picked up that legacy of forging political power through inspiration and hope.
Finishing out her speech, McMillan concluded, “Right to work can’t mean ‘right to surrender.’ Stop the race to the bottom by stopping it where it started—the South and other places left behind. Hope can be found in the darkest hour. There is new life to build something stronger. Go out and tell the Good News that the labor movement is being reborn and revived.”