Horror and heroism often walk side-by-side. For every insurrectionist who attacked the U.S. Capitol last month, many more lifted their voices against racism and police violence in streets across our country. For every leader sowing false doubts about the 2020 results, droves of dedicated election workers tended to an honest vote. Amid every tweet downplaying the ravages of COVID-19, millions of American workers put their lives on the line every day to keep our society afloat.
The past year was hardly the first time the angels and demons of the human spirit have fought for the soul of our country. In this time of trial, it’s all the more vital to take strength from the examples of our forebearers, to remember we are the inheritors of a proud tradition of not taking injustice lying down, and that every right we enjoy emerged from intense struggle.
As we carry on the fight for justice, here are a few reminders of why it matters, and the heroes whose torch we have now in our hands.
The Hamlet Fire and a system of “cheap”
One of the worst workplace disasters in recent North Carolina memory happened in 1991, in the small town of Hamlet, when the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant went up in flames, killing 25 workers who were locked inside. Author Bryant Simon spent years trying to understand how the Hamlet fire happened, and what it reveals what he calls a “system of cheap” — a political and economic system that puts workers’ lives in peril, even in normal times, and becomes even the more deadly during times of crisis like COVID-19.
This conversation reflects on what we can learn from the Hamlet fire, how policy choices have shaped reality during COVID-19, and what we can do to truly value working peoples’ lives going forward.
Generations of heroic struggle for workers’ rights
North Carolina’s history is rich with examples of working people organizing to demand dignity in the workplace and economic security for their families. From union organizing to strikes to protests, North Carolinians have long understood the value of working together to confront unsafe and inhumane conditions on the job.
- General Textile Mill Strike of 1934: North Carolinians played an underappreciated role in securing many of the basic protections working people across the country enjoy today. Fed up with practices to boost productivity (many with roots in plantation-style time management), textile mill workers up and down the Eastern Seaboard walked off the job demanding decent pay and an end to oppressive working conditions. Roughly 65,000 North Carolina textile workers participated, effectively bringing the industry in the state to a standstill. The strike — and mill owners’ often violent response — ultimately led to the creation the National Labor Relations Board and workers first broad right to organize in the workplace.
- Local 22: Building Multiracial Worker Power in Jim Crow North Carolina: (For a video discussion about the legacy of Local 22, click HERE.) One chapter of North Carolina history we should remember in these difficult times is the story of Local 22, one of the most remarkable and unlikely examples of working people fighting for their rights. Against all odds, Local 22 became one of the most successful organizing efforts in North Carolina history. While the gains were only partial, with some eroded by elites’ efforts to break the growing base of worker power, the episode helped to chart a path forward and remains a shining example of what is possible when working people fight for justice.
- Fusion Movement: The Wilmington massacre and coup that overthrew a duly elected city government has received increased attention recently, but not enough attention has been paid to the instructive story of how a multi-racial coalition of organized black and white working people managed to gain power in the first place. When white farmers supporting the Populist Party joined forces with both Black and white members of the Republican Party, a coalition was born that managed to wrest control of the North Carolina General Assembly, the North Carolina Supreme Court, and most of the North Carolina congressional delegation from segregationist Democrats in 1894. The same coalition later won majority control of local government in Wilmington, the most populous city in North Carolina at the time. Several important reforms emerged from the 1895 General Assembly, including greater access to voting for Black North Carolinians, increased funding for education, and limitations on the interest rates on loans.
- Mt. Olive Pickle Boycott: Because of exemptions to New Deal legislation meant to preserve white supremacy, many migrant farmworkers lack several federal protections other working people enjoy, including minimum wage and overtime pay. In 1997, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) proposed a three-way contract between the Mt. Olive Pickle Company, the North Carolina Growers Association, and the union. After two years without meaningful change in the industry, FLOC called a boycott of all Mt. Olive products. The boycott garnered significant public attention, especially from religious groups like the National Council of Churches. Many grocery stores abided by the boycott and refrained from offering Mt. Olive products. After nearly six years, Mt. Olive relented and signed a three-part contract with FLOC and the growers association. The contract established a grievance procedure and the presence of camp representatives, along with better pay and an increased price for cucumbers.