Cover design by Carrie Lare.
This is one of those occasions where my day job and the topics in this blog collide. Asheville, the city where I live, is in the middle of the least-unionized region in the least-unionized state in America.
But workers at the local Sitel call center are trying to change that:
“I have never seen a company run like this,” Brian Lane declares. “I'm here to work; I have a wife and children to support, and these people are sitting here making money hand over fist off the sweat of my back.”
An injury forced Lane, a former electrician, to change jobs. Gathering with fellow employees after work, he brandishes a form from a Hendersonville food pantry.
“That's where I have to go if I want to feed my family,” says Lane. “No matter how hard we work, the sword of Damocles is over our heads.”
As the region’s manufacturing base dwindled over the last several decades, local unions saw their membership decline, though many have claimed growth recently. No widespread data is yet available for that time period, however. And despite WNC unions' deep roots, historically they’ve mostly kept to themselves.
“We were all looking out for our own interests, but now we're starting to communicate and ally like nothing I've ever seen before,” says IBEW state coordinator Matthew Ruff. Despite membership growth, he asserts, “We're not fighting for another 5 to 10 percent of market share: We're fighting for our existence”
Low wages have been a major problem in Asheville for a long time: despite our reputation as a cultured, lovely city, they're about $100 a week lower than the state average. On a larger level, union membership has declined nationwide and in many other industrialized countries as well, to the point they're now often viewed as a holdover from a bygone era. Even the more liberal futurists rarely bring up unions in their plans for tomorrow. Working on this story, I ran into plenty of fairly well-informed people that weren't aware that trying to organize a union is perfectly legal anywhere in the country.
Unions seem to have sprang back into the public consciousness a bit more in recent years, especially as they've taken a more proactive approach and faced high-profile fights in a number of states. But it's still unclear if organizing drives like the one above are a blip or the cutting edge of a revived labor movement.
So let's use this as a launching pad for a larger discussion. Are unions making a comeback? Are they a useful way to improve conditions for the average person? If they're not, what works better? Are there other forms of organizing more suited to evolving conditions? What are they?
Comments welcome below.