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Labor Pains 

A new study finds that North Carolina's workers aren't reaping the rewards of a thriving economy.

When it comes to supporting and helping workers, North Carolina and its industries get a passing grade--but just barely.

On Labor Day, The Common Sense Foundation, the Raleigh-based think tank, released "The State of the Worker in North Carolina 2000," a report that compiles labor statistics and compares North Carolina to the other 49 states. The verdict: If the state received a report card, its overall GPA would amount to a C-, and the state would finish 30th in the country.

The report considered eight major areas to assess how workers fare in the Tar Heel state: wages and benefits; income and poverty; the labor market; workplace inequality; occupational safety; legislative protection of workers; workers' right to organize; and quality of life.

Last week, government officials announced that poverty in the United States has reached its lowest point in 21 years. But while politicians and pundits laud a robust economy powered by low unemployment and the dot-com technological revolution, the question The Common Sense Foundation is asking is why many North Carolinians are not reaping the fruits from the boom.

"You hear so much about how great the economy is and that everything is so good," says MaryBe McMillan, the foundation's research director and the report's author. "We wanted to take a critical look at things like wages, income and poverty." The 24-page "State of the Worker" report, she says, appears to be the first document to focus on the overall climate for workers in North Carolina.

Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of the foundation, says North Carolina is far from being a trickle-down economy.

"Someone once said the people at the bottom are being trickled on," he says.

The state's mediocre C- rating is an indication of the number of North Carolinians who work but cannot keep up. Poverty remains a persistent problem, with 27 percent of workers earning $7,890 or less for a family of one. And minorities are hit the hardest: 78 percent of Latino men employed by private industry work in the lowest job levels, and identical educational attainment does not guarantee that blacks and whites will be paid similar hourly wages.

The state does lead the nation in some categories, but these distinctions are hardly honors. North Carolina has lost more jobs to NAFTA than any other state. Infant mortality is also among the highest in the nation.

Yet the news is not all negative. Workplace injuries have fallen, and the state's unemployment and workers' compensation benefits are relatively generous, union officials say.

Many industry and pro-business advocates take exception to the report's approach. One of these is Phil Kirk, president of North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry (NCCBI). In a Sept. 5 News & Observer article, he said he wouldn't read any of the report because the foundation is pro-union and anti-business. (Kirk and The Common Sense Foundation have a history of butting heads; the think tank has pushed him to resign as chairman of the N.C. Board of Education, a position Fitzsimon and McMillan believe conflicts with Kirk's lobbying with NCCBI.)

The report's highest grade, a C+ to the labor market, gave a nod to the record low unemployment in the state. But North Carolina ranks dead last in several areas: percentage of unionized workers (less than 4 percent); protection of gay and lesbian workers; and collective bargaining rights for state and local government employees. Though other states also do not give collective bargaining rights to public employees, North Carolina was given a 50 rating and earned an F for workers' rights to organize.

That failing grade doesn't surprise James Andrews, who serves as president of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO. His federation of unions has 150,000 members statewide, and Andrews says it is common for workers to experience harassment or curtailment of their rights to vote for or join a union.

"I have workers tell me that they walk into a place to apply for a job and the supervisor says, 'We're union-free.' The attitude is 'Don't even mention the word,'" says Andrews. "And while the government guarantees workers the right to organize, it's like the civil rights laws. They were on the books, but ... ," he says.

Fitzsimon agrees that the push to unionize and to give workers more representation and rights is an uphill battle.

"There's a culture in North Carolina that is hostile," he says. "Even people considered progressive, like Jim Hunt in his first incarnation as governor, wouldn't dream of changing the right-to-work law." In a right-to-work state, companies and unions cannot sign contracts requiring affected laborers to join unions.

According to the report, the right-to-work law and other policies the foundation deems unfriendly to workers survive because North Carolina is the "state of the corporation." In its conclusion, the report questions state government tax incentives that lure companies to North Carolina even while job training and Medicaid are not available to those who need them.

The majority of the report's nine recommendations must be accomplished legislatively. Among these proposals are an increase of the minimum wage to $8.50, the repeal of the right-to-work law, and the prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The foundation sent copies of the report, which may be published biannually, to each member of the General Assembly. Although Fitzsimon and McMillan haven't gotten direct feedback from legislators, they believe they have provided lawmakers with important facts and feasible recommendations--some of which require little financial commitment but all of which require political will.

"They can pass the sexual orientation discrimination law as soon as the session opens," says Fitzsimon.

McMillan also sees the recommendation for an ergonomics standard (which would inform workers about possible repetitive motion disorders and other conditions that may directly result from their work) and bringing back a commission to study pay inequity as completely "doable."

The key to change for workers is getting lawmakers informed, because as Fitzsimon says, "workers have always known about these conditions." EndBlock

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