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Title: Oral History Interview with Mary Robertson, August 13, 1979. Interview H-0288. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007): Electronic Edition.
Author: Robertson, Mary, interviewee
Interview conducted by Hall, Jacquelyn
Funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services supported the electronic publication of this interview.
Text encoded by Jennifer Joyner
Sound recordings digitized by Aaron Smithers Southern Folklife Collection
First edition, 2007
Size of electronic edition: 148 Kb
Publisher: The University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
2007.
© This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use as long as this statement of availability is included in the text.
The electronic edition is a part of the UNC-Chapel Hill digital library, Documenting the American South.
Languages used in the text: English
Revision history:
2007-00-00, Celine Noel, Wanda Gunther, and Kristin Martin revised TEIHeader and created catalog record for the electronic edition.
2007-06-21, Jennifer Joyner finished TEI-conformant encoding and final proofing.
Source(s):
Title of recording: Oral History Interview with Mary Robertson, August 13, 1979. Interview H-0288. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Title of series: Series H. Piedmont Industrialization. Southern Oral History Program Collection (H-0288)
Author: Jacquelyn Hall
Title of transcript: Oral History Interview with Mary Robertson, August 13, 1979. Interview H-0288. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Title of series: Series H. Piedmont Industrialization. Southern Oral History Program Collection (H-0288)
Author: Jacquelyn Hall
Description: 174 Mb
Description: 38 p.
Note: Interview conducted on August 13, 1979, by Jacquelyn Hall; recorded in Asheville, North Carolina.
Note: Transcribed by Jean Houston.
Note: Forms part of: Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007): Series H. Piedmont Industrialization, Manuscripts Department, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Note: Original transcript on deposit at the Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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Interview with Mary Robertson, August 13, 1979.
Interview H-0288. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Robertson, Mary, interviewee


Interview Participants

    MARY ROBERTSON, interviewee
    JACQUELYN HALL, interviewer

[TAPE 1, SIDE A]


Page 1
[START OF TAPE 1, SIDE A]
JACQUELYN HALL:
… a little bit about yourself--where and when you were born.
MARY ROBERTSON:
All right. I always hesitate when people ask me where I was born because so often they're disillusioned if you don't say you were born in Western North Carolina. But the truth of the matter is that technically I was born in El Paso, Texas. I came here when I was ten and I've been here ever since. This is my mother's home going back quite a few generations, here in Buncombe and in the western counties of North Carolina.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did your family happen to get to Texas?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Well, my father was a disabled World War I veteran. He came here to the VA Hospital, that's now generally referred to as Oteen, and he met my mother and married her. He was from the northern part of South Carolina. And he was offered a job with the border patrol in El Paso, Texas, so they moved there. Actually, he didn't take the job when they got there; for whatever reasons, he took another job. But that's how it happened that they went to El Paso, and I was born there shortly thereafter. I tbink they'd been married about six months before they left South Carolina.
JACQUELYN HALL:
And why did they come back to the mountains?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Well, that's an interesting story, too. My father as a disabled veteran drew total disability compensation. After World War II, up until the Roosevelt administration, a veteran could draw one hundred percent disability payments and work at the same time if he were able to. But because of the Depression and the need for putting unemployed people to work, one of the early acts of the Roosevelt administration was to say that if a man drew permanent disability compensation, either he had to give up the compensation, or he had to give up working. He couldn't do both. And my father, because of the condition of his health, was afraid that he could not sustain working for a long period of

Page 2
time, so he stopped working. And of course that considerably decreased the family income. And El Paso being an international city, the cost of living was higher there, and they just felt they could do better on his compensation here, so they came back here. It was my mother's home, all her people lived here.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did you come back to Asheville?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did you have brothers and sisters?
MARY ROBERTSON:
I've got one brother and one sister and they both live in Asheville.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Are they older or younger?
MARY ROBERTSON:
They're younger than I am. I'm the oldest.
JACQUELYN HALL:
So you grew up here after the age of ten?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes, and [I was] old enough to be aware at least of the more traumatic aspects of the Depression. I knew that people were in bad shape. I didn't necessarily understand all the ramifications of the economy and how it contributed to the Depression, but at ten you can realize that there is a critical situation.
JACQUELYN HALL:
When would that have been that you moved to Asheville?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Well, I was born in 1923, so I guess that makes it '33.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Yes, and that was right in the midst of the Depression.
MARY ROBERTSON:
Particularly in this area. We talked about the uniqueness of this Appalachian area, and of course it was already depressed, so the Depression just accentuated it.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did you live close by your mother's people?
MARY ROBERTSON:
At that time she had several brothers and sisters who lived in Buncombe County, yes. One of them was Bascomb Lamar Lunsford.

Page 3
JACQUELYN HALL:
That's her brother?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes. It was in the early days of his Mountain Folk Festival.
JACQUELYN HALL:
The Central Labor Union was somehow involved in the first …?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes. It was one of the sponsors of the first festival. It was the AFL, actually.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Do you know how that came about?
MARY ROBERTSON:
No, I don't. In fact, somebody called me about it this spring. That's the first I knew.
JACQUELYN HALL:
David Whisnant?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes, probably.
JACQUELYN HALL:
He's the one that told me that, too.
MARY ROBERTSON:
I come from an industrial union background with the CIO. That was the AFL, which was the craft union then. Even when I got old enough to be involved in the labor movement I didn't know that much about the local history of the AFL. But I'm not surprised that it was one of the sponsoring agents, because Bascom was looking for sponsorship anywhere he could find it.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did you, then…
MARY ROBERTSON:
How did I get involved with the labor unions?
JACQUELYN HALL:
Yes.
MARY ROBERTSON:
Well, I was in the Air Force in World War II, and while I was in the service I met people, men and women, who'd been involved in the labor movement and learned a little bit about it, and when I got out of the service I preferred opportunities in organized plants because unions make good ones.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did you go in the service right out of high school?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Well, actually I'd been working for a year or two--I didn't finish high school. I didn't finish ninth grade. I went to work to help support my brother and sister. But I was eighteen, so that's about the age.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Where had you been working?

Page 4
MARY ROBERTSON:
I didn't work in any kind of industry. I worked in a restaurant or--actually, at the time I went in the service I was working for a mail-order photographic house.
JACQUELYN HALL:
You would have been in the …
MARY ROBERTSON:
It was called WACs. The Air Force was the Air Corps. It was part of the Army, not a separate military arm the way it is now.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did you make the decision to join?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Oh, that wasn't difficult. At my age, at that time, it was the one avenue of escaping the dull, monotonous routine.
JACQUELYN HALL:
I've known several women, from this part of the country particularly, who took that way out during World War II. Obviously the Army's always been an avenue for young men in that kind of condition, but I've been becoming more aware of how much during World War II it was sort of that for women.
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes. I would hesitate to say how realistic the advantages were to most women. To me they were real enough because I was a photographer. I went to photographic school at Lowery Field. I did aerial photographic work, I did emergency photographic work, and I did fun photographic work. There were not too many women in the Air Force who were photographers. It was one of the half-dozen really elite jobs for women. Most women were relegated into the same clerical sort of work that they had done in civilian life, but I had one of the really adventurous, glamorous jobs.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Had you already been doing photography?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes, I was working for a mail-order photographic place when I went into the service.
JACQUELYN HALL:
So that gave you a little bit of experience.
MARY ROBERTSON:
Right. It was an accident that I was working, that I went in at the time I went in. I don't know if you want to get involved in all this,

Page 5
but the Army, of course, has had women from before the war, before we were involved in the war. But the Air Force would not accept women. The commanding general of the Air Force was Hap Arnold. and he would not accept women in the Air Force.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Hap Arnold?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Well, that was his nickname--I can't remember what his name was. You can look that up. But anyway, he finally agreed to accept women in the Air Corps provided that he would be the commanding officer of the women, instead of Oveta Culp Hobby, who was the commanding colonel of the women. And he stipulated that only under those conditions--that he would be in command instead of she of the women who were in the Air Corps--he would accept them. So of course as soon as he made that decision and it became official, there was a sudden need for women to fill the jobs that he wanted filled. And I just happened to go in at that time. So there was a sudden need for photographers, clerical people, and so on. So I went out of basic training into photographic school.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Was that an advantage or a disadvantage to women that he put himself …
MARY ROBERTSON:
We thought it was an advantage. That's because of course we considered ourselves just a cut above women in the Army and other women in other branches of service. The Air Force was the darling of World War II. And so to be in the Air Corps at all, even for men, was considered an elite branch of service, and for women, especially since they had been deprived of better opportunities for a long while, considered it to be an elite position and actually preferred it, because as far as we could tell it made no difference. The chain of command in any military service is such that the peons never really know what the difference is between the commanding generals. You know the difference between your lieutenant and your sergeant, but you don't know the difference between…
JACQUELYN HALL:
What was Hobby's position exactly?

Page 6
MARY ROBERTSON:
She was the top commanding officer of all the women in the Army. And of course the Air Corps was part of the Army; it was not a separate branch of service at that time. It would have been the same thing if the Artillery Corps for example, whoever happened to be the top commander of the Artillery Corps had said "Well, the only way I will have women in the Artillery Corps is if I command them." Same thing. It just happened that this guy did it. And I don't hesitate to say this as though I know--I'm sure it could be documented that one of the reasons that he was able to get away with it was because the Air Corps was an elite corps. It was the darling of the military establishment and it was evident that it was going to be an air war, and the commanding general of the Air Corps therefore had clout with the general staff.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How long were you in the Air Corps?
MARY ROBERTSON:
For about three and a half years.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What kind of effect did that experience have on you?
MARY ROBERTSON:
It isn't really difficult to imagine the effect that it had. I had lived a very sheltered life. When I went to school I went to private schools.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Why was that?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Because my parents were Catholics. There are not many Catholics in western North Carolina now; there were even fewer then. So I went to a parochial school, and it was a very small parochial school. There were four of us in my seventh grade class. So I hadn't even had the broadening experience of public school. And so it had a decided effect to anybody at that age who goes from an isolated situation into the maelstrom of a world war, a major world war.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Were you overseas?
MARY ROBERTSON:
No. I was not overseas.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did you have any bad experiences?
MARY ROBERTSON:
No, no bad experiences. I enjoyed every minute of it. By

Page 7
the time the war was over I was anxious to get out of the service and back home, but that's true of everybody. As I say, I had a very elite job. I was one of the few women wherever I was stationed and had one of the more romantic, adventurous jobs.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did that mean that you worked more with men than with women?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes, in some respects that was true. I wouldn't say the reverse of that was necessarily true for all the women who were in the Army or the Air Corps or any other branch of service. But it was true in my case. There were more men. Every place where I was stationed there were far more men than women anyway. The only place where there were more women was in basic training and that hardly counted. That was a preliminary experience and had a short life--I think basic training at the time I went in the service was only six weeks. So that didn't really make much difference. When you completed basic training you were assigned to some military base and everywhere a woman went there were more men than women. One of the nice things about it. Girls had their choice of dates. Anywhere else in the world there're more women than that. So that wasn't a bad thing at all.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did you make close friends there that you couldn't have here?
MARY ROBERTSON:
No. It's a very peculiar experience. I don't know what it's like in the peace-time army--I was never in the peace-time army, and of course all those things have changed now for men and women--but in a war-time army it's just almost automatic that you don't make terribly close attachments because you're not going to be with people for very long. They're going to be transferred somewhere else eventually. Momentarily I made close contacts, but I didn't try to keep up with anybody and they didn't try to keep up with me. My experience is that in most cases nobody did that--that's the exception rather than the rule. I would be hard put to remember the names of a lot of women that at the moment I had close relationships with.

Page 8
JACQUELYN HALL:
What happened then when you got out of the Air Force?
MARY ROBERTSON:
I came back to Asheville, and by that time my mother was a widow, and I had a younger brother and sister who were still in high school, so I went back to work. I went back to the job I had when I went in the service, which was in this photographic place, but that was far too tame for me by that time. So I got a job as secretary-receptionist for the then Fur and Leather Workers. That union has been long since absorbed into the Meatcutters' Union. And from there I went to Winston-Salem, and I went to work in the Reynolds plant, and they had a union contract with the old FTA--the Food and Tobacco Workers' Union, that no longer exists--and I worked for FTA as an organizer for a time with the tobacco workers in Winston-Salem.
JACQUELYN HALL:
That was a really interesting episode.
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes, it was fun to me. I mean [Laughter], looking back on it, I can see it was pretty laughable([unknown]), but at the time I [unknown]. I didn't have any attachments. I met the man I married there. He didn't work in the tobacco industry, but I met him in Winston-Salem and got married, and after that I worked for Western Electric in Winston-Salem. It was organized by CWA; it still is. I was a shop steward in the local. [unknown].
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did you know a guy named Korsted?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes, your saying the name makes me remember that I did, but I don't remember any details. I just remember the name.
JACQUELYN HALL:
I can't remember his first name. He was an organizer for the FTA. His son, Bob Korsted, is writing a book about Local 22 in Winston-Salem, and he got to interview a lot of the people that were involved. But there's a woman in Winston-Salem whose name I can't …
MARY ROBERTSON:
Velma Hopkins is still there. There were some other people who have since died or moved on who were involved in that, but I know Velma

Page 9
is still there.
JACQUELYN HALL:
It was mostly a black union?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes. It's not fair to really try to condense a situation as important in the lives of North Carolina workers into a single sentence, but if I were going to that was the problem in the tobacco industry as a whole. It started out with a predominance of black employees who worked in the pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco, and so forth departments. As time progressed and cigarettes became more important, they eventually became the key phase of the industry. And when the cigarette departments began, they involved white workers. So you began with a situation where the majority of workers were black, working in specific departments, and they organized into a union. Then the company expanding into a white community in a different department, where the white workers had not yet been persuaded of the need for a union. So that then you look around, and suddenly your base is gone. You have a majority of people in departments that are being slowly shut down and ceasing to exist. You lose employees. The majority of your workers are workers who are not organized, and that's how Reynolds was lost.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What years would it have been that you were there?
MARY ROBERTSON:
I got out of the service in '46, so it must have been '47, '48, somewhere along the late forties. I'm very bad about dates if I don't have a point of reference.
JACQUELYN HALL:
I'm trying to remember what I know about that local. What was going on during those years when you were there?
MARY ROBERTSON:
I'll tell you what happened. To say that I went to work at Reynolds is confusing. I was asked to come to work at Reynolds. That was during the CIO's southern campaign in every industry in the South. One of the organizing techniques that was being used at that time was what they called

Page 10
"colonization," which was to put people who were already persuaded of the need for unions in the plants where they had an opportunity to talk to their fellow workers, because union organizers could not get to these people. They were precluded from reaching these people by various things: the whole attitude of southern management, media, and so forth. So I then was a colonizer in the Reynolds plant; I was asked to come and get a job, to apply, as though I had no connection with the union, for a job, in the hope that they wouldn't realize that I was connected with the union and I would get a job. And that's how I got into the Reynolds plant.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What was your job?
MARY ROBERTSON:
I worked in the cigarette plants as an inspector on a cigarette packing machine.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Was your purpose especially to try to organize white workers?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes, especially to organize white workers. That was the whole point in getting me to go, because I was white and I could be hired into the cigarette departments. Blacks were not being hired in the cigarette departments. And persuade white cigarette workers in those departments to join the union.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did you go about trying to do that?
MARY ROBERTSON:
It wasn't difficult. Statistically, I suppose I was tremendously successful. I got five people in my department to join the union, and I don't think there was but maybe one other person in all of the cigarette factories at that time who joined during that period. If you want to call that success. It was a situation that was doomed from the outset, because of this imbalance; the base was gone. The contract was going to expire in a matter of months, and there was no possibility at that time under those circumstances of changing the base. There was just no way. There was no way that that many white workers were going to be talked into

Page 11
joining the union; it just couldn't be done. The issues were such that it could not be done.
JACQUELYN HALL:
There were virtually no white workers in the union at that time?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Virtually no white workers. And those white workers who did belong to the union or had belonged to the union for any appreciable amount of time were completely isolated and ostracized because they did belong and had very little persuasive power with other white workers. That's the reason the colonizing plan was ideal for that, except that it came too late and too little. It was a doomed situation.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Why did the union wait so long to understand what …
MARY ROBERTSON:
The answer to that question would be, why would textile unions fool around today asking for a nickel increase here and try to nickel-and-dime the company to death, I guess. [Laughter] How can you explain this sort of stuff? Of course, at that time, as far as I was concerned, I was damn green myself. I didn't have any pre-knowledge.
JACQUELYN HALL:
That was your first real experience.
MARY ROBERTSON:
That's right. I had never worked in a factory in my life, and my whole role in the labor movement was an artificial one to start with. After I came home from the service, I happened to make contact with a man who was an organizer in the fur industry. And that was a pure accident. I never worked in a fur operation in my life.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Who was that?
MARY ROBERTSON:
That was Harvey Scott. In some of your material, his name may turn up somewhere. So I was in an artificial situation, and my opportunities for learning to understand the philosophies of the labor movement were really stilted rather than enhanced by being in an artificial situation like that. I believed in the idea as I understood it. Of course, working in that particular

Page 12
plant under those circumstances was still pretty artificial, but at least I could get the experience of working in that sort of situation. My first real experience in the labor movement was several years later when I went to work for Western Electric, where I was not in an artificial situation by that time. And other than that, in many respects mine has been a rather strange association with the labor movement all along. I was not converted on the job, so to speak.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How would you explain the reluctance of white cigarette workers to join the union?
MARY ROBERTSON:
That's not hard to explain. Right now, today, your yourself, without realizing it, you always accept in lieu of pay--all of us accept, in lieu of pay--a substitute, a vicarious sort of thing. And when that substitute is a sense of superiority, even though that in itself is a lie, because it's not a sense of your superiority, it's a sense of somebody else's inferiority, [unknown].
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did you get that in real concrete responses from people, people not wanting to join the union because blacks were in it?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Oh, yes, it was very outspoken. And it's not that whispered today in certain areas. Among the old craft unions, you still run across a lot of that. "We don't want no niggers in our outfit." I'm talking about the rank and file. But at that time nobody apologized for it. They had not been made to feel there was any necessity for apologizing for it; that was just the way God had created the world, that white people made cigarettes and the black people made chewing tobacco.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Obviously. [Laughter]
MARY ROBERTSON:
And to resist the establishment in any aspect anywhere was just to commit an act of treason against the whole social-economic-political structure.
That was a situation that …
[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A]

[TAPE 1, SIDE B]

[START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
MARY ROBERTSON:
… and on that basis have. That is not the way it happened. Those people who tell you that they're Christians because they received a call have deluded themselves. Life just doesn't work that way. You go into the situation to do something, and then from that you learn. You join a union, and then after exposure to the union you begin to learn what the union is. You don't join it because you have a deep understanding of what the labor movement is to start with. It just doesn't work that way. It sounds good in the books, but it doesn't work that way. At least so rarely that it doesn't count.
JACQUELYN HALL:
You were there when they lost the contract.
MARY ROBERTSON:
Actually, no. I got fired.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did that happen?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Of course, they was bound to catch on to me sooner or later. [Laughter] I got fired and took the case to arbitration, and strangely enough, it was the only case that FTA had won in I don't know how long. But by that time I had gotten married. I had come back to Asheville, and so I really was not there technically when the… In fact, I went back again in Winston-Salem and worked during a period when they were in the last throes of the end of the contract. But I didn't feel that close to the situation. I felt very close to certain individual people.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What kind of relationships did you have with the black leaders of the union?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Oh, fine. I was doing splendid with that. There was no problem there. You've got to give several weeks to these interviews, because it covers so much ground. [Laughter] In the first place, the

Page 14
whole historical background of the Appalachian people was Abolitionist. They, to a large extent, were Abolitionists in the Civil War. They didn't have plantations. The slave system was not economical; they couldn't afford it. It was meaningless to them from an economic standpoint, and therefore they had very negative feelings from a social and moral standpoint. And for that reason, western North Carolina sent more volunteers into the Union Army than were ever conscripted into the Confederate Army. So it's only in modern times that we have carefully taught our children to think of themselves as superior to blacks. The traditions of these mountain counties, these mountain people, were not anti-black. So it's not peculiar that I didn't have any anti-black feelings, because I was never in touch with blacks. There were then and there still are very few blacks in the mountains. The black population is concentrated in the Piedmont and on the coast. So I didn't have any problems in that direction, or at least my problems were not nearly as severe as [those of] white people my age and of my background in the Piedmont.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Has that given the labor movement in the mountains a different shape than the labor movement in the Piedmont?
MARY ROBERTSON:
It's undoubtedly had an effect on it. But I don't want to confuse you, because in the last thirty years since World War II, since the people left the mountains… They left the mountains for the first time in World War II. They went either to get jobs in the munitions factories, the shipyards, and they went into the services. Before that, they'd been very isolated. When they came back, they brought back this idea of white superiority, that is, of an overt response to the feeling of white superiority. And all of a sudden there were people who learned and taught other people what the Confederate flag looked like, so that only in recent times do the

Page 15
kids want to bring it in on the football field. And "Dixie" was not a song that anybody in the mountains knew; they knew "On Top of Old Smokey." So it's a newly imposed… I don't mean to imply that there were never any people in the mountains who believed in slavery--there were--but it was not a pervading philosophy of life like it was in the rest of the South. West Virginia came into being just over that issue. If the War had lasted another year, there would have been a state of Franklin that would have been western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, for the same reason, which was the reasons for the Civil War and the reasons for slavery did not affect the mountains.
JACQUELYN HALL:
So you came back to Asheville then?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Are you talking about after the tobacco experience? Yes, I came back to Asheville and lived here. I've lived here ever since.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What did your husband do?
MARY ROBERTSON:
All of his experience had been with heavy machinery. There were several plants in Winston-Salem. For example, it was near the furniture capital, and there were a number of plants that made hardware. And he operated heavy stamping machines and that kind of thing. At that time, western North Carolina had very little heavy industry, and so he had a tough time getting a job that was productive, that lasted long enough or he made enough money. So we went back to Winston-Salem when our daughter was two years old, and that's when I worked at Western Electric.
JACQUELYN HALL:
In Winston-Salem?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes, and stayed about a year, and then we came back to Asheville and never left after that.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What's been the history of your work in the labor movement since then?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Of course, on again and off again, because I spent a good

Page 16
many years when I did not work, just keeping house and taking care of the youngsters. Not so much because I wanted it that way, because I did not believe that this was necessary. The economy was catching up with this kind of philosophy, and I preferred to have a job, but because of my union background and so forth I was blacklisted, as we say. I couldn't get a job; they wouldn't hire me. And when I was able to get a job, it was always in an unorganized industry, and so I've done all kinds of work. Very little of it have I done in organized industry. But once you stay in a place and you make contact with people, you keep those contacts alive. I knew labor people; I preferred to have an organized situation. And I kept my contacts with labor people on a friendship sort of basis, and with what I had learned from my labor experiences got involved in civil rights situations. And so I contributed a good deal of time to that.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What was your involvement in civil rights?
MARY ROBERTSON:
My direct involvement was rather puny, to tell you the truth. We organized a little group here in Ashville called the Buncombe County Committee for Jobs for Negroes. And it was not attached to any national organization, although there were a lot of such organizations going on all over the country at that time. I can't even remember the name of the early civil rights legislation that everybody was working for, and job rights, but in any case …
JACQUELYN HALL:
Interracial committee?
MARY ROBERTSON:
As long as I was in it, it was, if you mean were there blacks and whites. Most of the people were black, because obviously it was a group to try to get blacks hired as something other than maids and janitors at that time. At that time there were no jobs in Asheville for blacks except

Page 17
janitors and maids; that was it.
JACQUELYN HALL:
When would this have been?
MARY ROBERTSON:
It would have been in the fifties.
JACQUELYN HALL:
After the Supreme Court decision.
MARY ROBERTSON:
No, before, well before. It was during the McCarthy period, as a matter of fact. And since getting blacks hired in capacities other than as maids and janitors was absolutely hopeless from the outset [Laughter] , we busied ourselves meanwhile working on other projects. I know we spent a lot of time working on a project here in the city of Asheville to persuade merchants to provide rest room facilities for black women. We didn't even bother to talk about the same rest room facilities. Just to have even a separate rest room, because at that time the black women who came shopping to the center of Asheville had to go way out to the little black business community to find a place to use a rest room, so that was one of our big projects. But you learn from all those things.
JACQUELYN HALL:
I have a book that came out this spring that's about a group called the Association of Southern Women[unknown] for the Prevention of Lynching, which was an offshoot of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation. Had you ever heard of that?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Vaguely. I don't know that I've known anybody personally that belonged to the group.
JACQUELYN HALL:
It was sort of a major, mostly white, liberal organization in the South in the twenties and thirties, and it was replaced by the Southern Regional Council. But rest rooms for black women was the issue that they worked on?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes. We never got anything.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Starting in the twenties.
MARY ROBERTSON:
All we ever got out of it was a free book on the life and times

Page 18
of whoever-it-is Belk. [Laughter] I remember somebody had written an in-house biography of the founder of the Belk stores.
JACQUELYN HALL:
And they gave you a copy of the book?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes, they gave us a copy of the book.
JACQUELYN HALL:
[Laughter]
MARY ROBERTSON:
They didn't open the rest room, but they gave us a copy of the book. And then it wasn't too much longer after that that the Supreme Court ruling initiated. And I was mildly involved on the periphery of the integration of eating places. At that time I didn't take an active role, certainly not a leadership role, because to have done so with the stigma of having been a "communist" or whatever it happened to be would have been detrimental to the success of the movement. But I was involved in the periphery of that [unknown].
JACQUELYN HALL:
Were you red-baited?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Oh, my God, yes. [Laughter] Was there any other way? Oh, yes, sure.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What form did that take?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Whatever happened to be available. I was subpoenaed before the House Unamerican Activities Committee when they met in Charlotte. That was the most overt. But you used to be melodramatic around this town to be in a car with blacks after dark, and we used to get stopped. Nobody ever did anything, but they would stop us. "Where are you going?" "What are you doing?" "What you black boys got those white girls in there for?" But other than that and a certain amount of just general social ostracism and that kind of thing… But I was subpoenaed.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did you feel about that? Was that painful at the time?
MARY ROBERTSON:
No. There were two aspects of it that were painful. It didn't bother me--I was just immature enough to get a big kick out of it--but

Page 19
I was concerned lest the stigma should rub off on my child, who was only eight or nine years old at that time. And my husband took it rather seriously. It was a situation where he didn't feel that he could say that he didn't like it, but he didn't. I mean it was an uncomfortable feeling for him. But as far as I was concerned, it didn't bother me. I had certainly several people and times that "Why don't you come to New York?" "Why don't you get away from this situation?" sort of thing. And I not only didn't want to, but I didn't feel the need to. I stayed here it all. And even though I got my picture and my name on the front page and all that, I still stayed here.
JACQUELYN HALL:
When did that happen? Why was your picture in the paper?
MARY ROBERTSON:
When I was subpoenaed. The Charlotte Observer referred to me as "an attractive young housewife," and I've never been treated that well by anybody. [Laughter]
JACQUELYN HALL:
I'm surprised they didn't tell what you had on.
MARY ROBERTSON:
They did. Dressed up.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Oh, they did. [Laughter] Did your husband share your views?
MARY ROBERTSON:
He did and he didn't. We are divorced now. We parted in a very friendly, amicable way after our daughter was eighteen years old and was able to sit down with us and understand what we were doing. He still lives in Asheville, and we are always friendly when we meet on the street, and my daughter has a very good relationship with him and with me and exchanges, you know, "I saw Dad yesterday, and he's doing so-and-so," or "I saw Mother." But that situation contributed to that, because my husband was by nature somewhat introverted and a very private person and did not feel comfortable if he was singled out or felt exposed in this sort of way. And while morally and privately he agreed with me, he didn't feel comfortable the

Page 20
situation. And I, on the other hand, am an extrovert. Anything that calls attention to me, that's fine. [Laughter] I don't care what it is. And really enjoyed it rather openly, and that didn't make him feel any more comfortable.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Those differences in temperament have a lot to do with the way people get involved in stress situations.
MARY ROBERTSON:
Oh, yes, I remember the stress.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did you get involved with the Central Labor Union [unknown] that …
MARY ROBERTSON:
I went back to work for the Meatcutters about eleven or twelve years ago and worked for them until about a year ago, and then I came to work as a fulltime employee of the Central Labor Union.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What was your job with the Meatcutters?
MARY ROBERTSON:
The simplest thing to say is the publicity-education department. The Meatcutters is a large local. There's one local union that has the entire food industry in the entire state in one local. And so in order to disseminate educational material and that sort of thing, they have to have somebody who makes the leaflets, and I did the mechanics of this sort.
JACQUELYN HALL:
This labor union in Asheville has been around for a very long time.
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes, it's been around for a long time, because there has been a very old building trades group in Asheville. One of our local unions was chartered before the turn of the century, the Carpenters. And that, of course, was the AF of L. Then when the amalgamation of the AF of L and the CIO took place, there was already the base there, you see. There was no industrial council in this area at that time. The major industrial unions were textile in this area at that time, and there was no industrial council; there was a building trades council, but not an industrial council. So when

Page 21
the amalgamation took place, it was natural that the base would be the Building Trades Council. It was what the amalgamated group built on. The result is that in western North Carolina the building trades are the backbone of the Central Labor Union, whereas in other parts of the state you would hardly know they exist. They exist, but I mean they don't take as active a role in the leadership of the Central Labor Unions. The industrial unions take the active leadership role.
JACQUELYN HALL:
When that amalgamation took place, was there a lot of tension or resistance, the craft unions versus the industrial unions?
MARY ROBERTSON:
I'm sure that there were. I don't know that from personal contact, because I was not involved in the labor movement when that took place, but I'm sure there were, and one reason I'm sure is because it still crops up occasionally, not any real animosity but a difference between the building trades, the craft unions and the industrial unions.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How would you characterize that difference?
MARY ROBERTSON:
In western North Carolina, where, as I say, the building trades are the backbone of the central labor movement, the craft unions do not always understand the problems faced by the industrial workers, and the industrial workers do not always understand the problems faced by the craft unions. And you occasionally run across a little sneer about how much money plumbers make. And conversely, you run across a little sneer about factory workers.
JACQUELYN HALL:
My understanding is that the Asheville area has been one of the strongest centers of the labor movement in the state, or was historically.
MARY ROBERTSON:
It is now. Now how far back that strength goes, I would hesitate to say, because of course it was based on the craft unions. And the craft unions are as strong as their trade is strong. In other words, if there's a big building program, then you've got a big craft union building

Page 22
trades movement. If there is not a big building program--and there was not in the Asheville area, the western counties, for a long time--then you don't have this. Until about fifteen or at the most twenty years ago, the only two major industries in western North Carolina were the paper manufacturing process out in Haywood County and the Enka synthetic textile plant here in Buncombe County. Let's give it the edge and say in the last two decades, western North Carolina, particularly around Haywood County and Buncombe County, has developed a very diversified industrial complex. And a good deal of it is organized, particularly in Haywood County, where all of the major industry is organized. Haywood County has its own Central Labor Union; the rest of the counties are in this central labor union. [unknown] There is some very responsive rank-and-file leadership in western North Carolina. That has something to do with it. Amazingly enough, a city like Charlotte, that has so much industry and numerically such a strong labor movement, does not have as cohesive a central labor union in some respects as we have here. That doesn't mean that workers are not concerned with the labor movement; it just means that the structure doesn't work that way. Now why I don't know, except that we do have some well developed rank-and-file leadership in western North Carolina.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What exactly is the role of the Central Labor Union?
MARY ROBERTSON:
The Central Labor Union is just an avenue for bringing together representatives of all of the local unions in a given geographical area so that those issues that concern all local unions can be acted upon and information disseminated from a central body. In some respects it's a somewhat cumbersome, awkward structure, not by its nature so much as by the way it is used. George Meany has no authoritative word to say to an international union or any of its locals. He can advise, he can suggest, but

Page 23
he has no authority with any international union or any of its locals. His authority is strictly confined to central labor unions and state organizations. At the time of the George McGovern campaign, when George Meany and the national AF of L Congress and the national AF of L-CIO Executive Board supported Richard Nixon, and a few dissenters--the Meatcutters would be one of the internationals, and so forth--supported McGovern, George Meany suddenly found that he didn't have the control he wanted to have. Because he had at least two state presidents who defied him and just supported McGovern. One was Wilbur Hobby, and one was the Colorado state organization. And he had a number of central labor unions, the (as it was called then) Asheville Central Labor Union being one of them, who defied him and came out in support of McGovern. And he quickly quashed that, but in the next national AF of L-CIO convention he strengthened the bylaws and the constitution so that he would not have any mavericks in the future. And he wields absolute control over central labor unions and state organizations.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did he quash that?
MARY ROBERTSON:
In the case of the Asheville Central Labor Union, he sent a letter saying "You will retract that statement from the newspaper."
JACQUELYN HALL:
Or else what?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Or I'll lift your charter. And he did the same thing to Wilbur. In other words, in order to have any flexibility at all, you have to be pretty fast on your feet sometimes in the central labor unions.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How much autonomy do you have on local or state issues?
MARY ROBERTSON:
It depends on what the national organization wants to take up, and obviously they're going to leave you alone if you're not interfering in their playhouse. So the way you operate is to stay out of their playhouse. On a political level--and that's the only real reason for the existence of state and national and central labor union organizations is politics, in the end--

Page 24
you make sure that you're not infringing in the territory that belongs to the national organization. And the national organization's territory covers national politics and its presidential and congressional races. Now a state committee has the right to decide who they will support for Congress. But if the National Executive Board of the AF of L-CIO says that we are going to support Candidate B for President, then the only thing the state organization can do if it does not like that choice is just to quietly do nothing if they can get away with it. This is just the way it is structured. Otherwise, what's the use of having George Meany? What's the use of having a national organization if you have no control? You see what I'm…
JACQUELYN HALL:
What are some of the main issues that the Central Labor Union has been involved in over the years?
MARY ROBERTSON:
This Central Labor Union has been involved to the hilt in politics, certainly ever since I've been a delegate, the last ten or twelve years, and without question has more political clout than any other Central Labor Organization in the state, and to some degree has more clout than the state office. That's partly because we've been involved for a long time, and it's partly because, if I may frankly say so, we have developed strategies that work. And, of course, it is largely because we have a membership that is politically involved, not as much as we'd like them to be …
[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]

[TAPE 2, SIDE A]

[START OF TAPE 2, SIDE A]
MARY ROBERTSON:
There are no delegates who are not actively involved in politics, and there are very few who are not officers in their precinct or in their county structure.

Page 25
JACQUELYN HALL:
How would you describe the strategies that you've developed that made this possible[unknown]?
MARY ROBERTSON:
I'd have to talk in specifics, and, of course, I don't want to talk in current specifics [Laughter] , because I'm not giving that information away.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Historically.
MARY ROBERTSON:
We have made it evident to politicians that we do indeed speak for a large number of workers, that we do indeed have their ear, and we have been very, very careful in the way we have selected candidates or whether we've selected them or not. In other words, we've been very careful. We have not just simply jumped out there and said, "Yes, we're going to support Candidate X." We have sat down with the Pope([unknown])Committee, the legislative representatives within our own organization, and tried to look at the situation and plan on a long-range basis. One of our strategies has been that we have not insisted or demanded that a politician should support us in a hundred-percent fashion. We have been glad to recognize when they have supported us, but we have not condemned them if they didn't. That and a few particular maneuvers that we have made, and one other thing, and that is that we have seen to it that we have one of our people on every important board, agency, in these western counties. There isn't a poverty agency where we are not represented and actively, vocally represented. The United Appeal, the Red Cross, all of these things, and we have active, vocal representation, and that has given us the appearance, at least, of being well informed, knowledgeable, articulate, and concerned. And one of our strategies has been to be concerned in community areas, even though they may not be directly related to the labor movement, like the poverty programs, which has given us a position of respect among blacks and among the rural poor, who know very little about the labor movement, but they learn fast. And

Page 26
what they learn is, the people who are conducting that strike or who are organizing that plant are the same people who went before the city council and complained because they were going up on the cab fares or the bus fare, or went before some other board or agency and said, "We want money to be used for this or that, or for Head Start programs." And that has been part of our strategy, and it has paid off beautifully.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How many people would you say that you do represent?
MARY ROBERTSON:
We like to say that we represent a potential of 50,000 people. Numerically it fluctuates so much that it's just not realistic to try to say how many we represent. We have everything from the textile plants to the small six-, seven-man operations into the craft unions where you have individual carpenters and so forth. And the industry in the area is far more diversified than it once was. We have plants who manufacture components for radio and television; we have plants who work with the furniture trade--I'm talking about organized plants--in our jurisdiction who have delegates in our hall. The glass plant out here, the Baby Boom[unknown] people, the A & P stores, the leather people, the rubber people, the paper makers, all of these different industries. We even have the motion picture operators. A small group, but they're there.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How many counties?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Sixteen counties. We have all the western counties in North Carolina except Haywood County. Haywood County has its own Central Labor Union.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Why is that?
MARY ROBERTSON:
It has a lot of industry, and all that industry is organized. And at some time in the past before my time, it was given jurisdiction within its own county. The national office--in the end, George Meany--decides what

Page 27
jurisdiction you have. We have an awfully large geographical area, but, you see, it doesn't have a large population, because most of the counties west of us have very little industry; they also have a very low population. Most of the major industry is in Buncombe, Transylvania, and Henderson Counties in our jurisdiction, and Buncombe, Transylvania, and Henderson are our big areas where we have heavy concentrations. I'm talking about where we have organized plants. But the nature of the economy of the mountains is such that a good many people cross two, even three counties going to work every day, so you see we have people who live in all of those counties.
JACQUELYN HALL:
I want to ask you both of your personal experiences and what generalizations you might make about your role as a woman, the way you've been treated, opportunities you've had. What effect did the fact that you're a woman have?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Of course, when you ask me personally, I am me, see, and the way I'm treated is me, and that doesn't mean that if another woman sat in this seat that she would have the same experience. But personally, I'm just one of the bold, brash, bitchy-type women who just ignore the fact that I'm not supposed to be in that area.
JACQUELYN HALL:
But there are ways that it gets communicated to you that you're not supposed to be doing certain things that you've done?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Oh, yes, and finally get told outright, and I just say, "The hell with you" [Laughter], you know. But nationally, the labor movement as a whole has a very, very poor record. There is not a single international union in the United States that has as its president a woman. There are very few international unions who even have a token woman in the window, on their executive boards. And they usually decapitate her, in the sense that she's only a figure. The same is true of state organizations, and that includes

Page 28
North Carolina. I know that Wilbur Hobby has his little bevy of little girls working in the office there, but you know they're not real.
JACQUELYN HALL:
[Laughter]
MARY ROBERTSON:
They don't make decisions, and if they try to make decisions, they're more often than not either ignored, bypassed, or even squelched if there's an excuse for it. Wilbur Hobby would sit right there and say that I'm a damn liar, but it's true. Because look at it: the Executive Board is made up of men; the decisions are made by men. Two women, I think, is about all we have on the Executive Board. We have Barbara Brown of the Teachers' Union, and we have a girl whose name I can't remember, a young black woman from the Ladies' Garment Workers. Now how is it possible, you see, for these two women to really effectively make decisions when they're outvoted by some sixteen or twenty men? I mean when there are that many more men. And all of these international leaders, all the local union leaders, there isn't a single woman who's the president of a local union. Yes, there is one small local in western North Carolina that has a woman as its president. It's Excello, a little textile plant; it's just been organized. And that young woman has not really had a long enough time… Now all of these men will tell you that oh, that isn't so; we just go out of our way to make it possible for women to serve. And they probably really believe that, but it isn't true, because go out of their way is sort of like you go out of your way to have what the blacks refer to as "a nigger in the window." [Laughter] It's meaningless; it's an effigy; it's a playhouse. It isn't real. So the truth of the matter is that women have not, except where they have just bulled through and forced it, reached any decision-making role in the labor movement nationally. In the building trades or the craft unions, those men would die before they'd see a woman plumber working with them. And they avoid it. They'll

Page 29
tell you that isn't so, that the reason there isn't a woman plumber is because of this and because of that and because of that. The truth of the matter is that what they're doing is they're avoiding it.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What are the barriers, exactly? How does it work? How are women prevented from moving into these [unknown]?
MARY ROBERTSON:
In the first place, in industry--now in the building trades there have never been women--but in industry women have always been relegated to the lower-paid, the less desirable jobs. That's particularly true in textiles, furniture, the paper industry. These are the big industries in the South. Women have always been relegated to the lowest and most undesirable jobs by the management. And, of course, society has relegated women to the background, so that women themselves don't think of themselves as being capable of doing these jobs. They assume that a man can be a supervisor or a foreman, a man is better able to operate an intricate machine, he's better able to drive a truck, the desirable jobs. They assume, on the whole, that he is more capable of doing it. It naturally follows, then, that he is also more capable of running the union. And that is especially true in areas and industries where by its very nature a local does not have the finances to have fulltime leadership personnel. More often than not, in that case, the man who is elected to be president is the man who has a job with a company that gives him more free time and more energy to give to the job. So he usually is in one of the better jobs. It just naturally follows. You know if he's digging ditches all day, he does not have the energy to go that night and conduct a union meeting. This is one of the reasons. Another reason, of course, is because the men just naturally resist the idea. They've been taught to resist it, so they just naturally resist it. And they think they're being fair, but the truth of the matter is, they're finding all kinds

Page 30
of reasons for not… The same reason that a woman doctor is still not up there on equality with her peers. Or in any other profession.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Do you think women in the mountains have been in a different position in some ways than, say, women in other parts of the South or women nationally? Do you think it's a more patriarchal culture, or do you think that it's a culture that in some ways has given women…
MARY ROBERTSON:
It's a little of both. Now we're not talking about the plantation South. Now this was the area where women were reduced to little more than a dream-child. The mountain women, like the pioneer women, were forced to assume responsibilities, because it was the only way to survive. In that respect, the mountain woman has a different position than other women of the South, or even other women of other parts of the country. She is more likely to be a decision-maker in the family, and you're more apt to see some signs of a matriarchal society in the mountains on the one hand. And on the other hand, because of their isolation and their meager economic clout and the whole social structure, they're also more apt to bow to some religious social theory that they should be naturally subservient to men. So you get a contradiction there that's very strange. The same woman who is perfectly capable of running the tractor and does, of making decisions about whether we're going to plant wheat or corn, of building a house or deciding to build a house, that same woman is the one that's more than likely to voice an anti-ERA attitude on the grounds that the Bible did not mean for women to play a dominant role. Why this contradiction, I don't know.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Have you seen that in the lives of, say, women in your own family, your mother and her relatives, that kind of contradiction in a concrete sense?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Well, yes, I have. In my mother's family the oldest child was a male, and he went away early on to teach school in Louisiana, which left the next oldest child a girl. And the mother was an invalid, and the father taught

Page 31
school and was away most of the school year, so that my aunt, my mother's oldest sister, ran the family. And she made the decisions without when to plant, when to reap, whether or not to buy a cow, these sorts of decisions. And yet as a woman she was a schoolteacher by profession and had some of the God-awfullest hangups about a woman's place and a woman's role you'd ever seen. And I've seen that repeated in many things. Now Bascom's first wife, my aunt, was one of the best farmers in Buncombe County. There were men who went to her to get her advice, she was that good a farmer. Bascom couldn't make anything grow; he didn't know anything about farming. He could play the banjo, and that not too well, and that's all.
JACQUELYN HALL:
[Laughter]
MARY ROBERTSON:
The thing he could do best was go listen to somebody else play and write it down. That was his great contribution. But my aunt had one of the best farms and the best beef herds and the best cattle herds in Buncombe County, and yet she had an extreme tendency to not do certain things, not go to certain places, not make certain associations, because those things were not proper to a woman's role in society. A woman's role in society was to serve her husband. So I see that contradiction all the time. Obviously it's going to take a young generation of women to resist this, and whether it's going to be this generation of young women, the oncoming generation, or not, I don't know. I would have thought it would have been my generation. It was so logical for it to have been my generation, and yet my contemporaries, my peers, are more apt to have negative attitudes about ERA in this area than my mother's generation had.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Oh, yes.
MARY ROBERTSON:
And why that is would take somebody who has a far deeper understanding of the trends and the makeup of human nature than I have.

Page 32
Because it is a remarkable contradiction here in the mountains especially, where women, because of the impoverished condition of their society, still maintain that same role that the pioneer woman maintained. They have to be able to shoot as well, cut a tree down as well, pull the plow as well as a man, or they don't survive.
JACQUELYN HALL:
You've moved out of this part of the country in your dealings within the national labor movement. Do you think that part of the reason for your particular kind of character has been your roots in this area?
Is there a certain style or certain attitudes that come out of your …
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes. My particular circumstances, my beginnings made me the person I am, but then that's true of everybody. Now whether I would have had those particular circumstances in another state or another age, I don't know. If I'd grown up in Texas and never come back here, what then? I don't know. And I don't suppose anybody knows those things. I think that my economic background, well, everything that contributed to make my situation, made me, but then I think that's true of everybody.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What do you see the future bringing?
MARY ROBERTSON:
As far as the labor movement is concerned? I think that in western North Carolina in particular that we've got a hammerlock on it. I think that we've no way to go but up. I don't know if that's necessarily true in other parts of the state, because we're on the threshold of a very society-shaking series of events in the whole world because of the energy crisis, because of the entry into space. All of these factors put us right on the threshold of some major changes in the structure of society and the structure of the economy and this sort of thing. And what that will do in other parts of the state, I don't know, and frankly that's because I just don't live there, and I don't see people's reactions. Here in the mountains

Page 33
I think that the labor movement has a hammerlock on it. I think that we can survive it, even the economic down trends, and we're going to feel some things before other areas of the state do, transportation being one of them. Because, as I say, we have people who depend on crossing two or three counties to get to work and back every day, and if they get locked into their home county and their little cove like they were before World War II, that's going to have a pronounced effect. But I think that the establishment itself recognizes now that the labor movement in western North Carolina, whether they like it or not, is in existence and will remain in existence. One thing I will point to to indicate that is that the University of North Carolina at Asheville will begin its fall program with a full course in collective bargaining. That hasn't happened anywhere else in this state, and that's because even with the viciously anti-union leadership of that college, the president of that college--who would just love to see all of us disappear from the face of the earth between now and tomorrow morning--states to his faculty and to his students that the mountains are changing, that they are not the same and will never again be the same as they were, and that one of the remarkable changes, one of the changes that has to be remarked upon and taken into account, is the change in the growing strength of the labor movement in the western counties. And I think that that's a condition that will remain that way. Now of course what we have to guard against is to be sure that we have the kind of leadership which will take full advantage of that. And I think that we have done as well as anybody and better than a good many central labor unions in that we have developed rank-and-file leadership. This is not an organization that is controlled by a single individual, and when that individual goes the whole thing collapses. We've got some very good people; we've got some astute-thinking, well-directed rank and

Page 34
file people who are capable of keeping that [unknown].
JACQUELYN HALL:
Do you think that workers in general are going to be more responsive to the labor movement, less fearful than they've been during the seventies[unknown]?
MARY ROBERTSON:
I think that they are definitely going to be more responsive to the community political leadership of the labor movement, which is not really the same thing as saying that they're going to join a union in their own plant. That, though, will come. There is less animosity now, there is less resistance now than there ever was before. Part of that is because they have seen labor in these western counties involved in an active community political role. But how long it's going to take to see dramatic changes, I don't know. I just say that I think that it's a real thing that's happened to labor in western North Carolina, and that therefore it's going to survive whatever comes.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Do you ever resistance on the part of labor itself to the kind of political and social involvement that you are interested in, or that the Central Labor Union?
MARY ROBERTSON:
I'm not sure I know exactly what you're asking me. For example, the top leadership of the Central Labor Union is pred ominantly Democratic. Most of these people belong to the Democratic Party, and they're active in a leadership role. But like there was a contradiction about women that we talked about earlier, there is the contradiction that the rank-and-file membership of the Central Labor Union in the counties west of Buncombe are predominantly Republican. They have been since the Civil War. They were Abolitionists, they did support Lincoln, and they are still old Republicans. And so you've got this sort of a situation, where the leadership has been by Republicans. We are very careful not to offend the Republicans. We are very careful ourselves not to get entrapped into supporting

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Democrats because they're Democrats. And one of the things that has given us some political clout in this end of the state is the fact that we have, and quite recently, supported and seen elected Republicans on a local level. We guard against the support for Jesse Helms, for obvious reasons. We wouldn't support Jesse Helms if he were the best Democrat in the country. The same reason we wouldn't have supported John Conley if he were still a Democrat, or Thurmond if he were still a Democrat. But at the same time, on a local level we have supported Republicans, and we have made it very clear that we don't intend to ever be a single-party organization. But I don't know what's going to happen, you see, with this rank-and-file business you were asking.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What I was thinking of more is whether there were leaders of local unions or international representatives who were much more interested in seeing labor limit itself to bread-and-butter labor issues, and not get involved [unknown].
MARY ROBERTSON:
I don't see any of that. I may not see it because I just blind myself to it. You can do that. But I don't see any of that. What I see is two kinds of leaders. There are those who at an earlier time had a "Stand back, let's wait and see" attitude, and those who moved immediately into a role of responsible leadership in the community. The "wait and see-ers" are now convinced that it was wise to move into leadership in the community. And I don't see any resistance to that; I really don't.
JACQUELYN HALL:
People realize it's not an either-or.
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes. Early on, quite frankly, when I was appointed to sit on the board of the …
[END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A]

[TAPE 2, SIDE B]

[START OF TAPE 2, SIDE B]

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MARY ROBERTSON:
… what happened with the women's movement. Women now think that they are only working temporarily. "As soon as we get caught up, I'm going to quit and stay home."
JACQUELYN HALL:
Women still think that.
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes. Women still think that. My daughter, in spite of herself, thinks that. She had some very enticing career… Perhaps not. But the average woman her age thinks that. Maybe my granddaughter will grow up thinking that first she has a job, and secondly she keeps house. My granddaughter is only six years old, so that's down the road a way. [Laughter]
JACQUELYN HALL:
I've really enjoyed talking to you. I can't think immediately of any other questions I had to ask, but I may think of some later on and come back again.
MARY ROBERTSON:
Oh, that's all right. Come back anytime. [Interruption]
JACQUELYN HALL:
You just took it over?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes. This is the second issue. I'm working on the third issue. The editorial policy of this paper is to speak to the needs of the organized workers, but not exclusively, to also speak to the needs of workers in general, whether they're organized or not. So that we cover items of interest to the labor movement and also items of interest to working people in general. And so far, how can you say whether it's going to be a success? It's only the second issue. But so far we feel that this is going to be a successful…
JACQUELYN HALL:
Has the paper been in existence since 1916?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes. It belonged to somebody else. At the turn of the century it was a daily newspaper. I cannot remember the man who was the editor back then.
JACQUELYN HALL:
It was just a private …
MARY ROBERTSON:
It was a newspaper just like the Asheville Citizen or the Charlotte Observer. We've got files of the old copies. We sent them down

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to the labor archives of the University of Georgia.
JACQUELYN HALL:
They go back to the turn of the century?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes. There's one there specifically that talks about Eugene Debbs [unknown] was coming to speak at the Opera House. It was the civic center in Asheville at that time. And there are several talking about a strike that was held in the city against the merchants to reduce the work day for their clerical people to twelve hours a day.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Has it always gone under this name?
MARY ROBERTSON:
Yes, it's always been the Labor Advocate. It's been published by Claude DeBow[unknown], who for a good many years was a representative to the State Legislature, and wants to be again. He has turned it over to us, and we make the editorial policy. We've got a committee, and the committee is, in effect, the executive board of the Central Labor Council plus a couple of people who are not labor. They're active people in the community, and they're friends of organized labor, but they're not actually members of the Council.
JACQUELYN HALL:
I doubt that there are very many central labor unions that are putting out newspapers like this in the state, are there?
MARY ROBERTSON:
There are none in the state and probably very, very few, if any, in the southest. Wilbur has from time to time published a paper from the state AF of L-CIO, but on a rather sporadic basis, one of the reasons being that in order to sustain a paper like that, you have to have advertising. And George Meany--in principle still and in fact at an earlier time--frowned heavily upon papers that had advertising from firms that were not organized. But he's come to a more realistic view recently, that it's not desirable but it is necessary. Of course, technically, in order to keep it nice [unknown], it's not an official organ of the Central Labor Council.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Is your position now editor of the paper?

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MARY ROBERTSON:
I'm the editor of that paper. I'm also the executive secretary. I'm paid as both. The executive secretary of the Central Labor Council. We're the only central labor union that has a paid--I'm paid--staff person, too.
END OF INTERVIEW