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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Mary Robertson, August 13, 1979. Interview H-0288. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The Central Labor Union's control over its membership

Robertson reveals some of the workings of organized labor in western North Carolina. Despite the relatively recent (at the time of the interview) advent of a big building program, western North Carolina managed to establish responsive rank-and-file union leadership and, it seems, a powerful central body, the Central Labor Union. She illustrates its influence by recalling how its leader quashed one union's effort to issue an independent endorsement in the 1968 presidential election.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Mary Robertson, August 13, 1979. Interview H-0288. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

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 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. 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 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-- 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.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How would you describe the strategies that you've developed that made this possible?
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( )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 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 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 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.