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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 >>

Optimism about the future of the labor movement in western North Carolina

Robertson shares her optimism about the future of the labor movement in western North Carolina, detailing some of the new strategies union leadership is employing to reduce the antipathy to unions in the region.

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:
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 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 file people who are capable of keeping that .
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?
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 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 .
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.