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Labor’s pain
In weakened economy, workers do more for less
Published Wednesday, September 4, 2013 12:11 pm
by Herbert L. White

American workers are toiling longer hours for less money and benefits.

Members of United Auto Workers Local 5285 joined other organized labor unions in the annual Labor Day Parade in Center City. North Carolina has the third-highest unemployment rate in the nation and fourth-highest rate among African Americans.

But it beats unemployment.

At Charlotte’s annual Labor Day parade, working people showed up to cheer on the working class and their place in American society. But four years after the Great Recession, there’s a sense that nothing is normal about work.

“It’s hard to find a job, but once you get one, you need to keep it,” said Peter Williams of Shelby, a retired member of United Auto Workers 5285, where he assembled Daimler trucks in Mount Holly. “(Organized) labor, we’re working for better pay, better benefits where you can have a better standard of living. Anybody (would) want that.”

The job picture is especially dicey in North Carolina, which has the nation’s third-highest unemployment rate and fourth highest among blacks. One in six African American workers in the state are unemployed and the 17.3 jobless rate for blacks is more than double the 6.7 percent for whites and 7.4 percent among Hispanics in the fourth quarter of 2012, according to the 2013 Economic Policy Institute Report. The state’s overall unemployment was 8.9 percent in July.

While the state’s urban centers – Charlotte, the Triangle and Triad – have increased jobs by 7 percent since 2010, the rural areas have lagged at 3 percent as manufacturing – once a cornerstone of employment – evaporates.

According to a report by the N.C. Justice Center:

• The state’s median wage, adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was in 1999. Almost a quarter of workers earn less than $23,550, the U.S. poverty line for a family of four.

• The state hasn’t recovered from jobs lost during the recession and hasn’t kept up with population growth.

• Many of the jobs that have been created are in lower-paying services such as food processing, retail, and hospitality, and now account for 83 percent of employment in the state.

• Income inequality between the top wage earners and those at the bottom has skyrocketed. African Americans have been hit particularly hard, earning nearly $5 less per hour on average than their white counterparts.

• Rural areas continue to lose jobs, while large and small metropolitan areas are slowly adding jobs. 

“As North Carolinians continue to wait for a recovery that creates good jobs and delivers broad economic benefits, it’s clear that the state is on the wrong path,” said Alexandra Forter Sirota, director of the Budget & Tax Center. “Our priority should be rebuilding with a focus on increasing the wages of North Carolina’s workers.”

North Carolina is the least unionized state in the solidly anti-union South. Less than 3 percent of the state’s employees belong to organized labor according to workers.org., and collective bargaining for public employees is banned under state law.

North Carolina’s unemployment rate is above 9 percent, and most of the new jobs created in the Charlotte region are in hospitality. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American hospitality/service employee earned $13.48 an hour and worked 25.9 hours a week in July.

“There are less jobs and more people competing for the same jobs,” said Valerie Thomas of Charlotte, who manages technology projects at Wells Fargo. “Companies are reducing the benefits that are available, so the same benefits that were there even a year ago are less now.”

Williams blames lawmakers – specifically the Republican-dominated General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory – for the plight of working people. Higher-paying jobs aren’t coming into the state and cuts to education and unemployment benefits have exacerbated the economic pain.

“They’re for themselves,” Williams said. “They’re not for the middle class.”

Said Thomas: “There’s definitely not a dedication to the workers as there used to be in our parents’ generation.”


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