Vice President Kamala Harris speaks about creating American jobs at an event at Durham Technical Community College in Durham Wednesday. (Photo via AP Photo/Ben McKeown) Better jobs in cities like Durham.
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks about creating American jobs at an event at Durham Technical Community College in Durham Wednesday. (Photo via AP Photo/Ben McKeown)

North Carolina has historically been unfriendly toward unions. But it’s where Vice President Kamala Harris came to call for more union jobs as the nation rebuilds from the pandemic. 

Workers in the United States make just a fraction of what top executives are paid, bringing income inequality to the worst level in decades. 

That’s left too many hard-working Americans struggling just to pay their bills, and why the nation needs stronger protections and policies to help families thrive instead of just survive, said Vice President Kamala Harris when she visited Durham Wednesday.

“We must then create more good-paying jobs here at home, good union jobs,” Harris said. 

Harris and US Labor Secretary Marty Walsh came to visit an apprentice program at Durham Technical Community College sponsored by a local electrician’s union, IBEW Local 553. 

Higher union participation will help a broader section of Americans, especially in marginalized groups, access jobs and careers that not only give people the stability they need to take care of their families, but also help rebuild the American economy, Harris said. 

“In big cities and small towns across our country, union workers are building the future,” she said. “They are installing the solar panels and building the wind turbines that will help us bring down energy costs and energy prices and combat the climate crisis.”

Other priorities for the Biden administration include working with Congress to pass a $15 federal minimum wage, which would more than double the current amount. The administration also wants to encourage skill-based hiring and increase access for underserved communities to apprenticeships in trades, as well as codify additional protections for workers forming unions. 

North Carolina Laws Long Hostile to Unions 

The nation’s vice president faces a tough pitch in North Carolina regarding unions, given our state’s second-lowest percentage of union representation in the country (only South Carolina is lower). Just  2.7% of workers are union members in North Carolina, compared to the 22% who participate in unions in Hawaii, the state with the highest participation, according to 2021 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Numerous state laws ensure a hostile climate for unions. Like many Southern states, North Carolina has right-to-work laws on the books, which essentially gives workers few rights to contest termination. 

The state also bans collective bargaining for public employees, the process where teachers or sanitation workers or other groups of workers can band together to negotiate wages and work conditions. 

While employees at private workplaces are guaranteed the right to organize to push for better working conditions, pay, and benefits, they too are subject to the easy termination that comes with a right-to-work state.

Biden urged Congress at Tuesday’s State of the Union address to pass the federal Protect the Right to Organize Act, which has stalled in the US Senate without support from Republicans like US Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr. 

The bill, supporters say, would not only offer greater protections, but would help address the soaring income inequality that has divided the nation into the haves and have-nots. The average worker saw pay increase just 18% from 1978 to 2020, while CEOs in the United States had their salaries go up by a whopping 1,322% in that same time period, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute

That means nationally, the average CEO made $24.2 million in 2020, while private sector workers had an average pay of $61,200, according to the EPI. 

The pending bill would give workers standing to demand more equitable pay, and benefits to take care of their families and strengthen the nation’s economy, supporters say. 

“It’s a game changer,” Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, told NPR last year. “ If you really want to correct inequality in this country — wages and wealth inequality, opportunity and inequality of power — passing the PRO Act is absolutely essential to doing that.”