I think I defy a lot of the stereotypes that people have about a union boss,” says MaryBe McMillan, the secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO who, later this month, will run to become the state labor federation’s first woman president. She’s not wrong; her thin frame and stylish, close-cropped hair belie the image of unkempt rough-and-tumble types. But that doesn’t mean she’s not a fighter.
McMillan got into organizing while she was a sociology graduate student at N.C. State, when she saw the university’s housekeepers being overworked and underpaid. As she got involved with the labor movement, she discovered how antagonistic North Carolina can be toward unions.
Today, only about 3 percent of North Carolina workers belong to a union. Yet she says she still sees an opportunity. To celebrate Labor Day, the INDY spoke with McMillan at length about her career, her ambitions, and why she thinks the labor movement is so important for workers. To read the full interview, go to http://bit.ly/2gDS21E. Below are some highlights, edited for space and clarity.
INDY: Realistically, what things do you think the labor movement can pressure the Republican legislature to enact?
McMillan: It’s hard to think realistically. I think that we can certainly continue to put pressure on this legislature to reinstate the earned income tax credit, raise the minimum wage, roll back the drastic cuts done to employment benefits that they made a several years ago—all of these things are popular with the people and citizens of North Carolina. I think that if we make some changes in 2018, we should be able to pass some concrete policies that will help working people instead of continuing to just give tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy.
There’s been so much energy surrounding the resistance to the Trump administration. In what ways can the labor movement capitalize?
One of the ways that we can really galvanize the energy that we see now is on a local level, urging people to get engaged in local elections, to really be engaged with the city council or the school board, in pushing the policies that will help working people in their communities.
There’s also been a lot of conversation about white working-class workers in Rust Belt states voting for Trump. What do you make of that? We really need to talk to folks about what’s happening with the current administration and point out that policy after policy—all the things the Trump administration is doing that are hurting working people. I think we have to put the pressure on all political parties to speak up for working people and really focus on the economic issues that folks care about. I also think that we need to understand that it’s not Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren that’s going to save the middle class; it’s building a bigger, bolder working people’s movement. I think too often folks are looking for someone to fight for them or to fight for the working class, and we really need to stand up and fight for ourselves.
One of the things you’ve focused on lately is the Fight for 15. What big initiatives are you eyeing for the next year?
I think the Fight for 15 is a big fight. We have a coalition in North Carolina pushing our state to raise the minimum wage to fifteen dollars in five years. Again, the organizing at Duke [where adjunct faculty formed a union earlier this year] put pressure on the university to raise wages, and now they’re saying they are going to raise wages there to fifteen dollars an hour. I think we have the Fight for 15 and workers getting out into the streets to thank for Walmart, TJ Maxx, McDonald’s—everyone’s feeling the pressure to raise wages. And that would not have happened if working people had not joined together and taken action.
To all the workers who feel like their employers are taking advantage of them, what would you say?
Folks need to understand that unions are not some outside force. You are the union; it’s the workers in your workplace, by coming together you all get to have a voice at work, and you get to have a say in your working conditions, and in your hours, and in your leave policies. Union members are the folks that you sit next to in church, the parents at the Little League games, and they’re the folks that you interact with every day. We really need to do a lot to dispel stereotypes that people have of unions and union members.