Building a United Working Class in North Carolina

Negin Owliaei Inequality Editor and Researcher, Institute for Policy Studies

Poverty has always been part of Debbie Smith’s life. She started working in low-wage jobs at the age of 11, Smith told a crowd in Raleigh, North Carolina earlier this year. At one point, she had to take five buses to make it to college classes, even as she cleaned houses to make money.

Later, Smith developed severe asthma, perhaps through the chemicals she used in her cleaning job, she wonders, or perhaps for other environmental reasons. After years of hospital visits, she developed an MRSA infection in 2004 and hasn’t been able to walk for more than a few steps at a time since then. Smith, who was speaking at an event to kick off the Poor People’s Campaign, wanted to tell the crowd about the difficulties she and many others face in making a sustainable living.

“Until recently I felt very ashamed of myself for being poor,” Smith said. “But I am learning it hasn’t been my fault. Our government, financial system and people in corporations and those with wealth and power make the rules and we are trapped by them.” It’s time to band together to fight the evils that keep this exploitative system afloat, Smith said, which is why she’s happy to join the Poor People’s Campaign, as well as a new movement building working-class power in her home state.

Smith is a member of Down Home North Carolina, a grassroots organizing project working in the state’s rural communities. The group was founded by Brigid Flaherty and Todd Zimmer after the 2016 election. But, as Flaherty told an audience at the National Press Club last month, she already knew she wanted to return to organize in her home state in 2015, when Dylann Roof murdered nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.

After Bree Newsome took down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina statehouse in the wake of the massacre, Flaherty recalled seeing a North Carolina newspaper headline that read “White Genocide is Coming.” There weren’t any organizations to counter those headlines, Flaherty understood, or the countless racist media narratives that covered local front pages during the election campaign that followed. It was time to build a movement to challenge stories like these that stepped on communities of color in service of protecting wealthy, white people, Flaherty told the audience.

That’s part of the reason for Peña’s hope: knowing that frank conversations can shed light on shared struggles. Those conversations are the backbone of Down Home’s work. When Flaherty founded the organization, she knew she had to begin with a listening tour. Rural red state residents had been written off by the left, Flaherty said, and the group knocked on 4,000 doors so that Down Home could best respond to the needs of Carolinians whose issues had long been ignored.

“No one ever asked me to deny a living wage,” Flaherty said of the listening tour. “No one ever asked me to give tax breaks to billionaires and multinational corporations. No one ever asked me to transfer wealth off of the backs of working people or allow big money to influence our election.”

Down Home North Carolina compiled the research from their tour into a report released earlier this year. Titled “No One’s Ever Asked Me That Before,” their research highlighted the lack of investment and engagement with rural communities. The report also found that respondents were most interested in solutions that would help them meet their basic needs and that would address the exploitative systems that had trapped North Carolina’s working class for years.

And that’s how Flaherty ended her speech at the Press Club —  with a well-aimed expletive launched at the people making money off North Carolina’s working class, a battle cry to demand power for low-income people. “We don’t need a PhD to run for school board. We don’t need a PhD to run for city council or Congress,” Flaherty said. “What we need are good hearts, to roll up our sleeves, so that we can transform this country. We can overcome all the inequity with all that we have when hundreds and thousands of us demand change and stand up to that [expletive] billionaire class.”


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Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Association of Letter Carriers

From the AFL-CIO

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Name of Union: National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)

Mission: To unite fraternally all city letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service for their mutual benefit; to obtain and secure rights as employees of the USPS and to strive at all times to promote the safety and the welfare of every member; to strive for the constant improvement of the Postal Service; and for other purposes. NALC is a single-craft union and is the sole collective-bargaining agent for city letter carriers.

Current Leadership of Union: Fredric V. Rolando serves as president of NALC, after being sworn in as the union's 18th president in 2009. Rolando began his career as a letter carrier in 1978 in South Miami before moving to Sarasota in 1984. He was elected president of Branch 2148 in 1988 and served in that role until 1999. In the ensuing years, he worked in various roles for NALC before winning his election as a national officer in 2002, when he was elected director of city delivery. In 2006, he won election as executive vice president. Rolando was re-elected as NALC president in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Brian Renfroe serves as executive vice president, Lew Drass as vice president, Nicole Rhine as secretary-treasurer, Paul Barner as assistant secretary-treasurer, Christopher Jackson as director of city delivery, Manuel L. Peralta Jr. as director of safety and health, Dan Toth as director of retired members, Stephanie Stewart as director of the Health Benefit Plan and James W. “Jim” Yates as director of life insurance.

Number of Members: 291,000 active and retired letter carriers.

Members Work As: City letter carriers.

Industries Represented: The United States Postal Service.

History: In 1794, the first letter carriers were appointed by Congress as the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution was being put into effect. By the time of the Civil War, free delivery of city mail was established and letter carriers successfully concluded a campaign for the eight-hour workday in 1888. The next year, letter carriers came together in Milwaukee and the National Association of Letter Carriers was formed.

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