MaryBe McMillan was unanimously elected president of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO during the group’s 60th annual convention earlier in this month in Atlantic Beach. McMillan, who had served as secretary-treasurer of the labor group since 2005, became the first woman ever to serve in this role.
In a conversation with Crain’s Raleigh-Durham, McMillan offered insight into her upcoming four-year term as president, the challenges ahead in North Carolina for the labor movement and her goals for leading a more diverse group.
Q: What does it mean to you to be the first woman to hold this role?
A: It’s significant. I’m glad the glass ceiling has been shattered. The union leader who nominated me shared a story that his 6-year-old daughter told him to tell me she was proud of me, but she also wondered why it had taken so long for a woman to be president of the group. In the future, you’ll see more women, more minorities in leadership roles in the labor movement. I think, like any organization, there are challenges and there are barriers to break down. Even though I consider the labor movement a progressive movement, we still have our own issues.
Q: How did you become involved in unions and workers' rights? Why is it a cause that is so important to you?
A: I got involved in union organizing when I was a graduate student at N.C. State University, where there was a small union of service workers organizing on campus. They were a small union and looking for volunteers, so I volunteered. I began talking to campus housekeepers, and I learned that they were afraid to go into dark buildings at 5 a.m. I learned that many of them would work 40 hours on campus, then go to work in a fast food restaurant to make ends meet. I believe, like I believe most people do, in the promise of fair pay for a day’s work. Too many people are working too hard for too little. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Q: What are your goals as president? What do you hope to accomplish in the next four years?
A: I want to grow this movement. I want to increase local union memberships. I want to increase our activist base so that we’re ready to mobilize. I want to expand public support for labor issues. I want to change our politics by electing more union members. I want to work with our members and our allies to build a movement that’s big enough to make a difference.
What I want is for people to be treated with dignity and earn a fair wage – that’s not a radical idea. I also hope to dispel some misconceptions that some folks sometimes view unions as this outside force or as "the other.” Unions are made up of the workers in the workplace. They’re your neighbors, the person next to you in church, the parent at the Little League game. These are North Carolinians coming together because they want a collective voice in the workplace to collectively negotiate to make sure they get their fair share.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges on the horizon?
A: I think the biggest challenge is overcoming some of the legal and political obstacles that make it difficult for unions and the labor movement. I think another challenge we face is that a lot of people feel disempowered at the moment – they feel that nothing will make a difference. You can make a difference. You have to make your voice heard. We can change our policies and our politics. We have 250 different local unions in North Carolina.
Q: Why are groups such as the AFL-CIO important in this country and in states like North Carolina?
A: Unions have always been important. We have the labor movement to thank for many laws that protect employees today – overtime laws, collective bargaining, child labor laws. But there’s rising inequality we’re seeing right now that makes unions even more important. Years ago, when unions were strong, the economy worked well for everybody. Now, wages have stagnated, our middle class has shrunk. In the South and in states like North Carolina, we have lower wages and higher poverty rates.
Unions help level the playing field. If we want to restore the American dream, it’s important that working people have the ability to organize and collectively bargain. What’s good for working people is good for business. Historically, it’s been a bit different in North Carolina because we’ve had the state employees’ prohibition on collective bargaining. We’re a so-called right-to-work state, and that has weakened the collective power of unions. I want all workers to be treated with dignity, working in a safe environment and earn a fair wage.