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In the face of declining membership, some Asheville-area unions are looking to sell their most iconic possessions – union halls.
Curtis Shew, president of Communication Workers of America Local 3601, said that when the CWA purchased their current location at 210 Haywood Road in 1975, the local had about 1,500 members.
Today, there are 220 members, which Shew said doesn’t justify keeping the hall.
“The utilization from the CWA and the members is probably the biggest driver of selling it,” he said.
During the last three decades, Shew said the CWA has rented its hall to car enthusiasts, art clubs and Hispanic Baptist church groups to help cover costs.
It also has rented to other labor organizations, including the Western North Carolina Central Labor Council.
WNCCLC President Mark Case said this collaboration between unions and other organizations is becoming more common.
“The unions and the progressive groups, community organizations, churches, at one time when the unions were formed, were working together,” Case said. Although each group went on to pursue its own interests, Case said lately there has been a gradual return to the original unity between organizations.
Case said most of the collaboration has been cost-related – as unions like Local 3601 grow smaller, maintaining their own halls makes less sense economically. Now, smaller unions are renting from larger unions, he said.
Some smaller unions are also looking pool their financial resources to buy a joint union hall, Case said. Others are looking toward more community-based spaces that can be shared by even more diverse organizations.
“It’s a real community environment level that we can take up another notch by helping all working men and women, whether they’re in a union or not,” he said.
Shew said that, most likely, the Local 3601 would rent from another union if its property sold soon.
Loss of culture
Although he is optimistic about the future of organized labor in Western North Carolina, Case said there is something to be said for the history that is inevitably lost with the sale of a union hall.
Case specifically pointed to the United Textile Workers of America Enka Local 2598, a union with a rich history in the area that currently has its hall at 130 Sardis Road listed for sale.
Local 2598, originally founded as Local Union 22129 in September 1939, was the union of rayon workers from the American Enka Corporation Plant that gave the small Asheville community its name, according to information from R.S. Whitmire, the vice president of the UTWA, in a union newsletter from 1952.
The local endured all of the more dramatic tribulations of the labor movement – picket lines, coercion and police corruption.
During a 1940 National Labor Relations Board hearing in Asheville, workers accused Enka’s superintendent of police of forcing workers to become “labor spies,” according to Whitmire’s comments in the 1952 newsletter.
The board found American Enka guilty of unfair labor practices in 1941. Later that year, more than 1,500 workers voted in the local’s first election.
Although it was at one time the nation’s single largest producer of rayon, the plant eventually closed.Representatives from Local 2598 declined to share comments for this story. But Case said that today, there are about 200 members in Local 2598.
“To see that one go is like watching history go away,” Case said, “But hey, organized labor is changing.”
Shew said that, for the most part, the original values of unions have already been lost.
“I would say 15 years ago, the union was a family,” he said. “All of its members hung out together, their families hung out together, had softball teams together, picnicked on holidays, supported each other. And we just don’t have that anymore. Everybody’s busy with their own issues and their own lives and work and survival.”
Shew pointed to younger generations of workers who have lost touch with the original struggles of organized labor.
“They feel like it was handed to us,” he said.
The role of modern technology
As unions enter the Information Age, technology is playing a bigger role in how they organize, Case said.
Where international unions used to send briefing letters to locals, they now use training webinars.
Case said unions in Western North Carolina also are looking into online conferences to take the place of the physical union halls.
The option actually could be easier for many members, Case said.
“The biggest problems now with the halls is you have people getting off work then having to come back into the city for a two-hour meeting away from their kids and family,” he said.
Shew said, however, that he is a bit more wary about adopting meeting methods that use modern technology.
Union meetings are exclusive, and Shew said it’s nearly impossible to know who may be involved in a conference call or similar mode of communication. They are looking into webinars, though.
Case said even though technology may play a large role in organizing in the future, it’s not yet ready to replace union halls.
“There’s still going to be a need in the immediate future for a gathering place,” Case said.