ASHEVILLE—Over plates of chopped barbecue and glasses of sweet tea, members of regional labor groups rallied for increasing wages and curtailing wage theft across the state as lawmakers were set to return to Raleigh this week.

MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer for North Carolina’s chapter of the AFL-CIO, addressed the plight of organized labor in the state. James Harrison/Carolina Public Press

Roughly 60 people gathered for the lunch at Pack’s Tavern, which was hosted Saturday by the Western North Carolina Labor Council. Attendees included Democrats Rep. Susan Fisher, who represents portions of Asheville and Buncombe County in the 114th District, and Rep. Joe Sam Queen, who represents Swain and Jackson Counties in the 119th District. All state lawmakers representing Western North Carolina were invited, including newly-elected Buncombe Democrats Rep. Brian Turner and Rep. John Ager, who were not present.

The meeting was the third of five being held across the state. In light of recent policies approved by the General Assembly, leaders of the group emphasized their desires to organize for raising wages for North Carolina’s working families during the new session.

“Things are still far from rosy for the average working family,” said MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer for the North Carolina state AFL-CIO. “The economic reality is that too many working folks are still struggling to make ends meet. Some are working part-time when they need full-time, some are working two or three low-wage jobs, and all of us here have probably seen our paychecks shrink.”

Speakers laid blame for a “weakened safety net” at the feet of the state’s Republican lawmakers, who approved policies rejecting Medicaid expansion and cutting maximum unemployment benefits in recent years. Others pointed to the problem of wage theft in non-union workplaces and called for legislative action to ensure workers were being treated fairly.

“I think there is a path forward, and I think [wage theft] is becoming a bipartisan issue a little more than it was last session,” Fisher told the group.

Later, the representative cited the $200 million revenue shortfall facing state lawmakers as a reason she was hopeful policies addressing the issue could move ahead, even in a GOP-dominated legislature.

“I just know this is something that has been talked about coming back to life in this session,” she said. “I think that with the $200 million shortfall that they’re looking at right now, they’re going to have to look at ways for the state to recover some revenue. Maybe we can convince folks on both sides of the isle that it could be one way of addressing it.”

Fisher said she had not yet discussed possible strategies with any of her House colleagues.

In remarks to the group, Queen suggested the best solution would be to elect a Democrat majority in at least one of the state’s legislative chambers. He said he feared that if Republicans continued to hold the governor’s mansion along with supermajorities in the General Assembly past 2016, North Carolinians would be “brought to the ground.”

“The way forward is to elect Roy Cooper in 2016,” Queen said, referring to the state’s attorney general, who is presumed to be the Democratic opponent to Gov. Pat McCrory in next year’s race. “If we can elect enough Democrats to have a veto-proof House, we can stop this foolishness. We have three election cycles to win a majority in one House, or you will be brought to the ground for a generation.”

Queen acknowledged the realities of district lines recently drawn  by Republican lawmakers, designed to give GOP candidates an advantage in elections.

Still, organizers for groups repeatedly pointed to Democratic gains in Western North Carolina in last year’s elections, where Turner and Ager unseated two Republican incumbents, Tim Moffitt and Nathan Ramsey. McMillan said she was encouraged by the outcome of the races.

“The seats we gained was a hopeful sign,” she said. “I think the people of Western North Carolina should be proud, and it gives me hope if people organize and come together, we can make a difference.”

Following the meeting, Fisher also said she would like to pursue reforms to wages for the state’s service workers, including an increase in tipped minimum wage or potentially an elimination of the practice. The federal government requires at least $2.13 an hour be paid to workers who receive at least $30 in tips per month, and for employers to compensate those workers if wages and tips do not equal the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Fisher said she had become more aware of the issue after attending a recent conference, and was especially interested in exploring possible solutions for workers in Asheville.

“We need to pay service workers a minimum wage and let them make the tips on top of that,” Fisher said, suggesting the wage be equal to the wage mandated for non-tip-earning workers. “What [service workers] do for [Asheville], in my opinion, is way more valuable than $2.36 an hour. Our economy has thrived because of them, the breweries and restaurants. We’re a foodie town.”

Fisher said she would also be open to phasing in an increase in tipped minimum wage over time.

“It doesn’t have to be all at once,” she said.

North Carolina’s House and Senate members reconvene in Raleigh today at noon for the new legislative session.

James Harrison

James Harrison is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Reach him at jharrison@carolinapublicpress.org.

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