NC Workers' Organizing: Lessons from the Field

Image credit: Kayan Cheung-Miaw

Image description: a multiracial group of workers wearing uniforms from various industries and face masks are standing in a circle with their fists raised.

The UFE-coordinated Raising Wages NC coalition and the Southern Workers’ Assembly recently hosted a virtual panel discussion with veteran and new organizers to learn from each other as worker leaders and organizers, and connect so we can strengthen our labor movement. Over 50 people tuned in to hear about the challenges workers are facing in North Carolina today and the ways they are organizing for safe conditions, fair pay, and respect for their rights.

Raising Wages North Carolina is a coalition that organizes worker-centered campaigns to raise the wage floor to a livable wage, challenge systems of oppression, and build local organizing capacity among workers, businesses, and advocacy organizations. United for a Fair Economy (UFE) is a co-founder and convener of Raising Wages NC.

The Southern Workers Assembly is a network of local unions, worker organizations, and organizing committees, committed to building rank-and-file democratic social movement unionism as a foundation for organizing, uniting and transforming labor power throughout the South. 


The people of NC are under assault from the NC legislature, which has a veto-proof majority of elected officials affiliated with the extreme right. But workers are still fighting and organizing nationally and in the South, with Summer 2023 dubbed by many another #HotLaborSummer. 

Recent national victories include that of the UPS workers, represented by the Teamsters, who won an historic contract campaign fight, narrowly missing a strike. UAW auto workers are striking nationally, including in the South: North Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. Sanitation workers, Starbucks workers, fast food workers and many others are also continuing their fights.

In NC, the Duke University Grad Students Union won their union election by a landslide (88%!) after years of organizing. Durham Solid Waste workers, members of UE 150, have been fighting for fair pay and safe staffing. Their stand-down in early September, during which workers did not load garbage into trucks, generated substantial financial support from the community. This fight continues, and UFE encourages everyone to support it

In this context of challenges and gains, panelists discussed the workplace challenges they are facing today, the organizing models they’re using to engage workers in collective action, and the lessons they’re learning from their current campaigns.

About the Panelists

  1. Tim Lloyd, President, Asheville City Association of Educators
  2. Terrence Whidbee, Leader, Black Workers for Justice, is a youth organizer and educator in the public school system looking to unite the youth, spread awareness through the arts and bridge the gap between the elders and the youth of today. 
  3. Eli Porras, Vice President, El Futuro es Nuestro/ It’s Our Future, is originally from Mexico and has been an H2A worker for 7 years fighting against wage theft with El Futuro es Nuestro/ It’s Our Future, a broad worker-led movement for justice in the fields, focused on farmworker leadership and direct organizing to address abusive conditions.
  4. Danielle Caldwell, NC Field Organizer, National Domestic Workers' Alliance - NC chapter / We Dream in Black, is a long-term childcare provider.  
  5. Zoey Niebuhr, Member, Teamsters Local 391 is one of the UPS workers who recently fought and won a fair contract.  
  6. Rob Davis, Vice President, UE 150, Charlotte Chapter, is a water worker for the city of Charlotte and one of the  workers who recently won $22/hour. 
  7. Rita Blalock, Worker-Leader, Union of Southern Service Workers, is a food service worker and labor organizer.  

Mikeya Jones, member of Communications Workers of America and an airline worker, moderated the conversation.

We asked: What are some issues that you have to deal with in your workplaces?

We heard: Domestic workers and farmworkers – who historically have been excluded from basic labor protections since these industries were traditionally dominated by Black workers – continue to face challenges of low pay and poor working and living conditions. 

We organize domestic workers, that includes childcare workers and certified nursing assistants. Domestic workers don’t have basic worker protections. The childcare industry is not subsidized by the state, so childcare workers are paid very little, about $11-12 per hour, whether we have credentials or not. We are overworked, we work very long hours, we are not being paid fairly. Because we are at-will employees, some of us are really afraid to speak up. Black women are doing this work, but there’s a ceiling for Black women, barriers to get promoted into management. We are still suffering from the legacy of the Antebellum South. . . .

We are building people, we are building brains, we are constructing humans who are going to be the next leaders, workforce, educators, but childcare workers are paid the least. It’s part of the legacy of enslaved people doing domestic work.

It is a struggle organizing childcare providers because licensing consultants can come out, they can shut you down. I've heard horror stories of consultants coming into people's homes -- like the Gestapo, the FBI. We have to also understand that this is a sector where you are guilty until you're proven innocent. As soon as people hear anything that has to do with the child, the adult is automatically terminated. It's one of the highest liabilities that you can have. Oftentimes child care workers are not credentialed and don’t have job security. It's very hard getting people to understand that they need to stand up for their rights. And because people don't want to continue to work for these poverty wages, a lot of people are leaving this workforce. 

– Danielle Caldwell, National Domestic Workers' Alliance - NC chapter / We Dream in Black 

We heard: Concerns of farmworkers include poor, overcrowded housing conditions, and toxic, unsafe working conditions. Fumigation of pesticides happens while the farmworkers are working. Also for farmworkers, meeting in-person requires the support of volunteers and donors who can help them get to their in-person meeting from across the region.

The major problems we face right now in the fields of NC as contracted farmworkers are, first, the pesticides. There are instances when the rancher is fumigating and we are at the other side of the field. That's dangerous. Second, the overcrowded living conditions in the fields. Right now, we have 24 people living in two rooms with bunk beds, two stoves with four burners each, three showers, two toilets, and one washer. It is not enough. As an organization, we are fighting to make the changes that we need.

– Eli Porras, Vice President, El Futuro es Nuestro / It’s Our Future 

We heard: The pay for essential work is simply too low. All of us are relying on essential work and the people doing it are not paid enough to afford housing, health care, and other necessities. 

I am on fire right now. We don't have collective bargaining power as public sector workers, but we're working on a campaign right now. We are poised to shut the city down. These are kitchen table issues. When you're working, in our case, for the city government, and you can't afford your prescriptions or, we have several city workers that have been living in a hotel for over a year because they can't afford the rent here in the city, how do you justify as an employer that your employee can work for you but does not have the living wage to live in the city in which they work? It's a travesty of justice.

During the pandemic, we continued to run the city because we came to work every day. We were the ones making sure the water was running, that sanitary sewer was leaving your home or business or school, that the trash was picked up, that after storms we're out cutting tree limbs and clearing ways for ambulatory services to get through. We're doing all of that and when we come to the city council or our bosses and say $15 an hour isn't enough they're shutting us down. So, we're winning incrementally, winning some great things here, but it's time to be a disruptor. You can't force me into a box that says I have to work and then die. I'm not going to sit still for that.

– Rob Davis, UE150 - Charlotte Chapter

Danielle Caldwell, NC Field Organizer, National Domestic Workers' Alliance - NC chapter / We Dream in Black, speaking about the challenges domestic workers face on the job and in organizing

Eli Porras, Vice President, El Futuro es Nuestro/ It’s Our Future, describing conditions facing farmworkers in NC

Rob Davis, talking about organizing with municipal workers to win wage increases

We also heard: Beyond pay and adequate staffing, heat is becoming more and more of a major safety concern for workers during our climate crisis. This is especially true for workers who work outside such as farmworkers, and delivery workers. 


We asked: Tell us about your recent gains and victories.

We heard: Workers have won long overdue wins. 

During the pandemic, we won higher pay for direct care workers, and we also won stabilization. Stabilization means that home-based childcare and childcare centers, whether they were operating or not, would get paid so that they wouldn't close down.  But the struggle continues. We are trying to get organized, and get folks to understand their power so we can make some change.

– Danielle Caldwell, National Domestic Workers' Alliance - NC chapter / We Dream in Black 

We just won $20 an hour minimum pay for Charlotte city workers. We had workers working for the city for many years who hadn't even seen a dollar in hourly wage increase. 

– Rob Davis, UE150 - Charlotte Chapter

We asked: What is your organizing model?

We heard: We organize and meet workers in-person. We have regular meetings. We find their issues, then organize and take action around those issues. This work is driven by and centered on rank and file workers. Direct action gets the goods! Solidarity and showing up for each other across industries, sectors, geographies are also important.

We call it blitzing. We knock on doors and go to workplaces to talk to people. We ask workers what their workplace issues are. We invite workers to join our meetings that explain what we are about and what we can do to deal with those issues. We have three chapters: North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

– Rita Blalock, Worker-Leader, Union of Southern Service Workers

I work at reservations at American Airlines. We do a lot of picketing. We did picketing a couple of weeks ago. You are always invited to our actions. If you reach out to me, we will show up for you too. We are about solidarity, unionism, and working together.

– Mikeya Jones, Member, Communications Workers of America and an airline worker

Our model is meeting people in-person at their job sites. We also communicate to folks in our network via email. And we have a hub that people can come to: the Fruit of Labor World Cultural Center in Raleigh.

– Terrence Whidbee, Leader, Black Workers for Justice

What’s been successful for us is a departmental meeting once a month with all the city departments. Workers raise their issues at those meetings and we have policy handbooks from each department. With our executive board and organizer, we boil those issues down to 2-3 key points, with an “ask” for each. Then we organize around those asks, whether it’s leafleting, a march, or a sticker campaign. It’s been successful for us. We just won $20 an hour minimum pay for Charlotte city workers. We have workers working for the city for many years and haven't even seen a dollar in hourly wage increase. It’s focused on the members in each department and we have 4-5 departments, each with their own policy handbook. It’s a huge lift for our organizers here and requires a collaborative brainstorm to get everything boiled down to an action that can affect the person or people that can make the changes in the departments.

– Rob Davis, UE150 - Charlotte Chapter

Our model of organizing is in groups. All the leaders are workers. We meet virtually and in person, every week or monthly, depending. We invited people and organizations to help economically to cover the transportation for the meeting in person. Also, we share the demands and solutions we are looking for through our social media. We present our complaints to the rancher or the Department of Labor. As workers, we represent ourselves. The things we have learned is not to be afraid of retaliation. We have won the right to work, to coordinate the workers to learn their labor rights and make them respect it. This is the way part of our organization does the work.

– Eli Porras, Vice President, El Futuro es Nuestro / It’s Our Future 

How did we get more people engaged? It was through education. I was flyering before my shift, passing out educational fliers on what the union is, what we are fighting for and how we are going to do it, saying that the answer is we’ve got to get organized here on the shop floor to make the company move and cough up some more money. People that were more informed were more willing to join the union, and to come out to parking lot meetings, to practice pickets. 

The turnover rate for part-timers is really, really high. But if we're constantly organizing and constantly educating, talking with our coworkers, that's how we keep each other informed and can overcome challenges such as high turnover workplaces. I've had some success with sharing food and just having conversations with folks, just day-to-day stuff that seemed to work to get folks engaged.

– Zoey Niebuhr, Member, Teamsters Local 391

Our organization’s campaign is to go to fields where there are workers. On Sundays we go to Walmarts where they go shopping. On social media, we discuss pesticides, living conditions, and heat safety, things like first aid if there’s a snake bite or an accident with the work team. We are in constant communication with workers through social media and through our presence visiting the fields.

– Eli Porras, Vice President, El Futuro es Nuestro / It’s Our Future 

Rita Blalock, Worker-Leader, Union of Southern Service Workers, talking about organizing strategy

Mikeya Jones, member of Communications Workers of America and an airline worker, speaking about solidarity across sectors and campaigns

Terrence Whidbee, Leader, Black Workers for Justice, describing communication and relationship-building strategies


We asked: What are key lessons learned from your organizing campaigns?

We heard: Panelists shared lessons about staying the course and keeping the focus on working together across inevitable losses and setbacks. We heard that we just have to keep building workers' power and keep fighting. Also, organizing is hard. It's important to build relationships, break bread, agitate and have a plan to win and a vision, in order to organize people out of the mentality of nothing can change. Panelists reminded us of the quote from Frederick Douglass, that "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."

We are [organizing for long-overdue wage increases for teachers and non-teaching staff]. Two things that we've learned: that we need to bring out a gang of people and we need to notice that everything is not all right and not everything is going to magically get better. We brought out 200-300 people to the school board and county commissioner meetings. And we said in order to meet our demands, they would have to raise property tax by $0.04 – a very, very little tax increase. And they raised it by $0.01. We were very dejected that they gave us only a fifth of what we wanted. But we've banded together to come back next year with five times the amount of people, and we expect that to happen. We've also learned it is very tough to get public school workers out of the mindset of “Everything's fine. Everything will eventually sort itself out.” They have to remember that NC is 49th or 50th in the entire country in terms of school funding, and that it's only going to be us [to make a change].

– Tim Lloyd, President, Asheville City Association of Educators

There was a time when we as workers got complacent and we stopped realizing that disruption is what moves us forward. I don't think that any movement has gone anywhere without being a little disruptive, pissing people off , raising your voice and speaking up for yourselves and each other. And I feel like that's super important. We need, as a collective, to show our muscles. We've lost the understanding that we're the power behind everything. If there's no workers, there's no businesses. If there's no teachers, there's no schools. If we come back to that core strategy of disruption, we could move forward.

– Mikeya Jones, Member, Communications Workers of America and an airline worker

One thing that the pandemic showed us is the power of the worker. And I think we're letting up off that gas a little bit too fast. We need to be leaning into worker power. A lot of these big box stores are slated to close in the next five years. Why? Because they don't have workers. We have to press on the gas harder. We need to really disrupt some things, shut things down. But it's getting people to that agitation point.

– Danielle Caldwell, National Domestic Workers' Alliance - NC chapter / We Dream in Black


Zoey Niebuhr, Member, Teamsters Local 391, talking about the importance of ongoing education among workers

Tim Lloyd, President, Asheville City Association of Educators, speaking about the work of helping educators understand that they are the ones who can make change

We asked: How can others support your organizing efforts?

We heard: We need to show up for each other. We need financial support - donations. We need connections with other workers. We need mentorship, training, and help with strategizing. We need to share our stories to challenge dominant narratives. We organize workers in-person and through social media. We need support with outreach. 

Panelists emphasized that we can’t underestimate the power of workers and the power of disruption, especially at this moment when the pandemic showed how much we rely on essential workers. Domestic work is the work that makes all other work possible. Workers have the power to shut down the economy. City workers ran the city when everyone else stayed home. City workers make sure everyone else is safe. 

We need to tell the stories of low-wage workers, to use narrative to educate and move people to action.  If you have a picket line, reach out for support! 

As a youth organizer, the support could be connecting me with other youth in the area or other youth in the state who are also organizing so we can build a strong youth base. Support us online at and also our artistic arm, Get on the email list to see when events are happening. Connect with me directly.

–  Terrence Whidbee, Leader, Black Workers for Justice

Reach out to North Carolina Association of Educators folks in your area, This year our plan is to grow our union astronomically. So show your support for public education and how necessary public education is. If you are in the Asheville area, come together with us when we speak to people in power and the government. We need the community as a whole and other unions to come along with us. We need to put it out in society and the culture, the need for public education and your support for it.

– Tim Lloyd, President, Asheville City Association of Educators

We have a website,, to make donations to help our organization. Our organization exists based on donations.

– Eli Porras, Vice President, El Futuro es Nuestro / It’s Our Future 

Attending networking convenings, events and panels like thi. Liking and sharing on social media platforms when someone has a campaign that they're really trying to push, just helping get the word out, volunteering for a local event. “Many hands make light work” and that's really what this is about. We can be a few in number at times, but when we bind together, no matter what region we're in, we can really make the work light. And a lot of that nowadays is digital. These are tools we can use to help push our groups’ agendas to the forefront and get the changes we're looking for.

– Rob Davis, UE150 - Charlotte Chapter

Storytelling is a powerful tool. When we talk about how families, children and workers are affected by the laws, the lack of funding, I think that's a powerful tool. It wasn't until civil rights violations were broadcasted across the globe that change happened. People think that when they pay so much for child care that that money is going to the teachers. A lot of people don't know that teachers are making poverty wages. We need to share stories of what is happening on the ground. Be curious. People are not picketing and raising their voices for no reason. Stop and ask, “What is going on here?”

– Danielle Caldwell, National Domestic Workers' Alliance - NC chapter / We Dream in Black

Stand with folks on picket lines. I think it's an easy way for us to support folks that intend to strike. When we did our practice picketing at UPS, we had folks from Amazon, from FedEx, from all these other companies coming by to support us, which I thought was great. And this is something we as UPS workers can do in our contract. If a driver sees a picket line at a location they're supposed to deliver at, they don't need to cross that picket line. They can't be disciplined for that. If you're planning to set up a picket line, reach out to either the Teamsters Local 71 for Charlotte area or Teamsters Local 391 for Raleigh, Greensboro, Wilmington so we can make sure that we've got a line of communication open and can make sure drivers know their rights so we can support you all.

– Zoey Niebuhr, Member, Teamsters Local 391

Don’t forget to support the Durham sanitation workers, members of UE 150, in their struggle for fair pay. Read updates at

If you want to listen to the full conversation, it’s not too late! It is available on Facebook or at this link.


Showing 2 reactions

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  • Steve Smith
    commented 2023-10-11 01:12:45 -0400
    Thank you for sharing this inspiring overview of worker organizing efforts in North Carolina. It’s truly heartening to see the determination and resilience of these workers as they face the challenges of low pay, poor conditions, and a lack of labor protections.

    The recent victories, such as higher pay for direct care workers and the minimum pay increase for Charlotte city workers, remind us that when workers come together and take collective action, they can bring about positive change.

    The organizing models discussed in the article, involving in-person meetings, direct action, and education among workers, provide valuable insights into effective grassroots organizing. These approaches prioritize the power of relationships, storytelling, and persistence.

    I also appreciate the emphasis on solidarity and support from the wider community. It’s essential for all of us to stand with these workers, whether by showing up at picket lines, making financial contributions, or sharing their stories to raise awareness.

    Let’s continue to amplify the voices of workers and support their efforts to improve their working conditions and rights. Together, we can make a difference and create a fairer and more just work environment for everyone.

    Thank you for shedding light on these crucial issues, and I look forward to more updates on the progress of these worker-led movements.
  • Kayan Cheung-Miaw
    published this page in Blog 2023-09-25 17:47:29 -0400


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