My Turn, Corey Hill: Workers deserve better in North Carolina

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 6, 2020

By Corey Hill

North Carolina has decided that it’s time to go back to work.

We opened back up, gave the green light to the public to go out and enjoy the summer. We told everybody that it was safe. But I can tell you a very different reality that is being lived by workers across the state — from the people who package your chicken for that cookout to the folks making your tires for that final road trip. 

We are not safe. And we have been sacrificed for the sake of normalcy. 

Factories and plants across the state in virtually every industry are back open at full operation and, while many workplaces are claiming to be following CDC guidelines and looking out for workers, what is really happening inside is much different than a press statement. I know firsthand that within my factory there are workers who do not have the luxury of 6 feet of distance. We fought hard for safety measures like plexiglass dividers, hand sanitizer and temperature checks, but we know this is not enough. Our union members hesitate to ask what more can be done because we know the answer is not a whole lot more without better national leadership.

But it’s not just the threat of COVID-19 that keeps workers on edge. In addition to working in the middle of a global pandemic, workers are forced to make tough decisions around their livelihood and the care of their families. Six months into this pandemic, our plant only just provided clear guidelines for workers who had been exposed to the virus. Previously, folks who had been exposed had simply come back into work, too uncertain to take time off for fear that they would be left with no paycheck and no way to feed their families. This lack of guidance and care for workers has put people and their families at unnecessary risk. 

Those workers with young children have been hit even harder. With many schools in remote instruction, parents are stuck between a difficult choice and have all but been told by the company to “figure it out.” They offer tone-deaf suggestions such as keeping children with older grandparents or finding childcare centers. But that’s not possible without enormous risk. And on top of that, many childcare centers refuse to take the children of factory workers because they are considered “high risk.” 

The stress on workers right now is enormous and unprecedented, and their mental health is as much a concern as their physical health. Morale is low, risk is high and we are still expected to do our job the same as ever. This is made worse by the inaction on the part of the National Labor Relations Board, which has refused to hear COVID-related grievances filed by any union. If a factory claims to be operated at CDC guidelines, we are expected to work and there is nothing we can do besides appeal to the humanity of their company. 

Yet despite all this, we know our situation is vastly better because we have a union. We have a protected ability to organize, to bargain and to negotiate. I cannot imagine the conditions of workers who do not have a union, and I’m certain that they are being given the impossible choice of working in extremely unsafe conditions or not being able to provide for themselves and their families. There is nobody to look out for them, all in the name of getting things back to normal. 

As we approach Labor Day, we should take time to reflect on the incredibly difficult position of workers in North Carolina. Asked to keep things running, and not being given the resources, workers are striving to keep our neighbors safe while also providing the crucial items we need on a daily basis. 

It’s up to us to demand better, to look out for each other and to provide the blueprint for safe conditions that not only protect workers from the threat of coronavirus, but give them peace of mind that they will be able to provide for themselves and their families. We deserve better. Together we can win better. It’s up to us to make that happen. 

Corey Hill is President of UAW Local 3520 in Statesville.