Strikers at plywood plant put hopes on Obama

The strikers have been camped out on a dirt shoulder of this two-lane country road for nearly six months.

Sometimes they picket, but just as often they stand around in their work boots and sneakers, staring at the plywood factory that used to employ them -- and the rising steam that serves as a reminder that work continues inside.

There should be little reason for the 114 members of the machinists union here to feel hopeful about the fight they picked with their employer, Moncure Plywood, in July. The company has had little trouble finding replacement workers in the weak economy.

And it’s difficult to imagine a more obscure place for a protest than this ribbon of asphalt, which cuts through a swath of new-growth Piedmont timber some 30 miles from Raleigh.

And yet, hope is palpable here, and President Obama is the primary catalyst. Part of the hope derives from racial pride; blacks have always made up the majority of Local W369 of the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.


But just as important, the strikers here -- like their leaders in Washington -- say they expect the new president to fulfill his promises to labor and help spark a renaissance for the broader union movement.

Obama’s election “changes the whole perspective of how labor is viewed,” said Lewis Cameron, the president of the local, as he sat in a makeshift hut the workers built to ward off the cold. “Labor in the Bush administration was a dirty word. Barack Obama came up the hard way like most working families do. He understands unionism.”

If Cameron’s words don’t exactly square with Obama’s life story -- he grew up middle class and attended an exclusive private high school -- it underscores the honeymoon sentiment common in union circles right now.

Unlike President Clinton -- who sparred with labor over the North American Free Trade Agreement -- Obama enters office with more consistent pro-union bona fides. He cut his teeth politically in Chicago, racking up a strong pro-labor record in the Illinois Senate.

During his campaign, he called for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation that would make it easier for unions to organize. He has nominated Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte), a pro-union lawmaker, to be his secretary of Labor.

A week ago he invited labor leaders to the White House, where he issued a number of union-friendly executive orders, declaring: “I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem. To me, it’s part of the solution.”

In Moncure, a number of the striking workers used their down time to campaign for Obama; his name still adorns their clothes and the bumpers of their trucks. Cameron listened to the inauguration with pride on a car radio, near his snow-covered post on the picket line.

But with so many other problems to tackle, the president may not wish to expend his political capital on labor’s No. 1 priority: the Employee Free Choice Act. Conservatives and the business lobby fiercely oppose the bill, fearing that it would increase union membership.

Moreover, because Obama built a broad, Internet-based ground game, he may not think he is as beholden to labor as past Democrats who relied heavily on unions in their campaigns.

Most of the strikers said they were willing to give Obama time to make substantive changes in federal labor policy. But they also expect the administration to eventually tip the balance of power in labor’s favor.

Allen Moore, 58, vice president of the local, thinks Obama will probably give the National Labor Relations Board a more pro-union flavor: Currently, three of the five board positions are unfilled.

More important, Moore said, the president should fulfill his campaign promise to support a law forbidding companies to hire replacement workers.

“I think he will keep his word,” Moore said. “I really do.”

Other strikers said they wanted Obama to use the bully pulpit to change negative perceptions of unions. In North Carolina, 3.5% of the workforce is unionized, the lowest rate in the country. Nationwide, 12.4% of workers are unionized, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

If nothing else, the president has offered a rare morsel of good news as their vigil stretched across the seasons. Many of the strikers have been working at the plant for more than three decades. Their parents tended to be sharecroppers and small farmers.

Securing a job at Moncure Plywood, with its steady union wage, promised a ticket into the modern middle class. The pay -- on average, about $15 an hour before the strike, according to union officials -- let them put down payments on houses and pickups, and send their children to college.

Veteran workers said the relationship between management and the union had long been cordial: There had never been a strike until now.

Union members said a final contract offer from the company in July contained provisions they could not live with.

Jeff Matuszak, a sales manager at Moncure Plywood, would not comment on the terms, but union members said they included tripled monthly health insurance premiums for families and a mandatory 60-hour work week.

That could mean five 12-hour shifts but, theoretically, could mean a seven-day work week, union members said. They noted dryly that even the slaves had Sundays off.

“If you’re working every day, then what good is having a union?” Cameron said.

In September, the strikers said they spied a hose tied like a hangman’s noose in front of the plant.

On a recent Monday, the hose had come down, and strikers had posted a visual rejoinder just outside the gates: the image of Obama, printed on fliers advertising a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.

Like the others, Cameron acknowledges that the president won’t be able to change everything overnight.

“That may just mean that we’ll have to stay here even longer,” he said.