As we celebrate Labor Day—now more associated with the end of summer than anything else—it’s important not to forget the holiday’s century-old history and why it matters, perhaps now more than ever. Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894, via an eighty-three-word law signed by President Grover Cleveland. But that law was presaged by years of advocacy for better conditions; at the height of the Industrial Revolution, American workers often labored twelve-hour days and seven-day weeks just to eke out a living. Labor unions rose in prominence, ordering massive strikes.

In 1894, employees of the Pullman Palace Labor Company—organized by the socialist Eugene Debs—went on strike, crippling all-important railroad traffic. The federal government sent troops to Chicago to end the strike; more than a dozen workers ended up dead. To quell the unrest, Congress rushed through a bill establishing a workingman’s holiday.

One hundred and twenty-three years later, economic inequality is soaring to new heights, while labor organizing is plummeting. Just 10.7 percent of American workers (and 6 percent of Americans in the private sector) belong to a union, down from 20 percent in 1983—despite the fact that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unionized workers earned $200 more per week than their non-unionized colleagues.

In North Carolina, says MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO, only 3 percent of workers are organized. Because the state denies public employees the right to collectively bargain, and because North Carolina passed a law establishing itself as right-to-work in 1947—meaning, no private employees can be forced to join a union—the Tar Heel State is considered one of the least-friendly union terrains in the country, which is exactly how Republicans in the General Assembly want to keep it.

Still, McMillan sees opportunity. Later this month, she’ll run to become the first woman elected as the state AFL-CIO’s president, succeeding James Andrews, the first African American to hold that post. Last week, the INDY spoke with McMillan about her background, her goals for the next year, and how she plans to effect change in a state that often seems antagonist to the working class.

INDY: Seeing as how it’s Labor Day, I wanted to ask you about what it’s like to organize in North Carolina, which has not traditionally been a union-friendly state. But before that, let me begin by asking you to tell me how you got into organizing.
MaryBe McMillan: I got into the movement when I was a graduate student at N.C. State University and UE 150 was organizing service workers on campus. They are a small union, and they did not have a lot of organizers on staff, so they were asking faculty and students to volunteer to help with the campaign. I was in the sociology department, and I along with a number of other students in the department volunteered as organizers and was given a building on campus to go to regularly to talk to the housekeepers. And through that experience, I heard about the struggles those housekeepers had, how with downsizing, they had to clean twice as many buildings, how a number of them would work forty hours on campus and then go to work at a fast-food restaurant, ’cause that’s the only way that they could make ends meet and provide for their family. And it’s those women that are really why I’m in the labor movement. It’s why I care so much about organizing in North Carolina and around the South, because those women are public employees of North Carolina.

Did you realize when you first started of organizing in grad school, how much state law sought to tamp down on union organizing? Did that come as a shock to you?
A little bit. I grew up in North Carolina, went to North Carolina public schools. It’s not like you get a lot of labor history at our schools. So I really didn’t realize the extent to which the deck is stacked against working people in North Carolina. The complete prohibition making it illegal for state, county, and city employees to collectively bargain, the so-called right-to-work law, which really is about undermining the collective strength of working people; it is very difficult to organize in North Carolina and in a lot of other Southern states—and unfortunately increasingly around the country. But it’s not impossible, and certainly in North Carolina we’ve seen some big victories like the UFCW victory at [the Smithfield Food plant in Tar Heel in 2008] and the [Farm Labor Organizing Committee’s] victory with [the Mount Olive Pickle Company in 2004] and the historic contract that they’ve won. So it’s difficult for working people to organize, but when folks join together and set their minds to it and the community’s behind them, they can organize and win.

How did you end up in your current position, as the N.C. AFL-CIO’s first woman secretary-treasurer?
After graduate school, I did public policy research for a while. I believe that we need to change our policies in our country to make them fairer and to create shared prosperity, but I began to realize that to really make change, you need a bottom-up movement, and it’s going to take collective action by people. So I decided I really wanted to be in a position where I’m helping build a movement, and I came to work for the national AFL-CIO, the Union Community Fund. At that time, they had set up their own charitable fund as a working people’s alternative to United Way. I worked here in North Carolina out of the state AFL-CIO office, and I watched what [outgoing state AFL-CIO president James Andrews] and the state federation were doing in terms of trying to build political power for working people in North Carolina. James helped create an opportunity for me to come work for the state federation and encouraged me to run for my current position as secretary-treasurer in 2005, and I became the first female officer of the state federation.

Later this month, you’ll run for the AFL-CIO’s presidency. Assuming you win, what are some of your goals for the next couple of years?
Through our retiring president James Andrews’s leadership and the hard work of unions in North Carolina, our state federation’s really built a national reputation for punching above its weight class. We may not have a huge labor movement here, but we believe together we can do big things, and I certainly want to continue pushing our state federation to do more. Part of that is trying to grow the labor movement here. I hope to work to provide support for affiliates who want to do more external and internal organizing. I think it’s important that we get back to basics as a union movement and really focus on worksite organizing and mobilizing of our members. I think this past election made it clear that working people feel left behind by our policies, our politicians, and our parties, so I think that we have a real opportunity as a movement to have one-on-one conversations with working people to talk about the issues they care about and how, by joining together, we can really make change in this country. I think rallies, protests, and social media are important, but I think it’s going to take one-on-one conversation in the workplace and union halls and our communities to really make the change that we need to make.

You brought up the election. There’s been a lot of conversation since November about white working-class workers in rust belt states, traditionally the people you think of as union types, voting for Trump. What do you think it’s going to take to get some of those folks to see the Republican Party for what it is?
I think we really need to talk to folks about what’s happening with the current administration and point out that policy after policy—all the things the Trump administration is doing that are hurting working people. I think we have to put the pressure on all political parties to speak up for working people and really focus on the economic issues that folks care about. I also think that we need to understand that it’s not Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren that’s going to save the middle class; it’s building a bigger, bolder working people’s movement. I think too often folks are looking for someone to fight for them or to fight for the working class, and we really need to stand up and fight for ourselves.

There’s been so much energy surrounding the protests and the rallies that have happened during the Trump administration. In what ways can the labor movement galvanize that energy?
One thing that we’re doing this year is really focusing on municipal elections as a way to build local organizing and get local wins. We have union members running for office in a number of municipalities around the state, including a member of the stagehands union in Charlotte who’s running for city council and just got the endorsement of the Charlotte Observer. I think that one of the ways that we can really galvanize the energy that we see now is on a local level, urging people to get engaged in local elections, to really be engaged with the city council or the school board, in pushing the policies that will help working people in their communities. I think that by building that local base, that’s really going to help us next year when we have a chance, hopefully, to break the [Republicans’ supermajority in the General Assembly] so that we can make some changes in our state legislature and our state laws.

A lot of these antiunion policies were obviously passed when Democrats had a firm grip on the state’s politics. The Republicans have embraced those policies and in some cases made things more difficult for working people. Realistically, what things can labor get the legislature to move forward with?
It’s hard to think realistically. I think that we can certainly continue to put pressure on this legislature to reinstate the earned income tax credit, raise the minimum wage, roll back the drastic cuts done to unemployment benefits that they made a several years ago—all of these things are popular with the people and citizens of North Carolina. I think we need to continue to put pressure on legislators in our home districts around these issues, and these are policies that our governor supports. I think that if we make some changes in 2018, we should be able to pass some concrete policies that will help working people instead of continuing to just give tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy.

But I also think that we have to continue to put pressure on the Democratic Party to be more responsive to working people and to understand that they can be worker-friendly and business-friendly at the same time—that really, what’s good for working people is good for business.

In what ways do you think the unions can pressure the Democrats to keep workers at the forefront of what they’re trying to do?
One is we’re trying to get our members and working people to run for office and be engaged in their parties—be it a Democrat or a Republican—so that they can bring labor or working people’s issues to precinct meetings, to the party conventions through resolution and the policy platform. We as an organization endorse candidates, and so through that endorsement process, we’re really trying to educate candidates about labor rights, the antiworker laws that we have in North Carolina, and why we need to change them. One thing that we are going to try to do a better job at in the future is holding candidates accountable. Don’t come to us and say you’re going to support this issue and then, once you get into office, you don’t.

In some of the bigger cities I’ve lived in, there’s a lot more union visibility. I think that’s because the municipal workers can organize, the police can organize, the transit authority can organize, and so when they want something done, it makes headlines. In what ways does that prohibition on public workers collectively bargaining in North Carolina affect the overall labor movement?
I think both right-to-work and the prohibition on collective bargaining have made it more difficult to organize and deterred a lot of union investment and organizing in the state. Our unions here are not as visible and as prominent as in New York and California and other states, but that doesn’t mean public employees haven’t organized. We have [the N.C. Association of Educators], SEANC, and we have unions representing police officers. So even without collective bargaining, there’s still wins for unions by collectively joining together to put pressure on the Board of Governors at UNC to do things or collectively banding together to lobby the legislature for a bigger budget for public schools.

You had mentioned earlier some of the victories you guys have won. I was also thinking about the Duke adjunct faculty who organized. Are there any more cases like that, where workers have gained the ability to bargain?
There are lots of smaller union victories—machinists doing some organizing in eastern North Carolina. But I think the Duke victory with the adjunct faculty is a clear case for the power of a union. They were able to win a contract with substantial pay increases, much more job security, and I think that interest in higher education and organizing just shows how it doesn’t matter if you have a PhD or a GED in this economy, everybody is getting squeezed. Employers throughout the economy are trying to make work more contingent, and it’s why, no matter whether you’re flipping burgers or teaching college, workers are really beginning to understand that we need to change the rules and we need to band together in the union to do it.

One of the things you guys have focused on in the last year is the Fight for $15 movement. What big initiatives are you eyeing for the next year?
I think the Fight for $15 is a big fight; we have a coalition in North Carolina pushing our state to raise the minimum wage to fifteen dollars in five years. Again, raising the minimum wage is wildly popular; the majority of North Carolinians, the majority of Americans support that, so really putting pressure on our legislature and on Congress to raise the minimum wage, because seven twenty-five is a poverty wage. And again, the organizing at Duke put pressure on the university to raise wages, and now they’re saying they are going to raise wages there to fifteen dollars an hour. I think we have the Fight for $15 and workers getting out into the streets to thank for Walmart, TJ Maxx, McDonald’s—everyone’s feeling the pressure to raise wages. And that would not have happened if working people had not joined together and taken action.

To all the people who may be considering unionizing or collective bargaining or workers who just feel like their employers are taking advantage of them, what would you say to them? What can they do to make a difference in their lives or their coworkers’ lives and improve their conditions, improve their pay?
I would say start talking to your coworkers and contact us. We can put you in contact with a union organizer.

I think that folks need to understand that unions are not some outside force. You are the union; it’s the workers in your workplace, by coming together you all get to have a voice at work, and you get to have a say in your working conditions, and in your hours, and in your leave policies.

Union members are the folks that you sit next to in church, the parents at the Little League games, and they’re the folks that you interact with every day. We really need to do a lot to dispel stereotypes that people have of unions and union members, and I also don’t think people understand that the labor movement is the most diverse movement in the country. We’re the movement that has the most women, that has the most people of color, and we have such a breadth of diversity in terms of the professions we represent, all the way from movie stars and professional athletes to construction workers and bus drivers to nurses and doctors at the VA. And I think I defy a lot of the stereotypes that people have about a union boss, too.