By Colette Perold
The Carolina Auto, Aerospace and Machine Workers Union (CAAMWU-UE) in North Carolina got its start in 1990 when workers at the African-American–majority workplace at Consolidated Diesel Company (CDC) won an eight-month petition campaign for a paid day off for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Many of these workers—who manufactured the engines for the iconic Dodge Ram pickup truck—were Black workers who grew up on farms under the sharecropping system before the defeat of legal segregation.
Their fight to win a paid MLK Day holiday was significant therefore not just because the workers won a major workplace demand but also because of the civil-rights and worker-power message the workers conveyed with their win. They were not going to bow down to the entrenched white political and economic power of North Carolina’s Rocky Mount region.
After winning MLK day as a paid holiday, these workers formed the CDC Workers Unity Committee in 1990. In 1994, they affiliated with the UE, and in 1999 they joined with North Carolina public workers to establish the statewide UE Local 150. In 2001 they joined forces with another pre-majority union at the Vermont American machine tool plant to form CAAMWU-UE—the only private-sector chapter of UE Local 150.
Today, with over two decades of existence, a consistent membership of several hundred workers, and a series of shop-floor victories, the CAAMWU is likely the most successful pre-majority union in the private sector in recent labor history.
CAAMWU-UE (and its predecessor the CDC Workers Unity Committee) came out of a project of Black Workers for Justice called the Rocky Mount Workers Unity Council. Before their MLK-day victory, they forged connections between the community and the workplace in the fight for racial justice by carpooling people from three rural counties to a People’s Health Clinic near the factory. Their model has always been to build political power in the region at the same time they grow their collective power on the shopfloor.
Their main organization soon became the Community Empowerment Alliance (CEA), and through the CEA they sought to win Black majority rule in the area. By 2015, the town of Whitakers had a Black female mayor and mostly African-American women on the city council. As writer and organizer Mariya Strauss writes, CDC workers and the CEA “saw that to win policies that would benefit everyone equally, they would not only have to organize within the plant but also have to break the entrenched political power structures in their towns.” To this day, CAAMWU counts on the public support of local church and community leaders for their shopfloor campaigns.
Ultimately, the CDC workers’ decision back in 1994 to pursue pre-majority unionism—and to do so in affiliation with the UE—came from the experience CDC workers witnessed at nearby plants at increasing rates in the 1980s and 1990s: workers repeatedly losing NLRB elections in the same factory by extremely narrow margins. This was at the time when manufacturing was shifting increasingly overseas and to the U.S. South, where labor protections were weaker.
Examples of repeat NLRB election losses with slim margins in the Rocky Mount and Wilson areas of North Carolina took place primarily with workers organizing with the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers of America (ACTWU). These were at Genbearco, Standard Products, and Safelite. In the Standard Products plant, workers lost three elections over the course of ten years but still weren’t willing to give up their fight. They started implementing a pre-majority steward structure with elections, dues, and bylaws, then asked the UAW for continued support. But as CAAMWU member Jim Wrenn told EWOC, the UAW “turned their back on these workers and walked away.”
After watching this nearby fight at Standard Products, workers at CDC who wanted to form their own pre-majority union reached out to UE. According to CDC workers, the UE was the only union willing to support this type of militant, bottom-up, non-contractual unionism in auto-parts plants in right-to-work North Carolina.
Over the years, both the number of plants organized by CAAMWU and the number of dues-paying members in the union have risen and fallen. In 2008, CAAMWU lost Vermont American (then renamed Bosch) workers when the plant closed. But in 2011, they began organizing the facilities-maintenance and housekeeping workers at CDC (now called Cummins Rocky Mount Engine Plant). These workers are subcontracted through a company called C&W Services.
Because pre-majority union members are not forced into the straight jacket of NLRB job classification categories, these facilities maintenance and housekeeping workers have been able to join the same union as the plant’s manufacturing workers, despite being directly hired by different employers. In fact, at the time of writing, the president of CAAMWU comes from the C&W Services section of the union. CAAMWU workers see this as a major source of their strength. As Jim Wrenn explained at an EWOC event in 2021, “We all help build this engine, make the engine work. So we fight for everybody, not just the Cummins workers but the contract workers in the plant.”
As of the time of publication, CAAMWU collects union dues in four ways: (1) payroll deduction through the credit union; (2) Automated Clearing House (ACH) transfers; (3) cash; (4) UE Local 150’s system of dues collection through bank card drafts. CAAMWU dues cover all of their operating expenses; they have never received financial support in the form of subsidies from the UE National.
In the absence of a legally binding collective bargaining agreement, CAAMWU members organize around other legal structures that help them win material concessions from their employers. These include filing Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaints, Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges, and Wage and Hour claims.
These tactics are one part of a broader approach toward unionism that CAAMWU members call the “petition tradition.” While traditional NLRB-recognized unions with grievance structures in place tend to move right through their designated administrative procedure to resolve workplace issues, rather than build shopfloor power in order to organize around them, CAAMWU workers take their collective membership empowerment seriously. Organizing around petitions is paired with shop-floor actions like coordinated sticker-wearing days and winning vocal support from local political and religious leaders. (For more on this see Strauss p.108.) Being forced to fight back with collective action rather than diluting that source of potential power into an individualized grievance process has kept the Cummins managers on their toes. Petitions get upwards of 300-500 signatures. Jim told EWOC: “even though the company does not technically recognize us, they have to deal with us because of the way we address issues…The company has tried to [scare us and] say we will not win this or win that—and then we win.”
Their wins include paid holidays, reinstatement—with back pay—of workers fired unfairly, shorter shifts, a doubling of their bonus pay, and major improvements to benefits packages. After 12 years of fighting for pay scale improvements, the company conceded with an overhaul of their pay scale system in 2007. In 2013 CAAMWU members organized their largest petition drive to date in protest of 0% raises for technicians that year (the same year CAAMWU’s skilled trades members won $0.75 raises). With over 500 signatures, workers ultimately won $0.80 raises for technicians in 2014, surpassing the raises in the skilled trades.
In response, management went out of its way to claim the raises were “market” driven and had nothing to do with the union. Workers saw management’s acrobatics to deny the union’s campaign as so obvious that it only added to their feeling of victory.
They have also won several NLRB ULP cases through settlement agreements, many of them about upholding workers’ rights to distribute union materials or wear union gear. Between 1994 and 2001, they won several cases over unlawful language in the employee handbook prohibiting the distribution of union literature on company grounds, along with other rules banning distribution of union literature. In one case the company violated the terms of a prior settlement, and because it could be found in contempt of court, it was forced to place bins in the plant labeled “union literature” for workers to distribute their newsletter “Unity News.”
According to the late Saladin Muhammad, former UE organizer, this case was won in a fourth circuit court named the “Jesse Helms” court after the racist senator from North Carolina. “We won in his court,” said Saladin Muhammad in an interview with franknews and Payday Report (emphasis added). This was another double victory for the workers.
The union repeated several of these charges again beginning in 2011, this time with the contracted C&W facilities and housekeeping workers in the plant. In these cases C&W workers won the right to distribute union literature in the break area and solicit petition signatures in the parking lot. And when a C&W manager threatened to terminate C&W workers for wearing union stickers, the NLRB required the C&W site manager to read all C&W workers their rights, with two NLRB agents observing. When Cummins issued a new uniform policy banning all hats except for Cummins hats—what the workers believed was their way of banning union hats—the NLRB in 2016 said the company could ban any type of non-Cummins hats except for union hats of any color. And in 2020, when the C&W worker and CAAMWU president wore a union sticker that said “Black Lives Don’t Matter at RMEP” (Rocky Mount Engine Plant) and was ordered to remove it, the NLRB upheld the right for workers to wear union stickers regardless.
This type of collective action in the face of climate disaster is going to be increasingly necessary, especially in the wake of the high-profile climate-related worker deaths like the ones at Amazon (Illinois) and Mayfield candle factory (Kentucky) during the tornados of 2021.
In a major organizing win in 2020, 16 workers from the block line department of the plant were working during a major storm, and as flood waters began rising in the area management would not close the plant. On their lunch break the workers decided they were going home because of safety reasons, and they informed their manager they were doing so as a group. When management disciplined them in response, CAAMWU filed labor board charges and the NLRB found merit in the case. The company was forced to remove the discipline and post a notice on the bulletin board.
Like in the flood waters case, wherever possible CAAMWU members make sure management posts the NLRB settlement notices on bulletin boards, and they use those postings to empower coworkers to keep organizing in the face of the company’s lies and mistreatment.
CAAMWU has also been at the forefront of taking legal action to gain recognition through “members-only” bargaining—something that was legal in the 30s and 40s, but that the NLRA has made harder to pursue. (See debates about members-only bargaining here and here.) They hosted the first UE National Non-Majority Union Conference in Whitakers, NC in 2004, and soon after won their first “members only” settlement, with 202 workers receiving a full bonus they were denied years earlier.
Crucially, over the lifespan of the union the most significant membership increase came in 2007 after a succession of shop-floor victories. These included their successful payscale petition of June 2006, a lawsuit victory the following month, a letter asking for voluntary members-only employer recognition roughly two months after that, then two all-employee meetings called by management: the first to attack the union, then one the following week to announce wage improvements. After two consecutive wins, watching the company get nervous, then winning another victory, workers figured out how to channel their power into an expanded membership base.
Then “more than ever,” Jim told EWOC, “I think workers on the shop floor as well as management felt the union knocking on the door.”
Championing the twin fights against racial oppression and for worker dignity, CAAMWU’s strategies have become models for developing working-class political power in the U.S. South.
Ablavsky, Essie. “‘This Is The Value Of Our Labor’: The Nonmajority Union Approach In U.S. Manufacturing.” Undergraduate thesis, New College of Florida, 2012. https://ncf.sobek.ufl.edu/NCFE004523/00001
Elk, Mike. “Rest in Power: Saladin Muhammad, Founder of Black Workers for Justice & UE Veteran, Dies.” Payday Report, September 2022. https://paydayreport.com/rest-in-power-saladin-muhammad-founder-of-black-workers-for-justice-ue-veteran-dies/ Original interview at franknews, “On Organizing Around Racial Justice,” March 2021. http://frank.rngr.org/interviews/530/on-organizing-around-racial-justice
Strauss, Mariya. “Non-majority North Carolina: Cummins Diesel Engine Workers Breathe New Life into an Old Organizing Model,” New Labor Forum, vol 24 issue 2, 2015 (pp.106-110). https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1095796015578150?journalCode=nlfa
Wrenn, Jim. “UE ‘Non-Majority’ Union Organizes The Old-Fashioned Way.” Labor Notes, July 31, 2002. https://www.labornotes.org/2002/07/ue-non-majority-union-organizes-old-fashioned-way