The South’s oldest Labor Day parade takes place in the Haywood County town of Canton on Monday. You can’t have a Labor Day parade without labor. And for more than 50 years, the United Steelworkers Union has represented workers at the century-old paper mill through the ups and downs of global economic trends in a right to work state.
The history of organized labor in the United States dates back to the time of the industrial revolution, but with declines in American manufacturing and increased overseas competition, it’s not as prevalent as it once was. For the past 52 years, though, the United Steelworkers Union Smoky Mountain Local 507 has represented workers at the town’s hundred-something year old paper mill. “I’ve been employed with the company for 38 years. I am a third generation employee, I’m also a second generation union official,” says Local 507 president Keith Jenkins.
That the union remains is somewhat remarkable. North Carolina ranks 49th in percentage of unionized workers, partly due to traditional lack of industry, and partly due to what’s called “right to work” laws. “Folks can actually work here at this facility and acquire the gains, the benefits that we have the ability to bargain over, and not be a participant," according to Jenkins. He adds those benefits bargained by the union, like wages and working conditions, keep the thousand-strong Steelworkers union as integral to Canton as the mill itself. “We currently have about a 90-some percent membership rate. In a right to work state, that’s a good thing,” Jenkins says.
Many of them will be present at the town’s 112th annual labor day parade, billed as the South’s oldest. Of the parade, Jenkins says, “I think slowly but surely, hopefully, folks see that at the end of the day it’s about the American Dream – in a small town, in Canton, North Carolina, you can do that right here and you do that because of the local union.
"If you don’t have your seat at the table,” Jenkins adds, “then, you’re the meal.”
The parade’s on Monday, but the 112th annual Canton Labor Day festival runs all weekend with family events, food and music, including the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on Sunday.