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Gov. Roy Cooper praises organized labor in wake of recent closures

Gov. Roy Cooper addresses AFL-CIO 66th annual state conference.
Laura Hackett
Gov. Roy Cooper addresses AFL-CIO 66th annual state conference.

Governor Roy Cooper praised the benefits of organized labor in an address to the AFL-CIO’s 66th annual convention in Asheville on Friday.

A fired-up Cooper spoke about the importance of unions, especially in the wake of recent closures including Canton’s paper mill, the Asheboro-based Klaussner Furniture, and the furniture plant Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams.

Unions, he argued, bring much-needed support to workers when closures occur. Cooper applauded the work of union Smokey Mountain Local 507 for its support of the estimated 1,000 workers impacted by Pactiv Evergreen’s closure.

“The paper mill turned its back on generations of workers that helped make their profits, but the union, even after the closing was announced, was fighting for more time, pay, and better working conditions,” he said. “And as the plant wound down, they were helping workers find help for families and helping them transition to jobs. That’s what union families do for each other and I’m grateful for that.”

Cooper emphasized the importance of prioritizing labor in the current market.

“Even though we are helping to create better paying jobs and are having a lot of success for our state and having more opportunities, there are still companies that are putting profits over people so much that they will close their doors and lock their gates without one word of warning to their longtime employees,” Cooper said.

Cooper also criticized the state’s unemployment benefits, calling them “the worst in the country” and expressed frustration at the $4 billion dollars worth of unemployment funds that “are just sitting there when they could be helping families,” such as ones impacted by recent closures.

Cooper’s visit was one of several events at the conference held at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Asheville on September 7 and 8.

At a rally on Thursday, several hundred labor rights advocates marched through downtown and spoke at Pack Square Park.

For Jen Hampton, chair of Asheville Food and Beverage United (AFBU), the presence of AFL-CIO and state advocates like Cooper signal the growing momentum of labor unions in the Asheville area. She called unions a "vessel for social change."

Hampton pointed to several unionizations in the last few years, including an estimated 1,800 nurses at HCA’s Mission Hospital, along with service industry workers at Green Sage Cafe-South and the freshly-formed AFBU.

There have also been other, unsuccessful attempts to unionize the Charlotte Street Starbucks and Moog Music factory.

“We’re trying to capitalize on that momentum and get more people educated about what a union is and what that means,” she said.

Laura Hackett joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in June 2023. Originally from Florida, she moved to Asheville more than six years ago and in that time has worked as a writer, journalist, and content creator for organizations like AVLtoday, Mountain Xpress, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She has a degree in creative writing from Florida Southern College, and in 2023, she completed the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY's Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program. In her free time, she loves exploring the city by bike, testing out new restaurants, and hanging out with her dog Iroh at French Broad River Park.