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North Carolina’s factory boom

New openings to build workers’ power

National industrial policy is helping to drive new investment in domestic factories, and North Carolina is one center of the boom. David Leon argues that the state’s projected growth in factory jobs can enable new labor organizing and workers’ struggle. Socialists, other radicals, and class-conscious workers have a key role to play.

North Carolina is on the cusp of a boom in manufacturing and blue-collar jobs. Over the course of the past two years, a slew of multinational companies have announced plans to build numerous new massive heavy manufacturing plants in North Carolina in a wide range of critical sectors, including in electronic vehicle (EV) battery production and auto assembly, steel production, jet and aerospace production, semiconductor manufacturing, and other strategic segments of industry. The state’s manufacturing boom has been concentrated in particular in the Triad—the area that encompasses the cities of Greensboro, High Point, and Winston-Salem—as well as in surrounding counties.

Notably, North Carolina is not the only area of the country that’s experiencing a surge in investment in manufacturing. This same trend is also playing out in many areas throughout the South, the Southwest, and the Midwest. But the amount of capital investment in North Carolina—and the Triad area in particular—is especially large. This has important ramifications for the labor movement and socialists in North Carolina who are looking to organize the unorganized and build workers’ power.

This nationwide boom in manufacturing corresponds with the industrial policy measures implemented under the Biden administration, including the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (2021), the CHIPS Act (2022), and the Inflation Reduction Act (2022)—all of which will supply billions of dollars to companies to partially subsidize a buildout of domestic productive capacity in “green” production and other sectors. North Carolina’s industrial boom comes as part of a broader movement by capital, supported by its bipartisan political representatives in both the Democratic and Republican parties, to expand domestic productive capacity in segments of “green” manufacturing and other strategic sectors to bolster the competitiveness of U.S. imperialism with the ascending imperialist power China.

This boom also takes place within the context of escalating global conflict and war, a byproduct of the system of capitalist imperialism that defines the era in which we live. As is always the case, the working class will suffer the consequences from the ruling class’s intensification of imperialist competition and warmaking, as well as from the fallout from subsequent economic crises.

At the same time, for workers in this area, the massive buildout of industry will, without a doubt, increase our structural leverage in terms of organizing and fighting back against employers and the ruling class writ large. The time is ripe to build a movement to organize the unorganized in all segments of the economy—and to fight to expand the power and solidarity of the small but significant number of established unions and workers’ organizations that exist in North Carolina.

These conditions also call for the advancement of the labor movement on a political level. We need to build a labor movement that’s rooted at the point of production, and in workplaces generally, that is not afraid to oppose police terror, racism, anti-LGBTQ bigotry, the criminalization of immigrants, attacks against reproductive rights, environmental degradation, and U.S. imperialism. We need a labor movement that fights for a better life for all working-class and oppressed people—and a better world for future generations. Organized socialists, other radicals, and class-conscious workers more generally will have a critical role to play in this effort if it’s to come to fruition.

North Carolina has seen steady, consistent manufacturing job growth in the period since 2010. This trend follows the decade-long period between 2001 and 2010 when the state lost tens of thousands of factory jobs due to offshoring, particularly in light manufacturing sectors that have traditionally formed the bedrock of the state’s industrial base, including furniture and textiles. The state’s trajectory of manufacturing job growth in the years since the 2008 recession fits in with a broader trend of industrial growth on a national level. Between 2010 and 2022, the United States added some 1.3 million factory jobs, according to figures maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Notably, this figure does not include temp workers, who comprise a significant portion of the overall manufacturing workforce.) But compared to the country as a whole, North Carolina, along with the Southeast in general, has seen relatively high rates of factory job growth.

A colorful mural depicts many workers laboring in a highly mechanized and sophisticated factory. All the workers are male-presenting.
Diego Rivera’s mural depicting Ford factory workers, enduring the grind of industrialization yet embodying worker power. Today’s buildout of North Carolina factories similarly holds this tension, for workers of all genders. Photo Credit: Detroit Institute of Arts.

This dynamic has intensified in recent years. The list of massive new manufacturing facilities that have been announced since the start of the pandemic in the Triad and surrounding areas is staggering. In Greensboro, the company Boom Supersonic will start construction this spring on a $500 million “superfactory” at the Piedmont Triad International Airport. By the end of 2029, the company plans to employ some 1,761 workers at the plant, with 2,400 to be employed by 2032.

Meanwhile, 30 minutes south of the Boom plant, Toyota is currently constructing a $3.8 billion EV battery plant in Randolph County. The plant, which will be Toyota’s flagship EV battery manufacturing facility for North America, plans to hire some 2,100 workers. Workers at the plant will produce 200,000 batteries per year for hybrid and electric vehicles when the company starts production in 2025. The plant has already started an “initial round” of hiring for production and maintenance workers.

Just across the county line from Randolph and Guilford counties, the company Wolfspeed is building a $5 billion semiconductor plant in Chatham County that will employ some 1,800 workers. And on the opposite side of Chatham County, the Vietnamese auto company VinFast is building a $4 billion EV auto assembly and battery plant that will employ a staggering 7,500 workers.

These are just the largest facilities that will come online in this area in the next several years. There are many other medium-sized plants, including facilities in strategic segments of heavy industry, that are also set to open up, as well. This includes the new Nucor electric-arc steel plant in Lexington, the Ziehl-Abegg motor and fan plant in Winston-Salem, and the Kempower electric vehicle charging station plant in Durham. All of these facilities, and particularly the larger plants, will draw numerous supplier plants to set up shop in the area. Beyond this, North Carolina is also home to several lithium mines and refining facilities that are currently under development, a constellation of production that will become particularly strategic within the context of the capitalist “green” transition to EV auto production.

By opening up all of these new factories, the bosses are creating a favorable atmosphere for industrial workers and other segments of labor to fight back. The irony here, of course, is that the very reason North Carolina is such a favored location for capital investment by multinational manufacturers relates to the state’s comparatively low wages, low union density, and anti-union political climate–all byproducts of the historical legacy of Jim Crow and “right to work,” as well as the nature of the state’s industrial base, which has traditionally been rooted in light manufacturing. (For more on this vital history, see Michael Goldfield’s 2020 book, The Southern Key: Class, Race, and Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s.)

But the buildout in new heavy manufacturing plants in North Carolina creates increased openings to build union power and reverse the race-to-the-bottom and divide-and-conquer trends that the capitalist class has consciously set with its patterns of capital investment.

The nature of the current industrial boom is particularly notable since workers employed in heavy industry tend to have a great deal of structural economic power. Throughout the history of organized labor, workers in such industries as auto, steel, aerospace, and other sectors have often been able to lead the working class in the struggle for a better world for all workers.

For its part, the local ruling class seems to be partially aware of the potential dangers to their interests posed by the buildout in manufacturing plants. A December 31 article published in the Greensboro News & Record on the pending opening of the Toyota battery and Boom Supersonic plants notes that bosses at established factories have expressed concerns that the industrial boom could set off a bidding war for labor:

Local economic officials acknowledge the challenge of finding, training and placing nearly 4,000 medium- to high-skilled workers for Boom and Toyota while also meeting the needs for existing manufacturers. …

Kevin Baker … executive director [of the Piedmont Triad International Airport], said some local companies within the Triad’s aerotropolis sector expressed some early concerns about stretching the local skilled workforce thin—with ripple effects on higher wage [sic].

The goal for the labor movement must be to organize workers in the big new plants that are opening up throughout the area—and to organize the state’s booming manufacturing industry and other sectors in general. Crucially, as part of this, workers must also fight to strengthen the small but significant bastions of trade unionism already in existence in North Carolina.

While North Carolina has the second lowest union density in the entire country (only South Carolina’s is lower), there are still a number of unionized factories and other workplaces in the region. Notably, the United Auto Workers represents thousands of industrial workers at factories owned by the multinational company Daimler Truck North America (DTNA) in the Triad and Charlotte areas. At the DTNA-owned Thomas Built Buses plant complex in High Point and Archdale—the largest school bus manufacturing site in North America—UAW Local 5287 represents some 1,500 workers that build school buses sold throughout the continent. Meanwhile, in the Charlotte area, the UAW represents heavy truck production workers at the big DTNA Freightliner and Western Star Truck plants in Gastonia, Mount Holly, and Cleveland, North Carolina. The UAW contracts at all of these facilities are set to expire in April 2024.

Workers in these plants are well aware that there’s about to be a local bidding war between employers for experienced factory workers. Meanwhile, business is booming at Freightliner and Thomas Built—and the company is poised to start making high profits. At the same time, the cost of living keeps going up, and workers are hungry for a raise. Despite this, the company appears to be determined to keep wages down. Further adding to the contentious situation, the election of reformers to the UAW International Executive Board and shake-ups within the union more broadly increase the chances that the UAW leadership will adopt a combative approach to bargaining with DTNA (not to mention other employers) in 2024.

This is a situation that could clearly set the stage for a potential militant strike in 2024.

If such a struggle does take place, then trade unionists in North Carolina and beyond–and socialists and other radicals—need to lend their solidarity and support to the UAW workers on the picket line in industrial towns throughout this area. It is through the course of the class struggle that we will build a movement capable of fundamentally challenging capital and building a better world.

Featured Image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

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David Leon View All

David Leon is a socialist in North Carolina.