In January 2010, after waves of layoffs and protests with some workers wearing sombreros, an arbitrator ruled that Daimler violated its agreement with United Auto Workers when it cut production in North Carolina and shifted work to Mexico. The arbitration forced Daimler to compensate workers and increase production in Mount Holly.
That same month, the company announced it had received a $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to improve vehicle efficiency. Fourth months later, the union and Daimler agreed on a new contract, with worker concessions, and jobs began to grow. By January 2011, the Mount Holly plant celebrated the milestone of building its 1,000th hybrid truck.
New workers at Daimler plants these days start at about $12 or $13 an hour, and face lower pay ceilings than workers who are governed by earlier agreements, according to The Gaston Gazette. While plenty of North Carolina jobs offer lower entry salaries, that starting rate is generally not enough to qualify for a mortgage, even in small-town North Carolina.
Finding context amid the scripts
That short timeline presents a more complicated, mixed picture of the complexities involved in creating well-paid jobs in North Carolina than the president is likely to provide today. So does this state’s history: North Carolina has a long tradition of bidding low on labor costs, using that technique to lure textile mills from New England starting in the late 1800s; Mount Holly was one of those towns that grew up around a textile mill. But that strategy has historically failed to deliver a long-term solution.
And then there’s the broader state of the North Carolina economy. The Daimler success story of the moment can’t hide the economic hurdles the state still faces. Unemployment in the county where Mount Holly is located hovers near 11 percent. Quinterno’s end-of-year employment report showed that in December 2011, only 55.6 percent of working-age North Carolinians had jobs.
Journalists owe the state, and the nation, this broader context, and a closer look at the nuances of global trade that shape job opportunities here—none of which is likely to emerge from scripted visits and campaign rhetoric. Finding the capacity and the time to do that work won’t be easy. News organizations are no exception to the battering this state’s economy has experienced. And the knowledge that comes from routine beat reporting in the areas outside of North Carolina’s cities has become rare. North Carolina is big, as wide as Florida is long, with lots of rural and suburban areas without journalists dedicated to coverage of specific areas.
But this work begins with a commitment to the effort, and a decision not to let the horse race or the pageantry—both of which have their place—dominate coverage. Otherwise, the state becomes a mere backdrop for political theater.