Warren County native James Andrews, right, displays The Order of the Long Leaf Pine award he received during a Friday ceremony honoring him on his retirement as state AFL-CIO president. At left is North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, who made the presentation. 

After more than four decades with the North Carolina AFL-CIO, Warren County native James Andrews recently retired as the organization’s president for the past 20 years.

The North Carolina labor federation’s first African-American president, Andrews was honored during the state AFL-CIO’s 60th Annual Convention Sept. 13-15. Gov. Roy Cooper presented him with The Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the state’s highest honor, for his service to North Carolina.

Andrews also was honored by Congress for his service, and an American flag was flown over the U.S. Capitol in his honor.

Andrews credits his upbringing in Warren County and early work experience with sparking his dedication to workers’ rights issues. The son of the late Bettie and Merlin Andrews, he grew up on the family farm in the Snow Hill community and was active at Burchette Chapel United Church of Christ.

Because his father served as treasurer of the Warren County NAACP branch for many years, James was introduced to local civil rights efforts at an early age, including protests for employment of African-Americans and boycotts of local schools.

James said that his parents’ guidance taught him respect, fairness and the importance of doing what is right at all times. When the NAACP boycotted Warrenton businesses, Merlin traveled to Raleigh to obtain fertilizer to assist farmers in the local area.

“My faith and my upbringing taught me to do what is right and just,” James said. “I am passionate about doing what is right and just.”

After graduating from John R. Hawkins High School in Warrenton in 1966, James wanted to leave Warren County for Raleigh. With $20 from his father, he achieved his dream, working in Ballentine Cafeteria while taking classes at Shaw University Divinity School.

In 1967, Uncle Sam interrupted James’ plans, as he was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. He served in combat, receiving the Purple Heart, and ended his service with a military police assignment.

After two years of duty, James returned to North Carolina and worked at Perfect Packed Product Company in Henderson. While there, James witnessed something that would shape the course of his future: a fellow employee was electrocuted when he grabbed a conveyer belt that had jammed.

After three years, James began working with a statewide union organization focusing on young people. In 1975, the North Carolina AFL-CIO contacted him to serve in a newly-created position to build chapters of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which was established to promote trade unionism in the black community. The institute is named for Asa Philip Randolph, who led the first predominately African-American labor union.

James was appointed AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer in 1984 and was elected to the position in 1985, becoming the first African-American officer. In 1997, he was elected AFL-CIO president.

“For a farm boy from Warrenton, where there were no unions to become president, it had to be divine (intervention),” he said.

As president, James has assisted workers in a number of North Carolina workers form labor unions, secure work contracts and obtain higher wages. After the deadly Hamlet chicken processing plant fire in 1991, James and the AFL-CIO were instrumental in efforts to increase the number of safety inspectors in North Carolina and to expand the investigative powers of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

As AFL-CIO president, he also led initiatives focusing on the safety of local, county and state employees. 

James focused his career on safety and health issues, workers’ rights and ending workplace intimidation, and those priorities remain important to him in retirement. Today, he continues to serve with the NAACP and as a board member of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. 

James also serves his community by distributing food through the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina and by providing transportation to medical appointments.

James and his wife, Audrey Perkins Andrews, reside in Raleigh. They have six children, 15 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. James was formerly married to the late Carolyn Andrews.

He remains a member of Burchette Chapel United Church of Christ and visits Warren County on a regular basis.

James said that he has had a great life, but showed no signs of slowing down his efforts to help his fellow man.

“Instead of success, I want my life to be significant, that I had an impact on others,” he said. “It’s not all about me.”