The provincial squabbles of municipal government might seem light years removed from the rough-and-tumble world of labor negotiations.
But the chasm between these two realms has proven eminently bridgeable for Michael Woods – a one-time labor negotiator who, as of this month’s municipal elections, is also an incoming member of Elon’s town council.
A machinist for Liggett Vector Brands, the nation’s fourth largest cigarette manufacturer, Woods has also been active in the union that represents employees of the tobacco industry. Known by the ungainly handle of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers & Grain Millers International Union, this organization has its roots in the scrappy brotherhood that went toe-to-toe with Big Tobacco for more than a century.
“I would like to be the person on the council who anyone can call at any time to talk about their concerns. I want to listen to their concerns and put forth solutions to their problems.”
– elon Town councilman-elect Michael Woods
Woods, who currently works at Liggett’s facility in Mebane, has served this union in several capacities during his decades-long tenure at Liggett.
“I went to North Carolina Central for political science,” elaborates the Durham-born councilmember-elect, “and I was a former union president for, like, four years – a negotiator for nine years. I like working with people. I like to see people treated fairly and equitably.
“I also believe in ‘interspace’ negotiations,” he continues: “What’s good for one person is good for another. We come together and find a solution – and if that doesn’t work, we tweak it after six months to get the result that we’re looking for.”
One of the more cutting-edge tactics in conflict resolution, interspace bargaining is an approach to negotiation that that strives to get past the conventional notions of “this side” and “that” in order to reach settlements that benefit both parties. It is, moreover, a technique with applications outside of collective bargaining.
Woods learned just how adaptable this tactic can be when trouble arose a few years ago in Elon’s Cable Square community, which he and his family have called home for the past 13 years.
“One time,” he recounts, “a builder brought in about 600 loads of dirt to Cable Square and caused erosion on everyone’s lots. I called the town manager and the planning director, and we worked together to resolve the issue.”
The flap over this contractor-induced avalanche would be Woods’ introduction to the inner workings of municipal government. But even after the figurative dust had settled, Woods would continue to expand his involvement in the goings-on at Elon’s town hall.
Among his latest commitments has been his membership on the town’s committee for Diversity, Equity, and Belonging. Elon’s town council created this relatively new advisory board to foster inclusiveness and ensure that all of the town’s residents are equally invested in municipal government. This group recently competed a months-long review of the town’s ordinances, which Woods is pleased to say has been rendered more inclusive without the need for an extensive rewrite at the direction of an attorney.
Woods has also been drawn into electoral politics since his incipient experience with the Cable Square dirt dump.
“I ran for alderman in 2019,” he recalls, “and that was unsuccessful. I also ran for mayor in 2021, and that was a really tough campaign because Covid had just started, and we couldn’t go out and meet people.”
Woods ultimately lost his quest for the gavel to Elon’s current mayor Emily Sharpe, who he insists has proven to be a great advocate for the town’s residents. Meanwhile, the former mayoral hopeful threw himself back into the fray earlier this year when the forthcoming retirement of Elon’s mayor pro tem Mark Greene provided another opportunity for a newcomer to break into the town’s elected leadership.
In the end, Woods did well enough in this month’s election to win one of the three regular council seats that had been on the ballot.
Since his election, Woods says that he’s been giving some thought to the issues he’d like to address when he’s sworn into office. So far, these priorities include widening the sidewalks along Williamson Avenue, expanding the pedestrian accommodations throughout the community, and making the Haggard Avenue corridor safer for pedestrians and bikers.
Woods has also been toying with the idea of a citizen questionnaire that municipal employees could distribute when they interact with the people they serve. This survey would seek input on the services that residents are pleased with as well as the ones that could use some improvement.
As far as his own role on the council, Woods says he’d like to cultivate a reputation for openness with the community.
“I would like to be the person on the council who anyone can call at any time to talk about their concerns,” he explains. “I want to listen to their concerns and put forth solutions to their problems.”
Woods concedes that his elevation to the council has come at a particularly convenient time for him and his wife, Patricia Cummings Mendez de Woods.
With five kids between them, Woods and his wife didn’t always have time for extracurricular activities. But their lives have gotten much quieter now that Woods’ daughter Nichole Woods Gordon has relocated to Clermont, Florida; his sons Alexander and Bryan have settled in Winston-Salem and Montpelier, Vermont; Patricia’s daughter Laura Fox has migrated to Long Island; and her son Tony Cummings has gone off to Greensboro.
As their metaphorical nest has emptied, Woods and his wife have devoted themselves more fully to their mutual fondness for travel, while Woods has continued his involved with Alamance County’s chapter of the NAACP and his Durham-based church – St. Joseph’s AME.
The extra time that Woods has on his hands has also been something of godsend given one of the first things he’s realized about the workings of Elon’s town council.
“I’ve learned that things move really slowly in government,” he admits.