North Carolina Public Workers Using International Pressure to Repeal Anti-Union State Law
April 6, 2006 By MP.
Last fall the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America Local 150 (UE 150), the Durham-based local for North Carolina, launched a coalition effort to get rid of a law preventing public workers from collectively bargaining with their employers. This law, General Statute 95-98, dates from 1959 and was rationalized as a way to keep the Charlotte police from unionizing under the leadership of Jimmy Hoffa in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters after a 1958 attempt. At least 25 states have similar policies, half of those being in the US South. Only North Carolina, Virginia, and Texas have actual laws prohibiting collective bargaining. In 1969 public workers were allowed to join unions, but their unions are not able to collectively bargain, a major reason unions exist in other sectors. March 1947 North Carolina became one of the 22 right-to-work states, meaning employees do not have to financially support a union that represents their work unit. UE is fighting for “The Five Main Elements of Collective Bargaining:” “The right to representation on grievances and other issues,” for meet and confer (explained below), the right to payroll deduction for workers’ groups, “The right to Memorandums of Understanding on policies, practices, and rights at work,” and for a collective contract with the government (March 2006 IWJC Bulletin).
UE is an independent, rank-and-file union representing 35,000 people in manufacturing, government, and non-profit work. The Public Workers Union in this State is part of UE, representing about 3000 employees. There is also a State employees’ association (SEANC, with 60,000 members). Less than 4% of the NC working class has union representation, the lowest percentage of any state. UE 150 grew out of an association of housekeepers at UNC-Chapel Hill. The Union opposed the red-baiting that occurred in other national unions in the 50’s.
UE argues that State services have been impaired by the tax breaks and other incentives for businesses, regulatory loopholes, and the shifting of programs from the Federal to the local levels. For example, in 2004 Dell Computers was given 242 million dollars in incentives to locate here and many times a business takes a tax break, then leaves or does not create lasting development. Recently the State has been hard pressed for funds and had a few billion dollar deficit a few years ago, requiring many cuts. UE says pro-business policies have resulted in stagnant wages, higher health insurance payments, “raiding of employee pension funds,” forcing fewer workers to do more, forced overtime (such as the Red Dot system), bad working conditions, discrimination, and privatization (IWJC Bulletin, Jan/Feb 2005). The State has good benefit policies but often creates bad working conditions. UE 150 says that, while it has been able to help with public workers’ grievances and other struggles, there needs to be collective bargaining and that this would benefit both state workers and the citizens of North Carolina. IWJ Campaign coordinator Ashaki Binta linked the State’s anti-unionism and high poverty rates at Black Workers for Justice’s ( BWfJ) Support for Labor Banquet in Raleigh in April 2005. Some rural counties have up to 40% poverty rates and 20% of children in the State live in impoverished conditions.
A petition campaign was launched to lobby State officials, along with several workers’ rights hearings, in which workers testify about working conditions before the general public and panels of State and local officials and others. Hearings have been held across the State: Rocky Mount (September 30, 2004), Durham (November 8, 2004), Chapel Hill (December 4, 2004), Goldsboro (February 17, 2005), Raleigh (May 19, 2005), Greensboro, and Charlotte. In all 70 workers testified and were heard by about 400 people across North Carolina. Politicians at several of the hearings expressed horror over what they heard and promised action. The campaign will work with similar campaigns in other Southern states.
The campaign culminated in a charge before the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO) that North Carolina and the USA are in violation of internationally recognized workers’ rights. The ILO was formed in 1919 and upholds 185 Conventions, eight of which are Core Labour Standards (including the right to collective bargaining). The US has ratified only 14 of the Conventions and 2 Core Labour Standards. UE says “This shows a grievous lack of democracy, fairness, and respect for international law and human rights by the US and its state and local governments” (May/June 2005 Bulletin). According to the ILO, government is the largest employer in the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified by the UN General Assembly December 10, 1948 (Human Rights Day) establishes in Article 23 (of about 30) the rights to employment, freely chosen, just working conditions, dignified wages, equal pay for equal work, and freedom from unemployment.
The Union calls for workers’ and community organizations, and the working class as a whole, to “understand international law, international human rights standards, and international outreach and solidarity as fundamental to their rights and existence inside the United States” (May/June 2005 Bulletin). The UE Convention Resolution on International Solidarity says international solidarity is an “urgent necessity” today in the face of the push by increasingly militarized international financial institutions to roll back labor’s gains globally. Several practical solidarity campaigns are described in the resolution. Elsewhere UE points out that “Democracy often stops at the door when it comes to the workplace” (March 2006 Bulletin).
An international delegation of jurists, the International Commission for Labor Rights, came in November 2005 to examine government working conditions here, leading up to the ILO charges. Friday, December 9, 2005, UE members and representatives from 6 states and 3 countries presented Governor Mike Easley’s (D) office with a copy of the Union’s complaint to the ILO. There were delegates from Virginia, Iowa, Connecticut, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Canada, Mexico, and Japan (the State’s three largest international trade partners). North Carolina is charged with violating UN Conventions 87 (Freedom of Association and the Right to Organize), 98 (Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively), and 151 (Right of Public Workers to Organize, and Conditions of Employment in the Public Sector/Procedures to Determine Conditions of Employment in the Public Sector). Robert Kingsley, UE’s Director of Organizing, said “What better time than International Human Rights Day to remind the State of North Carolina that its employees have the same rights as any other workers?” He also said “There is a rising reluctance among nations to engage in unrestricted trade with states or nations that fail to respect basic human and worker rights” (Monthly Review blog, December 12, 2005). Saladin Muhammad points out that “The United States makes other countries out to be less democratic than we are, but it’s time they reconciled US foreign policy claims with our own domestic policy” (UE160 article).
That same month the Public Sector Worker Convergence, with representatives from Quebec, Canada, Mexico, and Japan met in North Carolina in solidarity with UE’s efforts. In this country, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Iowa, and Virginia UE locals are supporting the campaign. Resolutions are being collected from supportive community organizations (available online at the site listed at the end of the article).
The IWJC Jan/Feb 2005 bulletin links this campaign to the larger movement for democracy: “In this way, workers and citizens alike will gain an understanding about the important role of workers in defending and expanding democracy.” Saladin Muhammad, UE’s International Representative and national chair of BWfJ, says “We’re taking up the unfinished business of the civil rights movement,” referring to the economic democracy campaigns initiated then, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s work with striking Memphis sanitation workers when he was assassinated, before the planned Poor People’s March on Washington (UE160 (Virginia) article from June 6, 2005).
Thursday, November 3, 2005 the International Commission on Labor Rights heard testimony in eastern Raleigh from workers across that State, after three days of investigating State public sector working conditions. The panel included lawyers from South Africa, Sweden, Mexico, India, Nigeria, and Quebec and Ontario, Canada. The workers who spoke described unsafe, poorly paid, and overstretched working conditions across North Carolina, under often disrespectful, inflexible, capricious, and even malicious management.
The workers who spoke were mostly black, since much of the State’s 641,000 person workforce is black, with many of the poorest paying, less skilled jobs being given to black women. The Office of State Personnel found in November 2004 that 48.9% of the State workforce is female, but they fill 71.5% of the low wage positions. The male 51.1% of the workforce fills 28.5% of these jobs. Women are the majority in pay grade 59 and below, and black women are the majority in grades 50-54 ($17,000 to $20,000 dollars a year). White men fill grades 60 and above by a large majority. There were also white and Latino speakers.
A worker from Rocky Mount (a town northeast of Raleigh) described lack of promotions and a “mid-range” wage being set at $15 dollars an hour for 30 years. There has not been a cost-of-living increase in 10 years, despite inflation. Last year the State increased wages by a percentage, but not by enough. The workers were also forced to use “outdated” equipment, making chemicals they were using “not safe to be used.” Management was “turning a deaf ear to the workers they’re employing.”
At the earlier hearing in Rocky Mount speakers alleged systematic racial and sexual discrimination regarding pay, pay raises, evaluations, discipline in the City. A dummy was hung, as if mimicking a lynching, in a City unit where UE was organizing. No one was disciplined for this. A 16-year Streets Department employee pointed out that many long-time low wage workers were below the midpoint of the wage range for Rocky Mount and most black and women workers were kept in low wage and hard roles. Others spoke about differential treatment, unfair and capricious rules, unjust termination, and abuse by management.
A woman who worked for about 6 years at the NC Special Care Center in Wilson (east of Raleigh) testified about the lack of grievance procedures. She was passed over while two non-UE members were promoted over her who had committed the same offense she was fired for. She had admitted doing it while one of these men denied it until he was exposed. Prior to being fired she had good work evaluations.
Another worker accused the State of forced overtime without concern for the employees’ other responsibilities. For example as workers are about to leave they are told to stay for the next shift because the unit is “understaffed or employees call out.” Workers who refuse are fired. People there worked up to 170 hours in two weeks. This forced overtime occurs at many State institutions (see below).
Bill Shuler, a former UE shop steward at UNC-Chapel Hill (west of Raleigh) and NAACP official, accused the University of firing him in May of 2004 because he spoke out about dangerous 3M housekeeping chemicals (for more information see nc.indymedia.org/news/2004/05/10595.php). These chemicals can cause dangerous and even fatal injuries, according to their Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). Several workers got sick after using them (having nosebleeds, breathing difficulties, and coughing up blood) and some students who entered dorm bathrooms just cleaned with this system also displayed symptoms. Shuler said these chemicals were too strong to be used and made more dangerous by the lack of proper mixing and protective equipment at UNC. He worked with the University’s Administration and Student Action with Workers, a student organization supporting workers to promote workers’ rights and social justice, on this issue and notified NC-OSHA in spring 2004, prompting an OSHA investigation. Later he was fired for being late from lunch, working in the wrong building, and past minor write-ups, allegedly retaliation for activism. He is currently pursuing legal action against the University.
At the earlier hearing in Chapel Hill workers talked about the prevalence of disrespectful, intimidating, and poorly trained supervisors and the lack of response to complaints. A Latino UNC Hospitals housekeeper testified through an interpreter about information being given to the staff mainly in English. He also spoke about the overworking of too few housekeepers. In 2004 UE fought for the rights of national minorities at NC State University after a housekeeper was reprimanded for speaking in her native Spanish with another worker. Other workers testifying for the hearing mentioned infrequent and small pay raises at the Hospitals, the University’s unsatisfactory grievance procedures, racism, unsafe buses, and City workweeks of fewer than 40 hours, reducing overtime. A member of the NC Coalition of Police talked there about the problems police officers have State wide because collective bargaining is prohibited.
After the hearing, in January 2005, workers, mainly from the bus service of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, began organizing to get around the State prohibition on collective bargaining at the town level. As a result, in June 2005 the Chapel Hill Town Council approved a meet and confer process. Meet and confer means management can negotiate with a body of workers to resolve grievances. It does not give workers the power of legally binding agreements, but it is an improvement over the lack of any negotiation.
An employee at the Department of Administration’s NC Mail Service Center in Raleigh described the unhealthy conditions there. The State “didn’t inform employees” about hazardous mail going through the Center. Mail went through the Center leaking unknown materials, prompting workers to petition the director to demand Right to Know training on what they were being exposed to. It opened in 1999, but it became a ‘sick building’, causing health problems, such as headaches and the “MSC tickle.” When the air vents were later removed there was “literally dirt falling out.” No filters had been installed and the vents were not changed for a year after they were first opened. Because of UE’s involvement (reportedly management was “afraid of UE150”) a safety center was set up.
The Department has been accused of violating the Fair Family Leave Act, anti-unionism, wage and hiring discrimination, and with creating a racist and hostile workplace. In April 2005 the OSP listed areas of employee complaints about the Mail Services Center as “discrimination; unfair employment practices; disparate treatment; favoritism; work environment; management and supervisory issues; inappropriate use of state property; pay and benefits; and unsafe working conditions.” An employee there allegedly calls co-workers “bitches” and “niggers” and called a black woman “Black s—t” to her face in front of their mutual supervisor. Nothing was done about this employee (Workers World, May 31, 2005).
A worker from NC A&T College, a historically black university in Greenville, near the coast of North Carolina, spoke about housekeepers there losing parking spaces. Parking permits were priced far beyond what workers could pay on their wages.
A 7-year bus driver for the Mecklenburg County School system (the area of Charlotte) who belonged to Teamsters union Local 71 testified about the lack of breaks and humane treatment of the employees. She would start driving at 4:30am, without a break until arriving at the schools, followed by up to 4 hours more driving. The male supervisor locked doors to prevent drivers from using bathrooms, and they were made to use a portable outhouse without soap. A petition was started but people were “afraid to sign for fear of losing their jobs.” “Twenty drivers complained to the school administration and the driver who testified was told she would be transferred in 2 hours. The driver had trouble telling the audience these facts without tears.
Next a trash collector, on the job for a year and 2 months in Charlotte spoke. He told the audience about having to work at the same speed, without flexibility, regardless of weather conditions and whether it was 110°F or 10°F, and having to work until everything was picked up (up to 50 or 60 hours a week). There was flexibility when a “predominantly white neighborhood” needed to have the trash collected quickly. The normal haul was 4 tons a day, with a record of 7 tons once, and for “atrocious” pay. There were injuries on the job, such as someone who lost a leg because of a truck accident. Another worker spoke about being lied to about the wages.
Another City of Charlotte worker testified about sexual harassment on the job. Male managers did not solve the problem of sexist male supervisors and she was passed over for promotion, allegedly because of her sex.
At the Durham workers’ rights hearing there were allegations of more of the same, including forced overtime, unjust firings, and job classification that reduced pay for the same work. The functioning of the Red Dot System at the Whitakers School in Butner (north of Durham) was described by veteran Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Youth Program Assistant Dana McKeithan: “We often don’t know until a few minutes before we are scheduled to clock out that have to stay over and work a whole other 8 hours on the same day!” She said some workers had forced overtime three days in a row. “We have sacrificed our families. We have sacrificed our health!” At an earlier event she described it in more detail: “Imagine you work a 10 am to 8pm shift, 40 hours a week, and at the end of your shift on a Friday your supervisor says she needs you for an extra shift to cover someone who called in sick. You might have children at home to cook dinner for, but you can’t even go home and make arrangements, you have to stay an extra eight hours or you get written up, or fired.” She says this exacerbates understaffing: We’re losing people because of Red Dot. A lot of the women in these jobs are single, with 3-4 children to take care for. They can’t take it anymore.” The pay for this extra work is in comp time once overtime pay funds have been used up. McKeithan also says: “We know there’s no money, but in the old days when we were short-staffed everyone pitched in and helped out” while today people refuse to put in work beyond their roles (UE160 article).
This relates to the alleged use of too few workers to do too much at NC Central University, a historical black university, where almost 20% of the housekeepers were let go in a year. Workers also pointed out wage discrimination due to job classification. Floor maintenance workers at UNC schools earn $1000 to $1500 dollars more per year than regular housekeepers, but most of the historically black and native American colleges have housekeepers doing floor maintenance, without being paid more. This also happens at UNC-Chapel Hill. A former Durham County employee talked about how she was terminated for “job abandonment” because of asthma her job contributed to. A school bus driver testified about poorly maintained buses, low wages, and favoritism in assignments (Jan/Feb 2005 bulletin).
Almost 100 people attended the Goldsboro hearing, which focused on the DHHS and heard around 14 speakers. This Department is the largest in the State government, employing more than 19,000 people with a budget of $11.3 billion dollars, almost 21% of the State budget. There were allegations of understaffing, anti-unionism, unfair terminations, harassment and abuse by management, forced overtime, wage discrimination, violation of health and safety rules, favoritism in employment, and discrimination regarding light duty assignments. UE 150 President Raymond Sanders spoke about capricious overtime policies. In some DHHS units workers can choose overtime payment in the form of time-and-a-half-pay or they can choose comp time, but not all units allow this. It is allegedly up to the unit administrators, and thus DHHS treats people doing similar work differently. Additionally, State personnel policies are reportedly often ignored by local managers. A now retired worker testified about how she worked as a Lead Psych Tech, receiving excellent work evaluations, but being denied the extra pay for that over here original position, which violates DHHS policy. The Union believes she could be owed more than $10,000 dollars in back pay, but the State refuses to look into this.
A black woman from the DHHS’ Caswell Center in nearby Kinston spoke about the denial of light duty for legitimate medical reasons. She worked for 13 years as a Development Technician I, helping people develop living skills. She was injured on the job and told by her doctor to get lighter work. According to State policies, she was to be given light duty or, if it was not available in her department, then she should be referred to another department in the agency. She also discovered that nearby DHHS facilities had light duty and that workers in her department were being given light duty for off the job illnesses and medical conditions. During this time those receiving light duty at the Center were mostly white. She believes racism and her Union leadership were the reasons for her differential treatment. Because of this discrimination she was without employment for over a year. The Kinston Free Press reported her testimony, causing a stir at the Center, but not enough to correct the situation.
The day before the Raleigh area hearing in May 2005, a jury found that a Department of Transportation mechanics depot was a hostile working environment after a hangman’s noose was hung in the facility for 35 days in 2002, starting February 1st (February is Black History Month). The jury did not find the DOT guilty, although white supervisors did not fix the problem after workers complained. The Union says the State rarely corrects racist problems quickly.
At the Raleigh hearing workers spoke about the Mail Services Center (see above), Dorothea Dix Hospital, the DHHS, and the DOT 7 case, involving the noose described above. The leader of the Environmental Services (housekeeping) department at Dix said “Dorothea Dix is a plantation. The housekeeping staff at Dorothea Dix have had to work under conditions that have put us in a classification of lesser worth for far too long” (May/June 2005 Bulletin). A former 18-and-a-half year black DHHS social worker testified that she was passed over for a promotion and harassed by her white male supervisor, then had her job reassigned or out-contracted. Allegedly she was gotten rid of to make room for younger workers. Her wage in the job was $46,000 dollars a year, versus the $55,000 to 65,000 dollar salaries of whites and men doing similar work (Workers World, May 31, 2005). She was promised a new State position in an administrative appeals process, but that was three years before her testimony.
March 31st at dawn representatives of more than 40 organizations from around the US rallied outside of the Governor’s office to protest for at least a $2500 dollar raise for State workers and for Gov. Easley to support the collective bargaining right. “Even more importantly, we are here to send a message to our members, all workers, and the public in general that we are [typo] gaining more support every day and won’t stop until we get justice” said Nathanette Mayo, a Durham City worker and UE official (UE press release). They also demanded an end to discrimination within the government. The second annual membership meeting of the Grassroots Global Justice Network, one of the rallying groups, was held in Raleigh. Co-coordinator Michael Leon Guerrero said Raleigh was chosen “because this is a critically important area for grassroots justice throughout the South, the US, and the World. NC has some of the most repressive laws not only in the country but in the World…We are committed to mobilizing all the resources possible to make sure workers receive JUSTICE here in NC and throughout the South.” Mayo thanked the protesters - “we thank people for traveling so far to support us. Our view is solidarity is not charity and we stand ready to support your struggles for justice as you are supporting ours” (press release).
For more information contact:
Ashaki Binta, coordinator
International Worker Justice Campaign
UE Local 150
PO Box 3857
Chapel Hill, NC 27515
Resolutions available online at: http://surgenetwork.org/IWJC.
The Governor can be contacted at:
Office of the Governor
20301 Mail Service Center