Public employees testify against anti-collective bargaining law
‘“I am here to testify about an example of racism, sexism and poor treatment of workers that shows another way that collective bargaining will help make for a better workplace and public services.’”
So Willette Chapman, a housekeeper of three years at UNCG, told the panel of esteemed citizens at First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro on Aug. 4. Among those listening were state Rep. Earl Jones, former Mayor Carolyn Allen and outgoing City Councilwoman Claudette Burroughs-White.
‘“When the contractors come in and make a mess we have to clean up behind them,’” she said. ‘“We are confident it is not a coincidence that the majority of the housekeepers are African-American women and the majority of the contractors are white men.’”
Dozens of housekeepers represented by the NC Public Service Workers Union filed a petition with Chancellor Patricia Sullivan on July 22 stating that they should not have to shoulder the additional workload of cleaning up after the contractors, Chapman said. Administrators agreed that the contractors should clean up after themselves, but Chapman said the housekeepers resented being told by the administrators that it was their responsibility to make sure the contractors did their jobs right.
Chapman also testified that she does not make enough money at UNCG to afford co-payments on health insurance for her children.
She was one of 10 public employees, including skilled tradesmen at NC A&T University, bus drivers for Guilford County Schools represented by Teamster Local 391, along with other UNCG housekeepers, who testified variously about being forced to take on extra work without compensation, being charged exorbitant parking fees and witnessing school administrators maintain different disciplinary standards for black and white students. The workers said they believe these problems could be resolved if they had the right to collective bargaining.
North Carolina public employees can and do belong to unions ‘— which affords them representation by a shop steward responsible for helping to resolve individual grievances with management ‘— but a state law passed in 1959 prohibits them from entering into a collective bargaining contract with state or local government entities.
‘“The law was passed during a time when there was still segregation ‘— Jim Crow apartheid,’” said Ashaki Binta, a statewide coordinator of the effort to repeal the prohibition against collective bargaining in North Carolina. ‘“We see it as not only an effort to prevent unions from growing in North Carolina, but to prevent the unity of the trade union movement with the African-American movement for freedom.’”
Allowing collective bargaining would make a positive difference because employees’ responsibilities would be clearly defined, said Clarence Meachem, interim steam distribution manager at A&T, who contended that fatigue from overwork increases the possibility of accidents on the job.
‘“My boss was in a manhole and the gasket from the steam valve blew out,’” he said. ‘“He thought he would just get it done before he went home. He’s lucky to be alive. It was just a little after five and there happened to be someone else there to pull him out. He burned over fifty percent of his body.’”
The Greensboro hearing was the sixth of a total of seven held across the state by the Public Service Workers Union and other worker rights organizations to build support for overturning the 1959 law. The Public Service Workers union, the Teamsters and two other local organizations selected the workers rights panel to hear testimony and individually complete questionnaires assessing the information they received, said Binta. Previous hearings have been held in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Goldsboro and Rocky Mount.
The local hearings, including one more in Charlotte at the end of August, will culminate a statewide hearing in which a panel of international labor lawyers will hear testimony and issue a finding on whether the state of North Carolina and the United States are in violation of international labor law, Binta said. There appears to be little doubt about what the panel will find, as the Public Service Workers Union plans to file a complaint with the International Labour Organization in Geneva against North Carolina and the United States.
The convention establishing the right to organize and collectively bargain was passed by the ILO, an agency of the United Nations, in Geneva in 1949, but the United States has never ratified it.
Binta said the international complaint is only one part of bottom-up organizing strategy; she doesn’t expect a favorable ruling from the ILO to overturn the collective bargaining prohibition on its own.
‘“Mostly in relation to the war, the attack on the sovereignty of countries, the preemptive strikes ‘— all of these things have clearly isolated the US,’” Binta said. ‘“There is a climate of mistrust and criticism toward the hypocrisy of the US that brings into question democracy and human rights in America. The United States is not leading the way on questions of workers rights. If anything it’s one of the most backwards countries in the world.’”
Panelists from Greensboro interviewed after the hearing said they generally support public employees having the right to collective bargaining.
‘“I think they made an overwhelming case for that law to be repealed,’” Councilwoman Burroughs-White said. ‘“It would certainly make government have to consider [paying] a livable wage. [But] I have serious concerns about public safety, with police and fire, so I would want them to not have the ability to strike.’”
Allen, the former mayor, said: ‘“I think collective bargaining would be a great benefit for workers in North Carolina. It will take a long time to help the public understand the need. Our history as an anti-labor state is so deeply ingrained.’”
Rep. Jones said he plans to introduce legislation to repeal the 1959 law at some point.
When labor unions and their allies push their bill in the General Assembly, they will have some formidable opposition, namely city governments across the state. The NC League of Municipalities has taken a longstanding position against allowing public employees to collectively bargain ‘— since as long as she can remember ‘— said spokeswoman Margot Christensen.
Among elected officials on the Guilford County Commission, there is a whole range of stances, from support and opposition to indecision, on the campaign for collective bargaining.
Bruce Davis, the High Point Democrat who currently chairs the Commission, said he hasn’t given much thought to the idea and would have to consider it from different angles before taking a position.
In contrast, Billy Yow, a well driller who represents the rural southeast corner of Guilford County as a Republican, didn’t need any time to make up his mind.
‘“If you start letting county employees and elected officials such as myself collectively bargain you’re gonna turn into racketeering; it ain’t gonna be representation anymore,’” he said. ‘“The last thing we need is a union trying to tell us how to spend the taxpayers’ money.
‘“I think that law needs to stay in place because it was put there by our forefathers and it’s served us well,’” he added. ‘“All these people that are out there lobbying for this, the taxes they pay for the little service they get, the more bureaucracy they bring into it the less they’re gonna get.’”
His fellow commissioner, Carolyn Coleman, who represents Pleasant Garden as a Democrat, views public employee collective bargaining through a different lens, probably owing to some extent to her former occupation as a civil rights organizer for the NAACP national office and membership in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
‘“I am one of those who was involved in the sanitation workers strike in Memphis when Dr. Martin Luther King came in to help and was killed,’” she said. ‘“I do support workers receiving benefits and salaries equal to those in corporate America.’”
‘“It’s a matter of government employees and those who supervise them sitting down and working things out,’” she added. ‘“I don’t expect that they would give away the shop, but I do think these people should have a voice. I have never subscribed to the belief that workers having someone to negotiate on their behalf has to work to the detriment of the employer.’”
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