‘Pre-Majority’ Public Workers Union Makes Gains in North Carolina

[Labor Notes has been following a number of interesting experiments in non-majority unionism in our past few issues. The following article charts the history of United Electrical Workers (UE) Local 150 as it struggles in a “pre-majority” setting in North Carolina’s public sector. This kind of unionism takes on an even greater significance for public sector organizing in the South, as laws banning collective bargaining rights ensure protracted battles for the conceivable future.]

While the International Labor Organization declares collective bargaining a “fundamental human right,” most state governments in the U.S. South deny this basic right to public workers. Despite this hurdle, North Carolina public workers organized into UE Local 150 are exploring ways to fight without these basic protections.

FROM NETWORK TO UNION

UE 150 evolved from a history of regional-based struggle for public workers’ rights. In the early 1990s a North Carolina-based group called Black Workers for Justice initiated the Workers Want Fairness Campaign. The campaign aimed at winning broad support for organizing in the South and bringing together workers who worked in similar industries but belonged to different unions and other organizations.

The North Carolina Public Service Workers Network (later Assembly-NCPSWA) was born from this effort in the following years. The group brought together state, county, and city workers throughout North Carolina who were involved in AFSCME, the Communications Workers, and independent organizations. The NCPSWA developed a common strategy that remains the fundamental program of UE 150: fighting for living wages, safe and healthy working conditions, and workers’ rights and fighting against discrimination, favoritism, privatization, downsizing, and understaffing.

In 1997, the NCPSWA realized it needed to expand statewide and needed a national union with the resources and commitment to help it do so. UE agreed to support the effort and thus UE Local 150, the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, was created.

WINS AT TWO LEVELS

UE 150 has experienced new stages of growth each year for five years. In 1997-98, the union concentrated on gaining strength within the University of North Carolina (UNC) System, which includes 16 campuses and over 19,000 workers.

The local organized a Grievance for Justice Campaign, collecting grievances from over 800 workers on five campuses and petition signatures from over 1,000 supporters. Volunteer organizers from the broader African American, labor, campus, and progressive movements were essential at this stage. When the UNC System refused to meet with the union, UE 150 organized Martin Luther King Day leafleting, Black History Month black armband days, and meetings with legislators.

This formative stage in building the union culminated in a meeting between UNC System President Molly Broad’s office and 18 rank and file workers. The meeting pressured the president into issuing an official memo that recognized workers’ rights to join and build their union without retaliation, changed the grievance policy to allow a co-worker grievance assistant, and established “meet and confer” bodies between employees and top management.

In the next year, the union expanded to other UNC campuses and to another major section of state government, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). The 40-year-old Durham City Workers union voted to join UE 150. Throughout this period, the union’s primary base and leadership came from the majority African American and female blue-collar housekeeping, groundskeeping, and trades departments.

In July 1999, UE 150 held its founding convention, where over 60 members from twelve chapters debated and voted on their constitution, officers, dues, program, and resolutions and held workshops and a statewide rally. The constitution establishes dues at $10.

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Worksite chapters are established when the dues-paying membership reaches a minimum of 50 or 20% of the workforce. A statewide convention is held biannually. Each chapter has autonomy on matters concerning its own worksite.

ELEMENTS OF POWER

Drawing patterns out of our practice, UE 150 uses these key elements of union power to guide its work:

Workplace Organization that unites workers as a collective democratic force and trains leaders to fight grievances and represent co-workers before management. Members hold area meetings on lunch or break to decide on issues and strategies and have elected stewards and officers who receive training and have helped win victories on the shop floor.

Victories in this area include winning formal grievances (winning several re-hires with back pay and getting unjust write-ups out of workers’ files); informal grievances through group letters; direct meetings with supervisors; and other forms of solidarity.

In at least three cases, racist managers and supervisors have been forced to leave the job due to pressure from the union. At almost every institution, union chapters have had direct meetings with management regarding workplace issues. In several instances they have won concrete changes, such as improved equipment, respect for or changed policy, and internally granted raises of $1,500-3,000 for individual workers.

Access to Information so workers can make timely and informed decisions. UE 150 gathers, organizes, and distributes publicly available-but difficult to obtain-information regarding wages, statewide reform, downsizing and privatization efforts, and legislative initiatives.

Community Support to shape public opinion and bring public pressure at all levels to support the demands of workers. The union has had support from churches and other religious leaders. In Kinston, the chapter won a unanimous vote of the County Commissioners for a union-sponsored resolution to defend and improve jobs and services.

System-wide Strength through a broad-based membership at major institutions throughout the various state departments. Thus far, UE 150 is strongest in two of the larger state departments-the UNC system and DHHS. This strength has won some system-wide changes and also helps workers support and learn from each other on common problems. For example, workers have been able to beat back proposals to close whole institutions through rallies and petition campaigns.

Statewide Union to impact the North Carolina General Assembly and elected and appointed state and federal officials. UE 150 has established a regular presence at the General Assembly, held its third annual lobby day this past June, and regularly initiates worker contact with legislators around issues of importance to all workers. Workers are organized to speak directly to officials, not filtered through “professional” paid lobbyists.

Accomplishments from this work include winning flat rather than percentage raises (to better help the lowest paid) for two years in a row, passage of legislation strengthening the grievance procedure and recognizing federal workers’ rights (ADA, FMLA, FLSA, etc.) for state workers, and the introduction of a bill (still being fought for) to win twice-a-month pay for the lowest pay grades.