Raleigh, N.C. — The tenth biannual statewide convention of the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, United Electrical Workers Local 150, was held in Raleigh on Aug. 18-19. The convention brought together city, state university, state mental health, manufacturing and other workers from UE150 chapters across the state from Kinston to Charlotte.
A major theme of the conference was “Commemorating 50 years of Southern workers’ struggles from Memphis, to Charlotte, and Dr. King’s last stand” — referencing city workers’ strikes in 1968 that won important support from Civil Rights leaders and important gains in union rights, wages and working conditions.
Over the past year, UE150 has been building a statewide campaign to fight for a Municipal Workers’ Bill of Rights, which would establish basic standards. After the tragic passing of a Charlotte yard waste laborer in July 2017, the union fought for and won improved health and safety measures — such as a hazardous weather policy to protect workers from extreme temperature exposure on the job — as well as new policies in Greensboro, Raleigh and Durham.
Worker unity vs. racism
North Carolina and other Southern states have historically been the most challenging places to organize unions because of the virulent racism, which has divided white and Black workers. North Carolina was the first state to ban collective bargaining for public workers, when an all-white state legislature passed General Statute 95-98 in 1959. Denying the right to collectively bargain makes it difficult to demand and secure better work environments free of racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia and xenophobia. Yet UE150 members have been fighting and making gains for 20 years.
The convention celebrated many hard-won gains, such as in campaigns to win $15 an hour as the minimum wage for public workers. In August 2015 Greensboro became the first city to pass a resolution granting a $15-per-hour minimum wage for city workers. UE150 helped organize city workers to win similar resolutions and budgets, including a $15-per-hour minimum wage in Charlotte, Durham, Raleigh and, in June, Winston-Salem.
Feeling the pressure from around the state by public workers, including state mental health workers rallying in other rural cities like Goldsboro and Kinston, and countless meetings with state legislators, the General Assembly passed a budget including $15 an hour as the minimum wage for all state employees effective July 1. This raised the wages of over 8,000 housekeepers, groundskeepers, health care technicians, food service workers and others across the state by $2,000 to $6,000 a year.
The union also helped win the first public policy to provide a progressive health care cost structure in Charlotte. It allows those who earn less to pay less, effectively saving city workers $800 to $2,496 a year in premiums. Plus they make no payments in the month of August.
Struggle over collective bargaining
Collective bargaining is a structured process to negotiate contracts that regulate salaries, working conditions, benefits and other aspects of workers’ rights and compensation. North Carolina’s General Statute 95-98 bans public-sector collective bargaining.
After UE filed a complaint in 2007, the International Labor Organization of the United Nations ruled that North Carolina’s ban violates international human rights standards. Convention participants discussed and passed a resolution to build a movement to repeal the statute banning public sector collective bargaining.
On Aug. 19, members discussed and passed 10 powerful political resolutions:
- Expand the fight to repeal the Jim Crow ban on collective bargaining and build the campaign for a Workers’ Bill of Rights.
- Support the Southern Workers Assembly and build the Durham Workers Assembly, including support for an upcoming Southern Workers School to be held in Durham in September and October.
- Support the National Prison Strike — #prisonstrike2018.
- Support Maya Little, a Black UNC grad student/worker and UE150 member who poured her blood on the Silent Sam Confederate statue in Chapel Hill, and continue the struggle to tear down all Confederate statues.
- Fight against racism.
- Fight against the oppression of women and LGBTQ people.
- End all wars abroad; build workers’ international solidarity — including support for Palestinian freedom and the Boycott-Divest-Sanctions movement; support Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and the Bolivarian Revolution; U.S. hands off Syria, the Middle East and the continents of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
- Support immigrant rights and abolish ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], recognizing the effects of U.S. foreign and economic policy on international migration.
- Expand internal education among members, including hiring staff for training and education.
- Oppose six N.C. state constitutional amendments, including those imposing voter ID and permanently creating austerity by lowering corporate and personal income tax levels.
Korea and international worker solidarity
The convention was filled with important panels, including Organizing in North Carolina and Building a Global Labor Movement. UE150 member Darrion Smith, who had recently returned from a trip to South Korea with U.S. Labor Against War, reported that the U.S. is the main force perpetuating division between North and South Korea, especially by maintaining 30,000 U.S. troops on the border and deploying the THAAD missile defense system. Smith said he learned from talking to Korean workers that “the reason the U.S. government doesn’t like North Korea is because they don’t mess with capitalism,” referencing the alternative economic model established by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that is more worker-friendly.
UE National President Peter Knowlton was a keynote speaker, along with Jerome Scott from the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Both keynote speakers decried the insidiousness of capitalism which pits workers against each other and drives the bosses to demand more labor for lower wages and thereby to steal more of the value produced by the workers.
UE Local 150 has a long history of organizing militant members who fight for and win workers’ rights throughout North Carolina as well as nationally. An ally of UE Local 150, the Southern Workers Assembly, is hosting a workers’ school in Durham, N.C., Sept. 14-16. For registration information, go to Southernworkers.org. The program will help develop a cadre of workers with critical organizing skills and strategies to organize the South.