N.C. city workers speak out: ‘End austerity, end racism’

City workers in the Durham chapter of United Electrical Workers Local 150, N.C. Public Service Workers Union, came together Feb. 21 for a “Workers’ Speak-Out” held at the historic Tobacco Workers Union Hall. They raised their voices against city government efforts to restructure their jobs and against the ongoing racist attacks they face.

Recent job classification changes in December 2018 cut 450 jobs to only 203, while workers were given no additional pay. The UE workers understand this is a speedup — adding urgency to the struggle against racism in the city’s hiring, firing, promotion and discipline practices.

The union brochure at the event explained: “This is a speedup, designed in the name of ‘efficiency’ to squeeze more work out of each worker. It’s one of many ways we feel the effects of a corporate-dominated state government that prioritizes tax breaks to the wealthy over the integrity of public services and the dignity of those who depend upon them and those who provide them.”

The city workers brought four major demands: a fair grievance process; an end to arbitrary and racist hiring and promotional practices; an end to the merit pay system; and an end to austerity and speed-ups.

Speakout emcee Nathanette Mayo said, “We demand an end to austerity and speed-ups within city departments, by fully funding and hiring for all currently open positions and a formula to ensure that the city’s workforce grows at the same pace as the city’s population.”  

Retired chemist in the Water Department and former UE150 president Mayo criticized the failings of some elected officials and then introduced over a dozen workers from five city departments to share the real story of their jobs.

Workers speak truth to power about their jobs

John Morris said, “I care about my job, and I care about everybody here and your safety.” He described the impossible task of on-call duty where workers in Water and Sewer Management work full days, yet are called back to work overnight for emergencies like water main breaks. After working continuously for 24 hours, they are required to clock back in for another work day, operating heavy machinery on no sleep. The only option for a day of rest is using vacation time. They earn no overtime pay.

Workers are required to be on call more and more frequently — now up to 15 times a year from four times in the past. “Every three weeks,” Morris said, “we get penalized for making the safe choice to go home and get rest, rather than risk the lives of community members.”

Racism is a major factor aggravating unsafe working conditions. Calinto Parker, a Water and Sewer crew chief, said of racist promotions: “[They’re] bringing [white bosses] in with no experience, no certifications, no nothing. And me — I actually have those things.”

Marcus Smith, a Black worker in Parker’s crew, said, “He’s passionate about what he does [and] his passion keeps our city safe.” Smith mentioned that they both continue to get skipped over for promotions they deserve, which go to less-senior white employees.

Racist white foremen order the largely Black workforce to use their own backs and bodies rather than allow use of available equipment; this racist treatment causes many injuries. Workers called out the injustice of all eight upper managers in the Water and Sewer department being white, while a majority of the frontline workers are Black.

Community and worker solidarity

Throughout the evening, city workers directed their concerns to a panel of community organizers, who responded about what could be done.  

“This will be addressed,” pledged Bertha Bradley, a fast food worker and member of Fight For $15. Bradley recalled how she had been fired without cause from her job at a Wendy’s down the street from the Public Works Department. The city workers then boycotted the Wendy’s until she was offered her job back. “We’ve got to keep fighting,” Bradley said. “Whatever we can do, we’re going to do.”

Durham city workers are banned by law from collective bargaining, as are all public sector workers in North Carolina. UE150 has been leading a statewide campaign of city workers to demand a Municipal Workers Bill of Rights, including a repeal of the Jim Crow-era ban on collective bargaining.

The Durham Workers Assembly helped mobilize community support for the forum. The aim is to bring together workers from all unions, unorganized workers and worker organizations to build Durham as “a union town” — a bold move in the largely unorganized U.S. South.

DWA won passage of a Workers Rights Commission by the Durham City Council in January. Several worker leaders, including Bradley of Fight For $15, plan to serve on that commission to hear worker complaints and support worker organizing.

“For years we’ve been out there doing an organizing blitz, 4:30 in the morning, passing out flyers: ‘Join the union!’” related Angaza Samora Mayo-Laughinghouse, a community-labor organizer and activist with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

At the speakout, with the union coming together powerfully, Mayo-Laughinghouse again directed attention to elected officials: “We as a people have got to be ready to put our hands — our political hands — on our elected officials … as a consequence of [them] doing our people wrong.”

Workers vowed to continue to organize, build their union and speak out at an upcoming City Council meeting.  

Deutschbein is a rank-and-file graduate worker in the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Chapter of UE150.

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