Eastern N.C. union organizing blitz for workers’ rights

From June 9 to 14, over 40 union activists from United Electrical Workers (UE) and Unifor Canada gathered in rural eastern North Carolina for an organizing blitz. The workers targeted 10 workplaces for reaching out to non-union workers about joining the union. This was part of a North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, UE Local 150, campaign to build a statewide movement of city workers to fight for a Municipal Workers Bill of Rights.  The blitz was centered in Wilson, but also targeted city workers in Goldsboro and Rocky Mount, and reached out deeper where the union already has chapters, including to city workers in Raleigh, four state-operated mental health facilities and two auto parts plants.

City workers in Rocky Mount, N.C., participate in the UE organizing blitz for the Municipal Workers Bill of Rights.

This was part of the North American Solidarity Project between UE and our close ally in Canada, Unifor. Three Unifor members came to participate in the blitz and learn about the struggles of Southern workers and the social-movement union approach of Local 150. 

Throughout the week, participants circulated over 1,800 fliers to non-union workers and collected over 300 names of workers interested in joining the union; 134 workers attended union-interest meetings. 

“This blitz was really excellent at bringing more attention to eastern N.C. for our Municipal Workers Bill of Rights campaign,” stated Bryce Carter, president of UE150 and a street maintenance worker in Greensboro. “By bringing our union message to these three new cities, we can now really say that we have a statewide movement! This is a big advance in building workers’ power.”

In surveying the workers, we discovered that without a union many of the municipal workers suffered from dangerous working conditions, including no required breaks during excessive summer heat. After the tragic heat-related death of a solid waste laborer, Anthony Milledge, in Charlotte in the summer of 2017, Local 150 fought for and won mandatory hourly breaks when the heat index is over 90 degrees in Greensboro, Durham and Raleigh. This is all part of the statewide Municipal Workers Bill of Rights campaign to establish basic guaranteed standards for all city workers in the state and Southern region. 

Workers also identified low wages, unaffordable health insurance, workplace racism and unfair management as some of the top issues to organize around in the future. 

City workers in Rocky Mount have to pay $200 every two weeks in health insurance premiums. Additionally, many have utility bills around $400 every month. Paying these bills is impossible to sustain on their wages of about $11 or $12 an hour.   

Many of the eastern North Carolina cities, such as Wilson and Rocky Mount, set up their own publicly owned municipal power systems, generating power locally for residents. Nineteen of these cities formed an alliance to share power among themselves, and all contributed to building five power plants at the cost of $3.5 billion. However, in 2015 these cities sold the power plants to privately owned Duke Energy for only $1.5 billion, letting the difference in the bill fall on local residents who now collectively pay over $10 million a year in interest!  

Public workers in North Carolina are banned from collectively bargaining a union contract. Local 150 is a direct-join, direct-action union where workers can sign up as members and not have to wait for an onerous labor board election.  This new style of unionism is picking up across the South and throughout the country. 

As part of the outreach, blitzers talked to workers about their health care costs and invited workers to attend a Town Hall forum in Wilson to support Medicare for All.  The June 13 event was attended by many workers and community supporters, including State Reps. Jean Farmer-Butterfield and Raymond Smith. Workers spoke out about their struggles with health care costs. To give workers a vision about what we are fighting for, Unifor members described Canada’s single-payer health care system. 

“It was powerful to see the strength in numbers,” stated Jess Sims, blitz participant and UE Local 123 Young Activist from Staunton, Va. “If you stand alone you will fail. But everyone coming together for a common cause can make real changes.”

Southern Workers Assembly launches Southern Workers Medicare for All campaign

Directly after the organizing blitz, over the weekend of June 15-16, Southern workers from the UE, National Nurses United and International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422 attended a Workers School and met to launch the Southern Workers Medicare for All campaign. 

Leading up to the 2020 elections, the Southern Workers Assembly (SWA) is encouraging all workers’ organizations to raise up the demand for affordable health care, specifically for passage of bills in the U.S. Congress for expanded and improved Medicare for All (HR 1384/S 1129). Many presidential candidates are divided about different plans for fixing the broken U.S. health care system. 

By having a clearly defined, unifying demand, we can advance our struggles during this electoral period, regardless of who wins the election. The SWA believes that by building a workers-led Southern movement for Medicare for All it can draw non-union workers into our movement and build union-workplace organization across the South.  

A major part of this campaign is doing workplace-based worker education. Given that most workers still primarily receive health insurance through their employer,  outreach to non-union workplaces will include educational leaflets about the campaign. Improved Medicare for All would reduce workers’ reliance on employers by providing full access to quality health care whether you are employed or not. It would also take health care, which unions are now forced to spend a great deal of time and resources on, off the bargaining table. Instead, this energy could be spent bargaining for better wages, paid time off, safety protocols and more. 

The SWA hopes to organize citywide committees, led by workplace organizations, to do broad workplace and community outreach, eventually hosting town hall meetings with the aim of passing city and county council resolutions across the South. Already at least three cities — St. Petersburg, Fla.; Durham, N.C.; and Carrboro, N.C. —  have passed resolutions supporting Medicare for All.  

To find out more about city council resolutions, visit medicare4allresolutions.org.

National Nurses United drafted a sample resolution, excerpted below from a union leaflet:

WHEREAS, the United States spends nearly twice as much per capita on health care as all other comparable countries and yet ranks only 35th in the world by global health standards, including on such critical barometers as average life expectancy, infant mortality, maternal mortality, and death from preventable diseases; and

WHEREAS, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) enacted important improvements, primarily through the expansion of Medicaid in states that have agreed to do so, and limits on some insurance industry abuses, that reform left tens of millions with a continuing crisis in access, cost, and quality of care; and

WHEREAS, the uninsured rate for U.S. adults has risen for four straight years up to nearly 30 million, even after implementation of the ACA, with the greatest increase among women, young adults, and lower-income people; and

WHEREAS, tens of millions more who pay for insurance remain underinsured due to the still largely unregulated high cost of medical care that has led to  one-third of all GoFundMe accounts being established to pay for exorbitant medical bills; and

WHEREAS, more than 40 percent of all U.S. adults under the age of 65 forego needed medical care, 30 percent fail to fill a prescription or take less than the recommended dose, and a third said they had to choose in the past year between paying for food, heating, housing, or health care; and

WHEREAS, the inability to pay medical bills continues to be a leading cause of personal bankruptcy, and people who need medical care should never face bankruptcy as a result of needing care;

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that [city or county] affirms that health care is a human right that should be guaranteed to all U.S. residents; 

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that [city or county] endorses H.R. 1384 and S. 1129, the Medicare for All Act that will expand health coverage and health security, eliminate health disparities, and lower health care costs for all of our community residents; 

and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that [city or county] will notify all congressional representatives [in our city, county, state] of this endorsement, and urge them to cosponsor H.R. 1384 and S. 1129; 

and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that [city or county] encourages all of our residents to contact their member of Congress and other elected representatives to encourage them to cosponsor H.R. 1384 and S. 1129.

To join this campaign, email Southern Workers Assembly at [email protected].

Strobino is a field organizer with the United Electrical Workers (UE) based in North Carolina and serves on the steering committees of the Southern Workers Assembly and the Durham Workers Assembly.

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