Solidarity Forever

North Carolina’s antipathy to unions is well-known (e.g., the lowest rate of union membership in the country), and nowhere is that more evident than in public employment. Most states ban strikes by public employees, but state law here goes farther, banning collective bargaining itself–or any contract, for that matter, between a government agency and its workers. And yet, there is a public employees union in North Carolina–federal law guarantees all workers the right to organize, after all–and notwithstanding the limits within which it’s forced to work, UE Local 150 has managed in the last five years to sign up some 2,000 state and university employees. It’s a start–enough so that the local’s parent organization, the UE, will hold its national convention in Raleigh over the coming week. Convention headquarters is the downtown Sheraton Hotel, with sessions scheduled Sept. 13-19.

Local 150 representative Steve Bader says that, as far as his folks can tell, this is the first national union convention in North Carolina ever. “It’s hard to prove something never happened,” Bader says, “but we’ve talked with a lot of historians, and we think this is the first national union meeting in the South outside of New Orleans or Miami since the Knights of Labor met in Richmond in 1886.”

Even nationally, the UE is a small union, with just 35,000 members. It’s independent–which means it’s not part of the AFL-CIO–and calls itself a “rank-and-file union” to underscore that it’s run by its members, unlike some others. The name itself is short for United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America, if you must know, but you have to ask, since its big emphasis now is on organizing low-paid public employees. And where better to find them than in North Carolina, where state and local employees earn about 15 percent less than the national average? About half of state workers earn below the self-sufficiency wage standard estimated for their communities by the advocacy group N.C. Equity–in 1996!

One of the first orders of business on the UE convention agenda, therefore, is a march from the Sheraton to the General Assembly building on Monday from noon to 2 p.m. Marchers will be calling for collective bargaining rights, according to Bader, but of course that’s not going to happen anytime soon. So they’ll also be calling attention to the state budget mess and what it’s doing to their members: State employees got a flat $625 raise last year and this year–in both the Senate and House versions of the still non-existent 2002-03 budget–they’re in line for: zero. (The House offered an early retirement plan, though.)

Zero isn’t good whatever your salary, but it’s especially bad for the typical UE leader like Kevin James, who’s a certified nursing assistant at Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh by night–and a manager at the McDonald’s on Peace Street by day. When James, who is 38 and an ex-manufacturing worker, says “no peace, no justice” (as he does), he means it literally. After four years on the overnight shift at Dix, he makes about $22,000 a year. That’s far below N.C. Equity’s ’96 self-sufficiency wage for Wake County of $30,900–the cost to support a family of three–so he works 35-40 hours a week at Mickey D’s for an extra $8 an hour.

As much as he’d like more money, James’ focus is on understaffing at Dix and the Easley administration’s plan to close it and “privatize” care for many of its 500 patients with mental illnesses. The upshot, James thinks, is that many will end up in rest homes that are even more short-staffed and the workers make less than he does. “We have to pull together as a community, and as state employees, to fight that,” he says. “Dix is good and bad, but it can be fixed. If it closes, there’s no good place in the community for the patients to go.”

The threat of privatization on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus is what brought the UE to North Carolina. Five years ago, they helped the campus housekeepers fight off the university’s attempt to “outsource” their jobs, in the end winning a $1 million settlement. Since then, chapters have opened at N.C. Central and N.C. State and at state institutions like Dix, the John Umstead Hospital in Butner and the facilities for the mentally handicapped in Goldsboro and Kinston.

UE 150 can’t bargain for its members, but it can fight for them in the court of public opinion, Bader says, and be part of a broader movement for social justice in North Carolina. In that vein, progressive activists for any and all causes are invited to the Sheraton for Solidarity Night on Sunday, Sept. 15, from 7-10 p.m. and to join in the march to the General Assembly the next day. “Bring your sign about–whatever,” he says.