The Durham City Council is poised to establish a new Workers Rights’ Commission to hear complaints about workplace issues and advise the council on pro-worker policies. Aiden Graham, campaign manager with the North Carolina AFL-CIO, which is among the organizations that have advocated for the commission, says this board would be among just a handful in the country dedicated to improving conditions for workers—and likely the first of its kind in the state.

“This is pretty cutting-edge what Durham is doing here,” Graham says.

The city council is expected to approve the scope of the commission at its January 22 meeting. After that, the city attorney will start writing bylaws, and the city will advertise seats on the commission.

Groups including the AFL-CIO, Raise Up for $15, the Durham City Workers Union chapter of U.E. Local 150, graduate assistant and adjunct faculty members at Duke University, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance have been working toward the formation of the commission for more than a year, since hosting a candidate forum ahead of municipal elections. Those groups then began holding regular worker assemblies for people to air their workplace problems in December 2017. 

“That’s really where this idea kind of bore fruit,” Graham says. “We were thinking, OK, we’ve helped elect this progressive council; they say they’re with us on workers’ rights; what’s a concrete thing we can ask them to do to demonstrate that in practice? We think this is really that, and it’s going to set us up to do a good amount of work.”

In addition to advising the council on how to improve working conditions in Durham, the commission will craft a Workers’ Bill of Rights, outlining how Durham employers should treat workers. Council member Vernetta Alston, who worked with advocates to develop the commission, described that document as “aspirational” to colleagues last week. 

Indeed, there are limits to what the commission can do. Because state law preempts local power, the city can’t require private employers to pay above the minimum wage, for example. City manager Tom Bonfield has questioned whether the existence of the commission implies authority that the city doesn’t have, and Mayor Steve Schewel reiterated during last week’s council work session that the city is limited in its ability to enforce the rights of workers. (A scoping document makes clear that the commission is an advisory body that doesn’t speak for the council or the city).

Nonetheless, Alston says establishing the commission tells workers the city cares about them and the issues affecting them. As the People’s Alliance and Fight for $15 found, one in four Durham workers held low-wage jobs in 2016.

“Just because of the limitations we’re encountering at the state level doesn’t mean that issues that are important to workers or are centered around workers have to be ignored,” Alston says. “Hopefully this body can be a place folks can think about policy together and advise us over the long term on how to support that community more effectively.”

The council is already eyeing some big targets on that front. A draft of its legislative priorities—state laws it will ask Durham’s delegation to try to change or enact—includes a repeal of a law prohibiting public employee collective bargaining. The council also plans to add raising the statewide minimum wage—currently $7.25 per hour—to $15 per hour. (Ironically, North Carolina was the first state to enact a $15 minimum wage for state government employees.)

While the workers’ assemblies that gave way to the commission will continue, Graham says that having a formal, city-affiliated body is key to ensuring its success. If workers bring their complaints to public forums held by a board that communicates with the city council, employers may feel more pressure to correct problems. Advocates hope it will be a tool to help people organize and seek solutions.

Affiliation with the city also brings resources. The groups behind the commission want a comprehensive study of workers’ rights in Durham, in part to inform the Workers’ Bill of Rights, and the commission should help deliver that. Graham says the commission will also be able to track problems—like alleged wage theft—in a way the informal workers’ assembly can’t.

Forming the commission, Graham says, sends “a clear, official signal” that workers’ rights are a priority in Durham. While the city’s strategic plan emphasizes “shared economic prosperity,” he notes the document has more to say about fostering development than supporting workers.

“If you look at our strategic plan, if you look at the website, if you look at a lot of the language in the city, there’s a lot of emphasis on making Durham a good place for businesses, and there’s been basically none around making it a good place for workers,” Graham says. “We think this is a very clear indication: That is going to change.”

Contact staff writer Sarah Willets by phone at 919-286-1972, by email at, or on Twitter @sarah_willets.