North Carolina has long been known as an anti-union state. We have the second-lowest unionization rate in the country, just behind South Carolina.
Recently, however, labor has had some cause for optimism: Duke adjunct faculty members voted to form a union, and in December, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee helped seven former workers of state senator Brent Jackson sue him in federal court for unpaid wages. Now one of the state’s largest progressive think tanks, the North Carolina Justice Center, has unionized, too, joining the National Organization of Legal Services Workers. The contract went into effect July 15.
Marion Johnson, policy advocate for the Justice Center’s Budget & Tax Center and the union chairman, tells the INDY that members started organizing in the summer of 2013. The Justice Center voluntarily recognized the union in spring 2014, after a majority of the members indicated they wanted to join a union.
“The Justice Center practices what it preaches,” says executive director Rick Glazier. “We believe in workers’ rights and union capacity to advocate for and protect those rights in a myriad of circumstances. We would be hard-pressed to lobby other employers and the state to do what we say but not follow through on that ourselves.”
“We wanted to have a formal say in the decision-making process about our own wages, benefits, layoffs, and other working conditions in the organization,” Johnson adds. “We felt like a union was the best way to allow us to have a formal seat at the table when these things were being discussed.”
Union leaders are obviously happy with the decision. “The staff at the N.C. Justice Center have long been allies of ours in the fight for economic fairness, so we are excited to welcome them as members of our state’s labor movement,” state AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer MaryBe McMillan said in a statement. “I hope this inspires other non-profit employees to organize.”
In some nonprofits, there’s a stigma around unionizing because of limited resources. AFL-CIO communications director and Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild member Jeremy Sprinkle says these concerns shouldn’t be a deterrent.
“Just because we work for just causes doesn’t mean we don’t deserve just wages or to have a good life outside of work,” Sprinkle says. “If anything, joining in union and having a negotiated contract makes it possible for me to be a more effective advocate for my cause.”
Johnson says she’s optimistic that unions can make a push in North Carolina in the future.
“We have such fantastic unions working here already: Black Workers for Justice, AFL-CIO, Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and UFCW are some that come to mind,” she says. “I really think it’s just a matter of showing people that hey, this works, and it’s not about anything but protecting the rights of all kinds of workers.”