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Sweeping Change in North Carolina
UE Local 150 Demands
Justice on UNC Campuses

Sweeping change at the University of North Carolina...

Against the odds, workers on UNC Campuses are fighting for — and winning — better working conditions and living standards.

Hundreds of housekeepers, groundskeepers, maintenance workers and other employees of the University of North Carolina are fighting for better working conditions and living standards as members of the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, UE Local 150.

They are organizing, struggling, and — against the odds — winning.

These union members, whose local received its UE charter at last year’s national convention, are campaigning for real job security and against privatization. They are demanding an end to low wages, lack of respect, race and sex discrimination and favoritism.

And something else — repeal of the state laws that make it illegal for the University of North Carolina (UNC) administration to bargain with their union.

The least unionized state in the nation, North Carolina outlaws union security clauses in collective bargaining agreements. It’s a bastion of anti-labor politicians like Sen. Jesse Helms. Union membership in the public sector had been illegal until the courts struck down that blatantly unconstitutional law in 1969 — although some UNC bosses have been invoking it to discourage membership in UE Local 150. (The law was recently removed.)

Still on the books, however, is a 1959 state law that makes it "illegal, unlawful, void and of no effect" for any state institution to enter into an agreement or contract with "any labor union, trade union or labor organization."

And so in organizing UNC employees to gain better working and living conditions, UE Local 150 is also fighting to end the second-class status of this largely African-American workforce.

‘CRITICAL STRUGGLE’

"UE is now carrying the banner in a critical struggle for civil rights and workplace justice inside North Carolina’s huge university system, and the impact will reverberate throughout the state’s public sector workforce," says UE Dir. of Org. Bob Kingsley. "We’ve already organized UE on half the UNC campuses and our voice grows stronger month by month."

The origins of Local 150 lie in the decade-old struggle of UNC housekeepers to overcome discrimination. Housekeepers at UNC at Chapel Hill — 88 percent black and approximately 70 percent female — began organizing in the summer of 1990. "That summer we got hot, we got tired," said Local 150 Pres. Barbara Prear, a Chapel Hill housekeeper in remarks to the 1997 UE Convention. "We said there wouldn’t be no more. So we started organizing."

In February 1991, housekeepers used the university’s grievance procedure to raise the issue of racial discrimination in pay, supervisory practices and training and promotional opportunities.

The university balked at the Housekeepers’ Association mass grievances, preferring to deal with workers one-on-one. The UNC-Chapel Hill housekeepers filed a discrimination complaint with the state personnel commission in January 1992. Along with their other demands these low-pay workers insisted on a minimum starting salary of $16,000.

VESTIGE OF SLAVERY

The suit was filed with the help of former UE attorney Arthur Kinoy and the Center for Constitutional Rights. The workers’ legal team advanced the theory that the low pay and low status afforded to the housekeepers was a vestige of slavery and therefore discriminatory. (Slaves actually had worked on the campus.)

The university challenged the workers’ right to file a class-action suit; in November 1993 a Superior Court judge dismissed the suit, which eventually went to the state Supreme Court.

In November 1996, the more than 350 housekeepers gave their approval to a mediated final settlement containing in excess of $1 million in raises, back pay, special programs, career training, child and elder care and a public health study. As part of the settlement, the UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor agreed to regularly meet with the Housekeepers’ Association, confer and consider workers’ ideas.

SWEEPING THE CAPITOL

Sweeping change in North Carolina ...

The housekeepers also responded to Republican lawmakers’ pressure on UNC to privatize its housekeeping staff — in the summer of 1995 they went to Raleigh, the state capital, to campaign against privatization and for better pay. The Chapel Hill housekeepers made contact with their counterparts at other campuses and joined forces for a state capitol rally.

The housekeepers came armed with the tools of their trade. "We went into the House Speaker’s office with our brooms to sweep his ass out," Prear recalled.

In its 1995 fight against privatization the Housekeepers’ Association enjoyed the support of the Chapel Hill campus Coalition for Economic Justice and community allies.

The East Carolina University Housekeepers’ Association in Greenville, representing some 180 workers, was organized in 1996 around issues of dignity, unjust discipline and privatization. The ECU housekeepers gained a victory when the chancellor agreed to meet; workers gained improved supplies and equipment and secured a permanent position for a temporary full-time housekeeper.

The North Carolina Public Service Workers Organization came together as a network linking the housekeepers on UNC campuses as well as rank-and-file groups in the public sector. Meanwhile, with the encouragement of Arthur Kinoy and the Black Workers for Justice, the fledging workers’ movement on the UNC campuses made contact with UE.

GOAL: A NEW UE LOCAL

East Carolina University Workers ...

East Carolina University workers march for justice.

Discussions between UE and North Carolina Public Service Workers Organization in early 1997 led to an agreement in May on an organizing plan with the goal of building a new statewide UE local — North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, UE 150. The challenge was — and is — enormous. How can a loosely connected collection of worker organizations on a few UNC campuses be transformed into a union unifying the employees of all 16 campuses, in a state that makes public-sector collective bargaining illegal?

"This groundbreaking campaign in North Carolina needs two things to succeed," says Bob Kingsley. "First, the incredible courage of the lowest-paid state workers in the least unionized state in the nation, and second, a strategy that enables us to fight and win workplace battles even in the absence of a signed collective bargaining agreement."

The answer reached in the summer of 1997 was the Grievance for Justice campaign. Within the university’s grievance procedure — and the U.S. Constitution’s free-speech protections — was an opportunity to build the union, improve the conditions of UNC service workers, oppose downsizing, privatization, discrimination and low wages. Hundreds of grievances would form a mass petition to the UNC system administration and demonstrate the strength in unity.

"Grievance Brigades," made up of workers, faculty, students and community supporters, went out to collect grievances, distribute union literature and sign-up union members. The grievance campaign prepared the way for the union-building by giving organizers an opportunity to map work areas, build basic relationships with workers and learn about the issues that would fuel further activity.

"No, we don’t have an attitude problem. We have a Grievance for Justice campaign." Setting the tone for union assertiveness, those are the opening words of the first issue of the new union newsletter Sweeping Change in August 1997.

'THE UNION ... IS WHAT'S
GOING TO MAKE CHANGES'

Sweeping change in North Carolina ...

Sweeping Change reported that the campaign at UNC-Chapel Hill was in high gear, while in Greenville, East Carolina workers collected more than 40 grievances after talking to workers who said they wanted to be treated with respect, work under safe conditions and have fair pay and job security.

"We’re talking to workers about joining the union because in the end that’s what’s going to make changes," said Robin Ellis, a brigade volunteer formerly active in the Coalition for Economic Justice as a Chapel Hill undergraduate.

In September 1997, the union wrote to Molly Corbett Broad, who had just been selected as the new president of the UNC system. Signed by Barbara Prear in her new capacity as UE 150 chairperson, the letter pressed for a meeting and pointed out to Broad that hundreds of grievances had been collected during the Grievance for Justice campaign. The union called for an application of the Chapel Hill settlement to all 16 UNC campuses, including regular meetings with UE 150 chapter representatives, a UNC system-wide remedy for correcting injustices resulting from downsizing or unsafe conditions or where there were patterns of race or sex discrimination.

At first, university officials refused to meet with workers. Local 150 members and their supporters continued raising issues and signing-up union members.

AFFIRMING FREE SPEECH

Brigades at North Carolina State affirmed their right to free speech in the face of management harassment. Brigades at North Carolina Central, meanwhile, gained support of the student government. Workers and local ministers conducted a "walk-through" of the campus to highlight dangerous and unjust working conditions.

The Justice Walk at UNC-Greensboro in October raised concerns about retaliation, racism, sexual harassment and workers being written-up for violating policies not communicated to them. The brigades at UNC-Chapel Hill signed-up dozens of workers. In December 1997, service workers and allies attended an all-day leadership training school organized by the National union.

"Workers March for Union," read a headline in The Technician, the NC State student newspaper, on Jan. 21, 1998 over a story reporting how UE members and supporters marched in conjunction with Raleigh’s annual Martin Luther King Day march. In February UE 150 asked "all workers and people of good will" to recognize Black History Month by wearing a black ribbon "to express opposition to race discrimination in the UNC system and society."

'GRIEVANCE FOR JUSTICE'

By now, the focus of UE 150 activities had shifted from collecting grievances to more directly building the union, with the volunteers now serving in "support brigades."

Service workers, students and faculty alike received flyers reading: "Get involved. Work for racial and economic justice. Join the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union — UE Local 150 Brigade and help organize service workers right here on campus!" The union, said support brigade member Terri Nadlicki, a graduate student in sociology, "is trying to take an active and visible role against such things as privatization, discrimination and poor working conditions."

In February 1998, UE 150 NC State Chapter members were protesting unfair write-ups of people who missed work for legitimate medical reasons. Letters to the administration described patterns of harassment and disrespect.

When Molly Broad was formally installed as president of the 16-campus UNC system last April, UE 150 members were there — with signs reading "Molly Broad: Respect Workers’ Rights," "We Demand: No Privatization" and "End Discrimination, End Hate Crimes." The president balked at meeting union representatives personally, but assigned chief assistant Richard H. Robinson Jr. to meet with them on April 15. The meeting with Robinson, said a union leaflet, "Shows that UE 150 can get those in power to listen and act on the concerns of UNC workers."

THE RIGHT TO UNIONIZE

April, 1998 at UNC

The report to members following the meeting with UNC President Molly Broad's assistant in 1998. UE Field Organizer Saladin Muhammad is at center right.

 

In a letter to Local 150 Chairperson Barbara Prear, UNC President Broad affirmed workers’ right to join the union. She announced that by the end of the fall 1998 academic year the chancellor of each campus was to recognize "grievance assistants" and to establish a consultative forum. Broad pledged to raise union concerns at a meeting of all 16 chancellors.

In the fall the union encouraged UNC service workers to elect co-workers to the forums while union-building and grievance-filing continued.

What has the union done so far? A UE fact sheet, one of a series issued last fall, answered that question this way:

UE 150 "has helped workers to bring out their issues and to call on the administrations on the various campuses and at the statewide level to meet with the workers to find solutions to the problems. Workers on different campuses have filed grievances directly to the chancellors, held press conferences, held tours showing community, religious and elected officials the problems, got petitions signed by workers on the issues. They visited legislators and held marches and informational pickets."

Meanwhile, more than 500 workers had signed- up, many of them paying dues. The first per capita payment was forwarded to the UE National office in July 1998. A large delegation traveled from North Carolina to Pittsburgh in late August to officially receive the charter of UE local 150, North Carolina Public Service Workers Union at the 63rd UE National convention.

As representatives from four campuses — UNC Charlotte, Eastern Carolina University, North Carolina State and UNC-Chapel Hill — took their place on the convention stage, Dir. of Org. Bob Kingsley praised the "fight against the odds, against the law, against racism and against the administration" which "forced the bosses to meet with us and begin meeting our demands."

ORGANIZING, WINNING

Building UE 150 ...

Local 150 members and supporters in action, demanding workers' rights.

Today, the union’s emphasis is on building UE 150 chapters on each campus and solidifying the existing chapters. Each chapter unites housekeepers, groundskeepers, maintenance and cafeteria and other service employees from each campus work area around a program of action to improve working conditions, wages and job security.

The statewide administration’s agreement that workers may have "grievance assistants" — or what the union would call stewards — allows the union to function like a union. Without a contract, however, grievances must be fought on the basis of what’s fair, or what’s in the employee handbook.

When a supervisor told workers they could not meet on campus, even if it was their break, union members protested — and won a personal apology from the head of housekeeping for the "miscommunication."

Tired of being understaffed and overworked, members of the UE 150 chapter on the Chapel Hill campus won agreement from the university in November to hire at least 25 new permanent employees. "If we had left it to the university they would have tried to downsize even more," said Barbara Prear.

The chapter at NC State in Durham began the year by calling Chancellor Marye Anne Fox’s attention to workers’ need for vaccinations, improved staffing levels and higher wages.

BUILDING THE UNION

Sweeping change in North Carolina ...

Chapter-building includes regular monthly meetings, regular campus-wide Speak Out! newsletters, training and education and a monthly dues structure. Union members with bank accounts are encouraged to sign bank draft cards that allow automatic deduction of the dues by the bank at the beginning of each month.

Training has been provided by the National union and by the grant-supported Workers’ Rights Project of the North Carolina Justice and Community Development Center.

Novella Townsend, a housekeeper at UNC Charlotte for about a year and a half, attended the first organizing meeting on her campus last spring. She decided the union was "what we need to get things changed around here." And what needs to be changed, she told the UE NEWS, is "favoritism, the pay, racism."

The UE 150 chapter on the Charlotte campus is steadily growing, with a lot of interest, Townsend says, although intimidation by the administration has slowed the pace of organizing. Chancellor James Woodward told a housekeeping department meeting last month that he "didn’t want the union around," the union was "illegal" and that he would outsource housekeeping jobs rather than allow a pay increase for current staff. Backed by attorney Elizabeth McLaughlin of the Workers’ Rights Project, the chapter is insisting on workers’ right to organize.

And, says Townsend, workers have the support of local clergy, unions and the Black Students’ Union and other student groups.

UNION HERE TO STAY

Townsend believes the union is here to stay — and she’s convinced the laws that deny her union collective bargaining rights will be changed. "It can’t be just one person, but all of us working together, we can get it changed," she says.

The housekeeper serves on a committee preparing a Local 150 constitution that she says will be fair to all campus chapters in the statewide local union. The local union’s first constitutional convention in the late spring will be a statewide gathering of workers from all or most of UNC’s 16 campuses, a forum for discussing and resolving how their union can best be structured to meet their needs. The organizing for the convention is linked to a major new statewide membership drive.

With the union, UNC workers "can lift their heads high. They have recognition, they’re being listened to," says UE District One Pres. Connie Spinozzi, who has toured three campuses to see firsthand the progress of her district’s newest local. She found housekeepers and other UNC workers conducting strategy sessions and raising issues with management. "Only with UE, with our backing and educational tools, are they being able to take that to the next level," she said.

Spinozzi, a UE general vice president, acknowledges that a considerable amount of work remains to be done in building the union on all 16 campuses. "It’s difficult, they’re spread out all over the place." And she recognizes the various other problems UE faces, ranging from collecting dues by hand to the fundamental challenge of organizing a group of worker who cannot (at present) legally negotiate a contract.

Nevertheless, she remains enthusiastic about Local 150. "I can’t say enough about it. This is a good thing and it’s growing." Although the conditions are somewhat unusual, this is what the union ought to be doing, Spinozzi believes. "We’re out there to organize the unorganized, wherever and whoever they are."

"It’s a new frontier for our organizing work," says UE Genl. Sec.-Treas. Bob Clark. "It’s what we need to do to build the union."

UE News - 02/99


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