Sweeping Change in North Carolina
UE Local 150 Demands
Justice on UNC Campuses
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
They are organizing, struggling, and against the odds
These union members, whose local received its UE charter at last
years 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. Its 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
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
"UE is now carrying the banner in a critical struggle for civil
rights and workplace justice inside North Carolinas huge university system, and the
impact will reverberate throughout the states public sector workforce," says UE
Dir. of Org. Bob Kingsley. "Weve 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 wouldnt be no more. So we started organizing."
In February 1991, housekeepers used the universitys 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
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
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 Speakers office with our brooms to sweep his ass out," Prear
In its 1995 fight against privatization the Housekeepers Association
enjoyed the support of the Chapel Hill campus Coalition for Economic Justice and community
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
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
"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
The answer reached in the summer of 1997 was the Grievance for Justice
campaign. Within the universitys grievance procedure and the U.S.
Constitutions 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 dont 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
'THE UNION ... IS WHAT'S
GOING TO MAKE CHANGES'
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.
"Were talking to workers about joining the union because in the
end thats whats going to make changes," said Robin Ellis, a
brigade volunteer formerly active in the Coalition for Economic Justice as a Chapel Hill
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
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 Raleighs 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
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
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."
Local 150 members and supporters in
action, demanding workers' rights.
Today, the unions 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
The statewide administrations 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 whats fair, or whats 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 Foxs attention to workers need for vaccinations, improved staffing
levels and higher wages.
BUILDING THE UNION
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
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 "didnt 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 shes
convinced the laws that deny her union collective bargaining rights will be changed.
"It cant 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
unions first constitutional convention in the late spring will be a statewide
gathering of workers from all or most of UNCs 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, theyre being listened to," says UE District One Pres. Connie
Spinozzi, who has toured three campuses to see firsthand the progress of her
districts 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.
"Its difficult, theyre 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 cant
say enough about it. This is a good thing and its growing." Although the
conditions are somewhat unusual, this is what the union ought to be doing, Spinozzi
believes. "Were out there to organize the unorganized, wherever and whoever
"Its a new frontier for our organizing work," says UE
Genl. Sec.-Treas. Bob Clark. "Its what we need to do to build the
UE News - 02/99