Marching for Justice. Local 150
members and District 1 Council delegates take part in a Juneteenth march
and rally in Raleigh, N.C. on June 16. The event was sponsored by the
Farm Labor Organizing Committee and Black Workers for Justice. UE Dir.
of Org. Bob Kingsley addressed the rally.
On a showery morning in mid-June on the campus of Cherry
Hospital in Goldsboro, N.C., a young woman worker hurries along the
sidewalk towards the canteen. Noticing a couple of unfamiliar men
talking to co-workers, she breaks into a broad smile. "Y’all with
the union?" she asks.
The union. For thousands of state Department of Health
and Human Services staff, that means just one thing: the North Carolina
Public Service Workers’ Union, UE Local 150.
UE Local 150 is the name in the news, on employee
bulletin boards, in break-time conversation, on the T-shirts they wear,
and most importantly, on the union cards they carry.
More than 500 DHHS workers have joined the union as
dues-paying members since the launch of the DHHS Dignity campaign in
DHHS workers at eight facilities have turned to UE to
fight short staffing, mandatory overtime, low wages, discrimination and
budget cuts that threaten closures.
Theirs is a union that has already gained respect and a
degree of recognition in a state that outlaws collective bargaining
between state government and unions.
The origins of Local 150 lie in the struggle of
University of North Carolina housekeepers to overcome discrimination,
beginning in 1990 (see: Local 150 Demands Justice on UNC Campuses). UE 150, the North Carolina Public Service Workers
Union, received its charter at the 63rd UE National Convention in August
1998. Within a year, the ranks of Local 150 had already expanded to
include the Durham municipal employees, as well as staff of the Eastern
North Carolina School for the Deaf. In the last two years — and
especially the last four months — the union’s growth has been based
in Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) facilities.
EXPANDING TO DHHS
The Special Care Center in Wilson adjoins the School for
the Deaf; UE began organizing there in 2000. Meanwhile, in Raleigh, the
high level of union activity in the UNC system caught the attention of
Dorothea Dix staff, just as a well-publicized auditor’s report
recommended closure of the historic psychiatric hospital, located near
the North Carolina State campus. The day before the kickoff of the
"Justice 2000" campaign among UNC workers, organizers began
getting calls from Dix staff. The movement started among housekeepers
but Dix workers in a number of job classifications began signing union
cards and payroll deduction authorization. (Local 150 had recently won
checkoff for union dues.)
UE acted quickly to resolve questions about the right to
organize. In a letter to Elizabeth McLaughlin, UE support
attorney, Diane Martin Pomper, Assistant Attorney General,
declared "I can assure you that rights of (state) employees... who
decide to join a union will be respected to the full extent of the
The union met an important challenge at the Eastern
Carolina School for the Deaf when Larry Wellman, the UE chapter
president, was unjustly fired. Local 150 exerted worksite, community and
legal pressure to return Wellman to his job with back pay and restored
Rep. Paul Luebke from Durham is
urged to take action against budget cuts by a UE Local 150 delegation
including Ray Eurquhart, political action coordinator, and Pres. Barbara
Prear at the union's June 13 legislative action day.
From this base, union leaders developed a plan to delve
deeper into DHHS. The "DHHS Dignity" campaign was launched on
March 12, 2001, with 20 or more organizers and volunteers, among them
Dix workers, fanning out through parking lots and driveways. Organizers
collected a few hundred names initially while leafleting Cherry Hospital
and O’Berry Center staff as they went into work.
If workers were pleased to encounter UE, management at
the two DHHS facilities in Goldsboro had a less positive response. The
director of the O’Berry Center called the police; UE organizers were
forced to make a stand for free speech at the gates. The letter from the
Assistant Attorney General circulated among the workers while the union
legal committee went to work on the administration. Eventually, Dr. Jerry
Lyall, the O’Berry director, yielded UE (temporary) office space
on campus (in what’s known as "the White House") to meet
with workers, hear their grievances — and sign up new members.
At Cherry Hospital, where initially management took the
position that unions were "illegal," the director also
provided UE on-site office space (in the Chapel Basement Conference
Room). At both facilities, the Human Resource directors tacked UE
leaflets on the official bulletin boards.
"Cherry workers had just been waiting for the
opportunity," says William Newsome, a health care technician
at the psychiatric hospital. "The response was almost
The challenge facing the UE staff soon became keeping up
with the growing worker interest while building some level of
ON TO CASWELL
From Goldsboro, some 30 miles southwest of Raleigh,
organizers planned on developing interest expressed by workers at the
Whitaker School and Murdoch and Umstead Centers in Butner, north of
Raleigh. The organizing took something of a detour when workers at the
Caswell Center insisted on having the union. The large mental
retardation facility is located in Kinston, nearly 20 miles southeast of
Goldsboro. "We told them, can’t do it now, we’ll talk to you in
the fall," says Field Org. Steve Bader. "But they kept
pounding away." Excitement about UE 150 had captured Caswell
workers with relatives working at other DHHS facilities. UE staff met
with several Caswell workers, many of them from the physical plant, at a
nearby Burger King. All of them signed membership cards — and the
campaign at Caswell was underway.
(The union organized in Butner, too.)
Beginning on April 25, and for weeks after, O’Berry
and Cherry workers wore red on Wednesday to show unity around important
job issues that needed to be addressed — among them, mandatory
overtime, lack of respect, discrimination, lack of paid time off. Adding
to these displays of worker unity were "speak outs" —
leaflets picturing workers with their statements of concern about
Weeks of discussion, "speak-outs," red-shirt
Wednesdays, and workplace election of delegates culminated in the UE 150
DHHS Workers’ Assembly on June 2. More than 100 Department of Health
and Human Services workers and community allies gathered to develop a
workers’ agenda and rally against proposed closures and budget cuts.
Participants came from six DHHS facilities — Cherry
Hospital, O’Berry Center, Caswell Center, Dorothea Dix Hospital and
the Eastern N.C. School for the Deaf. Many of those who attended
reported that this was the first time front-line workers from different
institutions had ever come together to compare conditions — or work
out a common program and plan of action for quality jobs and quality
These new UE Local 150 members spoke out about the state
budget cuts and the continuing crisis of understaffing. They voiced
their concerns and expressed their determination to stop the cuts and to
improve working conditions.
DHHS workers debated proposed policy resolutions
covering a number of issues, among them opposing the budget cuts,
building for a political action day (which took place June 13), worker
presentation on the job and solidarity with other unions.
UE Genl. Sec.-Treas. Bob Clark chaired the
Assembly, which took place at the Herman Park Community Center in
The campaign to organize DHHS, and build strong union
organization, is ongoing. Local 150 members at DHHS facilities are
circulating a "Petition to Save and Improve DHHS Services and
Jobs" that calls for community and worker voice in changes taking
place within the DHHS system and quality care and quality jobs.