Chapel Hill Herald, Saturday, December 18, 2004
Two weeks ago, the International Worker Justice Campaign and UE-150, the N.C. Public Service Workers Union, sponsored a public hearing on the need for collective bargaining rights for public sector employees. The testimony at that event, from numerous university and Chapel Hill employees, was unsettling to say the least.
It has been pretty well established that certain blue collar job categories both at UNC and with the town have historically had a disproportionate number of African-American workers. These workers have suffered under difficult working conditions, poor pay, discriminatory promotion policies and grievance procedures that are often stacked against them.
Those were some of the topics discussed by workers at the recent hearing. Particularly harrowing were the descriptions of the effect of some of the chemicals that cleaning crews are required to use at the hospital. Exposure to these chemicals has caused respiratory problems, nosebleeds and other health problems. Some workers were coughing up blood.
Last spring Bill Shuler, a UNC housekeeper, was fired one day before an inspector from the N.C. Division of Occupational Safety and Health came to investigate two complaints Shuler had filed on behalf of his fellow housekeepers. It is hard to imagine that such close timing was coincidental.
Shuler was shop steward for UE-150. There is an increasing trend nationwide in the firing of stewards and other union organizers. Getting rid of the leaders is a time-tested means for the powerful to resist the attempts of their underlings to assert their rights.
One misconception that was discussed at the hearing is the belief that government workers in North Carolina cannot join unions. They can. To deny them that right would be a violation of their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of association.
What is not permitted is for government workers to enter into collective bargaining agreements with their employers. North Carolina and Virginia have the nation's most draconian laws in that regard. Individuals are left on their own to face a variety of threats and intimidations without the protections a union contract might bring.
"It's not really safe to say anything," one housekeeper commented at a rally in support of Shuler. "We're afraid because we need our jobs."
The other myth exploded at the hearing is the notion that unionization is bad for business. Bosses typically don't like unions because they give workers power in the workplace, power that management jealously guards. But according to David Zonderman of N.C. State University, states with public unions have lower turnover. They avoid the significant costs associated with high turnover such as recruitment, retraining and loss of productivity.
Seven citizens sat on the Workers Rights Board that heard the testimony on Dec. 4, including Town Council member Sally Greene. She commented on some of the effects of the prohibition on collective-bargaining: "Workers feel that they do not have an effective voice," she said. "Low self-esteem and low productivity are logical outcomes of these feelings. There is evidence of racism... There is evidence of discrimination against Spanish-speaking employees...."
Town Council member Bill Strom also sat on the WRB. Strom was heartened by some of what he heard, telling a reporter that the hearing "made me realize what a great job the town of Chapel Hill is doing." Jerry Neville, president of the Black Public Workers Association, has a more measured assessment, commenting recently that "some wrongs have been righted" and that he has generally been pleased with the resolution of grievances.
Paul Wofford, a town mechanic, described a number of problems, concluding bluntly that "we have a racial problem in the Public Works Department." Strom agreed that there are some persistent difficulties between the town and its work force. He said the hearing convinced him that collective bargaining would help in their resolution. As Wofford put it, "people need some kind of representation."
Greene and Strom both back repeal of General Statute 95-98, which outlaws collective bargaining for government employees.
Part of the job of WRB members is to report their findings back to the campaign. Greene's report cut to the heart of the matter:
"The testimony adduced at this hearing was powerful and persuasive. The ability to negotiate in an organized fashion for better pay and, especially, better working conditions and enforceable rights of due process would be of immeasurable help to the public workers of North Carolina and their families, many of whom are struggling to stay above poverty. The ability to bargain collectively would also serve to benefit the state in that it would contribute to a happier, less distrustful, more productive and more stable work force."
As additional hearings are held around the state, it is likely that more citizens and elected leaders will come to agree with Greene's conclusions. Then, this counterproductive and unjust law may finally be repealed.