Workers struggle in Orange County

Guest Post by Steven Sherman

On Saturday, December 4th, community members heard powerful, disturbing testimony about why North Carolina needs collective bargaining for public sector workers. The context was a public hearing (the third in the state) held by the International Worker Justice Campaign at the Chapel Hill Public Library.

The first speaker, an academic whose name I didn't catch, explained the current situation. Along with Virginia, North Carolina has the worst laws regarding collective bargaining in the nation. Not only are public sector workers barred from collective bargaining; any contracts negotiated in such a manner are actually illegal. Naturally, this is a huge obstacle for unions, although all American's right to join unions is guaranteed by the first amendment (thus even North Carolina public sector workers can join unions). He argued that while collective bargaining rights would likely increase the wages paid to public sector workers (whose average pay in NC is only a round 30,000/year), these costs would be offset by the reduced turnover typical of collectively bargained workplaces. Of course, there are also benefits to the state that come with higher wages--happier, less stressed workers and improved pools of applicants, to name two.

Most of the event was taken up with testimonials from workers (who were queried by a panel, including town council members and state representatives). As is so often the case, although many of the workers make abysmal wages, their complaints were focused as much around health/safety issues, humilitiations at the hands of supervisors, a sense of grievances unheard as they were around wages (although these are also certainly important).

It was maddening to hear it all, and realize once again how, whenever people believe they will not be challenged, they can engage in the worst sort of behavior. For example, housekeepers at UNC described the way they have been forced to work with a chemical that results in people coughing up blood. When they contacted OSHA, they were never able to speak to the safety inspectors without a supervisor present. Or there was the situation on Halloween night (workers repeatedly warned supervisors that it is a difficult night) where an immigrant worker went home after being turned away by the police at Franklin St. She was punished for missing a shift! Transit workers spoke of unsafe conditions for everyone when they are forced onto schedules that require them to drive the buses too fast. Public works employees spoke of racial harassment. A police officer said that good officers are sometimes forced out by the bad because of the lack of due process.

Overall, the testimony made a powerful case for the need for transformations of the state laws around collective bargaining. It was a pity that more of the progressive community did not turn out to hear the workers. Why do hundreds of people show up to see a film (Fourth World War) about struggles in South Africa, Korea, etc. but only about twenty people who weren't themselves public sector workers bothered to come out and support the local working class?

Steve Sherman is a sociologist lwho lives in Chapel Hill.


Perhaps these workers could try, oh I don't know, something called the private sector? I can't feel sorry for anyone in a government controlled system who complain of being overworked or abused. After all, many folks around here see government control as a good thing, a positive thing, a thing to strive for and expand on at a cost to the private sector. Remember, private business=bad, government work=good. It's the mantra of the Politbloc in Orange county, especially in the Chapelboro south. There just simply can't be racism and harassment of these workers by thier supervisors, because in a government controlled system, that would be impossible. Perhaps the Politbloc of Chapelboro could spend another $15,000 to fund a weekend retreat at an area hotel to solve the problem like they did for Airport Road.

Yeah Will, you're right. Who needs the public sector? Who needs most of the best universities in the world? Bus service? Heatlh and human services? Road maintenance? Police? Police??!! Hasn't anyone in this country heard there are private security forces that can do the job?

And if I like some of the goods the public sector provides, I couldn't possibly believe that workers are treated poorly there, right? I mean, nothing in the world is ever complicated is it?

There's a rumor that a super WalMart might be going in around 15-501 and Old Lystra. Maybe all the housekeepers and grounds workers at UNC should go work for WalMart. Surely university faculty and staff can clean up after themselves; AND we could eliminate the leaf blowers altogether if there were no groundskeepers. Great suggestion Will. What was your plan if you were elected as commissioner for soil and water? Let people pour all their toxic chemicals into the storm water drains because we don't need public works or police?

You said police twice, Stephen, yet never mentioned fire protection. You seem to be angry, without direction or cause. Do you feel certian people should be "incarcerated" and not others, due to some deep personal debt you feel you owe? Did I strike a chord in your soul that made you go loco? Tell me, Stephen, what is security to you? A paycheck with benefits?


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