Fighting for collective bargaining

Apr. 25, 2011 3:09 am

There was a time in this state when cities were forcefully divided based on race. African Americans were forced to live separately from white residents, had to eat at separate restaurants and weren’t allowed to drink from the same water fountains.

Angaza Laughinghouse was just a boy growing up in Greenville, N.C., during that time. He is one of millions who have lived through the long journey by African Americans to reach equal civil rights in the United States. But one North Carolina law makes him wonder if they still have a long way to go.

This law is N.C. General Statute 95-98, a statute passed in 1959 that prohibits public sector workers in the state from the right to collectively bargain with their employers. Many believe it both prevents democracy in the workplace and serves as a remainder of racist sentiments.

“North Carolina passed its law banning collective bargaining when public sector workers, particularly black workers, were in a time we call the Jim Crow era,” Laughinghouse said. “This law is just totally founded in such undemocratic practices in denying workers the right to vote.”

Laughinghouse is now the president of North Carolina’s Public Service Workers Union Local 150 (Local-150).  This public sector union has 16 chapters across the state, and has been campaigning for the right to collectively bargain for years.

Chapel Hill town decision brings up question of labor rights

Kerry Bigelow and Clyde Clark, two members of the Public Service Workers union, sparked a recent discussion of the law in Chapel Hill.

Bigelow and Clark, formerly with the Chapel Hill Public Works Department, were fired from their jobs as garbage collectors in October. In February, the Personnel Appeals Committee, a citizen advisory group, held hearings during which residents complained that the men were not picking up trash and were rude. Bigelow argued that those complaints were a smokescreen — and that they had been fired because they were filing grievances against management.

“The bottom line was that they didn’t like it because we were using their own policies and they like to have control in their workplace,” Bigelow said.

Bigelow and Clark complained about unsafe working conditions. Bigelow said that the routes he was assigned needed improvement as he believed they could be dangerous due to heavy traffic. He also complained that he was unfairly passed for a promotion and that a less qualified white candidate was chosen in his place.

“It was favoritism and to a degree it was racism,” he said. “What else was I to think? I had a lot more experience.”

Many have criticized the town’s decision in hiring Capital Associated Industries, a Raleigh nonprofit consulting firm, to investigate complaints against Bigelow and Clark. The firm is a known lobbyist against public-sector collective bargaining rights.

Al McSurely, a lawyer assigned to represent Bigelow and Clark by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, stated in an e-mail that he plans to sue the town.

“The bogus complaints, which were turned into mountains by an anti-union private eye, will not stand the light of truth, justice and cross examination,” McSurely said. “[Bigelow] and another black applicant both had superior qualifications to a white man who the town selected for an open position, and the town admits that.”

The firing of Bigelow and Clark have also brought up protests by labor groups and the NAACP, with accusations of racism and union-busting against the town. Laughinghouse said the hearings that upheld the firings were biased because the accusers were allowed to call into the hearings and complain anonymously.

“The complaints that were lodged against them were not the complaints of many people, but just two. And even if two people have those allegations, we should have the right to cross examine those people,” he said. “We didn’t have that right because we don’t have collective bargaining rights and we don’t have a fair grievance procedure, a fair appeals process.”

The National Labor Relations Act, a federal law passed in 1935, grants private sector workers the right to collectively bargain, but each state needs to have its own law for public sector workers. North Carolina is one of five states in the nation that still has a law prohibiting public sector unions from collective bargaining rights.

UNC employees take up the fight

Public sector employees like Vera Stuckey, who has worked at UNC-Chapel Hill as a housekeeper for the past five years, feel that the law limits their rights and that collective bargaining would help make wage negotiations and working conditions fairer then they have been.

“I think it’s awful. It keeps us at a standstill. We don’t get raises,” Stuckey said. “The cost of living, everything is up, but our paycheck is the same.”

Stuckey and Odessa Davis, who also works at UNC-CH housekeeping, were among dozens who protested at the South Building on the university’s campus in early April. The protests focused on a change in university policy that would end an option for maintenance employees to work four 10-hour days each week and return them to five eight-hour days.

Workers argued that switching to a five-day work week would prevent them from having a day off if they had weekend jobs and that the extra day of commuting to work would be expensive due to high gas prices. Davis said many protesters were upset that university officials hadn’t discussed the policy change with them before implementing it.

“If we had collective bargaining, none of this would happen. We need it. I think they want to keep us down. Collective bargaining is the way for us to speak out and, you know, do whatever is necessary to reach our goal,” Davis said. “We’re down here, and we’re never going to get up there. That’s why it’s important that we have collective bargaining.”

Protests for collective bargaining have been part of North Carolina history for decades, but the outdated law continues to stand. Ana Maria Reichenbach, a member of the UNC-CH Students for a Democratic Society, said she believes the law reflects that North Carolina hasn’t outgrown its racist past yet.

“I think that still, this is a very racist state and very classist. When you look at housekeeping, the majority of those workers are African American, Latino and Burmese, and they have the least rights of any workers,” Reichenbach said. “This is a very conservative state. I try to talk to people about unions all the time and the reaction a lot of times is negative.”

Jim Gulledge, a junior at UNC-CH and member of Student Action with Workers, agreed there was a lack of support in North Carolina for changing the law.  He said the newly elected Republican legislature is likely to make the drive to gain collective bargaining even more difficult.

“We’ve certainly been in talks in the past with certain state senators, but there just hasn’t been much support, especially with the new Republican legislature,” Gulledge said. “There’s not much support in overturning that law. They use the recession as an excuse for why it can’t be done right now.”

Changing the law in the state legislature

Opponents of collective bargaining argue that union leaders might exert too much influence, and that the costs of union membership could strain workers. They also argue that employees might join forces to demand policies that benefit them but raise business costs. Public sector bargaining for higher benefits for union workers could result in a hike in regional taxes to fund their demands.

Larsene Taylor, a general executive board member at Local-150, has been working with legislators to alter negative perceptions of collective bargaining. She said the union has made some progress.

“Our power is definitely restricted. But, we have made gains even on that,” Taylor said. “Through the years we have educated the legislature, and have shown evidence, had public hearings.”

The union presented evidence from 2005 hearings with the International Labor Organization, which found that the United States was in violation of international labor standards. Laughinghouse was at these hearings and said judges from around the world, including Sweden, Japan, Mexico, Nigeria, Canada and India were present at the hearing.

“Even in recently apartheid (South) Africa, their constitution grants this fundamental democratic right to form unions and the right to collectively bargain,” Laughinghouse said. “It was also in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We bought these findings not only to the government, but the state legislature, and it recommended that they first of all repeal section 95-98 from the North Carolina General Statues.”

Local-150 recently fought for and won introduction of Senate Bill 386, a bill to repeal the ban on collective bargaining. Unless the bill is approved, Taylor said the union could do little to improve work environments for public sector workers.

“We try to change the law that bans us from doing it. Therefore we have organized and tried to do just that. Whenever a grievance comes up with a member, we read the policy and try to find the best way to help our member,” she said. “Our biggest right is the right to collective bargaining, when we can sit down at a table and make a deal about our working conditions.”

When asked if he thought North Carolina would ever repeal its ban on collective bargaining, Laughinghouse said that change was inevitable. He recounted a story from his youth.

“There were two streets with very interesting names when I was a little boy. I tried to figure out why a street would be Line, like L-I-N-E, and Boundary Street,” he said. “Those streets were the demarcation lines of apartheid as I grew up in Greenville, North Carolina.

“That changed, we’ve come a long way.”

This article was reported as part of the J253 Reporting and News Writing course at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.