Over the past month, labor organizers and workers across the United States have called on their employers to provide better wages and labor practices in what union advocates are calling “Striketober.” High-profile strikes at John Deere and Kellogg’s manufacturing plants as well as Warrior Met Coal Mining in Alabama have made headlines throughout the month of October.
Though not as prevalent in the news, North Carolina has seen its own wave of union organizing in the past month. Some actions were a part of nationwide efforts, like when McDonald’s workers in Durham, Charlotte and Marion joined a 10-city walkout on Oct. 25 to protest sexual harassment in the workplace. Others were hyper-localized: Teachers at Union Day School, a charter school in Weddington, began a strike on Oct. 22 after the board fired principal Matt Hamilton.
For Charlotte city workers, state laws make it more difficult to organize, including one that makes it illegal to strike. But even if “Striketober” wasn’t an option for them, the Charlotte City Workers Union (CCWU) worked for change in their respective departments throughout the pandemic, and in recent months have seen that work bear fruit.
They aren’t finished yet, and as we enter November, CCWU is planning a new blitz campaign in hopes that more workers in the Charlotte area will join the cause.
Charlotte city workers, right-to-work and the law
All North Carolina workers face challenges when organizing. The state’s right-to-work statutes greatly limit the powers of labor unions to organize and collectively bargain. These right-to-work statutes prohibit closed-shop organizing, which would allow for participating employers to agree to only hire people in good standing with a trade union, and to terminate the employment of anyone who leaves the union or fails to pay dues.
North Carolina is also an at-will state, meaning that employees can be fired for any reason — or with no reason given at all. This statute leaves workers vulnerable to retaliation if they attempt to organize. Bosses can simply fire anyone believed to be discussing or exploring the potential for unionizing, and don’t need to state the reason they did so.
Public employees — including workers with state, county and municipal agencies – face a particularly challenging law in North Carolina: They are not even allowed to stage a strike.
Passed in 1981, N.C. General Statute 95-98 outlaws all forms of strikes for public workers, kneecapping their ability to respond to injustice in the workplace to this day. In Winston-Salem, for example, underpaid bus drivers decided not to strike after the Forsyth County Association of Educators, the local chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators, publicly stated it would not support any illegal organizing actions.
For CCWU Chief Steward Craig Brown, who works at Charlotte Water, these laws can be frustrating.
“We face bias, we face racial injustice and we face unfair workplace practices … All we ask is fair pay for an honest day’s work,” he said, yet he still believes unions are the key to better labor practices in North Carolina and beyond.
“A union means uniting together for one purpose, one cause. If you believe in the power of a union, fight with all you got for that cause,” said Brown.
Seeing real change
Despite the obstacles, CCWU — the Charlotte Chapter of the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union (UE 150) — continues its fight, having secured a few big victories in recent years.
In 2020, Charlotte Solid Waste Services workers made demands of the city in light of the worsening pandemic, while Charlotte Water employees joined a Black Lives Matter march to protest unsafe working conditions, citing several confirmed cases of the virus in the department including an apparent “major outbreak” that shut down the department’s Zone 2 offices in northeast Charlotte.
The city responded to these calls with a 5% hazard-pay increase for city workers on the frontline of the pandemic. The pay raise was eventually allowed to expire before being reinstated in August 2021 following calls from CCWU members who showed up regularly to virtual city council meetings.
Also this summer, the Charlotte City Workers Union won an $18.50 minimum wage for all city workers and a raise for all workers. LYNX light-rail mechanics also received a retroactive 5% hazard-pay increase covering their work from March 2020 to January 1, 2021.
CCWU also won seven days paid time off for any Charlotte Water worker that came into contact with COVID-19.
The union is currently calling for a change in Charlotte Water’s broadband pay plan for a step-pay plan. Step pay, which applies to Charlotte’s firefighters and police officers, is a system based on local cost of living, merit and seniority. Broadband, which applies to Charlotte Water employees, is based only on merit.
Brown, who has worked for the city for 17 years, believes his job’s required risk and skill warrants a step-pay plan.
“They should pay me for my knowledge, for my skill set and my leadership approach,” he told Queen City Nerve.
With broadband, he says, payment is less stable. “You’re at the mercy of your supervisors.”
Why Charlotte city workers are essential
In the midst of a nationwide and statewide labor shortage, the implications of underpaying city employees are clear.
“I know some guys that are leaving the city because they feel that they’re not getting paid what they’re worth,” said Brown. “The cost of living in Charlotte has superseded the antiquated way [Charlotte’s government] thinks it is.”
Brown said Charlotte Water’s workers are indispensable to the city, pointing out that the department handles both sewers and water, which is uncommon for Southern cities. He referenced the Oct. 18 water-main explosion off Remount Road and how union workers were key to the repairs.
“Who do you think did all the tests to make sure the water quality was up to standard?” he asked. “We’re frontline soldiers. We are there every day making sure people in our communities have clean water.”
Harris, who has been with CCWU for three years, believes outreach to be central to a union’s success. His focus is on educating workers about their rights under the First Amendment and other federal laws, as well as finding and training those interested in starting a union despite the state’s barriers.
“There’s not a law you can put on a book that makes a union illegal,” he said.
Though the road has proven rocky, both Harris and Brown remain optimistic about the future of labor in North Carolina and the United States.
The CCWU is currently organizing a new blitz campaign to recruit more union members. With plans to launch in November, Harris hopes to inspire workers to take back their jobs and their lives.
“I can’t wait for them to join us in this fight to improve working conditions in this country,” he said.
He also sent a message of support to organizers across the country, as some efforts look to continue well past Striketober.
“Keep fighting, don’t give up, and whenever you strike, let it be a real true-to-God strike.”
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