by Ashaki Binta, UE Field Organizer
UE members in Charlotte won an historic victory on January 14, when the City Council, by a 6 to 5 vote, granted city unions the right to collect dues from their members through payroll deduction, also known as dues checkoff.
While Local 150 already had dues checkoff for its members who work for the state and in the cities of Raleigh and Durham, the win in Charlotte was breakthrough in that city. Charlotte has had an anti-union policy dating back at least 50 years, resisting even limited recognition of city unions through "meet and confer" policies (which are permitted for public employees under North Carolina law, although negotiating contracts is illegal.)
The fight in Charlotte for collective bargaining rights and dues checkoff has historically been spearheaded by Charlotte Fire Fighters Association (CFFA), Local 660 of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). In response to organizing campaigns among the Charlotte fire fighters and police officers in the 1950s, the legislature enacted North Carolina General Statute 95-98, which outlaws collective bargaining for local and state public sector workers. In the 1970s the CFFA brought a lawsuit against Charlotte, demanding payroll dues deduction for city workers under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against the firefighters. With the Supreme Court's apparent blessing, Charlotte solidified its anti-union restrictions and policies.
The Charlotte City Workers Chapter of UE Local 150 was first organized in 2006, with nearly 200 members recruited among sanitation and other public works employees. But the union faced difficulty in maintaining membership without dues checkoff, since each member had to arrange to pay dues through a bank draft with their credit union or bank, or pay by cash or check to the union each month. Many workers in public works didn't have bank accounts or credit union memberships, and cash dues collection was inconsistent at best. As a result, membership dwindled.
In 2010, the Charlotte Chapter reorganized itself, with strong interest from workers again primarily in the sanitation department. Weekly meetings among sanitation workers began anew, focused on issues such as unfair discipline and discharges. Monthly membership meetings drew strong participation from both sanitation and special transportation workers. Small delegations of sanitation workers to the City Council began in late Spring 2011, and members of City Council were invited to UE Charlotte Chapter membership meetings. Charlotte Chapter President Al Locklear explained to members the importance of fighting for payroll dues deduction, which would bring the union a higher level of recognition from the city, and more stability as it fights to improve the lives of city workers.
On the electoral front, the 2011 municipal election in Charlotte brought the Democrats a supermajority on city council (split between conservatives and a few members who are more progressive), as well as the re-election of Mayor Anthony Foxx, who is relatively progressive. Additionally, Charlotte was chosen as the site for the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Members of the UE Local 150 Charlotte Chapter debated how best to take advantage of coming of the party convention and the attention it would bring to the city, in order to advance union's agenda of fighting for the interests of the Charlotte city workers.
AUGUST 2012 CAMPAIGN
In August 2012, one month before the Democratic National Convention would convene, UE 150 and the Charlotte Chapter launched a campaign demanding an end to unfair discipline and discharges, across-the-board general wage increases, and other improvements, including the right to dues checkoff. The "August Campaign" consisted of weekly pickets in front of the City Hall, press conferences, and meetings with members of City Council and the mayor. The union's weekly pickets were joined by progressive activists from around the country who were coming to Charlotte to participate in protests outside the convention, as well as other local and regional union, community, and worker-rights activists.
UE Local 150 sent open letters to President Obama, the Democratic National Committee, and the Obama-Biden re-election campaign about unjust conditions for Charlotte city workers. An online petition was started, and community members were urged to call or email the mayor and City Council in support of the city workers. Local 150 held another press conference to call on the city to enact UE's Municipal Workers' Bill of Rights, which includes the "right to payroll dues deduction".
UE was a founding host of the Southern Workers Assembly (SWA), a gathering of over 300 labor activists in Charlotte on Labor Day, at the beginning of the Democratic Convention. The Charlotte city workers' struggle was a major focus of the SWA. This also helped to bring more national and international attention to the Charlotte struggle.
FINAL PUSH TO VICTORY
In the months following the Democratic Convention, the Charlotte Chapter continued to work closely with progressive city council members, Fire Fighters Local 660, and other labor and community supporters to build toward a vote on dues checkoff. The successful vote in January is a major victory for working class people in North Carolina as well as nationally at a time when ongoing attacks on labor continue, including efforts to establish anti-union "right-to-work" (for less)" laws in the traditional union stronghold states, attacks on public employee bargaining rights, and efforts by Republicans in several states to eliminate dues checkoff where it has existed for decades.
"We know that this opened a door for us to move forward," said James "Al" Locklear, president of the Charlotte City Workers Chapter of UE Local 150. "It's a type of recognition of the union and we will be better able to fight for the changes we need. It's just a door that's opened to us and now is the time for us to keep pushing and move forward to address more of our issues."
Besides outlawing public employee bargaining, North Carolina has long been a "right-to-work" state, which means that by state law, unions in the private sector are barred from negotiating contract clauses requiring all workers to join the union. This is a deliberate anti-worker, low-wage policy, and Republican Speaker of the State House Thom Tillis recently bragged that North Carolina "will continue to be the least unionized state in the United States." Not satisfied with just a right-to-work law, Tillis and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory have called for making "right-to-work" part of the state constitution.
This is a reminder that UE Local 150 members are organizing in an extremely hostile environment, where every union victory is a testament to the extraordinary courage and persistence of the rank and file. The fight for union rights in the South remains one of the most important tasks of the labor movement and all supporters of human rights.