Local 150 Convention: Fight for Safe Jobs and Organize the South

November 17, 2020

Over 70 delegates and guests gathered on November 14 and 15 over Zoom for UE Local 150’s 11th biennial convention. Local 150 President Bryce Carter noted that “This convention is certainly a unique one for us,” being held virtually and in the context of a pandemic. “Our country is in a crisis,” he said, “a moment of turmoil and despair. A moment where from one day to the next day there is uncertainty.”

“These past two years have tested our commitment, our patience, our dedication. As I look back at our work since the convention 2018 two words come to mind: perseverance and determination.” Local 150’s pursuit of better wages, affordable health care, and safe working conditions has “proven the meaning” of those words, said Carter.

Local 150 represents public-sector workers across the state of North Carolina, with chapters at Department of Health and Human Services facilities, cities and municipalities, and campuses in the University of North Carolina system. Since the state prohibits collective bargaining in the public sector, Local 150 members are forced to pursue workplace justice through direct action. Local 150 also includes “pre-majority” chapters at private-sector employers.

Carter reviewed the successes the local has had over the past two years, despite lacking collective bargaining rights. City workers in Durham and Raleigh have won step pay plans. City workers in Charlotte won a $1 per hour wage increase for all workers, while they continue to campaign for a step plan, along with Greensboro city workers. At the Cummins plant in Whitakers, the Carolina Auto, Aerospace and Machine Workers Union (CAAMWU) private-sector chapter “battles on” for wage increases.

Local 150 has also been pursuing affordable health care by pushing for Medicare for All, he said. The local hosted workplace actions across the state on the day before the presidential primary in March and successfully pushed the city of Durham to pass a resolution in favor of H.R. 1384, the federal Medicare for All Act. After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, chapters across the state launched the Safe Jobs Save Lives campaign to fight for hazard pay, personal protective equipment and other safety measures.

“We have fought hard for collective bargaining, against systemic racism, for fair grievance procedures, to be treated with dignity and respect in and out of the workplace, and so much more,” Carter concluded. “None of this work would be possible without the members. Each one of you have persevered and shown great determination. Our future may be unclear but we are ready to take on any adversity that comes our way. Let us continue the fight now and forevermore!”

“Don’t underestimate your power”

Guest speaker Leonard Riley, of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422 in Charleston, South Carolina, told Local 150 members that “after we have organized, we must deputize ourselves” to use our power as workers to fight for social justice.

He described how in January of 2000 five members of his local were arrested and charged with felony rioting for engaging in peaceful picketing of a ship that was using non-union labor. During the ultimately successful global campaign to have charges against them dropped, Riley said, “We came together with the help of people we didn’t even know existed,” people all around the world who shared the common bond of being in the working class.

He likened the coalition built to free the “Charleston Five” to more recent efforts to pull together unions such as UE and ILA Local 1422 to take action to prevent potential election-stealing (see “Defending Democracy” on page 5 for more about Labor Action to Defend Democracy.) “That same tool that we created ... can and should be used to address all of the social ills” facing our society, he said. “That same coalition can be active to achieve” goals like a $15 per hour minimum wage or changing labor laws to strengthen unions, “but we have to be active.”

“Don’t underestimate your power, your place in making social change,” he urged. “Don’t get weary of what you’re doing.”

UE General President Carl Rosen also addressed the convention, framing his remarks in the context of the five principles outlined in UE’s new booklet, “Them and Us Unionism”: aggressive struggle, rank and file control, political independence, international solidarity and uniting all workers.

Rosen told Local 150 members that he and his fellow UE officers are “Very proud that Local 150 is part of our union.” He pointed out how “The fights you’re leading, for safe jobs, to lift up racial justice and healthcare justice, to demand democracy, to organize the unorganized” illustrate the principles of aggressive struggle and uniting all workers. He called Local 150’s work “great activity on behalf of the working class” and “a real inspiration for many people both within UE and without.”

Turning to “the fight for racial justice and for racial unity of the working class,” Rosen spoke of the “key national role” that UE played in organizing the coalition Labor for Black Lives. “Nothing is more central” to the work of racial justice, he said, “than organizing the South.”

Rosen said that “Part of the reason that Donald Trump is in the White House is because the part of the Democratic Party that Joe Biden represents has sold out the working class again and again.” Emphasizing UE’s commitment to political independence, he declared that “We’re not going to tie ourselves to the tail end of the Democratic Party … We’re going to fight for working people whether the Democratic Party likes it or not.”

“All [the election] did was give us a little better terrain to fight from, but now we need to have that fight,” Rosen said. Labor needs to fight for expanded unemployment insurance, emergency Medicare for All, and funding to stop cutbacks at state and local governments and the US Postal Service. Labor also needs to fight to “end the plague of police violence” and other forms of racial injustice, and for full labor rights, including the right to collective bargaining for public-sector workers. “This is a big agenda but it’s what we must fight for,” Rosen concluded.

“Fighting to get our demands met”

After lunch on Saturday, Local 150 Vice President Sekia Royall moderated two panels. During the first panel, “Organizing North Carolina and the Safe Jobs Save Lives Campaign,” Local 150 leaders reported on organizing efforts in the various sectors represented by the local.

Cherry and O’Berry Chapter President William Young reported that when the pandemic started, DHHS workers would come to work having no idea. Then, he said, “We started fighting to get our demands met.” After over 900 DHHS workers signed a petition, DHHS instituted hazard pay, provided more PPE and made other improvements for workers’ safety.

Nichel Dunlap Thompson, recording secretary of the Charlotte chapter, described the organizing blitzes of municipal workers that Local 150 carried out prior to the pandemic, and successful fights for PPE and hazard pay since March. “We have to use our voice, we have to use our vote, in order to continue to fight,” she said.

Aisha Muhammad, a graduate worker and member of the UNC-Chapel Hill chapter, described “a pretty aggressive Safe Jobs Save Lives campaign at UNC,” including a statewide town hall involving workers from numerous campuses in the system, rallies and petition deliveries. “UNC has fumbled the proverbial ball when it comes to safety for students and housekeepers,” she said.

CAAMWU Vice President Tim Hunt said that when the pandemic hit, Cummins allowed office personnel to work from home but production workers still had to report to work. He described how CAAMWU won safety measures in the plant, but emphasized that “safe practices and habits have to go beyond just work.”

Chris Hollis reported on the new Local 150 chapter at Valley Proteins, a chicken rendering plant in Fayetteville where he worked as a truck driver. Valley Proteins, he said, “has been operating as though COVID never existed,” forcing workers to work exhausting schedules and telling them “go to Walmart and buy your own” when workers inquired about masks and other PPE. The workers began organizing with the help of Black Workers for Justice, and in July launched a petition demanding hazard pay, PPE and workplace safety measures. In response to workers’ demands, the company gave workers a 35 cent raise and is now handing out face masks and providing sanitation stations.

When the company terminated him, Hollis said, they “thought that’s the end of this whole movement,” but Hollis explained that the movement wasn’t about him, “It was about every single worker in that plant standing together in solidarity.” Valley Protein workers continue to meet weekly to build their union.

International Representative Dante Strobino also gave a detailed report on the membership of the various chapters, emphasizing the importance of always having to organize and bring in new members, in order to have power.

“Collective bargaining is the only solution we have”

The panel “Organize the South and building the Southern Workers Assembly” was kicked off by Nathanette Mayo, who outlined the history of Local 150. The roots of Local 150, she said, were in the Workers Want Fairness campaign launched by Black Workers for Justice in the early 80s. Recognizing that low wages in the South were a drag on the wages of unionized workers in the North, BWfJ brought Southern workers to unionized workplaces in the North, both to educate them about unions and to create pressure on unions to devote resources to organizing the South.

Former UE Director of Organization Ed Bruno was honest about what it will take to win full collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers. “How do public workers gain collective bargaining rights?” he asked. “They gain collective bargaining rights by striking.” The strikes by public-sector workers in the late 60s and early 70s that established collective bargaining rights were “not only just strikes, they were acts of civil disobedience,” he said. He cautioned union members against becoming too comfortable with “meet and confer,” which he said “should never be confused” with the objective of winning collective bargaining, “the only solution we have” to winning justice for working people.

Dwayne Arthur, who works for the city of Virginia Beach, Virginia, reported on the UE organizing campaign among city workers there. City workers began organizing following a walkout by sanitation workers in August, which successfully won hazard pay. “We’ve been steadily, steadily trying to gain ground,” Arthur said, in the struggle for “equal justice, equal pay, and better working conditions.”

Charlotte Chapter President Dominic Harris discussed the Southern Workers Medicare for All campaign, explaining how Medicare for All connects to organizing in the South. “A worker-led movement for Medicare for All,” he said, is “a major point to bring people into the union.” In addition to being a recruitment mechanism, “it’s also just the right thing to do.”

On the second day of the convention, chapter delegates elected new officers: Sekia Royall as president, Bryce Carter as vice president, Shanequa Logan as recording secretary, Dominic Harris as secretary-treasurer, Bonita Johnson as assistant secretary-treasurer, and Craig Brown as chief steward. Nichel Dunlap Thompson and John Hedlund were elected as trustees. They also discussed and passed four resolutions, on funding for higher education, collective bargaining for public-sector workers, fighting racism and Medicare for All.

Resolutions

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