Over the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend, UE members in Virginia and North Carolina held marches honoring Dr. King’s fight for civil rights and workers' rights. Workers spoke about the lack of progress for workers since the 1960's, and called for the right to collective bargaining — a basic right restricted in both states.
In Norfolk, Virginia, workers from several cities in the Tidewater Region who are organizing with UE swelled that city’s MLK parade to the largest it has been in a long time. Municipal workers in Virginia were granted the legal right to collective bargaining in 2021, but each city’s workers must first secure an ordinance from their city council authorizing it, which has proved to be a long and arduous process in many cities.
In Virginia Beach, the city council’s task force on collective bargaining, which included two UE leaders, recently completed an eight-week session. City workers are now waiting for their city council to convene a meeting to vote on adopting the collective bargaining ordinance.
“It is a shame 62 years later we are still fighting for workers rights,” said Virginia Beach city worker Patricia Thebert. “Dr, Martin Luther King Jr. died trying to get rights for municipal workers."
“I work for the city of Virginia Beach but can’t afford to live there,” added city worker Trina Love. “But with collective bargaining, as a city worker and part of the union we will be able to negotiate our wages.”
City workers in the Tidewater cities of Norfolk, Portsmouth and Newport News are also organizing with UE. “City workers need their own voice through their union,” said Norfolk Waste Management worker Clifford Johnson. “Management cannot speak for us, nor do they have the power to give us what we need. With collective bargaining workers will have a voice and be able to negotiate over our wages and working conditions.”
Norfolk Public Utility worker Velma Owens added, “Workers need more diversity in the workforce. Female leaders [are] discriminated against for promotions and historically make less than their male counterparts. Collective Bargaining will allow fairness in the workplace.”
“The fundamental right to negotiate the terms of our work ... will inspire us to a more meaningful and productive workplace for a good life for ourselves and family,” said Newport News city worker Keith Graham. “Collective bargaining ... helps establish a balance of power,” added Newport News City worker Curtis Hartsfield. “This is needed now more than ever during these difficult economic times we face.”
“City councils in these cities need to pass a collective bargaining ordinance that enables city workers to support their families and afford to live in the city they work for," said Terry Green, a 35-year city worker in Virginia Beach’s Water Department. Green serves as the president of the UE organizing committee for his city.
UE members also spearheaded or joined marches and other actions in the North Carolina cities of Greensboro, Rocky Mount, Charlotte, Raleigh and Durham, demanding a $25 per hour minimum wage and collective bargaining rights for all municipal workers.
In Durham, over 200 community, faith and other labor allies joined an action lead by the Durham City Workers Union. Many spoke out about the fights in their workplaces, making the connection to the central importance of city workers to make the city run.
Workers were also invited by Rev. Dr. Warren Herndon, Chair of the Durham Martin Luther King Steering Committee, to participate in a program that same morning at the First Presbyterian Church. Present at the church were many state, county and city elected officials including Mayor Leonardo Williams, Mayor Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton, and councilmembers Nate Baker and Carl Rist.
Vincent Daniels, who is employed in Public Works for the City of Durham and is a member of UE Local 150, told the Durham march that wages for municipal workers have fallen so far behind the cost of living that his department is severely understaffed:
We’re marching because… we’re expected to keep up with the citizens’ demand with half the workforce and half the pay of other municipalities. We are employed by a city that claims it cannot afford our services. But that’s a bunch of garbage. They have the funds to give us competitive pay, but they prefer to keep it stored away for who knows what. The cost of living is exponentially higher than it was a decade ago, and our pay is practically the same.
George Bacote, a Durham solid waste worker and member of UE Local 150, added, “Sanitation workers are struggling today just like they were in 1968 when Dr. King was fighting for the same issues of fair pay and union rights. This is why we are marching on the MLK holiday. We need a serious raise this year, including raising the minimum wage to $25 per hour and adjustments for solid waste operators.”