By Dante Strobino
On Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day, public-sector workers in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia—in a common struggle to deepen the protections under state law for collective-bargaining rights, and all organized by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America—held simultaneous news conferences announcing the most recent step in the International Worker Justice Campaign.
They are requesting that the Inter-American Council on Human Rights, a body chartered under the Organization of American States, investigate why workers are denied the fundamental human rights to organize and collectively bargain labor contracts with their employers.
The workers in these three states all suffer from different conditions and laws but they all share the fact that none of these states protects their right to collectively bargain. North Carolina, the state with the worst laws and conditions, where public-employee collective bargaining is actually illegal, was the prime focus of this action.
For several years, UE along with Black Workers for Justice and other community and labor organizations have been building a grassroots movement to demand repeal of General Statute 95-98, the North Carolina law prohibiting collective bargaining for public workers.
North Carolina and Virginia are the only states in the country where collective bargaining for public workers is prohibited by law.
The UE’s “request to the OAS is the third international legal initiative undertaken by our union in the fight to win collective bargaining rights for all public employees. Cases have also been brought before the human rights agency of the United Nations and, through the efforts of Mexico’s FAT, [Authentic Workers’ Front] under the side agreements to the North American Free Trade Agreement,” states the UE website.
The OAS has historically been a tool by the U.S. to diplomatically undermine the economies in Latin America—for example, the anti-worker NAFTA—but underscoring the 1848 prognosis of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels that capitalism creates its own gravediggers, poverty and repression are igniting pro-worker resistance throughout the region.
Connecting workers’ rights with fighting racism
In the last three years, this campaign has organized hearings in several cities across North Carolina to speak out against work conditions. A highlight of that campaign was in November 2005 when members of the United Nations International Labor Organization from several countries participated in a hearing where workers from all over the state testified about their working conditions and the need for collective bargaining.
Then, in September 2006, city workers in Raleigh were being forced to work overtime without pay, amidst other grievances, and waged a militant two-day walk out. It was not until the workers built their union and expanded their demands that they found any justice. This past November, they finally won a settlement from the city, awarding them back overtime pay.
Last February, the ILO released a 90-page report with its findings, indicting North Carolina for violating international law. On Feb. 10 more than 3,000 people, mostly African American, met and marched in the streets in the NAACP’s “Historic Thousands on Jones Street People’s Assembly” to demand collective bargaining for state workers along with a slate of 13 other demands for the North Carolina Legislature.
Due to the workers’ mobilizations and power, this past legislative session saw unexpected progress on a bill created by the movement that would have eliminated the ban on collective bargaining.
The bill passed through one state house judiciary committee and is now sitting in the state appropriations committee. It has many supporters in the state legislature.
Given that most of the public-sector workers in North Carolina and Virginia are Black, Latin@ and women, this struggle for collective bargaining is an obviously monumental struggle against institutional racism and sexism. In fact, UE Local 150, the North Carolina Public Sector Workers Union, has always had the plight of oppressed workers foremost on its mind in fashioning an approach to this struggle.
Most recently, since the national upsurge in the anti-racist movement following the Jena 6 case in Louisiana, just as nooses were hung across the country meant to intimidate Black people, there were several nooses found hanging in work places in North Carolina.
A Nov. 25 New York Times article, “The Geography of Hate,” reported that 50 to 60 nooses have been found, with many others not reported.
This is not a struggle unfamiliar to UE Local 150. Back in 2004, during the IWJC public hearing in Rocky Mount, workers testified about how in the spring of 2004 a dummy was hung at a city work site, and linked this with other incidents of racism at that time.
In 2005, the UE supported several Black Department of Transportation workers, called the “DOT 7,” who filed a lawsuit against the state after a noose was left hanging for a month over their work bench.
Most recently, since the Sept. 20 Jena march of tens of thousands, there have been nooses found at state work places at Eastern Carolina University and North Carolina State University, and two were found in a bucket with red paint, symbolizing blood, at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. UE-organized workers at all three of these universities have been fighting back.
Most recently, they held a news conference and rally at UNC-Charlotte to denounce the nooses. Statewide, UE Local 150 has also recently been implementing anti-racist union stewards’ trainings for prompt, on-the-job organized resistance to racism.
Strobino is a member of the youth group Fight Imperialism-Stand Together (FIST) in Raleigh, N.C., and is also an organizer with UE in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.
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