North Carolina Marchers Demand Bail Out and Power

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By Dante Strobino, Raleigh/Durham FIST

“Bail Out the Workers, Not the Banks!” chanted workers, youth, religious leaders, and civil rights activists as they marched through the streets of downtown Raleigh, NC on Saturday, February 14th as part of the third annual Historic Thousands on Jones Street (HKonJ) march.

Almost 10,000 people gathered in Chavis Park before the march began, including hundreds of workers wearing yellow gags symbolizing the lack of a voice due to ban on collective bargaining for public sector workers. Members of UNC-Chapel Hill campus groups Black Student Movement and Student Action with Workers wore Black shirts that read “We Will Not Be Silent,” while other marchers carried the white signs that listed the HKon J movement’s 14 Point “Peoples’ Agenda.”

The HKonJ coalition was organized by the North Carolina Conference of the NAACP and includes over 80 organizations fighting for the People’s Agenda. The agenda includes demands for quality education, a living wage, health care for all, redress two ugly chapters of N.C.’s racist history, collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, reforming the prisons, immigrants rights and more. Since the movement’s founding, two demands of the Agenda have been realized, including union recognition at Smithfield pork-processing plant and same-day voter registration in North Carolina, which now becomes the only state allowing citizens to register on the same day of an election. This new legislation is credited with helping win the state for Barack Obama this past November.

This year’s march to the legislature was particularly powerful in the wake of the massive economic crisis people are facing and the fight back mood in response.  A major theme of this year’s march was “Don’t Balance the Budget on the Backs of the Poor.” North Carolina now has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country at 8.7% percent; with total unemployment above 15%.

With North Carolina looking at a $2 billion budget deficit and Governor Beverly Perdue proposing to cut the state budget by as much as 10%, the governor’s office has mandated all state departments cut their services and workforce. In the University of North Carolina system, budget cuts are proposed that would lay-off workers, and increase class sizes. Meanwhile, UNC President Erskine Bowles applauds himself for only raising the cost of tuition for students by 3.9%, while many are already strapped with debt and cannot find jobs. UNC-Chapel Hill hired consultants to help analyze their budget, while the administrators make over seven times the salary of a campus housekeeper!

There was a powerful contingent of students mobilized from dozens of college campuses and high schools. Mohammad Amleh, a Palestinian member of the youth group Fight Imperialism Stand Together carried a sign that read “From Oakland to Gaza, Resistance is Justified” and made the connection between the economic crisis and the recent massacre in Gaza when he stated “In the US, the government is supporting the strong banks and the influential figures on the backs of the hard working people. The same in Palestine, where the US government is helping Israel while the poor and weakened Palestinians are suffering!”

Also present was a powerful workers contingent lead by UE local 150 Mental Health Workers, who are fighting for a Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights. They wore yellow gags and brought fliers highlighting the state’s scapegoating of workers for patient abuse and neglect within the mental health system. The state Department of Health and Human Services is threatening budget cuts of $50 million. Meanwhile, it is losing federal funding of $800,000 per month at Cherry Psychiatric hospital and potentially $1.2 million per month from Central Regional Hospital, due to problems created by the administrators such as understaffing, lack of training, mandatory overtime, and not considering input from front-line workers. Among the many other political messages the marchers chanted: “Workers Need Power, Organize the South”.

Marching in the UE150 contingent was Charlotte City Workers member Dwayne Hardin, who stated: “We are marching for collective bargaining rights because it is a human right that we all deserve.” He continued, “Working in Charlotte without a [union] contract means city workers will never have wages that meet those of comparable cities around the country, our equipment will remain inferior, continue to break down and we will continue to see increased work loads as the City annexes in new areas without hiring more workers.”

Melvin Maclin and Ron Bender of the heroic UE local 1110 came to march at HK on J alongside their union sisters and brothers. Local 1110’s membership includes workers at the Republic Windows and Doors Factory in Chicago, who successfully occupied their factory and wrestled $2 million from the banks for pay and vacation time owed.

At the front of the march was a strong group of union workers from rural Chatham County who have been on a bitter seven-month strike at the Moncure Plywood factory. Moncure Plywood tried to force the workers to sign a contract that would have mandated 60 hour work weeks, continue hazardous work conditions, and impose 300-400% increase in their insurance payments. Workers are facing a company that has violated many NLRB regulations, remained indifferent to racist harassment (including the hanging of a noose) and has hired permanent scabs to replace all workers on strike. Allen Moore, Vice President of the IAM local W369 in Moncure, stated “Today we are marching against foreclosures, for the Employee Free Choice Act, and for education but also to show our management that we will not settle for less and that we have lots of support. Many of our issues are covered in the 14 Point Agenda.”

As was repeated throughout the day, the marchers understood themselves as part of a “movement, not a moment.” Many have already been actively participating in People’s Assemblies throughout the state to organize the unorganized in their communities and workplaces, and to develop strategies to challenge the corporations, the state and the banks until justice is sought and their demands are met.

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