AFL-CIO praises Durham support for workers’ rights, challenge to N.C. labor law

On May Day, Durham Workers Assembly led a protest and march through downtown Durham, stopping traffic on May 1, 2018.
On May Day, Durham Workers Assembly led a protest and march through downtown Durham, stopping traffic on May 1, 2018. dvaughan@heraldsun.com

City leaders want to support Durham’s workers but are constrained by state laws.

They’re creating a Durham Workers’ Rights Commission anyway, and they’re asking the Durham delegation in the N.C. General Assembly to support labor-rights legislation.

The City Council is asking state lawmakers to support a statewide minimum wage of $15 and to overturn the state ban on public sector employees’ collective bargaining. With an all-Democrat delegation, they’re likely to get support. N.C. Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. has already said he will reintroduce a $15 minimum-wage bill.

Creating the Durham Workers’ Rights Commission was approved Tuesday night on the City Council’s consent agenda, a part of the agenda the council typically passes without discussion. Council member Vernetta Alston took the lead on the issue after meeting with workers over the past several months, and council members recently ironed out details. Several workers attended the Jan. 22 meeting.

Mayor Steve Schewel stressed the commission will only have advisory power.

“Our ability to enforce these rights is minimal,” Schewel said a recent meeting. “Just so everyone understands, we can be advocates, but our ability to enforce the rights of workers is not as strong as we would like it to be.”

Activist Takiyah Thompson told the council it is no mistake that union membership in North Carolina and South Carolina is so low, given the states’ history of slavery.

“Durham is a chocolate city,” Thompson said, meaning it has a large African-American population. “In the absence of strong unions, workers must have access to a body who will defend them to the constant attacks leveled to them from their bosses, and in a city with such a large black population.”

The commission was proposed about a year ago by several labor groups in Durham, including city workers and Duke University workers. It will have 13 people, appointed by the council, who live and work in the city. Members would serve two years, without compensation.

What the commission will do:

Act as a public forum for hearing workers’ complaints

Make recommendations to the Durham City Council

Provide communication between organized and unorganized workers

Support workers who want to form unions

Create a workers bill of rights

In North Carolina, just 3.4 percent of workers belong to unions, the second lowest rate in the U.S., according to the the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. In South Carolina, union membership is 2.6 percent, the lowest in the country. The nationwide union membership rate in 10.7 percent.

N.C. State AFL-CIO President MaryBe McMillan released a statement after the Council’s vote this week, saying they will work with union members and community partners to encourage other municipalities to create commissions similar to Durham’s.

“We applaud Mayor Steve Schewel and the City Council for creating the Durham Workers’ Rights Commission and setting an example for other cities. Today’s action shows that even with pre-emption and other constraints legislative leaders have placed on local governments, city officials can raise the bar and take proactive steps to ensure that working people are treated fairly,” McMillan said.

“This commission would allow the front-line workers to have an input on decisions and procedures being considered, holding management accountable for doing right by their employees and residents’ tax dollars,” said Daryl Brunson, a solid waste operator for the city and steward of the Durham City Workers Union.

The Durham City Workers Union is part of UE Local 150. Union member and recording secretary Sarah Vukelich said it’s important to remember that the Workers Rights Commission is a creation of the Durham Workers’ Assembly, composed of Durham unions along with other organized and unorganized workers.

Vukelich, an outdoor recreation specialist for Durham Parks & Recreation, said the commission will help the Durham Workers Assembly build workers’ power in their own workplaces, as well as across the city and state.

The commission will also enable the City Council to “collaborate with working-class grassroots organizing to defeat the Jim Crow ban on public-sector collective bargaining.”

This will be the second time in the past year that the council has called for overturning the collective bargaining ban, which prohibits organized public-sector employees from negotiating wages and benefits with their employers.

The Durham City Council passed a resolution in April 2018, proposed by Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson, calling for the state to overturn the ban.

McMillan said the AFL-CIO will continue to lobby the state legislature to “remove the unnecessary restrictions they have placed on local governments’ ability to improve labor standards,” including the ban on collective bargaining.

“We thank the workers and city officials in Durham for upping the ante and pushing our legislature and local governments to do better by working people,” McMillan said.

Last year, Aiden Graham, campaign manager for the N.C. State AFL-CIO, said that Durham “probably has the most progressive city council in North Carolina.”

Nearly 175 people rallied in Durham on Labor Day for higher wages and union representation for fast-food and other service workers.

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