Durham County

Is Durham a union town? Labor groups hope so.

Union and labor groups in Durham are calling for a Worker’s Rights Commission, and think they have a city council who supports it.

“Durham probably has the most progressive city council in North Carolina,” said Aiden Graham, campaign manager for the North Carolina State AFL-CIO. He thinks the city can be a leader in the state and the South. But he also said Durham has a low union density.

The nationwide union membership rate in 2017 was 10.7 percent, according to a U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics report. There were 14.8 million wage and salary workers in unions, a slight increase from 2016. North Carolina has the second lowest union membership rate at 3.4 percent. Only South Carolina is lower with 2.6 percent of workers in unions.

North Carolina law prohibits collective bargaining for public employees. However at Duke University, which is private, adjunct faculty were successful in forming a union and negotiating a contract in 2017.

North Carolina, by statute, is a “right-to-work” state, which means no employee in the state can be required to join a union as a condition of employment. If an employer in the state chooses to recognize a union, employees may choose to join the union but by law are not required to do so.

Dante Strobino is the field organizer for UE Local 150 NC Public Service Workers Union, Durham City Workers Chapter. City workers can join the union but don’t have collective bargaining rights. Durham Mayor Steve Schewel and the council are friendly to the work they’re doing, Strobino said.

On Thursday night, the second Durham Workers Assembly was held to gather different labor groups together to call for the Worker’s Rights Commission. Along with the AFL-CIO, UE Local 150 and SEIU Duke Faculty Union, the Domestic Workers Alliance-We Dream In Black, Raise Up for $15 and Justice for Rebar and Reinforcement Industry Coalition are calling for a local rights commission.

Durham Worker’s Commission

Strobino said a Worker’s Rights Commission would be mostly run by workers but also have the city council hear complaints, though state law limits the council’s involvement. The commission would also do a study of worker’s rights in Durham.

MJ Sharp of the Duke adjunct faculty union said that a commission would show the way for other towns across the state and nation.

Eric Winston was born and raised in Durham. He’s part of Raise Up for $15, the nationwide group of workers, many in fast food, who want a minimum wage of $15 per hour.

“We don’t need a commission. We demand a commission,” Winston said. “We need to get angry.”

Lurika Wynn of the National Domestic Workers Alliance-We Dream In Black chapter, said that some home health care workers don’t even make $9 per hour.

“We need to come together and unite on a mass level,” Wynn said.

Abdul Burnette of Raise Up for $15 has worked in the food service industry for more than 20 years, at KFC, Bojangles’ and Papa John’s. He said Raise Up has made progress across the country because “we keep putting the heat on the fast food restaurants.”

Abdul Burnette of Raise Up for $15, who has worked in the food service industry for more than 20 years. Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan dvaughan@heraldsun.com

Raise Up for $15 will march in the MLK Black History Month Parade on Saturday on Fayetteville Street in Durham. Burnette said the group has 1,000 supporters in Durham and recruits every day.

What city workers want

This week, leaders in the Durham City Workers Union from the solid waste, water management and public works departments sent the council their proposals for the next budget. They want a flat, across the board raise of $2,500 instead of percentage raises and quarterly meetings with the city manager, department heads and employee organization representatives, among other things.

Romey Gaddy, a union member who works in water management, spoke to the workers assembly crowd.

“We gotta fight ... You got guys who speak up, but don’t speak out,” Gaddy said.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan