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NC lawmakers, advocates launch new effort to allow collective bargaining by public employees

Sen. Wiley Nickel (D-Wake) kicking off today’s press event in support of repealing NC’s ban on public employee collective bargaining. (Photo by Rob Schofield)

More than 600,000 public employees throughout North Carolina would obtain a right that’s been denied to them for 60 years under a pair companion bills introduced in the North Carolina House and Senate and highlighted at a press event this morning in Raleigh. House Bill 710 and Senate Bill 575 would repeal North Carolina General Statute section 95-98, the six-decade-old ban on collective bargaining by public employees.

At an event in the state Legislative Building this morning, an array of public officials and advocates decried the ban as both a Jim Crow-era violation of basic human rights and an impediment to the delivery of safe, affordable and efficient public services. North Carolina public employees — including state, county and municipal workers like teachers, police officers, and firefighters — “deserve a seat at the table” said Senator Wiley Nickel (D-Wake). North Carolina is one of only three states with such a statutory ban, Nickel added — a fact he linked to low retention and high turnover rates among public workers at all levels.

A variety of speakers followed Nickel to the podium to echo and expand upon his comments.

  • Mayor Don Hardy of Kinston — himself a law enforcement officer — reemphasized that collective bargaining is widely understood to be “a fundamental human right.”
  • City Councilwoman Vernetta Alston of Durham noted that “women and people of color” would be among the chief beneficiaries of allowing collective bargaining.
  • North Carolina Association of Educators President Mark Jewell said the change would be a “win-win in which everyone gains” and noted that even other southern “right to work” states allow collective bargaining for public workers.
  • Rick Armstrong of the Teamsters Union contrasted his experiences as a unionized UPS worker and a non-unionized Raleigh Police Department officer, noting the increased efficiency of workers in a union setting.
  • North Carolina AFL-CIO president MaryBe McMillian said the legislation is “about respect” and asked why it makes sense for North Carolina to deny rights to school bus drivers and police officers that are enjoyed by Greyhound bus drivers and shopping mall security guards.

Rep. Zach Hawkins speaking at today’s press conference (Image courtesy of the NC AFL-CIO)

In wrapping up the event, House bill sponsor Rep. Zach Hawkins (D-Durham) read from a long list of local government leaders who have endorsed the repeal and noted that collective bargaining in other states has resulted in 10-13% better pay for public employees and helped narrow the racial and gender pay gaps. He called the proposal a “good-to-great moment” for North Carolina.

It’s, of course, far from the first time that a repeal of G.S. 95-98 has been proposed over the years and bill supporters gave no indication they expect their proposal to become law during 2019 in the GOP-dominated General Assembly. That said, there was a new and notable level of optimism and enthusiasm at today’s event — a shift that Nickel attributed in part to a change he said is gradually overtaking North Carolina politics. Nickel noted that the attitudes of younger North Carolinians differ significantly from their parents and grandparents on the question of unions and labor organizing and that he, at age 43, and Hawkins (39) represent a slow, but undeniable generational shift at the General Assembly.

Both lawmakers, who were newly elected last November, indicated that they hope and intend to be around the General Assembly and to keep advancing the repeal proposal for as long as it takes to get it through.

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