Today in Raleigh, North Carolina, state workers will be holding a historic public hearing.

Jurists from around the world will hear testimony from employees about racist incidents, forced overtime, and most critically a Jim Crow-era law -- one of only two in the country -- the forbids N.C. public workers from the right to negotiate a contract on the job. The workers, members of U.E. Local 150 and the International Worker Justice Campaign, argue this is more than just a "labor issue" -- it's about civil rights, and human rights.

Below is an Institute/Facing South original report from Sandy Smith-Nonini about today's event in Raleigh. If you're in the area, come and learn more: 7 p.m., Wake County Commons Building, 4011 Carya Dr, off Poole Road.

THE WORLD IS WATCHING NORTH CAROLINA

The International Worker Justice Campaign is taking North Carolina's anti-labor record to the global stage and challenging a law from the era of Jim Crow


By Sandy Smith-Nonini
Thursday, November 3, 2005

In January of this year, North Carolina's reputation for protecting worker's rights took a major blow. Investigators for Human Rights Watch - a body which normally focuses on international rights violations - reported that Smithfield Foods, a meatpacking giant in the town of Tarheel, was treating its employees to abominable working conditions and intimidation reminiscent of "The Jungle."

Today, the Tar Heel state's treatment of workers will again be held up to global scrutiny when public service employees testify before a panel of international jurists from India, Sweden, South African and beyond about state practices that violate international labor law.

The workers will talk about systematic discrimination against African-American, Latino and female employees; forced overtime; and denial of rights to collective bargaining for state workers. They'll point out that the last two aren't even against the law here - they're state policy.

"UNFINISHED BUSINESS OF CIVIL RIGHTS"

Most people have heard of North Carolina's "Right to Work" law, which precludes closed shops in unionized private sector workplaces. Similar laws exist in other Southern states and can be traced to the Jim Crow era, where they were seen as a way for segregationist politicians to limit the power of both unions and civil rights workers in the same breath. Today, with less than four percent of workers organized, the state ranks 50th in the nation for union representation.

But fewer are aware that North Carolina, together with Virginia, has the country's harshest laws denying collective bargaining to public sector workers.

The Raleigh hearings are being organized by North Carolina's UE Local 150, a union representing over 3,000 service workers on state payrolls, including university maintenance crews, mental health workers, and school bus drivers. The event, which begins at 7 pm Nov. 3rd at the Wake County Commons Building, culminates a year of testimony gathered at similar hearings around the state as part of UE-150's International Worker Justice Campaign.

Following the hearing, the union plans to file a formal complaint against the state at the International Labour Organization (ILO) headquarters at the United Nations in Geneva.

Like the Smithfield report, the campaign reflects increasing agreement in the human rights community that workers rights are basic human rights, and deserve the same kinds of protections that exist to preclude torture, ethnic discrimination or censorship.

"We're taking up the unfinished business of the civil rights movement," said Saladin Muhammad, UE's international representative, who recalled that Martin Luther King, Jr. was advocating for striking city sanitation workers the day he was assassinated in Memphis.

A PATTERN OF DISCRIMINATION

The majority of UE-150's members are African-American, and women members far outnumber men. Complaints about racist practices cropped up repeatedly in regional worker hearings, and some incidents led to public controversies. For example, in 2003 during celebrations of Black History Month, a noose was hung up and left for weeks in a Department of Transportation maintenance area, creating what a court later found to be a hostile racial environment.

Muhammad recounted a similar incident in Rocky Mount during an organizing drive for public sector workers, when a man with what co-workers said was a history of overt racism hung up a training manikin with a noose around its neck in the electrical department of a public garage. In public comments, town officials wrote the incident off as a misunderstanding.

UE-150 also went to bat for Latino workers' rights to speak Spanish on the job in 2004 when an N.C. State University housekeeper was reprimanded for speaking in her native language with a co-worker in 2004.

The union argues that these incidents add up to a pattern of systematic discrimination.

"The state's own studies show that the lowest paid workers are women and African-American workers," Muhammad observed.

Ashaki Binta, coordinator of the international campaign, links the state's assault on collective bargaining rights directly to poverty. At a "Support for Labor Banquet" held in Raleigh last April, Binta noted that 20 percent of North Carolina children live in poverty, and that the poverty rate reaches 40 percent of the population in some rural counties.

Today's hearings will bring scrutiny to a variety of notorious state practices, such as the "Red Dot" system used at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Dana McKeithan, a DHHS youth program assistant, says the system amounts to forced labor.

"Imagine you work a 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. shift, 40 hours a week, and at the end of your shift on a Friday your supervisor says she needs you for an extra shift to cover someone who called in sick," McKeithan explains. "You might have children at home to cook dinner for, but you can't even go home and make arrangements, you have to stay an extra eight hours, or you get written up, or fired."

Those who complain, she says, also risk retaliation by supervisors.

With short staffing now a way of life in the state's beleaguered mental health facilities, the "Red Dot" has become the bane of lower-ranked employees. Once the overtime pay fund is exhausted, workers putting in the required extra shifts only get reimbursed with comp time. McKeithan claims the policy, rather than solving the problem of understaffing, actually contributes to higher turnover.

"We're losing people because of Red Dot," says McKeithan. "A lot of the women in these jobs are single, with 3-4 children to care for. They can't take it anymore."

Other practices that UE-150 workers deplore include poor training, chronically low wages, and unsafe working conditions. The worsening climate for labor in the public sector parallels policies that have wrought pain for workers in the larger workforce. North Carolina has lost more manufacturing jobs than any other state in the years since the passage of NAFTA, which has pushed tens of thousands of workers into service jobs with low pay, poor benefits and no job security. Meanwhile, federal cutbacks have impoverished state coffers.

UE-150 members charge that the pressure to do more with less translates into more stress for workers who remain. In the mental health system, for example, McKeithan said that in addition to the extra shifts, training had been cut to the bone, creating safety concerns and more inequality on the job.

"We know there's no money, but in the old days when we were short-staffed everyone pitched in and helped out." Now, McKeithan says, professionals on staff claim "that's not my job," and it falls to the poorest-paid staff members to fill in the gaps.

JIM CROW AND GENERAL STATUTE 95-98

Most U.S. workers with concerns about wages, work rules, or health and safety issues have the right to negotiate with their employers and sign a contract for fairer terms. Not in North Carolina, where 640,000 public workers are left out in the cold by the 1959 law, General Statue 95-98, that makes it illegal for state agencies to engage in collective bargaining with worker organizations.

UE-150 has its roots in an association of housekeepers on the UNC campuses, which in 1997 joined the 35,000-strong United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. Since then, the local has since expanded across the state, with its strength in municipal workers and state-run mental health programs.

A "rank and file" union, UE locals put a strong emphasis on democracy and worker leadership. Unlike the much larger State Employees Association of North Carolina, which focuses on lobbying the legislature for annual raises for workers, UE Local 150 focuses on organizing the poorest paid workers.

UE launched the International Campaign for Worker Justice campaign was a natural progression, an effort to challenge an important legal barrier to organzing that also raises larger questions of the state's history of race relations and the need for a human rights perspective. In North Carolina, UE hopes to gather 50,000 signatures on petitions calling for the state to recognize workers' rights to collective bargaining. Black Workers for Justice, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Service Employees International Union have endorsed UE Local 150's call.

Although many North Carolinians take anti-union policies for granted, this denial of collective bargaining violates one of eight "core labor standards" in the 86-year-old ILO conventions, which apply to all workers; whether or not a particular country has ratified the conventions.

"The United States makes other countries out to be less democratic than we are," says Muhammad, "but it's time they reconciled U.S. foreign policy claims with our own domestic policy."

Sandy Smith-Nonini holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Her writing on labor and other issues have appeared in The Independent Weekly and Southern Exposure.