When 50 workers of the Raleigh, NC sanitation department walked off the job two weeks ago -- a wildcat strike prompted by long hours, low pay, and other long-standing grievances with the city -- little did they know their actions would still be sending waves across the state and the South.

As we reported in Facing South last November, North Carolina is one of two states in the country that doesn't allow government employees to bargain with their employers. A vestige of the Jim Crow era, the state law -- General Statute 98/95 -- was one of several post-war laws designed to thwart the growth of organized labor in the South, especially among black workers who disproportionately have held jobs in the public sector.

A coalition of employee associations, uions and allies -- especially the NC Public Service Workers Union UE 150 -- have challenged the law, including filing a complaint with the International Labor Organization last December. Until now, they've made little headway. But the uprising of city sanitation workers in the state capitol may have been just the spark they needed.

Over the last two weeks, over half of the city workers have joined the union and city residents have rallied to their support. Most importantly, the workers have won some major victories:


City Manager Russell Allen responded by adding six jobs and restoring six others that were going to be eliminated. A week later, he announced plans to give permanent jobs to temporary workers, some of whom had worked two years without benefits. [...]

Union members picketed Monday and called for the ouster of two of the city's top sanitation officials: Gerald Latta, director of solid waste services, and Operations Superintendent Lash Hocutt.

By Friday, the city announced both men would leave their posts.

But the long-term impact may be even more important. The workers and union have also convinced the Mayor of Raleigh, Charles Meeker to "meet and confer" with them -- a big step towards the right to bargain presently barred by state law. It's a major victory, and one that could set the stage for more sweeping reform of North Carolina's uniquely restrictive barriers to union organizing:

Last week, labor strife in Raleigh prompted Mayor Charles Meeker to meet exclusively with leaders of UE 150. Some lawmakers think Raleigh's negotiations could lead to change across North Carolina -- one of the country's least unionized states -- especially by chipping away at its ban on collective bargaining.

"There's increased momentum" to loosen restrictions on organized labor, said Rep. Deborah Ross, a Raleigh Democrat. "I think it's in a better position now than it's ever been.

For a good story about UE 150's grassroots campaign and labor in North Carolina, read the whole piece in yesterday's Raleigh News & Observer.