Unions on the move in North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — “Unions seem to be becoming more and more active in North Carolina,” Jack Hawke, a former state Republican Party chairman, warned fellow conservatives at a recent Raleigh event. “And a lot of money is being thrown around this year.”

A statewide minimum wage increase, the largest raises for state government employees in 15 years and measured success resulting from a Raleigh sanitation worker walkout last month has boosted confidence within the organized labor community. The state’s minimum wage which will rise by $1 to $6.15 per hour Jan. 1 after the General Assembly’s approval this year.

“There were some significant victories for workers in 2006,” said MaryBe McMillan with the state AFL-CIO, whose member unions include about 110,000 active or retired workers in North Carolina. “There’s more interest now in unions and organized labor because workers have had enough.”

Labor unions are now trying to build on that momentum by spending campaign money on legislative races. They hope worker discontent with eroding health and retirement benefits will move supportive voters to the polls come Election Day.

The Service Employees International Union is the most active in North Carolina campaigns, thanks to a five-year partnership with the 55,000-member State Employees Association of North Carolina. The association lobbies for workers at the General Assembly but is not a union.

The partnership allows union leaders to gain access to political strategies that contribute to the association’s success in a Southern state where collective bargaining by public employees is specifically prohibited. In exchange, the union is spending much more money on legislative races than the association’s political action committee could put up.

As of June 30, the union had spent more than $800,000 since 2004 on fliers, get-out-the-vote efforts and ads for several legislative candidates, according to campaign finance reports and NC FREE, a business-sponsored research group that tracks legislative campaigns.

United Electrical Workers Local 150, which has about 3,000 members statewide, including Raleigh sanitation workers and university system housekeepers, is taking a different track toward seeking collective bargaining. Mexican and Canadian allies are filing a complaint alleging that the state’s bargaining ban violates a labor deal linked to the North American Free Trade Agreement. In the developed world, “public workers have this fundamental workers’ right, that fundamental human right, to have their union collectively bargain,” said Azanga Laughinghouse, president of the 3,000-member local.

While active union membership in North Carolina grew by 10 percent from 2004 to 2005 to 107,000 workers, only 2.9 percent of North Carolina’s overall workforce were union members in 2005, the lowest in the country save for South Carolina, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. North Carolina is a right-to-work state.

Andrew Perrin, a sociology professor and labor relations expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the labor atmosphere may be improving as transplanted residents expect the same kind of union protections they received in their home states.

North Carolina has “been pretty much at the bottom of labor organizing, and at some point it’s got to end,” Perrin said.