N.C. employee union tries talking to GOP, opposes Moral Mondays | North Carolina | Indy Week

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N.C. employee union tries talking to GOP, opposes Moral Mondays

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While more than 1,000 protesters were chanting in the drizzle on the ninth Moral Monday July 1, the director of the state employee's union, Dana Cope, started ranting on Twitter.

"SEANC not part of #moralmonday we think it unwise to break the law & overburden fellow public employees. Prefer sit down/talk policy!"

That was one of Cope's previous tweets, but it was passed around on July 1 in a string of exchanges in which Cope blasted the protests as "bad strategy."

It's unclear if Cope's "sit down/talk" strategy will protect the state's 117,000 employees or if it amounts to capitulation in the face of Republican leadership resolved to drastically reduce the size of government. The only meaningful talks happening at the bargaining table are about how much money to cut.

In the broadest sense, Moral Mondays represent the chief form of opposition to the GOP leadership, but Cope says SEANC, the State Employees Association of North Carolina, wants no part of it.

"If you want to move a progressive cause forward right now, what that takes is being at the table," says Cope. "Moral Mondays is just creating a spectacle."

"Not everyone who kneels together, prays together," counters former labor commissioner Harry Payne, who now follows workers' issues for the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center. "Dana's strategy has certainly gotten him a seat at the table, but that doesn't mean anyone is listening."

State government is the biggest employer in North Carolina, which makes Cope arguably the most important player for workers' rights here. SEANC (pronounced SEA-nick) represents all state workers and is supported by 55,000 dues-paying members, according to Cope.

Each year, the organization's priorities include job protection, pay, benefits and worker's rights, as well as preventing privatization of government agencies. But by nearly all those measures, SEANC is losing ground under the conservative leadership.

Earlier this session, a bill to gut job protection would've sent all employee appeals about wrongful firings before a political committee. SEANC used its sit down and talk strategy, and the bill's content was modified.

But, even in its current language, the bill transfers 500 state positions from non-exempt to exempt status. That means the positions will be appointed by the governor rather than be insulated from political hiring.

The House and Senate are still wrangling about how many state jobs to cut. The Senate initially suggested 1,500 jobs; the House countered with about half that number. Cope says he has been involved in all these talks and that he is trying to minimize job loss.

The governor's office and the N.C. Commerce Department have moved toward privatizing the administration of Medicare. However, Cope disputes the idea that the moves are actually privatization. He says no state jobs will be lost.

Cope also points to five bonus vacation days offered by the House, in lieu of salary increases, and says a pay raise may yet be possible.

Mike Gould, a SEANC member who has been attending Moral Mondays, is anxious about his prospects as a state employee. "We've had a 1.2 percent pay raise in six years," he says. "They'll probably throw us a goldfish next year, because that's an election year, but that's how the Democrats used to treat us too."

Cope also frequently refers to the disillusionment he experienced under Democratic rule. "SEANC has not been at the table with the Democratic leadership in probably over 15 years," he says. "More recently we are invited in to have discussions with the Republicans that pertain to state government and policy."

Gould insists, and clearly wants to believe, that Cope and the other SEANC lobbyists are pursuing the best route. "It makes sense to me that if I'm the one that has to go talk to [Sens.] Berger or Apodaca, I can't align with Moral Monday," Gould says.

Payne, the former labor commissioner, disagrees, saying that's not the best long-term strategy. "I would rather see all progressives united in common purpose and understand that there are small differences but the underlying core is the same," he says. "Only history will show how far a seat at the table is really going to get SEANC."

At least in the short term, negotiating with Republicans may not set state workers back anymore than working with Democrats did. "Democrats are the ones that made this a right-to-work state," says Cope. "Beverly Perdue suggested cutting 10,000 state employee jobs when she was in office."

Avoiding retaliation is also important for SEANC. Because North Carolina is a right-to-work state, it has only skim-milk labor unions, which means legislators can strike back against a union that challenges them.

Two years ago, North Carolina's teacher union threatened to run strong campaigns against incumbent Republicans. The result: Lawmakers passed a bill, which was later blocked in court, that would have prevented the union from collecting dues through payroll deduction.

"You want us to risk throwing what rights and jobs we've got left [by stepping out against the leadership]?!" Gould says. "That goes beyond crazy, I'm sorry. I don't like it."

But the cost of not standing up could be greater. Legislators have indicated they still want far fewer job protections. Privatization and job cuts will also likely continue. SEANC members may find themselves with no rights left to defend.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Reasoning with the enemy."

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