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The ban is no bargain

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When the fast-food restaurant supervisor reached up my shirt, I firmly told him no. A week later, embarrassed, I quit my job. He kept his. I was just 22 and didn't know my rights. I could have used the backing of a labor union.

I needed a union when I showed up for my shift at the video rental store, only to discover it had closed without warning. I received no severance pay, no apology, no explanation.

And when the head honcho at a music booking agency skipped town, leaving me and the other rank-and-file to work without pay for six weeks (we eventually lost our jobs), I wish we'd had a union.

If you've ever been screwed—really screwed—by an employer, then you might empathize with state employees who have no collective bargaining rights.

The ramifications of the state's 50-year prohibition on public employees' right to negotiate are grave. While recent sanitation and transit strikes helped raise awareness of the bargaining ban, the fate of public workers' employment and wages still lies in the hands of cities, counties and the General Assembly. They wield the power to depress wages and cut funding and positions, while employees must accept whatever bitter pill lawmakers administer.

And who speaks most loudly in lawmakers' ears: industry or unions? During the 2007 legislative session, a bill endowing public employees with bargaining rights stalled in committee. It will likely be revived during the short session, which begins in May.

Some unions have been beset by corruption. But this is the exception, not the rule. In contrast, over the past 30 years, governments have propped up corporations, including corrupt ones like Enron, with generous tax breaks, bailouts and favorable foreign trade agreements—at the expense of the workers here and abroad. (Even newspaper jobs are at risk: The News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer recently announced they would send some advertising and graphic design jobs to Asia.)

As union political clout has shrunk, corporations have become emboldened to crack down on organizing. Instead of using tactics like those in the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, during which coal operators killed 20 striking miners and their families, the companies now slay their opponents in court. Smithfield Foods, which reported $11 billion in revenues in 2006, is suing the United Commercial Food Workers under racketeering laws, alleging the UCFW's decade-long efforts to organize the workforce at the Tar Heel hog slaughter plant have hurt its bottom line.

These trends bode poorly for the future of the American worker. Nonetheless, North Carolina should empower its public employees, who provide essential services, and give them the right to fairness. It's the least we can do.

A teach-in, bringing together academics, activists & workers on a panel to discuss with the audience why North Carolina's ban on collective bargaining for public workers is a violation of basic workers' rights, will be in Caldwell Hall on N.C. State's campus, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 6-8 p.m. This event is free. For more info, e-mail elizabeth.seale@gmail.com. Caldwell Hall is located on Hillsborough Street near the N.C. State Bell Tower in Raleigh.

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