Leah Fried has been a union organizer with the UE (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America) for 12 years
As northern states like Wisconsin seek to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public service workers we should examine what it’s like to work in states that don’t have this basic human right. While right wing pundits declare how great it is to work without collective bargaining, the reality is workers and working class communities are getting a raw deal.
You Can’t F ight City Hall- Unless You Have a Union
With states looking to balance their budgets in the wake of a Wall Street triggered recession, the path of least resistance is take aways from regular working folk and the services we depend on like schools, hospitals and road maintenance. It’s the second round of taxpayer bailout for business. Corporate America is well unionized with Chamber of Commerce and Industry Associations lobbying hard and cutting deals in their interest. Yet those public employees without collective bargaining rights are completely alone- by law!
The right to bargain a contract goes beyond fighting poverty among state workers. We know that a union contract means a better wage. For example, there are currently 11 states that ban collective bargaining for teachers; in those states that allow collective bargaining for teachers salaries are 9.5% higher. But it also provides a roadblock to the corporate takeover of government services and service cuts to vulnerable communities who otherwise have no voice. Privatization is a top goal of corporations who look at spending on schools, hospitals, and road maintenance and see easy profit. The government spending on schools alone reached $562 billion in 2007. Without public employee contracts requiring equality in treatment who will prevent discriminatory budget cuts like we’ve seen in North Carolina -- a state without collective bargaining rights? In North Carolina the state has gone after communities of color disproportionately -- cutting jobs and services. Hospitals that serve and employ a majority-white population have seen far fewer cuts than hospitals that are majority-African American by a ratio of 2:1.
Bans on Collective Bargaining Violate International Law
In 1959 an all white state legislature passed North Carolina’s General Statue 95-98 which makes it illegal for state and local governments to enter into collective bargaining agreements with workers. It was at the height of the Jim Crow south that this basic human right was stripped of public employees in North Carolina. The law was enacted under the right to work law supported by southern segregationists.
In 2007, after a campaign was waged by the UE and allies, the International Labor Organization (ILO) of the United Nations found North Carolina’s ban on collective bargaining to be in violation of international labor standards. It called on the US government to “promote the establishment of a collective bargaining framework in the public sector in North Carolina.”
The ILO noted in its complaint against the United States that working conditions in the public sector were deplorable. They found rampant racial and gender discrimination as well as unhealthy and unsafe working conditions.
In North Carolina health care workers in the state hospitals cite poor staffing ratios and a lack of training and support to do their jobs. Recently a Mental Health Care Tech was assaulted by a patient while working at Central Regional Hospital (CRH) in Butner, NC. He was punched 4-5 times in the face, which resulted in a broken orbital bone (eye socket), fractured upper jaw, and injured nose and eyes. His glasses were also broken and his sight was impaired. His co-workers were slow to step in and help him because they were untrained in how to restrain a violent patient and feared being fired for violating a hospital policy.
Larsene Taylor, a health care worker in North Carolina describes the state’s reform plan for healthcare for the disabled and mentally ill, “In 2001 the state introduced a reform plan that led to mass privatization of public services. It was a costly move for the state that wasted a lot of money. The state downsized mental healthcare and long term disability care in their hospitals and put the patients in private nursing homes and group homes. But without trained staff, those small facilities couldn’t handle the patients and sent them back to the hospitals that no longer had the beds or staff to care for them. One hospital had only 22 beds for an entire community. There is constant mandatory overtime up to 16 hours, errors increase, injuries increase for staff and patients and there is no continuity of care.”
Public employees in NC have experience wage theft by their employer. In Raleigh, NC the sanitation workers weren’t paid for overtime worked by their employer, the city of Raleigh. Workers had to sue for their pay.
In West Virginia where there is not legal mechanism to certify union representation for collective bargaining, workers are struggling. “Almost everyone I know who works for the state has to have two or three jobs. I know I did”, said Gordon Simmons, who worked in the Division of Culture and History, “and the benefits have really gotten so expensive, there are folks who couldn’t afford to have health insurance on the low pay we receive as public employees.”
State workers earn so little that many qualify for public aid. West Virginia ranks 48th in public employee salaries. Road crew workers who repair and maintain safe roads in dangerous conditions earn as little at $8.36 an hour. It was so common for the employees of the state’s public assistance office to apply for public aid for themselves that the agency had to set up a procedure to process the public employee’s application in a different county than the one they worked in to ensure confidentiality.
The state regularly increases health insurance and retirement costs so that the benefits become unsustainable. Public service workers who retire are required to pay $500 a month to maintain their health insurance, but the pension benefit is often not enough to cover health insurance premium.
Eliminating Collective Bargaining Hasn’t Helped
The false argument that eliminating collective bargaining will help balance a state’s budget has been invoked many times by Walker in Wisconsin. But in reality, we know that states without collective bargaining have the same or worse budget woes. In fact, North Carolina and West Virginia are worse off than Wisconsin economically.
North Carolina has among the lowest rate of unionization in the US at 4.9% of eligible workers having a voice at work. According the US Census, 14.6% of North Carolina households live in poverty. The median income is $46,574 and unemployment is 9.9%.
For public sector healthcare workers the median income is $25,800 a year. Health care givers at state run mental health hospitals earn near poverty wages and often depend on public aid to support their families. North Carolina lost nearly 10,000 public school positions this current school year and the state slipped to 46th in spending per pupil and 45th in teacher pay. More cuts are on the way as the state deals with a $2.4 billion budget shortfall.
In West Virginia, another state without bargaining rights, 17.6% of households live below the poverty level, the median income is $37,528 and unemployment is at 10.3%.
Compare that to Wisconsin where 10.5% of households are living in poverty, the median income is $52,103 and unemployment is at 7.4%. In Wisconsin 15.1% of eligible workers are union members. A 1.8 billion shortfall is projected for Wisconsin, after Governor Walker passed 170 million in tax breaks when he assumed office.
Let these states serve as a cautionary tale. As Larsene Taylor puts it, “our lives would be 100% better in if we had collective bargaining.”
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