Christensen

Unions still a hard sell

Staff WriterAugust 2, 2009 

During last year's election, organized labor made a major gamble in North Carolina, the least unionized state in the country.

Unionists poured at least $4.7 million into Tar Heel political campaigns, and they put at least 1,000 boots on the ground, knocking on doors, putting up signs and handing out literature.

Labor played a role in helping sweep its Democratic allies into office: President Barack Obama carried the state, Kay Hagan was elected to the U.S. Senate, Larry Kissell was elected to the U.S. House and Beverly Perdue was elected governor.

But it is not clear whether organized labor's investment has paid any dividends.

Labor has often been shut out of the corridors of power in North Carolina, a state where politicians -- Democrats and Republicans -- have been closely aligned with business interests. But labor now has some political IOUs.

Labor's agenda includes many broad goals, such as health care reform, but also more specific aims designed to promote the labor movement.

North Carolina and Virginia are the only states in the country with a total ban on collective bargaining by public employees.

A labor-backed bill to end that ban did not get far in the state legislature, where business is still the major bankroller of lawmakers' political campaigns.

"We knew all along this was going to be heavy lifting," said the state's AFL-CIO president, James Andrews.

There is a bill in Congress that would allow all the nation's sworn officers -- police, firefighters and correctional officers -- to bargain collectively. Its primary targets are North Carolina and Virginia.

Labor thinks that bill has a good chance of passing, giving public unions a foothold in North Carolina.

Even without collective bargaining, labor leaders say their voices are now being heard in Raleigh.

"We are actually invited to the governor's office,'' said Dana Cope, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, which is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. "I've been over four or five times, which is more than the entire Easley administration. The communication is definitely open."

These have been difficult times for state employees and teachers. Instead of seeing pay raises, they have seen their pay cut through furloughs. But labor leaders say they have generally been treated fairly during the deep recession.

The major item on labor's agenda at the federal level is the Employee Free Choice Act, better known as the card-check bill. It would make it easier for unions to organize, allowing workers to form a union if a majority signed a card authorizing a union.

The measure is stalled in the U.S. Senate, as backers seek the 60 votes necessary to make the measure filibuster-proof.

What is likely to emerge is a compromise bill that will call for speedier union elections and tougher penalties on union election violations by corporations, but no card-check provision, according to Peter Francia, a political science professor at East Carolina University who has written extensively about labor politics.

If some bill doesn't pass this year, Francia said, labor is in big trouble. That's because it is doubtful whether labor will ever have more clout than its leaders do now.

rob.christensen@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service