RALEIGH — Gov. Bev Perdue has given North Carolina's largest state employee association the authority to represent workers in discussions about workplace conditions, a move that business and conservative groups say is a step toward unionization.
Without fanfare, Perdue issued an executive order Jan. 21 to create a formal procedure for "meet and confer" gatherings between agencies and representatives of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, which is Local 2008 of the Service Employees International Union, the nation's largest public employee union.
North Carolina and Virginia are the only two states with complete bans on collective bargaining by public employees. But the new procedure will require the governor and some agency heads to sit down with representatives of the 55,000-member group.
The move has drawn criticism from some in the business community, who fear a move toward repeal of the state's ban on collective bargaining for public employees.
"We feel that this is a camel's nose under the tent," said Gregg Thompson, the state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents 7,000 businesses across the state.
North Carolina is the least unionized state in the country, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Thompson said he is concerned that public employee unionization would make the climate more favorable for unions in the private sector. He plans to raise the issue with Perdue.
Francis De Luca, president of the Civitas Institute, a conservative policy group in Raleigh, said the meet-and-confer policy was political payback for the strong union support the Democrats enjoyed in the last election.
'Bad public policy'
"I don't think talking to employees is bad policy," De Luca said. "I think talking to a union is bad public policy. That is exactly what this is. This is talking to the union people."
Perdue, however, said she saw her directive as a gradual expansion of employee-employer discussions started by her predecessor, Gov. Mike Easley.
She said she made the move after conferring with her Cabinet members and said she hoped it would be "good for morale" during a period when there was little money in the state budget for pay raises.
Asked whether she thought the business community would see this as a step toward collective bargaining, Perdue replied: "I hope not. Employers know I'm against collective bargaining."
The governor's assurances satisfied the N.C. Chamber of Commerce, the state's major business voice.
"We are reassured by the fact that the governor maintains her support for North Carolina's current ban on collective bargaining by public employees," said Sherry Melton, the chamber's spokeswoman.
Access for recruiting
The governor's order would give employee association representatives the right to meet with the governor and the state personnel director annually. It would also require heads of state agencies where at least 20 percent of employees belong to the association to designate someone to meet quarterly with the group's representatives to "confer regarding areas of mutual concern, including ways of improving employee-management cooperation, ways of more efficiently and cost effectively delivering high quality services to the public and the terms and conditions of employment."
The order also guarantees the association "reasonable access" to state facilities for purposes of recruitment, distribution of material and consultation with its members.
Dana Cope, executive director of the association, said he thought he had enough members to be recognized to represent employees in several state agencies.
"It means that when employees need an avenue to improve employee-management cooperation, we have one," Cope said in a statement on his group's Web site. "It means that we can discuss the terms and conditions of our employment - something that could reduce the $563 million annual turnover cost in state government."
Efforts to reach Cope for further comment were unsuccessful. There are 95,166 state employees, including 76,551 who work for agencies and 23,615 who work for universities. There are 26,070 state employees living in Wake County.
There have been major efforts both in the state legislature and in Congress to change North Carolina's ban on collective bargaining by public employees.
Across the country, such meet-and-confer agreements as Perdue has inaugurated have served as steps toward collective bargaining, said Rick Kearney, director of the School of Public and International Affairs at N.C. State University.
"There are two ways to look at it," said Kearney, author of "Labor Relations in the Public Sector."
"If you are anti-union, this waves a red flag at you. But from another perspective, state employees are feeling downtrodden.
"They have not had raises in two years, and salaries are falling behind the private sector, and there is no indication of any improvement in the near future."
John Davis, editor of the John Davis Report, a Raleigh-based political newsletter, said he sees the Perdue move as a political reward to organized labor for pouring $5 million into North Carolina in the 2008 election, nearly all to Democrats, including $1.8 million from the Service Employees International Union.
"Very clearly this state is moving toward unionization of public employees and collective bargaining rights," said Davis, a pro-business Republican. "It's being done very subtly through political involvement, primarily through campaign contributions currying favor of elected officials, knowing it will ultimately lead to successfully running legislation."
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