RALEIGH — Editor's Note: A story on Tuesday gave an incorrect date for when Gov. Bev Perdue issued an executive order creating a formal procedure for negotiations between the state and some public employee unions. The order was issued in January 2010.
A coalition of labor, civil rights and religious groups rallied in front of the General Assembly offices Monday to call for an end to North Carolina's ban on public employees' collective bargaining and to resist state budget cuts at the expense of public sector jobs and programs.
The rally drew about 100 participants, who cheered several speakers representing labor, churches and the NAACP. About two dozen people staged a counterprotest across the street in Bicentennial Plaza, shouting insults and chanting slogans throughout the rally.
Both sides cited the controversy in Wisconsin, where that state's governor has proposed reducing public employees' pay and benefits and limiting their collective-bargaining rights. Wisconsin has become a rallying cry for unions, but it is just one of many states scrutinizing pay, benefits and pension commitments as they face difficult decisions to handle budget deficits.
Some of the concessions that governors in those states would like to see are already status quo in North Carolina, which has banned collective bargaining for public employees since 1959.
The coalition's campaign is a long shot, but it will add to the debate over state employees' compensation. Gov. Bev Perdue has recommended eliminating 10,000 positions, as many as 3,000 of which are now filled. She would like to see money set aside to coax workers into retirement, while saving additional money by consolidating some state agencies.
After the sidewalk rally in Raleigh, coalition members filed quietly into the Legislative Building to present copies of the coalition's statement of principles and a copy of an International Labor Organization 2007 report calling on North Carolina to resume collective bargaining. Copies went to the offices of Sen. Phil Berger, president pro tempore of the Senate, and to Rep. Tom Tillis, speaker of the House.
When coalition leaders delivered a copy to a Tillis aide and then began to pray, Tillis appeared and joined them in prayer before briefly greeting them and promising a more substantial meeting later.
The issue will be a test of labor union strength in North Carolina. Not only is this the least unionized state in the country, the U.S. Labor Department reports, but North Carolina and Virginia are the only states that completely ban public employee collective bargaining.
Earlier this month, Perdue issued an executive order creating a formal procedure for negotiations between the state and its largest employees association, the State Employees Association of North Carolina. But she took pains to assure the business community that she remains opposed to collective bargaining.
Organized labor spent $5 million in North Carolina during the 2008 election, including $1.8 million from the Service Employees International Union, of which SEANC is the local organization, mostly on Democrats. An attempt last year to pass a bill to end the bargaining ban did not go far in the state legislature. Now, with Republicans taking over majorities in the House and Senate, unions in this state - as elsewhere in the country - have a tougher battle ahead of them.
Angaza Laughinghouse, president of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America Local 150 and one of the rally's organizers, explained the coalition's decision to fight back at a time when so many unions are feeling vulnerable to budget cuts.
"This is a major economic crisis," he said in an interview after the rally. "This is also a time when they're chiseling away at our pensions, our health plans, basic health and safety rights, privatizing jobs. We know this is the best time to be raising this question of why North Carolina is denying North Carolina public sector workers the right to collectively bargain."
A shouting match
Out on the street, the conservative protesters carried signs reading "Unions - Too Big, Too Costly" and "Wisconsin: Pass the Bill." They chanted, "U.S.A."
The other side countered with chants such as "People's budget! People's budget!"
Both sides tried to outshout each other, with cries of "Freeloader!" a repeated refrain from the counterprotesters. The volume went up several notches when Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, took the megaphone.
"There are those who are trying to shout us down," Barber said. "But they can't shout down the truth.
"In Wisconsin and other states, they are fighting to hold on to their collective bargaining rights," Barber said. "It is shameful that ever since 1959, because [of] racist ideology and Jim Crow mentality, which feared that whites, blacks and brown people would come together in the framework of a strong union movement and work for civil rights and justice, that North Carolina banned collective bargaining in the public sector."
In next few weeks, at least 20 meetings will be held in communities across the state to promote a "people's budget," Barber said, which will be delivered to the General Assembly.
Randy Dye of Pittsboro, one of the counterprotesters, said the network of tea party and other conservative groups heard about the rally only 24 hours earlier, and didn't have enough time to mount a larger presence. "We wanted to face off with them," he said.
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