Freshmen state legislators want to overturn law that has held back unions for 60 years

Two first-term Democratic state legislators have filed bills hoping to overturn a 1959 ban on collective bargaining by public-sector employees. That means labor unions would have negotiating power.

In North Carolina, instead of through collective bargaining, government workers’ wages are set by the legislature or a local government. So workers lobby for what they want rather than negotiate a union contract.

Rep. Zack Hawkins said overturning the ban would help grow the middle class.

“North Carolina’s a state on the rise ... moving our state in this direction helps our economy,” the Durham lawmaker said at a news conference Wednesday, and repeal would “once again make North Carolina a beacon in the South.”

North Carolina and South Carolina, which also bans public sector collective bargaining, have the lowest union membership rate in the U.S. Both states’ rate is 2.7 percent, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Hawkins and Wake County state Sen. Wiley Nickel have filed House Bill 710 and Senate Bill 575 to repeal the law.

But some see the the ban as a competitive advantage for the state in terms of economic recruiting of companies.

Jeff Hauser, spokesman for the North Carolina Republican Party, said in a statement that North Carolina “has prospered under its status as a right to work state, frequently ranked within the top three states in which to do business.”

The state legislature is under GOP control so a repeal would need Republican support. Both bills have been referred to the rules committees, where many bills never leave.

Mitch Kokai, a political analyst at the John Locke Foundation, a conservative policy organization, doesn’t think the bills will go anywhere.

“I can‘t imagine any Republican legislators are going to latch on to this cause,” he said. Kokai said he sees the bills as setting a marker in the ground for their supporters that this is something they want to do, if not now, then in the future.

Nickel, 43, said that he and Hawkins, 39, are younger than many of their fellow state legislators. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in 2015 the average age of all state legislators was 56.

“We reflect a change in our state. We reflect a change in our legislature,” Nickel said. “We are on the rise, and going to repeal this law.”

According to the Pew Research Center, younger Americans are more likely to view labor unions favorably.

Durham officials push for repeal

Durham City Council member Vernetta Alston said the repeal would “correct a historic wrong” and level the playing field for workers. The Durham City Council passed a resolution last year calling for the ban to be overturned.

Alston has been the progressive council’s point person for the formation of a Durham Workers’ Rights Commission, which the council approved this year. At the time, Mayor Steve Schewel added the caveat that the council would only have advisory power.

“Just so everyone understands, we can be advocates, but our ability to enforce the rights of workers is not as strong as we would like it to be,” he said then.

Alston said Wednesday the collective bargaining ban is designed to diminish the voices of public workers.

“In Durham, we want to be an example of how workers should be treated,” she said. City leaders support a $15-an-hour statewide minimum wage. City employees’ minimum wage will rise from $15 to $15.46 this summer.

Schewel has touted Durham as a “progressive beacon in the South” since being elected mayor in 2017. The entire Durham City Council is Democrat.

Kokai said that North Carolina has been “at best lukewarm, and at worst hostile” to labor unions. He saw the Democrats’ news conference at the legislature Wednesday as a sign supporters believe North Carolina is on the verge of changing its stripes about unions, given changing demographics and Democrats’ gains in the 2018 elections.

Tim Greene, a retired U.S. Postal Service letter carrier from Asheboro, said public workers need bargaining, not begging.

Kinston Mayor Don Hardy, who also worked in law enforcement, said overturning the ban wouldn’t make collective bargaining mandatory, but would help local governments recruit and retain employees.

Nationwide, 33.9 percent of public sector workers were in unions compared to 6.4 percent for private sector employees, according to the labor department. Of those public sector workers, the highest union rate was in local government.

Repealing the law would not allow public-sector employees to strike.

Meanwhile, teachers across the state plan their second annual march for public education, organized by the N.C. Association of Educators. School districts that have canceled classes May 1 include the Wake County Public School System and Durham Public Schools.

“Today’s press conference led by first-term lawmakers and the far-left NCAE further proves that they aren’t out to work on behalf of students or employees, but rather expand their own political pocketbook,” Hauser said. “It’s not about justice or helping our children and teachers succeed; It’s about enacting an agenda designed for enhanced power while holding hostage the taxpayers of North Carolina.”

What the law says

The 1959 statute says: “Contracts between units of government and labor unions, trade unions or labor organizations concerning public employees declared to be illegal. Any agreement, or contract, between the governing authority of any city, town, county, or other municipality, or between any agency, unit, or instrumentality thereof, or between any agency, instrumentality, or institution of the State of North Carolina, and any labor union, trade union, or labor organization, as bargaining agent for any public employees of such city, town, county or other municipality, or agency or instrumentality of government, is hereby declared to be against the public policy of the State, illegal, unlawful, void and of no effect.”

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