News: CJ Exclusives

Collective Bargaining Looms as Issue

Though bill died in committee, public employee unions to keep pushing

A bill that would have overturned North Carolina’s decades-old ban on collective bargaining by state employees died a quite death in a House committee as members of the General Assembly scrambled to meet the legislative crossover deadline last week.

House bill 1583, introduced by Dan Blue, D-Wake, never stood much chance of becoming law this year, but its appearance and handling during this session signaled what might be the opening salvo in a looming battle over teachers unions in N.C. schools.

The recent mini-drama is fallout from an ongoing trend in organized labor. Private-sector union membership has been declining in the United States for more than 40 years, and currently stands at around 9 percent. Only public-sector unions, those made up of government employees, are growing.

With well over 200,000 public employees, North Carolina is a tempting target for union organizers. But a 1947 law (GS 95-98) prevents public employees from bargaining collectively with their government employers. Without collective bargaining rights, unions have found recruitment to be a major challenge.

The State Employees Association of North Carolina would like to change that.

In 2004 SEANC entered into a partnership with the Service Employees International Union, the nation’s second largest public-sector union. Under this partnership SEIU pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into campaigns to organize workers and elect union-sympathetic state officials. SEIU hoped this would trigger a repeal of the state’s ban on collective bargaining by public employees, as well as its right-to-work law.

During the 2004 and 2006 election cycles, SEIU money helped elect a number of pro-union House members. The state’s largest teachers union, the North Carolina Association of Educators, also came through with major contributions. Partly as a result of this money, Democrats heavily outspent Republicans in both elections and increased their majorities in each chamber.

With an expanded 68-52 majority in the House, and a more labor-friendly Speaker in Rep. Joe Hackney, Democrats have been pursuing a more pro-union agenda this session. It was in this context that Blue introduced his bill, titled “Restore Contract Rights to State/Local Employees.”

In the weeks leading up to crossover, the date by which a bill must have passed at least one chamber of the legislature to remain viable, the bill was twice scheduled to be heard in the House Judiciary II Committee, which is chaired by Blue himself. On the first occasion Blue called the bill up for discussion toward the end of the meeting, then used the remaining time to lay out his arguments in favor of the proposed law.

Explaining that many states allow public employees to bargain collectively through unions, he seemed to acknowledge that the practice imposed some difficulties for local governments but that these were, in his view, manageable. No vote was taken at that hearing.

Then, two days before the crossover deadline May 25, the Judiciary II Committee held two meetings. H1583 was on the agenda for the morning meeting and representatives from labor organizations and the NAACP, which also backs the bill, were on hand to observe. But of the 15 members of the committee, several pro-union members were absent because of the heavy schedule of committee meetings that day.

Realizing that he did not have enough supporters in the room to ensure the bill would pass, Blue declined to call it up. The second meeting later that afternoon went the same way, effectively killing any chance the bill had of being referred favorably to the full House for the required two votes before crossover.

Opponents of the measure breathed a sigh of relief, but they seem to realize that the struggle to keep North Carolina’s schools free from collective bargaining is entering a new phase. No one expects that Blue’s bill will be revived this session, but union supporters are energized by the experience of finally having a pro-union bill discussed in a legislative committee. Speculation among education lobbyists is that the real motivation behind Blue’s decision to run the bill now was to show SEIU that their campaign investments in North Carolina do pay off, thus encouraging a continuing flow of campaign money.

Still, education professionals are worried about the future. If collective bargaining were to become a reality in N.C. schools the impact would be substantial. The School Boards Association points out that while local districts employ teachers, the state sets the salary schedule and provides money for salaries. Since school boards don’t have the legal authority to raise revenue on their own, it is unclear how they could negotiate things such as salaries and benefits with the unions representing their employees.

Collective bargaining would bring major changes for teachers as well. Individual teachers would lose what voice they now have via site-based management teams and professional advisory committees once a union was recognized as the exclusive bargaining agent.

Teachers could also be forced to pay agency fees for representational services, whether they wanted them or not. Although the law allows teachers to opt out of paying for union political activities, experience in unionized states has shown that is nearly impossible to enforce. Teachers who do try to assert their rights are often harassed and threatened by their unions.

The National Labor Relations Act allows public sector unions to keep much of their financial and membership data secret, so teachers don’t really know how much of their dues are actually being spent on legitimate representational services and how much is going to fund political activities with which they might disagree. This secrecy has contributed to some cases of corruption in teachers unions in other states.

As the state’s largest teachers union, the NCAE stands to benefit mightily by a move to collective bargaining. However, the organization has been silent about the issue so far, at least in public.

NCAE said it was neutral on Blue’s bill, and declined comment on this story.

Jim Stegall is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.