News: Quick Takes

Lawmakers, union reps move to end prohibition on public-sector collective bargaining

A participant in the March for Students and Rally for Respect last year in downtown Raleigh. (Photo by Don Carrington)
A participant in the March for Students and Rally for Respect last year in downtown Raleigh. (Photo by Don Carrington)

Lawmakers, union representatives, and government officials are calling for repeal of North Carolina’s prohibition on public-sector employee collective bargaining.

Sen. Wiley Nickel, D-Wake, led a news conference Wednesday, April 24, calling for passage of Senate Bill 575. He’s a sponsor of the legislation, which would revoke what speakers referred to as an archaic, Jim Crow-era law denying more than 600,000 government employees’ self-determination in the workplace. The bill was referred to the Senate Rules Committee.

North Carolina is one of only three states with a blanket prohibition on public-sector union collective bargaining. This bill doesn’t require local governments to enter collective bargaining or allow public employees to strike.

“The repeal of public-sector bargaining provides a first step to bring North Carolina laws in line with those of a majority of states,” said Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, which acts as a de facto teachers union.

The teachers association has been increasingly politically active, encouraging a teacher walkout May 16, 2018, and another scheduled for May 1.

The N.C. School Boards Association took a dim view of S.B. 575.

“The elimination of the ban against collective bargaining would not work for school employees in North Carolina,” spokeswoman Leanne Winner told Carolina Journal in a written statement. “While NCSBA supports continuing to enhance the pay for our hard-working educators, NCSBA opposes any elimination of the collective bargaining statutes in North Carolina.”

Winner noted that local boards of education aren’t authorized to raise revenue like school districts in other states. Most of their money comes from the state and county commissioners.  “Without the ability to secure funding there is no path available for school boards to be able to bargain meaningful compensation agreements.” 

MaryBe McMillan, AFL-CIO state president for North Carolina, said the bill is about fairness, freedom, and respect. It would give government workers the same right to unionized negotiations that private workers possess, the freedom to sit down with employers to develop collective solutions to workplace issues, and respect for their experience to collaborate on issues.

Kinston Mayor Don Hardy and Winston-Salem City Council members were among elected officials at the news conference in support of the bill.

Durham City Council member Vernetta Alston, accompanied by fellow council members and Rep. Zach Hawkins, D-Durham, said S.B. 575 corrects a historic wrong by giving public employees, especially women and people of color, a powerful voice to speak for their families and communities.

Hawkins said North Carolina should emulate California and New York, heavily unionized states that he said are thriving.

Steven Greenhut was surprised someone saw California as a model to emulate. He’s a senior fellow at the nonpartisan R Street public policy research organization and author of the book Plunder! How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation

“If you’re a mediocre teacher, or worse, it’s the best place to be,” he said.

Union protections make it nearly impossible to fire bad teachers, and binding contracts impose enormous challenges to reforms. Compliance officers are hired to meet contract terms as bureaucracy and administrative costs grow. Across-the-board pay makes it impossible to reward the best teachers with merit pay and disallows financial incentives to recruit top educators to teach specialty subjects, or to teach in poor-performing schools.

Greenhut links unionization to California’s decline of traditional public schools and steady rise in charter-school openings. Teacher unions grow stronger and richer under collective bargaining, get more involved in the political process, and ensure that more resources flow to schools, but not to areas that help students learn, he said.  

“The huge problems in public services that we see in California are the result of unionization,” Greenhut said.

Collective bargaining has driven up pay and benefit packages to unsustainable levels, resulting in massive unfunded liabilities. That can lead to employee cutbacks.

“It’s impossible to get rid of bad cops. I think a lot of these shooting issues and use of force issues are caused by the fact that police-union work rules make it impossible to get rid of overly aggressive or even corrupt police officers,” Greenhut said. “So we see that, I think, throughout our large and dysfunctional public sector.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2018 report, 33.9% of public-sector workers are unionized, compared to 6.4% of private-sector workers. Black workers are more likely to be union members than white, Asian, or Hispanic workers. There are 7.2 million public-sector employees in a union, and 7.6 million private-sector employees are unionized.

North Carolina and South Carolina had the lowest union membership rates at 2.7% each, and were among eight states below 5%. More than half of the 14.7 million union members nationally lived in just seven states: California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Washington.