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UE is at the Forefront of Protests at Democratic National Convention
Updated On: Sep 07, 2012

Demanding respect for human and labor rights, UE and the Southern International Worker Justice Campaign are at the forefront of protests at the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina

Unions and activists join to push for workers’ rights in Charlotte and nationwide

By Celeste Smith and Steve Harrison

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Organized labor groups are pressing their case for workers’ rights as the Democratic National Convention gets under way. A collaboration of labor unions and activist groups met Monday at Wedgewood Baptist Church, calling for justice for all workers. The meeting was designed for workers throughout the South, but it was also used to support a union of Charlotte city employees.

For the last year, United Electrical Workers Local 150 has been trying to enlist city workers, particularly those in the sanitation department. N.C. law prohibits collective bargaining for public employees, but union officials say they can fight for better pay and working conditions. Sanitation workers have been protesting in front of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center for the last month.

UE Local 150 is lobbying the city to allow employees to voluntarily send paycheck deductions to the union, something the city allows for certain charities. Ashaki Binta, an organizer with the United Electrical Workers from Raleigh, said not having direct deposit makes it difficult for the union to thrive. “We want payroll deduction,” she said. “The city does it for the United Way, they do it for the Arts & Science Council.” She said the city has said it’s too expensive to set up a deduction system, even though other N.C. municipalities have done it.

The City Council asked City Manager Curt Walton last month to review the sanitation workers’ concerns. That report hasn’t been released by the city.

The union also wants the ability to “meet and confer,” which would allow the union and city leaders to discuss issues though not signing binding agreements. Also desired: A “Bill of Rights for Workers” and what the union says is a living wage.

Binta said the average salary for city sanitation workers is roughly $28,000 a year. As the city has struggled to balance its budget in the aftermath of the recession, city employees have had two years in the last four budget cycles in which they received no increase to their base pay. “We are calling for a living wage,” Binta said. “People shouldn’t have to work two or three jobs to support their families.”

Saladin Muhammad of Rocky Mount said it’s important for union workers to merge with larger causes for workers’ rights. “They need to be drawn into a movement,” said Muhammad, of the Southern International Worker Justice Campaign.

Historically a key constituency of the Democratic Party, union members will make up about 16 percent of the 6,000 DNC delegates, according to the AFL-CIO, a federation of national and international unions.

At odds with Democrats

But some big unions were at odds with the Democrats for picking Charlotte as the convention city, citing North Carolina’s status as the least-unionized state in the nation. Under the state’s right-to-work law, workers can’t be forced to join unions or pay fees. It’s also illegal in North Carolina for unions to bargain on behalf of public workers.

Against that backdrop, groups like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the AFL-CIO said they wouldn’t financially support the Charlotte convention at the level they have in the past.

Unions, however, will still have a visible presence at the convention.

On Tuesday, the AFL-CIO will hold a gathering for all labor delegates at the Hilton Charlotte Center City. It’s billed as “an opportunity to talk about a working families’ agenda and the effort to elect candidates that will fight for an economy that works for all.”

Federation President Richard Trumka, a convention delegate, will attend, along with other executive officers. The IBEW’s three dozen or so delegates are expected to participate, according to the group.

More than 100 members of the Service Employees International Union are at the convention this week, according to the union representing workers in health care and public services.

Its sponsored events this week, according to the group, include a health care forum Wednesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame Museum, featuring advocates and elected officials.

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