A last vestige of the Jim Crow era

By: - April 29, 2009 11:18 am

Here in North Carolina, we are going to celebrate a dubious golden anniversary this summer. Fifty years ago this June, spurred by fears of union corruption, communism, and (gasp) black and white people organizing together for better jobs and higher wages, the North Carolina legislature imposed a prohibition on public workers collectively bargaining for a legal contract–General Statute (GS) 95-98.

The world seems to have changed in the past half century-mobsters and unions are seen together only on repeat episodes of the Sopranos, the Cold War is over, and we have elected our first African-American president. Yet, North Carolina continues to cling to its ban on public sector collective bargaining; sharing with Virginia the dubious distinction of being the only two states with such a moth-eaten vestige of a red-baiting, race-baiting, union-bashing world that many Americans probably thought had gone the way of the Edsel.          

This spring, the North Carolina House and Senate are considering companion bills (HB 750 and SB 427) that would remove the ban on public sector collective bargaining; and return that contractual option back to workers and municipal leaders across the state-where it has always belonged. Not surprisingly, a coalition of conservative business interests has rallied in favor of the status quo from half a century ago. Their arguments for preserving GS 95-98, however, are based on a series of myths that need to be shattered once and for all.

Myth #1: The proposed bills would lead to public employee strikes.

Fact: The ban on public employee strikes is in a separate section of the state's general statutes, which would NOT be repealed by the proposed legislation. Public workers in North Carolina-police, fire, teachers, etc-would still have no legal right to strike.          

Myth #2: The proposed bill would force all public entities-state, county, municipal-into collective bargaining with their employees.

Fact: These bills would simply allow the idea of collective bargaining to be considered by workers and state agencies, county government (including school systems), and municipalities. Right now, across the state, thousands of public employees have said that they deserve what private sector workers have-the right to bargain collectively for a legal employment contract. And even some town managers and agency directors have had the courage to admit that collectively bargained contracts with their employees-agreements with grievance procedures and clearly stated personnel policies-could prove beneficial in promoting improved morale and job performance.

The recent dispute between the city of Raleigh and its sanitation workers is ample evidence that the lack of a union contract can lead to more conflict and disruption in public services. So, it would be in the interest of all concerned parties-public workers, employers, and taxpayers-to permit collective bargaining as a legal option rather than banning any consideration of such a solution.          

Myth #3: Collectively bargained contracts will lead to higher wages for public employees and therefore higher taxes.

Fact: It is true that unions will try to get the best wages and benefits for the public employees they represent, and those workers deserve a living wage and affordable health care (as do all Americans). But states with unionized public sector workforces also often see better job satisfaction and lower turnover rates. If workers feel respected and fairly compensated in their jobs, they are more likely to stay in that workplace, gain more experience and skill, and reduce overall turnover costs.

The campaign to repeal the ban on public sector collective bargaining in North Carolina is actually a modest movement with sensible goals-despite the critics' shrill cries of radicalism running rampant in the Tar Heel state. House Bill 750 and Senate Bill 427 would merely remove a fifty year old albatross from the necks of hard working public employees, and give municipalities to right to talk about the option of collective bargaining with their workers. GS 95-98 was a bad piece of legislation when it was enacted in 1959, and the best golden anniversary present we can give ourselves as citizens of North Carolina is to tell our legislators to relegate this embarrassment to the dustbin of history.

Dr. David A. Zonderman is a Professor of History at North Carolina State University.

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