N.C. workers fight cuts in jobs, services

‘State of Emergency’ campaign launched
By Dante Strobino, Workers World, May 31, 2009

Durham, N.C. - When North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue announced that all state workers would be mandated to take 10 unpaid hours off to help balance the budget, many workers began discussing how they could collectively withhold their labor by organizing to take the same time periods off.

Then the state legislature began discussing furloughs of up to 20 days for all state workers. But that plan was soon taken off the table after seeing the mass outrage it caused.

City and local governments began looking at similar measures to cut costs on the backs of workers and the oppressed. The city of Durham announced it was laying off 35 workers and eliminating 78 jobs. The city of Charlotte announced similar cuts, including threats to privatize the entire Recycling Department.

Already mass lay-offs and plant closings mean the state now suffers from the country’s second-highest official unemployment rate at 10.8 percent. In reality it is much higher when counting total unemployment, including permanently discouraged workers and the underemployed.

On May 16, a thousand teachers from around the state, organized by the North Carolina Association of Educators, rallied against the 10-hour furloughs. Many of the teachers from rural areas had never been to a rally before, yet it seemed clear to them that cuts to teachers can only be stopped through mass action.

Jennifer Lanane, president of the Wake County Chapter of the NCAE, led the teachers in a strong chant: “Shut it down!” After the rally, the teachers jumped in their cars and went on a motorcade to the governor’s mansion.

On May 18, over 50 city of Durham workers crowded into the chambers of City Hall to listen to City Manager Tom Bonfield present his proposed budget plan. It includes a water utility hike of up to 9.5 percent, a pay raise for police and fire totaling $1.8 million, and elimination of 113 city worker jobs, saving the city $6.5 million.

According to officials, the plan allows the city to get out of the hole from lower sales taxes, state revenue sharing, charges for services and permit fees. At the same time, the city will keep $19.8 million in a reserve fund for what Bonfield called “worse economic times to come.” This amount represents 12.1 percent of the general fund! Unionists have calculated that the city could spend $6.8 million of this money, which only lowers the reserve to 8 percent, maintain a maximum bond rating and save city workers’ jobs.

George MacNeal, a member of the Durham City Workers Chapter of the Electrical Workers union Local 150, told Workers World, “It’s a rainy day now and those funds need to be released. ... If it wasn’t for us, this city wouldn’t run.” The union is launching a broad campaign to get community support against cuts in such services as trash pick-up, which, if it’s allowed to pile up on sidewalks and streets, could become a major public health hazard.

Workers fight to save jobs

UE Local 150 has launched a State of Emergency Campaign around the state to give workers the tools to fight back against budget cuts. Workers have already begun to circulate a petition that demands “No layoffs, furloughs, pay or service cuts,” and “Tax the corporations and the wealthy.”

The state budget has a deficit of up to $4.8 billion, yet the state Senate revenue plan includes additional tax breaks to big corporations like Bank of America, which already receive over $1 billion in tax breaks every year from the state. According to the plan, these tax breaks will increase by as much as $350 million per year!

Gwen Burwell, a licensed practical nurse at state-run Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh and secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Council of UE Local 150, told Workers World: “I think it is outrageous. It makes me sick that the state is lowering taxes for corporations. What about other people who have children, who have to eat, pay light bills and car bills?”

Burwell continued: “The big corporations’ taxes are cut, but what are they doing with that money? They aren’t giving it to us! We are the ones on the bottom, working hard, getting paid less as they sit on the throne getting richer and richer while our people are suffering.”

North Carolina already has low tax rates for multinational corporations whose hunger for profits and super-exploitation of workers knows no limits. Corporations cannot be lured to stay for any long period of time by lowering taxes, as the politicians claim.
As part of the State of Emergency Campaign, some workers who are members of the Carolina Auto, Aerospace and Machine Workers Union, a chapter of UE Local 150, are fighting for recall rights. They are organized in a non-majority union without a collective bargaining agreement. In March 390 of almost 1,500 workers at the Cummins Rocky Mount Engine Plant were laid off. Workers have been rallying and mass petitioning ever since.

The Raleigh People’s Assembly will host a forum on May 30 where teachers, state workers, city workers and youth will speak out against budget cuts. Led by a powerful rank-and-file workers’ organization, this will be an important opportunity for other left and progressive forces to unite and help build a statewide fight-back. The campaign also plans to launch similar actions in 10 other cities throughout the state.
Part of this campaign demands collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, who are still denied that right by law. There are currently two bills in the state General Assembly that would repeal the ban. This is the first time that such a bill has had support in the state Senate.

On May 26, the HOPE (Hear Our Public Employees) Coalition, which includes UE Local 150, NCAE, the Teamsters, the North Carolina AFL-CIO, Triangle Labor Group, the State Employees Association of North Carolina in Service Employees union Local 2008, and others, will convene a lobby day to repeal the ban on collective bargaining.

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