Politics & Government

Unions hope for an election payoff in anti-union N. Carolina

Organized labor took a risk this year, pouring money and manpower into campaigns in North Carolina, traditionally one of the most anti-union states in the country.

But the gamble appears to be paying off, with labor playing a role in the election of such Democratic allies as U.S. Sen.-elect Kay Hagan, Gov.-elect Beverly Perdue, U.S. Rep.-elect Larry Kissell and helping carry the state for President-elect Barack Obama.

Now union leaders hope to translate success at the polls to victories in the halls of Congress and the state legislature. They will be advocating a broad agenda that includes making it easier nationally for unions to organize plants and for public employees in North Carolina to engage in collective bargaining.

The push comes at a time of renewed labor activity in the state.

"I have been fighting for essentially the last 15 years for the labor movement to pay more attention to North Carolina," said Chris Chafe of Carrboro, executive director of the 6 million member Change to Win federation that includes the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union.

Labor or labor-related groups poured at least $4.7 million into this year's campaigns for state office in North Carolina -- more than double their 2004 spending, according to campaign finance records. Most of the money went to Democrats.

There were at least 1,000 union members on the ground in North Carolina, knocking on doors, manning phone banks and distributing literature at plant gates, according to labor leaders. There were particularly strong union efforts in the blue-collar areas of Charlotte, which may have contributed to Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican, losing his gubernatorial bid.

"This was absolutely the biggest effort we have ever made in North Carolina," said Jack Cipriani, 60, of Greensboro, who is the Teamsters regional vice president for an area that stretches from Maine to South Carolina.

The labor movement has often found North Carolina fallow ground. At the height of the state's industrialization in the 1920s, state and local governments used their power to crush the labor movement sometimes using bullets and billy clubs. There is a plaque in state AFL-CIO headquarters commemorating six workers killed by sheriff deputies at a Marion textile mill strike in 1929.

There were other factors involved as well. North Carolina's industrial work force was recruited off the farms and went to work in mill villages. That made organizing workers here harder for unions than with immigrants working in big cities.

North Carolina had the lowest rate of unionization of any state until earlier this year, when the state employees association affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. The low rate of unionization has been a key recruitment tool used by state and local leaders when wooing companies to open plants here.

One area where labor is making gains is among North Carolina's 500,000 public employees.

The State Employees Association of North Carolina advocates for state workers but cannot negotiate contracts for them.

The Teamsters have also been gaining ground among public employees. Officers in the Raleigh Police Department and in the state Capitol Police are Teamsters members.

A 1959 state law, though, forbids public bodies from engaging in collective bargaining. North Carolina and Virginia are the only two states with such a ban.

The Democratic-controlled legislature has been reluctant to change that. Lawmakers have argued it could damage the state's ability to recruit industry.

Democrats have also formed an alliance with industry, generally passing pro-business legislation and, in return, having their campaigns financed by business.

Senate leader Marc Basnight, a Manteo Democrat, said he sees little support for changing the law on collective bargaining. He says growing unionization would damage the state's business climate.

Labor has been lobbying to change the law. Former House Speaker Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat, introduced a bill last year to allow local governments the option of engaging in collective bargaining. The bill received a hearing and was reported favorably out of a House committee, but got no further.

Having made a major push in the elections, labor expects to be heard in the legislature.

"I think everyone has taken notice," said Cipriani of the Teamsters. "They saw that labor had more than 1,000 people on the ground. They saw the effect a focused labor movement can have on an election."

Perdue, the incoming governor, has said she opposes extending collective bargaining to public employees.

But labor played an important role for her as well.

The most influential public employee advocacy group in the state has long been the N.C. Association of Educators, the state chapter of the National Education Association, a hybrid union and professional association.

The NCAE has helped Democratic governors such as Mike Easley and Jim Hunt get elected. It made an even more intense effort to elect Perdue.

John Wilson, the NEA executive director and a North Carolina native, said the group spent $2 million in the state, much of it on behalf of Perdue during the primary and general elections. That was more than the NEA spent on any state race in the country -- excluding referendum battles over school vouchers.

When Perdue seemed in trouble two weeks before the election, the NEA dispatched 10 staffers to North Carolina to help.

"We have a high level of confidence in her," said Wilson. "When you couple that with her opponent, who supported vouchers, which we believe undermines the schools, it just generated even greater support."

Another major backer of Perdue was the Service Employees International Union, which pumped $2 million into state races, according to Dana Cope, the executive director of the state group. Of that amount, Cope estimates that as much as $1.3 million was used to help Perdue.

In the closing days of the campaign, SEIU sent 500 volunteers from Local 1190 in New England to knock on doors and distribute literature in North Carolina, Cope said.

Business and local government groups are concerned about labor's push. They argue that collective bargaining would drive up the costs of local government and health care because hospital and health workers would likely be targeted. Making it easier to organize plants, they say, would harm the state's favorable business climate.

"It would have a negative impact on our economy and jobs," said Lewis Ebert, president and CEO of the N.C. Chamber of Commerce. "Why would we pass legislation that would allow Rust Belt states a chance to catch up to us?"

But labor leaders ask why public employees should be treated differently from employees in the private sector. They argue that a healthy union movement will grow the middle class.

"Business and industry have spent millions and millions in North Carolina," Cope said. "That has never been checked by anyone because labor unions have never been strong here. For a long time, business has been allowed to buy elections. We are trying to provide a little check and balance to that power they have always had in North Carolina."