The Southern Worker Justice Campaign (SWJC) focuses on empowering African American blue-collar public sector workers in North Carolina and Virginia through education on their rights. The campaign helps rank-n-file workers develop their own strategies for building power and organization to collectively win improvements in their wages, working conditions, and racial justice, particularly through advocating for collective bargaining rights and reallocation of local funds away from over-bloated police departments.
The US South, if considered as a national economy, would be the 4th largest GDP in the world. The South is also the region with both the lowest union density, and also the highest exploitation and institutional racism. Building a mass movement full of Black and Brown worker leaders across the South is critical to transforming the national economy and social conditions.
Each day, tens of thousands of blue-collar public sector workers help our North Carolina and Virginia communities have clean water, dispose of our trash, keep our parks and common spaces beautiful, care for those who need medical care, and more. Yet the workers performing these tasks, who are predominantly Black and Brown, face low pay and unsafe conditions. This is the result of their lack of collective bargaining rights for the last six decades, bans on these rights that were purposefully intended to disempower people of color during the Civil Rights Movement.
The SWJC’s first phase is concentrating on municipal workers across North Carolina and Virginia. We plan to focus on the following areas:
Winning systemic economic and racial justice
Black municipal workers are highly visible in their communities and can catalyze other sectors to organize for higher wages and against institutional racism. This was true when we organized and won resolutions at five City Councils across North Carolina, securing $15 per hour minimum wage for city workers in Charlotte, Winston Salem, Greensboro, Durham and Raleigh. This eventually led to us winning $15 per hour minimum wage for tens of thousands of state workers.
Reallocating funds from over-militarized police departments
Black municipal workers, when organized with community and faith supporters, can help reshape local municipal budgets to shift resources away from over-bloated police budgets, and towards the needs of Black workers and their communities to secure safety, wellness, living wages and dignity. We have been actively building these coalitions in Durham and Raleigh that have helped shift the narrative around police brutality and public safety, and moved resources. If we can further redistribute public funds away from militarized police departments into investments that rebuild Black and Brown communities, we will create change that will last far beyond the work of this grant.
Advancing Local and Statewide Policy
UEREF has been working with public sector workers in North Carolina and Virginia for more than twenty years.
In 2007, together with international union allies, UEREF won a ruling from the International Labor Organization that the State of North Carolina’s ban on collective bargaining violates international law, U.S. Treaties, and the universal declaration of human rights. We used this ruling to hold a series of hearings across the state that has led to improved working conditions for municipal workers, though the ban on collective bargaining remains in place.
Recently, through our organizing, the City of Durham has passed a resolution in support of repealing the ban on public sector collective bargaining. City workers there have also won a Workers Rights Commission, and are close to winning improvements to the city grievance procedure allowing increased job security. We are working to replicate this pattern in other cities.
The ban on public sector collective bargaining is a direct outgrowth of the Jim Crow era and a major lynch pin holding down union rights across North and South Carolina. Utilizing the momentum from Virginia, which partially overturned their ban last year, we can learn lessons and apply them to the struggle to expand union rights across North Carolina and the South.