DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA – In late June, I attended a meeting of public works employees in Durham, who were planning the first strike of public works employees in the rapidly gentrifying city, where many city workers can’t afford to live.
“We aren’t getting paid what we are worth at all and are being asked to do work that’s beyond our job description,” shouted sewage truck operator Willie Brown to 24 fellow co-workers at UE Local 150 Hall in Durham.
“I am making $21.35 at age 52 – that’s nothing at age 50, hell that’s nothing at age 40,” said Brown, who was making $ 75,000 a year as an interstate truck driver before he decided to take a job with the city that wouldn’t require him to travel. “I left the truck driver world making great money then lured into this world and now I can never get a 5% raise”.
Over the past four years, wages for public works employees in Durham, who are overwhelmingly African-American, have increased by 15% while inflation has risen by 23%, so that many workers essentially received an 8% pay cut.
Not only is Brown supposed to work as a sewage truck operator, but also occasionally as a snow plow driver, a dump truck driver, and even a chainsaw operator. Many other public works employees, who make on average $18-$22-an hour, shared Brown’s frustration that they were not being appropriately paid for jobs despite being asked to perform many different jobs.
The motion to prepare to strike passed overwhelmingly last June. The workers began drafting a petition to Durham to raise their wages, but the city didn’t listen.
Now, public works employees are on strike for the first time in the city’s history. The workers are demanding a $5,000 bonus. Additionally, they demand that workers be paid at a higher rate for work outside their job description and that all temporary employees be made permanent.
“We go out and we make sure that things are taken care of. We aren’t gonna beg for something that we earned,” said striking Durham city employee Keisha Barnette, who has worked for city for 24 years. “For the city to grow, the workforce can’t be depleted. We can’t sustain this on our backs”.
Technically, strikes by public employees in North Carolina are illegal, but only if the city takes legal action with the union. With the city currently listing 120 of the 177 public works positions as vacant, the city can’t afford to lose more workers by taking legal action against the union.
“We are essential workers and now the city is going to see just how essential we are,” said Willie Brown.
The strike today by public works employees in Durham is part of a growing trend of public employees, primarily workers of color, seeking union representation across the South.
Despite workers not having collective bargaining rights in North Carolina, UE Local 150, the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, has persuaded approximately 6,000 workers to agree to have dues deducted from their paychecks voluntarily. Through protests and occasionally illegal strikes, the union has been able to win some changes and has grown tremendously during the pandemic.
During the pandemic, UE local 150 gained over 1,000 new members. Now, the union is going on the offensive in places like Durham as essential workers demand more.
While much of the media focuses mainly on the organizing efforts of white workers in coffee shops, universities jobs, and media outlets, BLS statistics released earlier this year showed that it’s actually black and brown workers in state and local government in the South that are driving union membership gains.
“The entire increase in unionization in 2022 was among workers of color—workers of color saw an increase of 231,000, while white workers saw a decrease of 31,000,” wrote the Economic Policy Institute in a report released in February. “Of all major racial and ethnic groups, Black workers continue to have the highest unionization rates, at 12.8%. This compares with 11.2% for white workers, 10.0% for Latinx workers, and 9.2% for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) workers”.
The biggest areas of growth this year for the labor movement were state government and local governments. Following the pandemic, when many public employees were told they were “essential employees,” there has been a massive upsurge in organizing, particularly among low-wage black and brown workers in the public sector.
Despite significant gains in union membership among workers in the public sector, many public employees, particularly in the South, still need collective bargaining agreements. North Carolina outlawed strikes by public employees.
However, in Durham, public works employees say that the city can’t afford not to meet the strikers’ demands.
“The city of Durham is smelling trash and it is gonna smell like dead bodies in two days if they don’t get it off the street,” says Willie Brown.