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Counselor’s Comments

President’s Message

by Tom Harris

by Charles Johnson

SEANC Chief of Staff/General Counsel

Union: Not a Four-letter Word

UNC Proposes To Strip Employees of SPA Rights

We’ve all seen recent discussions on the evening news about unions and heard politicians and pundits argue about them. Some of us have attended rallies in their support. Unions and their efforts are being vilified by some and applauded by others. As state workers, we need to understand why unions are an important and positive force in this country. First, we need to remember that “union” is not a four-letter word. We all enjoy the benefits of labor struggles that have taken place not only in the United States but all over the world for more than a Johnson century. Worker rights are an everyday expectation in today’s society and are a direct result of the struggles of our union forefathers.

Legislative Affairs Director Ardis Watkins and I met recently with UNC system representatives who informed us that the UNC Board of Governors (BOG) is asking the General Assembly to exempt nearly 22,000 of its employees from the State Personnel Act (SPA) and give the BOG authority to adopt the human resource (HR) policies for those employees. This proposal has been included in Senate Bill 575. Since the delegates at the 2010 SEANC convention had made opposition to legislation like this their second-highest priority, Harris we were curious to hear how the proposal would be defended. What system representatives said is that the proposal purposely lacks details so the BOG will have flexibility to make the new policies even more advantageous for employees than SPA policies. Since they also said that the BOG is seeking input from employees, here is information to help you form an opinion. University System SPA Employees Would Lose Property Rights to Jobs: If university system employees are exempted from the SPA, they would lose the property interest in their jobs obtained when they gain career employee status after two years of employment. This is because they would lose protection of the SPA requirement that career employees can be disciplined only for “just cause.” Both North Carolina and federal courts have held that such a property interest can only be created by statute or local ordinance, not by resolution or policy. Thus, the BOG could not replace this right by adopting an HR policy to match SPA’s “just cause” provision. As a result, SPA career state employees would also lose the right to appeal disciplinary actions to the Office of Administrative Hearings, the State Personnel Commission and the courts. They become “atwill” employees unless they have an employment contract for a specific term, and then they could be made “at-will” employees at the end of the contract’s term. “At-will” employees can be demoted or discharged for no reason or any reason as long as it is not a reason specifically prohibited by law. University System SPA Employees Would Lose SPA Pay: Another big detriment of this proposal would be the loss of pay raises given to the state’s other SPA employees. Typically the General Assembly gives the university system a lump sum of money and no guidelines for giving raises to its EPA employees. If history is any indication, this could mean that favored positions, such as faculty and administrators, would get a disproportionate share of the raises while others would get raises lower than those given to SPA employees. Comparison to Current EPA Non-Faculty Employees, Who Lack Many SPA Rights: While there is no certainty about what policies the BOG will adopt to replace the SPA rights that would be lost, one logical place to look is existing policies for current EPA non-faculty staff. That comparison shows that additional SPAprovided provisions lost would include: reduction-in-force re-employment rights and severance pay, longevity pay, promotional priority for career state employees, protection from hiring decisions based on political affiliation and whistleblower protections, including protection from retaliation for communicating with a state legislator at his or her request. Opposition to SPA Removal Still Merited: We concluded that the university system’s arguments for the proposal gave us insufficient reasons for considering a change to SEANC members’ stated priority to oppose legislation such as this proposal. While we will be advocating SEANC’s position to the General Assembly on your behalf, we urge university system employees to share their opinions with the staff assemblies on their campuses, as the BOG has asked for this input. Also watch for SEANC’s legislative updates that will alert you at appropriate times to contact your legislators about this issue.

Worker Rights Include:

• Equitable Living Wages • 40-hour Work Weeks • Child Labor Laws • Vacation Time • Holidays • Equal Treatment Regardless of Race, Color, Religion, • Safe Working Conditions  National Origin, Age or Disability Sex,

We, as citizens of this great country, have come to expect these things. These are commonplace elements in every workplace, but there was a time when this was not the case. At one time in our history, children labored for 16 hours a day, sweatshops locked doors to trap workers and coal miners were paid in company dollars that could only be spent in company-owned stores that sold inferior and sometimes tainted products. You could also be denied a job because of your race, religion or gender. These are not large concerns for us anymore because unions paved the way for workers to earn fair pay for fair work under safe and equitable work conditions. While we may not enjoy collective bargaining in North Carolina, we must remember that it is a right we are fighting for. It means so much more than negotiating a wage. Collective bargaining will allow us, as state workers, to negotiate with our employers about issues like work conditions, hours, training, health and safety and grievances. Unions give us a collective voice. When you are standing in a crowd, which voice is more likely to be heard – the voice of one or the collective roar of 55,000? SEANC gives us unity; this is our collective roar to be heard over the arguments of politicians and pundits. There are 50 states in this country and North Carolina is only one of two that expressly prohibits public sector collective bargaining. As always, we are working to make North Carolina one of the majority – not the minority.

Do you want to see just how far labor struggles have come in the last century? Visit the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh and its year-long photography exhibit titled “The Photography of Lewis Hine: Exposing Child Labor in North Carolina 1908–1918.” Hine was a staff photographer with the National Child Labor Committee. His work documents the plight of child workers in the state’s textile mills a century ago.

For more information, visit 10


May 2011 Reporter