Category Archives: Public Employee Organizing

The Question of Power

An Interview with Saladin Muhammad

SaladinSaladin is a founder and organizer with the Black Workers for Justice, based in North Carolina. He was recently arrested for protesting at the NC General Assembly on May 13th and became a member of the 940 Moral Monday Arrestees and the first to be convicted.  He is also a lead organizer with the Southern Workers’ Assembly? This interview was conducted by Buben Solis and Niqua Douglas and published in the Fall/Winter Issue of “As Goes the South” a publication of Project South.

Ruben Solis: What was your entry point into the overall movement?

Saladin Muhammad: It was in the early 1960s, I was active in the military where I was exposed to a lot of racism. I was in Santo Domingo in ‘65 before I was out of the service and got pretty deeply involved in the struggle against racism in the military happening against Dominicans and against Black soldiers.  What probably triggered me was in 1964, a Black soldier from my barracks was lynched/hung. This brother was on his knees with a rope around the neck. Some white soldiers were sitting in the barracks shining their boots claiming they knew nothing about it. He was dead. That led to a rebellion at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. When I left the military, I joined the black liberation movement and the civil rights movement.

Ruben: That was quite a moment for liberation groups. The Caamano revolution was happening at the time as were student protesting the presence of US marines, and the shooting at students with live ammo, and even killing some students to stop the revolt.  The US Marines were responsible for putting down the military rebellion by the progressive nationalist officers.

Speaking of Black Workers for Justice and the Black and the African Liberation movement, how do you connect those to the Moral Monday protests?

Saladin: The South has always been pretty central to the oppression of African American people in the United States, and as you know, the South and Southwest have been regions where national oppression of African Americans, Mexican Americans, those from Mexico, and indigenous people in the West has happened. The examples of structural racism, which we call national oppression, has always been the strongest in the South, an anchor for how we express ourselves, an example for the rest of the country.

My mother was from the area where I live now, although she went to Philadelphia in the thirties and I was born there. I came down here (North Carolina) every summer and knew a lot of people. I got married shortly after leaving the army to Naeema who was born in Rocky Mount, NC and we moved to Philadelphia, PA.  We were very active in Philadelphia for fifteen years, and decided to move back to Rocky Mount to continue this work in the South. We began building Black Workers for Justice in 1981 around a struggle for three sisters fighting against race discrimination at a K-mart store in Rocky Mount. We developed a petition asking people to sign demanding that the K-mart rehire the workers and other demands dealing with worker rights. Some people went around to the churches and other community places with the petition. A couple of us went to work places where we spread the basic. The workers we spoke to realized they faced the same problems in their workplaces. In 1982, we began to form a state-wide organization, and we have been deepening that infrastructure since then to build consciousness in the black community and among Black workers about the need to build organization and power at the workplace.

The Moral Monday struggle grew out of a people’s assembly organized in 2007 that became known as HKonJ – Historic Thousands on Jones Street, where the state capitol is in Raleigh. We established a fourteen-point program about particular issues such as collective bargaining rights. Others were against the war, for healthcare, and public education.  That program guided HKonJ, which has 120 NAACP branches and 150 other organizations of various types that began to battle the legislature, which at that time was Democratic Party-controlled. The emergence of the Tea Party as a right-wing and racist social movement financed by elements of the 1-percent capitalist elites that was shaping a political climate of intimidation and attacks on vital needs and rights of working-class and oppressed, became a major factor in the development of the Moral Monday Campaign. The Moral Mondays are led by Rev. William Barber II, President of the North Carolina State NAACP.

Moral Mondays, began to raise challenge the legislative attacks on voting, immigrant, women’s and gay rights, on the social safety-net and the racist impacts of these attacks as morally wrong. This took the high-ground away from the so-called moral agenda of the right-wing that has consolidated a base among religious fundamentalist to dictate what is moral and what is immoral, including issues like a women right to abortion, sexual orientation, etc. We wanted to show that the real immorality is attacks on health care, unemployment, and dismantling public education. Those are the things we see as immoral.  It became a counter-movement to challenge and defeat the social base of a corporate financed push for austerity and increasingly repressive government.

Moral Mondays drew large numbers of people, including many whites, some that had been previously influenced by the so-called moral agenda of the right.  Identifying an issue every week became part of the Moral Monday movement building process. I became part of the delegation organized by the Southern Workers Assembly (SWA) for the Moral Monday 3rd wave on May 13th. Labor is weak in North Carolina, less than 3% are organized and many don’t have contracts. The identity of the rank and file of the old labor movement was not showing itself as part of the Moral Mondays. We as a labor contingent, wore yellow bands, bringing up the issues and calling on the rank and file at workplaces to become a more visible part of this movement. The anti-worker, anti-union, racist policies and attitudes of the state legislature created a climate at workplaces that increased the management’s abuse of power to intimidate and oppress workers. We wanted to be visible at both the workplaces and the General Assembly.

The entire labor delegation, about ten of us, were arrested, mainly from my union the NC Public Service Workers Union-UE Local 150, but also some letter-carriers, workers from FLOC (Farm Labor Organizing Committee), and Black Workers For Justice. Shortly after that, we organized the Labor Fight-back Conference in late June 2013 that brought more forces together from wider areas. We’re engaged in the Workers Democracy Campaign that developed out of that conference.

Ruben: That is awesome.  There was a lot of thinking that went into that. It’s impactive, not only locally but in terms of the political moment.  What do you think the Southern Workers Assembly needs to do to bring a workers’ movement together for the South?

Saladin: Last year, at the opening of the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, NC we brought together workers in the Southern Workers Assembly to begin to develop a program of action. During the Convention, there had been a veiled threat from the AFL-CIO that they would not participate because it was being held in a right-to-work state. There was news coverage about the threat. We saw it as an opportunity to call for a convergence of unions, worker organizations and worker centers in the South in the form of a Southern Workers Assembly to begin developing a program and rank-and-file workers movement to organize labor in the South. There was national and international news coverage of the Southern Workers Assembly as the only voice promoting amidst the many activities created by the Democratic National Convention speaking to organizing labor in the South.

 Finally, we were part of developing a resolution that one of the labor councils close to us sent to the AFL-CIO about organizing in the South. To be able to appeal to the rank-and-file of the national unions to push for the carrying out of the resolution, we need a strategic campaign on the ground.  We need other forces. The rallies held by the Southwest Workers Union in San Antonio, Texas on November 1st along with those in NC, and a petition campaign with more than 1500 signers sent to the NC Government, the Courts and Obama to drop the charges against the 940 Moral Monday arrestees, shows the potential for the SWA to expand.  The question of consolidating as an assembly has included challenges, including resources to have the concentration we really need, the importance of a regional campaign, to connect more people to this campaign. These are the questions we are facing.

 Ruben: One of the working groups that materialized at the Southern Movement Assembly in Jacksonville was from a worker/labor front of struggle and brought their issues to the assembly. We still have to follow up and build that up as an Assembly. Not inventing another assembly, but converging with the Southern Workers Assembly. It could multiply geometrically the power of the workers. One of the notions that the University Sin Fronteras and the Southern Movement Assembly process has been working with is the U.S. South as the labor colony for the United States. With the labor laws that restrict collective bargaining and striking that make it almost illegal to be in a union in the south. What are some next steps to change the correlation of voices to enable more systemic changes?

 Saladin: You’ve laid out the Southern Movement Assembly. A couple of us attended to the Assembly in Jacksonville, Fla. We were impressed by the gathering of forces, the discussion of issues, and what it means for building an infrastructure and linking labor to the other social movements. I had a discussion not long ago with Brother Emery about how to look at some kind of labor commission/component of the SMA so that a part of the digging in of the Southern People’s Movement will be in the workplaces as well. That is part of your question about how to prepare for the next phase. A movement has various components. We have to figure out how to build strategic bases and areas of contending power in the South. The South has the highest concentration of foreign direct investment and global capitalism. All kinds of concessions from county and state governments. So these locations of new plants come from those new resources as a part of finance bringing industries into the South.

 In Mississippi, there’s the Jackson Plan, which seeks to use the election of Chokwe Lumumba as mayor as a part of a state-wide strategy to build areas of people’s governance and a beginning of areas of contending power. How do we as a Southern People’s Movement/Assemblies begin to help the various states and locations throughout the South to develop these strategic zones of contending power? How do we look at taking control of institutions: school boards, hospital boards, etc. To go against the forces bringing in capital. How do we develop a perspective about that as part of the broader Southern Freedom Movement? These are thoughts about the next steps.

 Ruben: That’s fantastic. Our strength and power will come from building that infrastructure together so we can sustain a long-term movement.  Some of us will not be here forever, but if we go beyond the single-issue approach to build people’s power, we can correct weakness form earlier decades. We appreciate your words and your wisdom, especially concerning the social movement struggles. Thank you for your time, Brother Saladin, and your commitment.

 Niqua: I would like to continue this conversation that we started on the Youth Speak Truth radio show, Friday of next week, if possible, November 29.

Saladin: We’ve got to see that as this crisis deepens, there are going to be all kinds of struggles, fight-backs that we have to be a part of, but the problem has been that we enter them and lose the focus on our bigger strategy. We have to engage from a strategic orientation for the struggles to come.  New directions are often shaped by these struggles if there is no strategic program that anchors and guides our work. This has been a weakness because the fight-back has been a protest against injustice and not struggles for power. It’s not so easy, but we have to go into these struggles with more than simply a hope to achieve the immediate objective. How do we try to reshape power relationships to give more power to the people? When we are just protesting injustice and we are not using these struggles to reposition our movement and get into a more offensive posture. We are beginning to understand and practice the difference between the struggle for the reform and the struggle for rightful change. We have to keep those things in mind and hopefully the assembly movement and other collaborations will help build this kind of thing and strategic unity. ⍟

N.C. Legislature attacks unions and worker’s organizations

198461With the passage of Senate Bill 727 today in the NC State Senate, we are seeing an escalation of the attacks on workers and our organizations. Activists have expressed a need for unity and bold action now more than ever to help fight back this vicious tide.

They are asking workers and their organizations to continue to pressure the House to vote against this bill and then focus attention on Gov. Perdue, demanding she veto it. A veto of this bill is viewed as a pro-worker veto!

Below is a statement of solidarity from UE local 150, NC Public Service Workers Union.


The Attack on NCAE and Education Workers is an Attack on All Workers!

As the NC GS 95 98 bans teachers and all public sector workers in North Carolina from collective bargaining that arrives at contractual agreements, the bill “targeting” NCAE to eliminate payroll deduction for voluntary dues, is clearly meant to destroy NCAE and is part of a strategy to destroy all public sector unions and associations that give public sector workers a collective force.

This is an attack on democracy, and the right of teachers and all public sector workers to voluntarily contribute resources to their organizations that aid them with information, training and other tools to collectively and individually advocate for themselves and for the millions of people who they provide education, public services and healthcare.

The same politicians making the major budget cuts impacting jobs and services are the same ones attacking worker rights.  This attack is part of a larger agenda to privatize public services, to use government to repress people’s democracy and to shift power and control over vital public resources to the banks and corporations – who are unwilling to pay their fair share of taxes – to be used to make more profits.

All public sector unions, associations, the rank-and-file and faith, community and student organizations must stand and act together against this attack on workers rights, public services and democracy.

The struggle against this attack must be more than the traditional lobbying at the state legislature. Our unions and associations must mobilize our rank-and-file members and their families to participate in people’s assemblies, rallies, forums, and other actions in the communities, work places and business districts within various political districts to show the breath and dept of our resistance and resolve not to allow the clock to be turned back on democracy.

The NC Public Service Workers Union-UE Local 150 commits to stand in solidarity with NCAE in fighting against this attack.

We call on NCAE and all public sector unions and associations to join with UE150 and others in the Labor Faith and Civil Rights Coalition in Defense of the Public Sector, to help build a united and powerful movement based on the labor movement principle that An Injury to One is An Injury to All.”

In Solidarity,

NC Public Service Workers Union-UE Local 150

Fired model Central Regional Hospital worker speaks out, points to the need for a Mental Health Bill of Rights Law

Rebecca Hart at April 4th We Are One Day of Action

Rebecca Hart at April 4th We Are One Day of Action

WHAT: Rally and press conference to support new legislation for Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights, speak out against unjust firings

WHERE: 800 Central Ave, Butner, NC
WHEN: Thursday, April 7th 8:00am
WHO: UE local 150, NC Public Service Workers Union mental health worker members

Press contact: Dante Strobino, UE150 Field Organizer, 919-539-2051

UE Local 150, NC Public Service Workers Union Department of Health and Human Services Council will be hosting a rally and press conference to call for passage of a mental health workers bill of rights and challenge unjust disciplinary actions that are a result of the continued state and local budget cuts that effect mental healthcare services and workers.

UE150 members are gravely concerned about the heightened number of experienced frontline workers that have been fired in recent months. Many of the most qualified workers are being forced out of state facilities by unjust discipline and due to the dangerous work conditions and low wages. This has created a sustained atmosphere of low morale. These conditions only worsen the services provided to the patients and individuals.

On March 17, Rebecca Hart, health care technician, model worker at Central Regional Hospital was fired. After being nominated Employee of the Month and intervening in a patient that was not assigned to her, she was fired for alleged “patient abuse”.  Rebecca had volunteered for overtime to cover the understaffed unit and had worked 63.5 hours, without a day off, the 7 days prior to incident. The same patient involved in the incident with Rebecca, injured many workers in the weeks prior to this incident, including kicking Rebecca in the eye and hitting another HCT between the eyes moments before her intervention. Rebecca had never abused a patient nor had any write-ups in her file.  She was known to be one of the best at de-escalating patients in times of crisis and was nominated by management to be on the Therapeutic Response Team, despite not being paid a dime to do this dangerous work.

UE150 recently hosted two major public hearings for mental health workers in Butner on November 20, 2010 and in Goldsboro on February 5, 2011 (see enclosed report from the hearings).  These hearings heard testimony from dozens of DHHS workers from across the state. The hearing panels composed of elected officials, patient advocates, clergy, civil rights leaders and community leaders made the following conclusions:

1.      The Mental Health Care Workers’ Bill of Rights guarantees basic standards for quality care, and these rights should be established as law to require basic standards in the workplace.
2.       Safety and health issues for both workers and patients stemming from understaffing/forced overtime require an end to the forced overtime policy and proper training.
3.       The Zero Tolerance Policy, which has lead to increased firings and injuries, should be immediately overturned.
4.       Salaries should be increased to retain qualified staff.
5.       Workers should be allowed representation of their choice at all levels of the grievance procedure and access to all information they need in a timely fashion to prevent unnecessary firings and keep staff moral high.
6.       The ban on collective bargaining should be repealed so that public employees can effectively address and resolve their day-to-day issues on the job.

Coming out of these hearings, Rep. Larry Bell drafted a legislative bill (House Bill 287), for a Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights.  On April 4th, Senator Ed Jones introduced a companion Senate bill, SB 481.


Charleston sanitation workers continue fight for union recognition

DSCF5932Janie Campbell is Acting President of the Charleston Sanitation Workers Union, Local 1199B, Charleston, South Carolina.  City workers there  have been waging a 6-year battle to win collective bargaining in order to improve pay and working conditions, especially health and safety,  for the 120 sanitation, street, sidewalk and stormwater workers in the the city of Charleston, South Carolina.

Sis. Campbell has worked for the city for 13 years as a driver of a sanitation truck.  She is one of 14 women, all Black, in the department – a department in most cities dominated by men.

Justice Speaks:  What were the issues that made you feel you needed to organize your own union?

Janie Campbell:  Our working conditions and health and safety issues consisted of water coolers placed on the truck floors and underneath the trucks where the cooler is easily exposed to roadkill and raw garbage from the the landfill.  Most of our trucks do not have air conditioning..  W need better wages and better benefits.

JS:  Tell us about the water coolers.

JC:  They are  on the truck floor inside the cab but the floor is so filthy and the spout  is floor level and its very unsanitary.  Underneath the truck [the coolers] are in holders but they’re still exposed to raw garbage.    The racks they put in now are closed but  we had been complaining about this for years.

My supervisor was walking around the yard checking trucks one day andi  I called him over;  as he approached , i offered him a drink from my truck.  He said, “I’m not going to drink from that dirty water.” I was only showing him how filthy it was.

One day, in a meeting, I brought a [nasty] old cooler in.  The superintendent kept looking at it but wouldn’t say an thing and they sure ended that meeting fast.   it was after the supervisor refused the water that we finally got them put the coolers in the sanitary cages.

JS:  What is the starting pay for a Charleston sanitation worker?

JC: The  starting pay for  a collector [also called a] striker starts at $9.10/hour depending on the worker’s experience.

JS  IT could be less?

JC:  Oh yeah! Latino workers make $7.00;  they work through temp services..

JS: How long do they usually work through the temp agency?

JC: Some have worked almost a year or better;  they work on an “as needed basis.”

JS: Do they ever get hired?

JC: Yes, they do. then their salary increases to $9.10 an hour.

JS: Are they part of the union drive?

JC:  we’re approaching them now

JS:  What’s the pay ranges for the other positions?

JC:  Senior drivers start at $13.80/hour; a driver starts at about $12 an hour.

JS:  What do collectors make?

JC:   A city collector makes the $9.80 but a temp makes $6.80.

JS:  Does the city only hire Latino workers through the temporary agencies?

JC:  No,  they hire U.S. workers there as well.

JS:  You mentioned street and stormwater workers….

JC:  They are totally different.  I’m not sure what they make; we’re still investigating that.

JS:  Are they part of the union drive? What is their participation rate like?

JC: When the campaign ran in 2003, there was no problem; but now it’s iffy.

JS:  Why?

JC:  They were disappointed [the last time around];  when you put in so much and the city didn’t bargain with us, they lost interest.  And now that we’ve started again, they’ve got the attitude of wait and see.

JS: What other working condition issues are y’all raising?

JC: The gloves [that we are are issued]  because they are so thin that glass, nails or any sharp object can go through them.  And inorder to get a new pair, workers have to bring in the old pair.

Most of the trucks do not have air conditioning. After working in the sun all day, workers  [who bring their lunch need a cool place to take their lunch.

JS:   Everybody eats their lunch in the truck?

JC:  Some  do; some don’t.

JS: By the way,  what the average temperature during the summer?

JC:  100 degrees, with a 110 to 115 degree heat index.

The horses have the privilege of being [brought in]  at 99 degrees and human employees have to continue working to get the route out.  Charleston is a tourist town  with horses and buggies;  so if the temperature is too high, the buggies do not operate until the heat goes down.

JS: Does management allow you to stop  and take breaks?

JC: Oh yeah;  But it should be that you either come in and work early,  like at 4:30 or 5 o’clock in the morning.  They tell us to come in at 6am but what is a little half hour going to do?  But we have asked for the earlier time [to be able to clock in.]

JS:  What is the most recent action that y’all been carrying out in the campaign?

JC:  We  presented a resolution  and memorandum to the mayor and the city council [with 4,000 city residents’ signatures] saying that  we would like them to accept it so we can collectively  bargain.  i just got the news that our resolution was denied.

State of Emergency Campaign, The Blunt Truth About Furloughs

( from Justice Speaks Vol.24 No.3 May/June 2009)

The Blunt Truth

About Furloughs and the Budget!

Cutting pay doesn’t cut into the problems of the economic crisis.
The budgets should not – and can not – be balanced on the backs of workers.

North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue has already ordered a 10-hour furlough for state workers and it hurts! The one-half percent pay cut rose to 3% from our wallets when he imposed it over just two months. That means $120 to $150 less income in May and June for workers making $24,000 to $30,000 annually. Now the Legislature is considering handing the Governor power to impose 20 more payless days – an 8% annual cut!

The state is saving more money by stripping back our hard-won healthcare benefits. Gov. Perdue imposed a “temporary” healthcare plan that reduces benefits and increases co-pays and deductibles for all state employees, teachers and retirees. Everyone is initially forced into the more expensive Basic Plan; an enrollee must not smoke or be overweight to qualify for the less expensive Standard Plan. To stay in, enrollees must pass “smokalyzer” and body-weight checks. Prescription co-pays rise to $35 and $55 and eye exams are no longer covered as of Jan. 1, 2010.

Yet corporations and rich folks make out like bandits! 
NC currently has more than $1 billion on the books in corporate tax breaks and the Senate handed corporations an additional $325 million a year, beginning in two years, by cutting corporate taxes. For individuals, $100,000 income for a couple carries the highest tax rate there is. This means a couple with $10 million in annual income is taxed at the same rate as a couple with $100,000 annual income.

And it gets even more unfair! 
The poorest 20% of North Carolinian households have an average income of $10,000 and pay 10.7% in state and local taxes. The wealthiest 1% of families have average annual incomes of $970,000 and pay only 7.1%.

And – It won’t even work! 
State employees are so poorly paid the half-percent wage cut this year adds up to just $70 million – against a $3.5 billion budget shortfall. The cuts that are killing some of us will make only a 0.2% dent in the deficit.

The Governor, Legislature and the corporations that run NC will wring as much as they can from state employees, create a climate of fear among all working and oppressed people for our families and our futures, and keep on steppin’.

It’s time for us to step up!