On June 26, North Carolina Public Service Workers of UE Local 150 kicked off their summer organizing blitz in honor and remembrance of founding organizer of Local 150 and leader of the Black workers’ movement in the South, Saladin Muhammad. The blitz targeted majority-Black workplaces in four cities across the state of North Carolina, with organizers speaking to city workers in Raleigh, Durham, and Greensboro and state workers at Murdoch Developmental Center, a mental health facility in Butner.
Members from four of UE’s newly organized graduate worker locals traveled to North Carolina to join the blitz and support Local 150’s efforts. Graduate workers from the University of Minnesota, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, and Northwestern worked with Local 150 rank-and-file members and staff throughout the week to have conversations with workers about their conditions and the importance of building a strong union.
In Raleigh, workers from locals in Baltimore and Palo Alto worked with UE project staff organizer Charles Brown and local leaders to talk to workers at Raleigh municipal job sites, including Solid Waste, Water Utilities, and Parks and Recreation. The resulting conversations included discussions of unequal treatment of workers in and across job sites, systemic disrespect by management for workers’ dignity and safety, and the need for wages that actually exceed inflation. Multiple workers in the Solid Waste department described an especially egregious example of management mistreatment: they are only provided with recycled drinking water, while management has a separate system connected to the regular city water system. Many Raleigh workers were particularly inspired by the significant progress in wages and job protection accomplished by the UE Local 150 city workers in Charlotte. The week culminated in a meeting at a local community space to discuss building power to put pressure on Raleigh city officials.
UE members and community allies in Durham met workers at several facilities throughout the week. The week prior, the Durham City Council released its annual budget, allotting a six to eight percent raise for firefighters and police but only two percent for the vast majority of city workers, including workers in solid waste management, public works, water maintenance, and parks and recreation. Workers were frustrated with this lack of prioritization from the Council; a common refrain during organizing conversations was that picking up trash and maintaining infrastructure were just as essential as the work of police and firefighters. A connected issue that emerged through conversations was the severe understaffing throughout city facilities. At the end of the week, 15 Durham city workers, including several new members who had just signed their union cards, met to discuss how to rectify this pay inequity and understaffing, launching a petition for a $5,000 bonus, reduced reliance on temps, and an end to the understaffing.
Local 150 organizers and UE staff in Greensboro visited Solid Waste, Water Resources, Parks and Recreation, and Building Maintenance. The workers in all four locations have been fighting for an increase in wages and access to grievance procedures to ensure protections on the job, as they currently do not have access to any kind of grievance procedures. In each location, workers were eager to talk to UE organizers about the issues they cared about and expressed their support for the union, many joining Local 150 by signing cards. In parallel with Raleigh and Durham, 14 Greensboro workers came together to discuss how to recruit new members and stewards, strengthen the union in Greensboro, and organize to pressure the city to give Greensboro city workers the wages and workplace rights they deserve.
Graduate workers from Baltimore worked alongside Local 150 worker leaders to flyer and speak with a variety of state workers at Murdoch Developmental Center, from kitchen and grounds staff to nurses. Many brought up the state’s planned raises of five percent over two years, saying that this is not nearly enough to make up for the increasing cost of living. Murdoch workers also cited widespread understaffing resulting in last-minute forced overtime, hiring of non-union contract workers who are paid twice the salary of state workers, and the complete closure of a wing in the Newport Cottage, one of the buildings that houses patients. On June 28, Local 150 workers held a rally outside of the Murdoch facility, demanding a $20 per hour minimum wage, a 20 percent raise, and safe staffing conditions. Workers both at the rally and in conversations throughout the week expressed enthusiasm around these demands, many signing up to join the union on the spot.
“Workers left this blitz ready to organize and build their union,” said Local 150 President Sekia Royall in a video the local made about the blitz. The Saladin Muhammad Blitz engaged over 2000 workers, resulting in 305 new phone numbers and 67 new members. Through this engagement, Local 150 was able to grow and reinvigorate their organizing. UE International Representative Dante Strobino described their progress a few weeks after the blitz: “More importantly it was the qualitative advances we made, especially with Durham City workers and also with Greensboro. Folks in Durham have been demobilized a few years but are now on fire, had 18 workers at another follow-up meeting today, and elected six stewards in Solid Waste and Public Works who are going to be going through training in August.”
Beyond the opportunity to build the union, graduate workers canvassing in North Carolina learned firsthand from the experience of Local 150 members, including longtime UE organizer Angaza Laughinghouse. Laughinghouse spoke to the graduate workers about the importance and struggles of Black workers in the labor movement historically and the more than 25-year-long history of Local 150, including its beginnings in Black Workers for Justice, an organization of Black workers dedicated to fighting for self-determination and human rights for working-class people. The graduate workers who participated in the blitz expressed gratitude and excitement at working alongside and learning from Local 150. They are taking what they have learned back to their own locals and are looking forward to participating in efforts to organize the South in the future.