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The Broadside (Transcript): Teachers challenge the nation's toughest union ban

Anisa Khalifa: If you're a part of a labor union, there are two crucial things at your disposal: the freedom to go on strike, and the right to negotiate your pay. You can do both without the fear of losing your job. That is, unless you're a public employee in the Carolinas.

Liz Schlemmer: So North Carolina and South Carolina are actually the only states with this particular kind of law still on the books that actually prohibits collective bargaining. That's kind of the most restrictive law that we see on the books anywhere in the country.

Anisa Khalifa: In North Carolina, this law has been around for 65 years and it doesn't show signs of changing anytime soon. But a group of educators in Durham, North Carolina isn't letting that stop them from fighting for a seat at the table.


Unidentified Teacher: The mighty, mighty union!

Anisa Khalifa: I'm Anisa Khalifa. This week on the Broadside, we ask what it means to call yourself a union in a state where striking and collective bargaining are both illegal, and what that says about the history of labor unions in the South.

Liz Schlemmer: Hi, I'm Liz Schlemmer. I'm an education reporter here at North Carolina Public Radio.

Anisa Khalifa: So Liz, what sparked your interest in the history of teachers' unions in North Carolina.

Liz Schlemmer: So I was attending some unofficial strikes in Durham. Durham public schools, the educators had staged these sickouts in January, twice, where there were enough teachers and staff who stepped out of school, that it closed down many schools for the day. And you know, the background here is a long story. I'll try to make a long story short, but the school district had made mistakes with staff raises. When school administrators realized that the raises were over budget by a lot, they tried to revoke them. They tried to change employees' years of state service to fix the problem. And there was just an outcry. And Durham association of educators was calling itself a union. And that really struck my ear in this scene, is that they're chanting, we are the union, the mighty mighty union.

Unidentified Teacher: We are the union.

Liz Schlemmer: But interestingly, they don't have collective bargaining rights in this state, which is one, you know, arguably, the number one thing that makes a union a union.

Anisa Khalifa: Yeah. And that strange juxtaposition is one of the reasons we wanted to chat with you about this. There's a lot of it's been on the books here in North Carolina since 1959. That prohibits certain kinds of unionization. What does that law entail?

Liz Schlemmer: So it specifically prohibits public employees from collectively bargaining a contract, which is the main thing that a union does. And really specifically, it prohibits public agencies from negotiating contracts. And that's important because it means that even if, say, a city council or a school board was sympathetic to workers, and they actually wanted to negotiate a contract with an employee association, they can't. So that's kind of unusual. In a lot of states, labor protections are usually about protections. It's like whether or not the rights of workers to strike or bargain a contract are protected. Here, it's actually expressly prohibited.

Anisa Khalifa: Just want to pick up on one thing, which I think is related to this point of you referred to this as a sickout, although it sounds like a strike to me. So what's the difference? And what is a sickout?

Liz Schlemmer: So a sickout means that the teacher is called in sick. So rather than having a union that has the right to strike and says, Hey, we're calling a strike today, all of these teachers said, I'm putting in sick time, like this is legitimate paid time off, and I'm using it to protest. And that's an important distinction because they don't have the right to strike in this state.

Anisa Khalifa: So this law, as you said, affects all public employees in North Carolina, which includes us a WUNC, just wanted to point out. But your reporting focused specifically on teachers. What does this law mean for educators specifically?

Liz Schlemmer: So in a lot of states, teachers unions are actually pretty powerful. The National Education Association is the largest labor union in the United States. And you know, in a lot of places it's not uncommon to read about them either negotiating contracts or having official strikes. I mean, we see this all the time in places like New York, Chicago, but in North Carolina teachers and school staff don't have any bargaining power.

Anisa Khalifa: So then the big question here is, what does it mean for a union or whatever phrase you want to attach to that group — seems they are calling themselves a union — what does it mean for them if they're legally outlawed and can't collectively bargain?

Liz Schlemmer: So like I said before, when North Carolina educators want to protest like this, which they do sometimes, both the state North Carolina Association of Educators and local chapters have sometimes had protests and sickouts, but they take paid time off. They're careful not to call it a strike. Striking in this state is actually a misdemeanor for state employees.

Anisa Khalifa: Wow.

Liz Schlemmer: So it could be punishable with jail time. I could not find anyone who had an example of someone who had been punished in that way. But it is on the books. And it just made me think a lot about like, what does this mean, to be a union?

Tamika Walker Kelly: We use the word "union" because that is what we're striving to fight for. We want full union rights here in North Carolina, and that includes collective bargaining.

Liz Schlemmer: Tamika Walker Kelly is the president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, and she's been a leader in this. When she ran to be president. And you know, it's an election process. She told me past presidents didn't use this word union, but she and her running mate, when they were elected to lead this organization, they decided to reclaim the word union.

Tamika Walker Kelly: When people hear the word union, they do think of united, they think of powerful, they think of strength. And that is something that our educators need in this state.

Anisa Khalifa: And it's important to note, as you mentioned, that this law does not apply to private sector employees.

Liz Schlemmer: No, private sector unions are actually protected under federal law under the National Labor Relations Act. So that's entirely separate. This law is specifically public sector employees, and that's generally governed state by state. So these laws are different state by state, whereas private sector employees are covered by federal protections.

Simone Kiddoo: Welcome, welcome. Welcome. My name is Simone Kiddoo, I am…

Anisa Khalifa: At the start of our conversation, we heard the chanting voices of the workers at the stakeout. And the main voice behind the megaphone was Simone Kiddoo, who is a leader at the Durham Association of Educators. What's her background? And how did she get involved in all of this?

Liz Schlemmer: Simone Kiddoo is the president of the Durham Association of Educators. She's also a school social worker.

Simone Kiddoo: I felt as a school social worker, that while my work was important, it wasn't actually solving the wound underneath the band aids that I was applying.

Liz Schlemmer: You know, she's someone who grew up in North Carolina, she's a black woman. And she really views these anti-union sentiments through a lens of Southerners who are in power trying to break up racial integration, and racial collaboration.

Simone Kiddoo: The core of union busting, particularly in the public sector, was about trying to break up the collaboration between white and Black public sector workers who were trying to change those working conditions and change the power balances. And so union, particularly in the South is such a touchy word, because there has been a very good campaign around the public narrative, and the practices of people to push back against unions to push back on working class folks coming together across races to change power balances.

Liz Schlemmer: She's thinking about this systemic healing, and I can tell that Simone Kiddoo is thinking in these big broad terms, and she's thinking that way about the sickouts too, is like, what are things that they can do to change the system? Like they have this acute issue with pay, but they're thinking a little bit more broadly about how do school employees get more say in their own workplace?

Anisa Khalifa: Have there been other groups that have tried to go on strike or collectively bargain strike without striking perhaps that have been halted by this law?

Liz Schlemmer: I mean, it's a little hard to say who's been halted because it is preventative and I think that many state employees are aware of this law. I first started hearing about it and the history of this law from UNC housekeepers. So housekeepers at UNC Chapel Hill, they have this association, the UNC Housekeepers Association, where they were trying to organize, you know, for decades. In the mid-90s, they actually got a settlement with the university, and they got recognition of their organization. But anytime there's an issue at UNC Chapel Hill with pay and housekeepers and groundskeepers and the lower wage workers there, they will bring this up. And specifically, they told me that they see it as a Jim Crow era law, that this law is based in the 1950s kind of racial order in the south and they believe that that's where it comes from.

Anisa Khalifa: Just ahead: why this law came about in the late 1950s. And what the ability to unionize means for some public employees in other parts of the country.

Liz, you mentioned earlier in our conversation that this North Carolina law is unusual. Can you put it into context for us? How does it compare to other states?

Liz Schlemmer: So North Carolina and South Carolina are actually the only states with this particular kind of law still on the books that actually prohibits collective bargaining. In 2020, Virginia actually repealed a similar law. So now, teachers there are getting some collective bargaining rights with their school districts. I looked at the academic research on this and this article that I found from 2010, that categorize states by how much collective bargaining rights or protections teachers have. All of the states with the least protections were in the South.

So if you look at the map of the country, and it was categorized as like, these are the states that have the most collective bargaining, they're all in the North. They're all in the Northeast, and then it kind of like moves, you know, in the Midwest, and like the Upper South, it's like a little more rights. And then the least are all Mississippi, Georgia, the Carolinas have no collective bargaining. Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas have limited protections. I mean, it almost looked like it was a map of the South.

Anisa Khalifa: So if we look outside the South, since you're saying there's such a big contrast between the South and other parts of the country, can you compare North Carolina to a state of similar size that does have collective bargaining for teachers and how that differs in their experience?

Liz Schlemmer: Yeah, so I did a little bit of research into making a comparison to Pennsylvania just because it's a similar sized state, has kind of a similar mix of urban and rural districts. Pennsylvania does have collective bargaining rights for teachers. And teachers in Pennsylvania make about $20,000 more on average than teachers in North Carolina. Starting pay for teachers is about $13,000 higher in Pennsylvania. Some people call that the union wage premium. And benefits are also stronger for teachers in other states. I mean, having master's pay for teachers, retiree health insurance, tenure. And North Carolina has in some cases dropped some of these policies in recent years for newly hired teachers.

Anisa Khalifa: Okay, so why not have it here? Where does this criticism for unionization of public employees come from?

Liz Schlemmer: Well, for one, it does cost the state more. I actually heard this argument from George Leef. He works at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. It's a conservative think tank in Raleigh, and he talked about this idea of the union wage premium. That's the idea that if you have unions in a state, wages are going to cost more. It's a premium on wages that you have if you have public sector unions.

George Leef: When you have collective bargaining, as other states have found out, the cost for hiring your teachers, your firefighters, your policemen, all public employees is sure to go up.

Liz Schlemmer: His second point is that it's harder to discipline public employees when they have unions, if they are bad employees, if there's misconduct. And there are a couple examples that he cites here. One is interestingly, Derek Chauvin, the police officer who has been convicted of murdering George Floyd.

George Leef: Derek Chauvin, the police officer up in Minneapolis had repeatedly been cited for abusive behavior, and yet they couldn't do anything about him because of the contract.

Liz Schlemmer: Another example that George leaf gives that is relevant to teachers is this case in New York state that's become kind of famous in education. There was this article in The New Yorker about it called the "rubber room." The rubber room was a place where teachers who, their school districts wanted to fire them because of misbehavior, misconduct, they couldn't be fired immediately. So no matter what they had done, they couldn't be immediately fired. They had to go through this appeals process. And the New York Public School system would put these teachers in a room all day long, where they couldn't do anything. Right? So it's like sitting in a teacher's lounge all day being paid a full salary, just waiting for months because they can't be fired. They have to go through this appeals process first.

Anisa Khalifa: That sounds like paid detention for teachers.

Liz Schlemmer: It does kind of, doesn't it? And yeah, unions put in so many protections from workers, that some would argue that those workers become over-protected, even if they are bad employees.

Anisa Khalifa: I'm really curious about the history behind this peculiar law, what was going on politically and socially in 1959 that sparked this policy.

Liz Schlemmer: So I met up with Bob Korstad. He's a professor emeritus from Duke University, a history professor who studies specifically the history of unionization efforts in the South. And I talked to him about that original law that was passed in 1959.

Bob Korstad: This is — the public media's, like, people join unions and they go on strike, unions are corrupt so they create all these problems, and we don't want those kinds of things. It's okay for that kind of stuff to happen in New York, but we don't want to hear that kind of stuff down here.

Liz Schlemmer: So he was saying that there were these efforts in Charlotte to unionize and that the head of the Teamsters National Organization up north, Jimmy Hoffa, kind of swooped down into Charlotte and was trying to organize police and firefighters. And there was this backlash from the business community and the local officials in Charlotte about, you know, someone coming in from the North and trying to unionize their municipal employees.

Bob Korstad: There's a sense that they would infiltrate the police forces and there would be all of this corruption, which they think goes along with unionization. And this was a fear that police, if they unionized, might actually support their fellow unionists, when they went on strike, whether in the textile mills or in other places.

Liz Schlemmer: Labor movements were also associated with communism, we're talking 1959, so this is Red Scare era, labor is very closely associated with the Civil Rights Movement. So you know, the March on Washington, where MLK gives his I Have a Dream speech, the full title of that was actually the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. So there's all these other associations whirling around, and just like general worries about corruption, as well as maybe associations with the Civil Rights Movement.

Bob Korstad: So there is this general fear, I think, among whites, and particularly white elites, that this world of Jim Crow and of racial segregation is being challenged.

Anisa Khalifa: Because you mentioned in the original formulation of this policy, it was around police and firefighters. Right. So would you say that's a fair characterization? Is it a Jim Crow law?

Liz Schlemmer: Korstad told me that he thinks that this association of the law being a quote Jim Crow law, which is something that I heard from numerous people during my reporting, that maybe that's something that's actually grown in the public consciousness in the modern era.

Bob Korstad: It became more of a Jim Crow law after it was passed, as more and more African American workers get into municipal jobs. It was the one of the few sectors of the workforce where African Americans got jobs in large numbers.

Liz Schlemmer: And I think we still see that today. I mean, even just looking at Durham public schools, and their classified support staff who were directly affected by this pay issue, when I would go to those meetings, a large proportion of those folks, the cafeteria workers, the groundskeepers, the maintenance workers, the instructional assistants, many of them are Black. And also if you go to any of the universities, and you look at the lower wage workers who are sometimes trying to fight for their wages, majority, or very many are Black today.

Anisa Khalifa: We talked about this earlier in our conversation, but it's pretty generally understood that the South is less friendly to unions than the rest of the country. Does this — what we could call "crackdown culture" — still linger today for groups that are pushing to unionize here in North Carolina, or more broadly, in the South?

Liz Schlemmer: I don't know if as a reporter, I can fairly answer you know, like whether crackdown culture exists, but I can say that at least, you know, Simone Kiddoo, the president of the Durham Association of Educators might see it that way. She feels like this current movement in Durham is having a historic moment right now, because the school board has started to talk to DAE about having regular meetings with them.

Simone Kiddoo: The fact that there has been such a strong effort to bust up workers coming together to change their working conditions; to like have a school board move towards overthrowing of Jim Crow era law by creating space for workers to have some say over their working conditions, is what makes that such a big moment.

Anisa Khalifa: So given this this moment, and this victory, what's next for the Durham Association of Educators?

Liz Schlemmer: Well, for one, it's not a victory yet, but they are seeking a meet-and-confer policy. This is basically a practice in circumstances where collective bargaining isn't permitted, where an employee association and their employer can formally agree to meet regularly to discuss their work issues. I hadn't actually ever heard of meet-and-confer until these Durham sickouts but is apparently something that exists in some states. It's not collective bargaining, it is not bargaining a contract, but it would be some sort of agreement where they meet regularly. And what the Durham school board agreed to was a meeting to talk about the possibility of meet-and-confer.

Anisa Khalifa: Okay. Do you think that there could be ripple effects from Simone could do NDAs work across North Carolina? Or is this just an isolated development?

Liz Schlemmer: That remains to be seen, but I have seen other educators taking note of what DAE has done. I've seen educators talking about it on social media, oh, look, look what's going on over in Durham. And if they do gain a full meet-and-confer policy, I could see other NCAE chapters, you know, maybe looking at how they did it, what will they gain from it? Is this something that could be replicated in other places? You know, this is something that came out of a crisis, a crisis in Durham, but it's something that this local union is trying to — union, if we can call it that — is trying to seize the moment and see if they're able to get better long term conditions for themselves to have a say.

Anisa Khalifa: This was great. Liz, thank you so much.

Liz Schlemmer: Thank you.

Anisa Khalifa: If you'd like to check out more of Liz slumbers, reporting on teachers and labor organizing in the Carolinas, we've dropped a link in this week's show notes. This episode of the Broadside was produced by Charlie Shelton Ormand. Our editor is Jared Walker, and Wilson ser is our executive producer. The Broadside is a production of WUNC-North Carolina Public Radio. You can email us at If you enjoyed the show, leave us a rating, a review or share it with a friend. I'm Anisa Khalifa. Thanks for listening, y'all. We'll be back next week.