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Greensboro Workers Form City’s First Union

Charles French garbage truck
Naomi Prioleau
Greensboro City Workers' Union President Charles French operates the garbage truck on one of his daily routes. The union, which had been in the works for the last six months, formed due to inadequate lunch breaks and better pay.

It hasn’t been an easy sell for Charles French to convince his fellow colleagues in the Greensboro Sanitation Department to join the city’s first union.
“A lot of the workers don’t want to disrupt anything that’s going on with this city, but still they have issues, they have concerns,” French said. ”But the fear behind speaking about those things is really the hesitant part about joining this union or coming on board.”

French attributes his co-workers’ reluctance to joining the union to fear, as well as North Carolina’s history with unionization, when workers weren’t allowed to form them. North Carolina has the lowest rate of unionization in the country and it’s gone down from three percent to two percent since 2013. In addition, the city of Greensboro has never had a city union. The union formed in June 2016.

“We’ve been told for so many years that we cannot have a union, so that brought about a fear among the workers especially now that we’ve actually started to form,” he said.

Union president Charles French
Credit Naomi Prioleau / WUNC
Charles French is the president of the Greensboro City Workers' Union. He said their main goal is to make Greensboro a better place to work for its employees.

Working America is a national organization that helps organize local unions in their beginning stages. The group is also an affiliate of The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, also known as AFL-CIO. It’s a national trade union center that also assists with bringing people together to form a union.

Some employees see forming a union as their only option especially when they receive low wages, no healthcare or feel attacked by their employers, according to the North Carolina State Director Carolyn Smith.

“They're feeling that they don't have a voice and outlet,” she said. “So they're looking at other entities that are unionized like policemen, like your firefighters like teachers and they realize that they want the same protection that other groups have.”

North Carolina State AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer, MaryBe McMillan said there are many benefits to being in a union but there’s one that stands out the most.

“I see the labor movement as a uniting force that can bring working people together so that people can come together and fight for better wages, safer workplaces and better jobs,” she said.

French recently met with Greensboro City Manager, Jim Westmoreland. Both Westmoreland and French called the meeting “productive.”

Garbage truck
Credit Naomi Prioleau / WUNC
Insufficient time for lunch breaks was one of the reasons the Greensboro City Workers' Union formed. Complaints that routes were too large to take one 30 minute break led to the union forming and meeting with Greensboro City Manager, Jim Westmoreland.

The Greensboro City Workers’ Union wants three things from the city: the ability to have their union dues taken out of their paycheck, a collaborative relationship between the union and the city, and a resolution about lunch breaks for sanitation workers, the primary cause for the formation of the union.

French said workers’ routes are too large to take a full 30-minute lunch, so employees usually take two 15 minute breaks, in part because no one wants to stay at work for an extra 30 minutes.

Westmoreland said he had no problem listening to French and the union’s needs because he works with other unions in the city.

“Greensboro has had associations in both the fire department and the police department for a good while so the new association that’s being formed involving other city workers is new but it’s not new in terms of dealing with other associations in the city,” he said.

Negotiations between the city and the union have been friendly but French said some workers are still worried about joining.

Smith, the union’s state director, said a solution to that is to view unions as insurance.

“When something goes wrong in a workplace and they realize they don't have nobody to talk to then they realize they're unionized and they have someone to go in and fight their battles they will appreciate it,” she said. “It's one of those you don't know you need it and appreciate it until something happens.”

French said the union isn’t about strikes or being angry. It’s about finding ways to work together with the city.

“We're the ones that cleans the streets, we're the ones that babysits the kids, we're the ones that take care of the park and things of that nature, the garbage and keep the streets clean,” he said. “So we're the ones that's doing the work. We want to make sure we have a proper working environment, better wages so we that we can support our families.”

Naomi P. Brown joined WUNC in January 2017.
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