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In simultaneous press conferences in three states, marking International Human Rights Day, the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE) called for North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia to establish the right of their public employees to bargain collectively. The union says that the denial of such rights violates international human rights principles, and it called for an investigation and hearing an inter-American human rights body.
The union filed a request for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an agency of the Organization of American States (OAS), to investigate the denial of collective bargaining rights to public employees in the region. The union’s filing focuses on North Carolina’s law banning public employee collective bargaining, but also call attention to the absence of collective bargaining rights in Virginia and other states. In March 2007, the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO) found North Carolina’s ban on collective bargaining to be in violation of international labor standards and called for its repeal.
UE represents public employees in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. The absence of collective bargaining affects several hundred thousand public employees across these three states.
December 10 has been designated as International Human Rights Day by the United Nations as a day to honor the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948.
UE says that the lack of collective bargaining adversely affects public sector workers in the three states in a variety of ways. West Virginia state workers are the lowest-paid state workers in the country. “Many state jobs in West Virginia pay poverty wages,” said Bruce Dotson, president of UE Local 170, the West Virginia Public Workers Union, citing state highway workers who start at rates under $8 per hour, far below surrounding states. Virginia ranks tenth in the country for overall salaries, but 28th in salaries for state workers. Virginia ranks 45th out of the 50 states in the ratio of state worker salaries to salaries of all workers. Allen Layman, president of UE Local 160, the Virginia Public Service Union, says, “The lack of bargaining rights harms Virginia’s public workers in many ways, including our wages and retirement income.” The union says that Virginia pays the lowest pension benefits of any state in its region.
North Carolina public employees who need family healthcare coverage pay the difference between single and family premiums, which depending on the plan, can run as high as $600 per month — up to 63 percent of the total premium. Making these high premium costs even more unbearable are unaffordable deductibles and coinsurance. “A family of three with $3,000 in major medical expenses would have to pay between $7,100 and $8,100 out of pocket — in addition to co-pays for office visits and prescription drugs,” said Annie Dove, vice president of UE Local 150, the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union. For state workers with already low wages, such medical costs can take as much as one-third of their pre-tax income — which Dove called, “an impossible burden for any working parent.”
The United States is a member of the Organization of American States, along with the other nations of the Western Hemisphere. The OAS charter requires member countries to support workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively. The request to IACHR represents UE’s third international legal initiative in its fight for collective bargaining rights for public employees. In addition to the earlier action before the ILO, a complaint that the bargaining ban violates the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC), the NAFTA labor rights side agreement, is currently under investigation by Mexico’s National Administrative Office.
UE’s request to the IACHR was co-signed by twenty-seven (27) national labor and human rights organizations, along with two global union federations — Public Services International (PSI) and the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions (ICEM) — as well as twenty-five (25) state and regional organizations. UE members delivered copies of the IACHR filing to the governor and members of the legislature.
Alan Hart is Managing Editor of UE News. For more information, contact Alan Hart at 412-471-8919 ext. 116, and visit www.ueunion.org/polact_iwj.html.