Asheville union drive could motivate N.C. organized labor – Jacksonville Daily News

3July 2020

The result of among the nation’s largest organizing campaigns could soften the ground for more unions across the state

On a clear early morning in early March, nurses stood shoulder-to-shoulder in Asheville’s Pack Square Park and demanded a union.

The crowd of a hundred chanted and cheered, raising signs and displaying red “Vote Yes” buttons. Some used the same scrubs from their shifts at Objective Hospital, the biggest healthcare center in Western North Carolina.

On March 6, 1,600 signed up nurses petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to form a union, a huge organizing push in the country’s second-least unionized state. Whether the crowd event two days later on at Pack Square Park knew it or not, they were kickstarting one of the biggest union campaigns in the country.

While an election date remains unset, labor advocates and professionals state a union win of this size could stimulate additional labor organizing throughout North Carolina.

“We put a lot of effort into organizing and acquiring assistance within the medical facility,” stated Trish Stevenson, a Mission registered nurse who seeks unionization to raise healthcare facility staffing levels to lower nurse-to-patient ratios. “Particularly being in the South, individuals are under the mistaken belief that arranging is unlawful.”

Labor’s struggles

The American South, and North Carolina in particular, has actually historically been inhospitable to unions, companies representing staff members that collectively bargain with management for workers’ advantages and work environment conditions.

David Zonderman, a labor history professor at N.C. State University, suggests 3 aspects tilted North Carolina versus unions. The state’s economy was more agrarian than industrial, erstwhile small cities like Durham and Raleigh weren’t formerly conducive to large organizing drives, and race problems throughout the civil liberties movement pitted politicians versus unions.

“When you get to post-World War II, unions start to have better records on arranging individuals of color, and the white class structure in this state, like in numerous other Southern states saw that as a danger,” Zonderman said.

In 1959, North Carolina banned public employee cumulative bargaining, and remains among just 2 states – Virginia being the other – to reject public sector workers working out powers.

North Carolina is also one of 27 right-to-work states, where employees aren’t made to sign up with a union or pay union fees even when a union represents their workforce. Right-to-work laws drain unions’ incomes and weaken their influence.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 3.4% of North Carolina’s labor force is represented by a union, compared to the national average of 11.6%, putting the state ahead of just South Carolina in unionization rate.

Around 150,000 North Carolinians are union members, with presences at personal business like UPS, AT&T, Goodyear Tire, as well as a number of federal departments like Veterans Affairs.

‘Substantial shot in the arm’

Maybe due to the state’s lowly unionization rates, an effective election at Mission might have an outsized local impact.

“A union victory would be a huge shot in the arm for the union motion, not just in North Carolina however throughout the Southeast and throughout all markets,” said Dan Bowling, who teaches employment law at the Duke University School of Law.

Zonderman said a fast-growing sector for unionizing was nursing.

“The greatest concern for them has actually not been earnings and advantages,” he stated. “It’s been staffing ratios.”

If Objective nurses vote to unionize, they would be signing up with National Nurses United (NNU), the nation’s biggest nurses’ union. Doing so would not only raise the state’s unionization rate but might foreshadow more organizing at regional health care facilities.

“Nurses around the South are looking to the leadership of the nurses at Objective Hospital as they look for to better advocate for their clients and their profession by forming a union with National Nurses Organizing Committee,” NNU Southern Regional Director Bradley Van Waus stated in an e-mail.

Previously nonprofit, Mission was bought by for-profit HCA Health care in February 2019. This winter season, several staff and neighborhood members publicly voiced concerns over the hospital’s staff-to-patient ratios and client care.

In February, Mission Health spokeswoman Nancy Lindell informed the Citizen Times the medical facility was “making progress addressing staffing requirements, moneying brand-new technological investments and buying our medical services,” while acknowledging there was “more work to be done.”

Objective has come out against the union, stating NNU would interfere with collective personnel relationships and negatively affect clients. To make this point, Mission has actually posted anti-union check in the health center hallways and worked with a labor-relations company, Crossroads Group, to carry out voluntary details meetings to persuade nurses to vote “No.”

“Like all vendors working at our centers, the labor relations specialists must comply with the very same COVID screening, screening, masking, social distancing, and infection avoidance procedures as staff and visitors,” Lindell wrote in an email to the Citizen Times.

Another N.C. medical facility sale

On the other side of the state, another possible significant healthcare facility sale could lead healthcare employees to explore their alternatives.

New Hanover County, which is house to Wilmington, is checking out the future of the county-owned New Hanover Regional Medical Center, with major North Carolina medical powerhouses like Novant, Duke and Atrium possibly offering upward of $1 billion for a purchase.

Most of the possible suitors have assured no immediate employment modifications if they take over the healthcare facility, which is the significant health care provider in Southeastern North Carolina.

However long-lasting potential customers combined with possible staffing and work-rule modifications has some employees worried, said Gene Merritt, the creator and president of Save Our Medical facility, a community group opposed to a sale.

“Yes, there could be a unionization movement down here because of a sale,” he stated Thursday.

Organizing at a range

Trish Stevenson admits it’s been difficult, with social distancing, to duplicate pro-union occasions like the Load Square Park rally.

“Physical program of numbers lends incredible self-confidence to people, and with the pandemic certainly we’re restricted,” Stevenson stated. “It tossed us a curveball.”

Statewide, labor advocates acknowledge COVID-19 postures barriers to initiating new union drives. Considering that April, just two North Carolina workforces have petitioned the NLRB to arrange, compared to nine union petitions over the very same period in 2019.

Last year, 70% of elections to unionize ended in favor of organizing, according to NLRB data.

Union leaders state these obstacles come at a time when more North Carolinians show growing interest about the benefits arranging might provide. MaryBe McMillan, president of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO, said her organization got an uptick in inquiries from non-unionized workers considering that the pandemic started.

“They do not feel that they’re properly protected in the work environment,” McMillan said. “So, while in some ways it may be harder to arrange, I think there’s more interest.”

A silver lining?

In typical times, beginning a union is rooted in physical interactions.

“Successful union marketing depends upon a great deal of retail politics, person-to-person politics at meetings, rallies, and barbeques,” Duke’s Bowling stated. “COVID can’t help however injure arranging efforts.”

With traditional pre-election politicking off the table due to COVID-19, Mission nurses and National Nurses United agents have actually relied on a steady online existence: virtual petitions, Zoom conferences, and Facebook groups.

Stevenson believes social distancing provides a silver lining: Nurses worried about risking their job security by attending pro-union events visible to management might engage more easily within the relative anonymity of online platforms.

“In some ways, that can be sort of hassle-free,” Stevenson stated.

Reporter Brian Gordon can be reached at

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