A group of professors, students and staff in the UNC system are uniting against proposed legislation that many say could effectively silence workers.
Housekeepers, maintenance workers and other system staff members are all currently protected under the State Personnel Act — but a new provision would take the authority from the state and give it to the UNC-system Board of Governors.
The provision came from an N.C. Senate bill to increase the UNC system’s efficiency and autonomy from the state, said Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake, a primary sponsor of the bill.
Most of the bill was enacted last June, but this particular provision might be considered in May during the N.C. General Assembly’s short session.
The provision would remove about 22,000 UNC-system workers from protection under the State Personnel Act and place them under the control of the system. The move is meant to unify the system for workers with the one for faculty, Stevens said.
Members of the board will discuss the provision during their April meeting, before the bill is debated by the legislature.
The UNC-CH chapter of Student Action with Workers — a group comprised of students and workers — publicly delivered a petition to Chancellor Holden Thorp’s office Thursday, urging him to publicly take a stance on the bill. So far, Thorp has remained silent in the debate.
UNC-system President Tom Ross asked for the legislation, Stevens said, adding the change, if approved, would be cost-effective.
“If you’ve got two separate systems and you put them into one, clearly there will be savings; it’s just a question of how much the savings will be.”
But many workers fear this bill will stifle their voices by removing the objective higher authority of the state.
Jackie Overton, chairwoman of the UNC-CH employee forum, said the group has publicly opposed the bill.
And Altha Cravey, a UNC associate professor of geography who was involved in Thursday’s rally, said the workers she has spoken to have been angry and concerned.
“Word is getting around that this is unreasonable,” she said. “My personal view is that it will give less voice and less power to all the employees in the UNC system and more power to the administrators.”
Zaina Alsous, a UNC junior involved with Student Action with Workers, said the provision could cause potential abuses of power.
“Workers came to students and said, ‘please help us in making sure this legislation doesn’t move forward,’ because they are scared of an even more oppressive workplace.”
But UNC-system administrators say they have enacted a set of guiding principles meant to protect workers’ rights if the bill moves forward.
Joni Worthington, spokeswoman for the UNC system, said in an email the guiding principles are currently being shared with staff and faculty for feedback.
“They ensure that … the new system would provide due process protections and procedures for resolving employee concerns and grievances,” she said.
Opponents, however, don’t think the guiding principles are enough.
“I think they’re totally inadequate — they’re vague,” Cravey said, adding that the principles aren’t yet legally binding.
But Brenda Malone, vice chancellor for human resources at UNC, said in an email that workers’ rights will not be diminished.
“It would provide substantial benefits to all employees by allowing the Board of Governors to develop policies and practices that would be better aligned with the higher-education environment.”
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