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'UNC Works Because We Do': Graduate students rally for collective bargaining

Members of the UNC Workers Union gather in front of the Carolina Inn for a rally on May 17, 2023.

“Wonder why we’re full of rage? It’s because we’re underpaid!”

These are some of the words The Workers Union at UNC chanted at a rally outside the Carolina Inn on Wednesday during a Board of Trustees committee meeting that was taking place inside.

At Wednesday’s meeting, 2023–24 Student Body President Christopher Everett was to present a resolution approved by UNC’s Joint Governance Council pledging support for graduate students and their demands, including the repeal of North Carolina General Statute § 95-98, or the collective bargaining ban.

Public workers in North Carolina have the right to form and join unions and negotiate with their employers for benefits, fair wages and fair working conditions. However, General Statute § 95-98 makes it illegal for employers to enter a collective bargaining contract with their employees.

The statute — regarded as the last remaining Jim Crow law in North Carolina by the NAACP – is currently being addressed in the N.C. General Assembly. 

Everett's presentation of the Joint Governance Council’s resolution was subsequently moved to Thursday morning’s BOT full board meeting, where Everett said that the students called for the board to publicly express support for the end of the collective bargaining ban.

“Really, it’s all about maintaining power, of course, and silencing poor people and disproportionately people of color,” Trey Anthony, president of the Workers Union, said. “So that is the centerpiece of our demands. And that’s what’s actually going to get presented.”

On May 1, International Workers’ Day, the Workers Union unveiled their official demands to the UNC administration and the BOT, which Anthony read aloud at Wednesday’s rally.

These demands include the reallocation of state funding from partisan projects – like the School of Civic Life and Leadership – and demands to improve the quality of life for UNC’s public workers. They also included the reallocation of funding from UNC Police to community-based justice initiatives and alternatives to police-based emergency responses. 

In addition to publicly supporting the collective bargaining ban repeal, The Workers Union requested the University administration to enroll in the Green Source Advantage Program to be greenhouse gas-neutral in the next decade and to include comprehensive and affordable healthcare in funding packages for graduate students.

The final demand is for UNC to pay all graduate students a living wage – defined as $3,200 per month in Orange County – and release standardized guidelines that include a maximum of 20 hours per week of work for full-time graduate students.

“We would hope that (the Board of Trustees) hears us and take us seriously,” Nikhil Kothegal, a doctoral student in the department of environmental sciences and engineering, said. “And then I think, sit down and have a discussion around why we came up with those demands and how we can address them.”

“UNC Works Because We Do,” “Dental + Vision Now!” and “End Pay to Work” are some of the messages written on signs carried by demonstrators with the Workers Union at the rally, but graduate students were not the only attendees. Community members of the Triangle showed up to chant, march and pledge solidarity.

Megan Shan, an employee of REI Durham who participated in their four-day strike at the start of the month, attended the rally to support the organization of unions.

“I think collective bargaining is super important for getting workers’ rights because we’re the ones that know our jobs the best,” she said. “I think, you know, if you want to really have a seat at the table and negotiate, we got to have collective bargaining.”

Sam Brooks, a Chapel-Hill resident, said she attended the rally because she believes in unions.

“My dad was a union man all his life,” Brooks said. “And I think it’s abysmal what the state does to people who work for a living. And that includes graduate students who are working hard.”

The rally concluded outside the trustees’ meeting room in the Carolina Inn. 

Over the rest of the summer, Anthony said The Workers Union, in collaboration with its parent statewide union, UE Local 150, will be participating in rallies and protests to the General Assembly regarding reproductive rights, workers’ rights and racial justice.

Anthony also said that in the 2023–24 academic year, The Workers Union will continue to push for their demands, which include a living wage for graduate students, as well as pledging support for housekeepers and their demands.

Wednesday’s rally comes after UNC housekeepers began organizing in the past year to increase their wages to $20/hour and park for free on campus. In February, they were offered a bonus contract from the University, but the contract did not address their key demands.

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Tracy Harter, a UNC housekeeper of 17 years, said the purpose of the collective bargaining ban was to limit the power workers would have with the Civil Rights Movement.

North Carolina is one of the only states in the country that still has a ban on collective bargaining, along with Virginia.

“To me, to keep that ban just shows where their priority is,” she said. “Something that was formulated by white supremacy – like Jim Crow – if you want to keep that practice intact, what does that really say about you? Your moral compasses? Your real reasons for wanting to keep it?”

@ashnqm | @dailytarheel

Ashley Quincin

Ashley Quincin is a 2023-24 assistant university desk editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as a university staff writer. Ashley is a senior pursuing a degree in English and comparative literature, with a double minor in media and journalism and composition, rhetoric and digital literacy.