© 2024 254 North Front Street, Suite 300, Wilmington, NC 28401 | 910.343.1640
News Classical 91.3 Wilmington 92.7 Wilmington 96.7 Southport
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In 1959, NC banned public workers from bargaining contracts — what it means for teachers today

Durham Public Schools Protest -- Symone Kiddoo
Liz Schlemmer
Durham Association of Educators President Symone Kiddoo speaks at a rally to protest cuts to recent raises for Durham Public Schools' classified staff at the Minnie Forte-Brown Staff Development Center on Hillandale Road in Durham on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024.

Social worker Symone Kiddoo stands on a picnic table, grasping a bullhorn as she calls out to a crowd of teachers and school staff at a protest in January. They are gathered to protest outside the Durham Public Schools’ staff development center, on what is scheduled to be a school day.

“We are the union! The mighty, mighty union!” Kiddoo, the president of the Durham Association of Educators (DAE) chants. The crowd echoes back.

Durham educators and staff organized the sickouts as they pushed to have a say about pay raises. They were reacting to the school district’s attempt to retract raises they had already received.

Like in many other states, public employees in North Carolina cannot legally go on strike. But North Carolina has a particularly strict penalty: striking is a misdemeanor, punishable with jail time. When North Carolina educators want to protest like this, they take paid time off and are careful not to call it a strike.

But unlike in many states, teachers in North Carolina public schools also cannot collectively bargain their contracts, meaning they can't negotiate their pay and work policies. It’s a situation that has broad impacts for public school employees.

After Virginia repealed a similar law in 2020, North Carolina and South Carolina are now the last states in the country that expressly ban all public sector employees from collective bargaining.

A smiling Black woman sits at a desk with cards, framed pictures and a small stringed instrument. Tamika Walker Kelly is president of the North Carolina Association of Educators.
Liz Schlemmer
Tamika Walker Kelly is president of the North Carolina Association of Educators. When she campaigned for the position, she embraced referring to NCAE as a union.

“Working in a state that doesn't have collective bargaining means that we need to take more concerted efforts to make sure that our educators have formal places where their voices can be listened to and heard,” said North Carolina Association of Educators’ (NCAE) president Tamika Walker Kelly.

Walker Kelly is a music teacher from Cumberland County who was elected in 2020 as president of NCAE. Past presidents avoided calling it a union, but when Walker Kelly ran for the position, she and her running mate embraced the term. She said others often asked them, “Why?” given the state’s ban on public sector unionization.

“We use the word ‘union,’ because that is what we're striving to fight for,” Walker Kelly said. “We want full union rights here in North Carolina and that includes collective bargaining.”

The North Carolina Association of Educators is the state chapter of the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the United States. In many states, teachers’ unions are a powerful force that negotiate contracts and work policies.

NCAE performs some of the same duties as the NEA, like lobbying lawmakers and providing training and legal representation for members. But this is one major difference between it and many other state chapters.

“We just can't negotiate our contracts with our local school boards, or with the state,” Walker Kelly said. “Right now, we wait on the legislature to determine how much educators get paid.”

States with strong teachers’ unions and collective bargaining typically pay educators more. Walker Kelly said that also leads to better outcomes.

“States that have collective bargaining rights, they see more educator retention, and educator satisfaction than in places that do not,” Walker Kelly said.

A graphic that compares information on student population, retiree health insurance, master's degree pay, average turnover teacher rate and average teacher salary in North Carolina, where educators cannot collectively bargain, to Pennyslvania, where a teachers' union collectively bargains contracts.
Jason deBruyn & Liz Schlemmer
Data from National Education Association, The Nation’s Report Card, Forbes, Pennsylvania State Education Association, North Carolina Association of Educators, Penn State Center For Education Evaluation & Policy Analysis, North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s State of the Teaching Inspection reports
Comparisons of North Carolina, where educators cannot collectively bargain, to Pennyslvania, where a teachers' union collectively bargains contracts.

The differences are apparent when you compare teacher pay in North Carolina to a similar sized state with collective bargaining. Pennsylvania, for example, offers higher pay for teachers with master’s degrees and health insurance to retired educators, which North Carolina dropped in recent years for newly hired teachers. Plus, teachers in Pennsylvania make nearly $20,000 more per year on average than teachers in North Carolina.

The ‘union wage premium’

Some people call that difference the “union wage premium.” While North Carolina educators might envy it, others think it’s a good thing that the state pays its teachers and public workers less.

“North Carolina made a good decision to stay out of collective bargaining for public employees,” said George Leef, director of research at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, a conservative think tank in Raleigh. “When you have collective bargaining, as other states have found out, the cost for hiring your teachers, your firefighters, your policemen, all public employees, is sure to go up.”

“That means that scarce state resources will be diverted from other things we could be doing with the money and into the pockets of those workers,” Leef added.

A bar chart that compares average teacher salary and starting teacher salary in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania's teacher salaries were significantly higher for both, and a starting teacher salary in Pennsylvania, roughly $50K, makes almost as much as the average teacher in North Carolina, $55K.
Data from the National Education Association
Unlike in many states, teachers in North Carolina public schools cannot negotiate their pay and work policies. In Pennsylvania, teachers can collectively bargain. Here's a pay comparison of two states where teachers have different worker rights.

Critics of public sector unionization also argue that union contracts often provide too much protection to workers who have a record of misconduct.

Leef said the case of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd, is a prime example. Chauvin had at least 17 prior complaints against him. Critics of the local police union, including the Minneapolis chief of police, suggest the union limited reforms that would remove delinquent officers like Chauvin from the force.

“That’s the double whammy. You'll get higher cost and you'll get poor performance that cannot be as effectively disciplined once you have collective bargaining,” Leef said.

History of NC labor laws for public employees

“The legislation against collective bargaining for public sector workers in North Carolina is probably the most strident in the country,” said Bob Korstad, a professor emeritus of Duke University who's studied the history of North Carolina labor laws.

“There's no leeway whatsoever for local and county officials to negotiate and do these kinds of things on their own,” Korstad added.

That means local officials are barred from negotiating a contract with police officers, firefighters or teachers, even if they wanted to.

State lawmakers passed the ban in 1959.

“It was driven by local concerns in Charlotte, the potential organization of the police, sanitation workers,” Korstad said. “But it was also part of a kind of fear on the part of particularly business leaders that things were changing in the United States.”

The civil rights movement of the 1960s was entwined with labor movements where white and Black workers joined together to push for better working conditions.

“[In the 1950s], there is this kind of general fear, I think, among whites, and particularly white elites, that this kind of world that they've constructed for themselves, the kind of world of Jim Crow and of racial segregation is being challenged,” Korstad said.

Nearly all the states that limit collective bargaining today are in the South.

Korstad said when low wage workers in textile factories and tobacco plants first unionized in the 1930s and 1940s, they often faced police crackdowns on strikes, even though federal law protects the rights of workers in private industry to form unions. Then states like New York and Wisconsin started to allow public employees to unionize too.

“Legislators in North Carolina wanted to make sure that that didn't didn't happen here, that kind of disease of unionization,” Korstad said.

Korstad said there were specific fears about police unions, that if they ever went on strike it would cause chaos for public safety and also that they might not be willing to break up strikes by other workers.

“That police, if they unionized, might actually support their fellow unionists when they went on strike, whether in the textile mills or in other places,” Korstad explained.

Spurred by public pleas from the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, in 1959 state lawmakers quickly banned public employees from even joining member associations. The North Carolina Supreme Court later ruled that part unconstitutional as a violation of free speech, but the ban on collective bargaining remains today.

Leef, the conservative analyst, said he doesn’t put much stock in arguments by modern workers that the law is outdated simply because it was likely rooted in anti-civil rights sentiments.

“Whether that's true or not back in the 1950s, today, it's a sensible rule,” Leef said. “We shouldn't throw away a good rule just because of some guilt over something that may have been the case back in 1959.”

Durham Association of Educators gets its 'seat at the table'

The Durham Association of Educators' president Symone Kiddoo is acutely aware of that history. She believes the movement she’s helping lead in Durham is historic too.

Since DAE began its protests, its chief demand has been for a "seat at the table" with the school board to discuss any further salary changes. Typically, when DAE members want to speak publicly with the school board, they must sign up for one minute slots during the board's public comment period like any other member of the public. As a rule, board members do not respond to public comment; it's a one-way conversation.

A button lying on a red tablecloth. The button says, "Union Strong. NCAE."
Liz Schlemmer
Symone Kiddoo, president of the Durham Association of Educators, wore this button to the first meeting with the Durham Public Schools' board of education to discuss a "meet-and-confer" policy.

Although the association didn't succeed in keeping the original staff raises all year, they convinced the school board to agree to begin talks about creating a formal "meet-and-confer policy" — the first of its kind between a board and an NCAE local chapter. Kiddoo described it as a big win for DAE. The school board created an ad hoc committee to discuss a policy proposal. It’s not a contract negotiation, but it means educators and the school board would meet regularly to have two-way conversations about policies.

“The fact that we're having the conversation is historic,” Kiddoo said. “There’s probably not any other school boards [in North Carolina] that are willing to even have a conversation with their local education union about having them at the table when decisions are being made.”

Kiddoo came to the first meeting wearing a button on her lapel with the words, “Union Strong.”

“There isn't a piece of paper, there isn't a lawyer, there isn't some other entity that makes us a union. We are the union,” Kiddoo said.

She insists, collective bargaining or not, that a teacher’s union is alive and well in Durham, and continuing to grow.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story did not accurately explain the future process for the "meet-and-confer policy."

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email: lschlemmer@wunc.org