Featured photo: Workers with the city of Greensboro rally outside of the municipal building before an April 4 city council meeting. (photo by Gale Melcher)
On April 4, supporters of the Greensboro City Workers Union packed the plaza steps outside the Melvin Municipal Building to demand that the minimum wage for city workers be raised to $20 per hour and ask for more job protection. City workers and other union supporters also spoke during the public comment period of that evening’s city council meeting.
Formed in June 2016, the Greensboro City Workers Union is a chapter of UE Local 150, the statewide North Carolina Public Service Workers Union that represents thousands of city and state workers across 16 counties. UE Local 150 is part of UE — United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. UE is a national union that provides staff, research, legal education and strategic planning assistance for organizations like UE Local 150.
Some longtime Greensboro employees like Ronnie Anderson told TCB that they’ve worked for the city for 23 years and still make less than $20 per hour, while others like William Fuller, who works in water resources, have been in their positions since November. Fuller told TCB that workers sometimes have to work multiple jobs to pay their bills, and they want better lives for their families.
In an interview with TCB, UE representative Dante Strobino said that the main departments in Greensboro’s union are field operations and water resources workers, but that some workers in the libraries, parks and recreation, and engineering and inspections were attending the protest as well.
Crew leader for the city’s street maintenance department and UE Local 150 Vice President Bryce Carter spoke before the crowd about the requests the union would be making to council.
“We’re just trying to live, we’re just trying to have a better quality of life for our family, for our workers,” he said.
“We want the people out in the public, the people out in the community to hear us out,” added Christopher Yancey, who works in water resources for the city.
“We understand that y’all are going through harsh times… whether it may be you’re going through struggles to pay bills or whatever it may be…. We as city workers, we’re in the struggle with you. We work through all types of weather — heat, cold. Always remember: When it’s cold outside, somebody else is out there in the cold with you — whether it’s a homeless person or a city worker.”
To conclude his speech Yancey told the animated crowd, “I guess I’ll do a little chant.”
“What do we want?” Yancey asked, which was followed by the crowd’s refrain of “$20 an hour!”
“When do we want it?”
Police department asks for higher salaries
During City Manager Taiwo Jaiyeoba’s report at the April 4 meeting, Jaiyeoba called upon Greensboro Police Chief John Thompson to speak on staffing shortages and department reorganization, including requests for higher pay.
“The staffing is kind of what drove us to have to do a departmental reorganization; currently we are 115 officers short in the organization,” Thompson said.
He added that the department is authorized 691 sworn positions. GPD is also authorized 115 professional staff, which includes records personnel and evidence technicians. The department is short by 14 staff members.
“As a result of that, we have shrunk our services,” Thompson said, noting that he has reduced traffic units as well as the Police Neighborhood Resource Center team tasked with policing in Greensboro Housing Authority communities. The team will be reduced by a third in order to redistribute officers to other needed areas of the department.
The department is also struggling with officer retention.
“I think we all know why staff are leaving because our peer cities are having starting salaries much higher than ours,” said at-large city councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter.
Thompson agreed that compensation has been the number one factor, and asked that council reduce authorized strength by 30 positions in order to use vacancy funds, giving officers an average of $3,000 raise.
Thompson said, “I think, to be bold, which I would like to see council do, we need to be at a $57,000 starting salary.” The current starting salary for officers is $46,367 according to the city’s website.
Starting salary for sworn officers in Winston-Salem is $41,442 — if officers have an associate or bachelor’s degree, their earnings can increase between $2,000-$4,000.
Raleigh’s police department has a starting salary of $50,301.
Higher pay for whom?
During council discussion, District 1 representative Sharon Hightower pushed back on raising pay just for police.
“If you start raising these salaries to be competitive, we need to raise everybody’s salary in this city to be competitive,” she said.
Hightower noted that taxes might have to be raised in order to increase police officer’s salaries.
“If we have to raise taxes to do this responsibly, then I can look my constituents in the face and say, ‘This is why we did this. Your protection, our protection,’” she said.
Johnson agreed that she wants equity for city workers and that the city should “give them the same kind of attention and the same passion we have for the police, because God only knows what it would be like to wake up and not have your garbage collected or your water come on or your toilet not flush.” Johnson added that she would be advocating for that in the upcoming budget hearings.
Abuzuaiter made a motion to approve Thompson’s request to reduce the authorized staff and use vacancy funds to increase overall salaries by around $3,000. This would be effective on July 1 according to Abuzuaiter, who also included in her motion that she would like to “see what staff can come up with” in terms of raising the starting salary for police officers to $57,000 during deliberations for the next fiscal year which will take effect on July 1.
Hightower said that while she hears constituents who want more police coverage, she wants the city to “have a fair and equitable look at all of our departments.”
“It’s not just a police solution, it is a community solution,” Hightower added.
The public comment period did not begin until a little after 7 p.m., by which time some of the workers had to leave.
When Yancey got his turn at the podium, it was almost 8 p.m.
“We need $20 an hour,” he said. “I mean, to be honest, I don’t think that’s going to be enough.”.
Yancey also voiced concerns about staffing and the exhaustion workers are experiencing, noting that this could be a hazard to workers, their coworkers and residents of the city.
“We just want y’all to help us out…because we feel like an afterthought,” Yancey said. “It can’t just be about one department. We all have our hand in helping this community run.”
In May, Charlotte’s city council voted to implement a $20 floor wage for city employees working 40 hours per week. The new wage has been in effect since January, and they will provide an 8 percent salary increase for all general hourly employees. The city also provides homeownership assistance for city employees through House Charlotte with $2 million in the program dedicated for city employees.
Union asks for more job protection
In addition to a minimum pay raise, the union also wants a civil service board implemented. This would allow the board to hold hearings for employees of departments who have been cited for termination, which would grant additional job protections for city workers.
Strobino told TCB that if a worker gets terminated, suspended or demoted, and they want to appeal it, they “don’t get to have a hearing.”
“You don’t get to face your accuser, you don’t get to pull witnesses,” Strobino said, adding that the only option is to write a letter to the city manager.
“No chance of winning,” Strobino noted.
But with a civil service board — even after the city manager makes their final decision — there’s an additional layer.
“There’s an additional board that you can appeal to. You can have union representation on that board,” Strobino said.
That’s why they’re hoping the state legislature will pass a bill authorizing the cities of Greensboro and Winston-Salem to establish a civil service board.
On March 23, HB 470 was filed in the state legislature and could alter the city’s charter to allow for a civil service board. The bill is sponsored by Forsyth and Guilford County Republicans Rep. Jeff Zenger, House Whip Jon Hardister and Rep. Kyle Hall. Hardister plans on running for state labor commissioner in 2024.
According to the draft of HB 470, the board would consist of five members. Two members would be chosen by the city council, another two would be elected by the members of the classified service of the city — officers and employees of the city except for officers elected by the people as well as other staff such as the city manager and directors of departments. The last member would be selected by majority vote of the four other members.
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