Before I discuss today’s forum on SB 575, I would like to direct those of us who are not familiar with the Bill to http://stopsb575.wordpress.com/, the website for the Coalition to Stop SB 575, as well as the list of guiding principles approved by the Board of Governors http://www.northcarolina.edu/hr/hr_council/hrcouncil/secured/Guiding_Principles_-Approved_by_BOG_4-13-12.pdf.  In concert, these resources should bring readers up to date on SB575’s impact on thousands of UNC system employees.

Jackie Overton, Chair of the Employee Forum, convened the conversation.  UNC System President Tom Ross offered the first testimony on the panel, and presented a defense of the Bill echoed by fellow SB575 supporters Chancellor Holden Thorpe and Vice Chancellor for Human Resources Brenda Malone.  Their argument centered on the desire for increased “flexibility” for the University administration to create its own protections for its staff.

The Question-and-Answer section of the Forum revealed that relatively few University employees were concerned with creating more flexibility.  Although a few people commented on specific incidents when the career banding program posed difficulties on an individual level, such incidents call for negotiation with the University’s Classification and Compensation group, not widespread policy changes.  As one audience member pointed out, “flexibility” is privileged, top-down language used by people with power to wield; workers are in a position that demands certainties, not “flexibility” or as Chancellor Thorpe later amended “opportunities”.

Unfortunately, President Tom Ross left halfway through the conversation after fielding a few questions.  The lack of explanation for his exit left audience members to assume his noon engagement mattered more to him than an open discussion of workers’ rights.

Several questions directed toward the panel dealt with specific concerns about protections the new policy may or may not provide should it take effect.  The number of people who posed questions about bereavement leave and flex time proves that e-mail drop boxes and formal notices are not sufficient to establish a dialogue with University employees.  Lori Harris of the Department of Asian Studies succinctly asked why the administration’s process under SB575 has been backward, proposing change without desire or ability to define what the changes would be.  Applause among the audience members affirmed her assertion that such a course of action is “untrustworthy”.

Associate Professor Altha Cravey pointed out that North Carolina and its neighboring states have rates of labor unionization lower than five percent, that the southeast has historically been paid less than other regions in the United States.  While supporters of the Bill repeatedly referenced competition and the desire to enact the “best practices” (see Guiding Principles) in the UNC system, maintaining what few rights workers are given may make us a regional leader in protecting labor.

At the beginning of his testimony, President Ross warned the audience against believing fear tactics in the discourse surrounding SB575, but relied on a specter of insecure and austere times as an excuse and threat throughout his brief time on stage.  Workers should resist those who aim to strip them of their rights, not fear them.  Continue to empower workers, and keep up to date on the SB575 debate.  For those who were not in attendance, a podcast of the Forum should be available at forum.unc.edu by the end of the week.

 

Sarah-Kathryn Bryan

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