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Workers' Forum Convenes to Discuss Making Durham a “Union Town”

Jeremy Sprinkle
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Building power for working people closer to home

On December 7th in Durham, fast food workers from Raise Up for $15, home care workers from the local We Dream in Black chapter of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, members of Triangle Labor Council affiliated unions, and people who work at Duke University and elsewhere joined Bull City community partners to discuss a proposal for the new Durham City Council to form a Workers’ Rights Commission.

As people filed into the meeting held inside the CAARE center near downtown, some perused a pop-up exhibit on North Carolina labor history, developed by the NC State AFL-CIO.

Forum attendees preview a NC Labor History pop-up exhibit

Durham Mayor Pro-Tem, Jillian Johnson, herself a past member of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), welcomed everyone to the Durham Workers’ Forum by expressing her support for worker organizing and her interest in the conversation that was about to take place. Attendees then shared their hopes and dreams for Durham’s future -- including common concerns such as access to quality jobs and affordable housing and curbing runaway development and over-policing. Folks also shared aspirations like one attendee, who wished that “the wealth of RTP becomes accessible to the workers who make it possible,” and another person who hoped that Durham will “set the stage for other cities to follow” -- a sentiment newly-elected Mayor Steve Schewel spoke of during his swearing-in ceremony earlier in the week, when the Mayor called on Durham to become a beacon of progress in the South and across the nation. People then talked in small groups about the main issues they are facing at work. Unsurprisingly, the issues that rose to the top of the list included access to livable wages and good benefits but also such issues as fair scheduling, wage theft, and dignity at work.

Small group discussions about workplace issues

Finally, these groups discussed the content of a proposal to create a Workers’ Rights Commission starting with goals to:
  1. Establish standards and expectations for all employers, such as a “Workers Bill of Rights.”
  2. Have broad community and labor participation.
  3. Empower workers to join together in unions, and
  4. Have a formal relationship with the City of Durham.
While many of these details will take time to work out, as a whole, forum participants felt the basic rights that should be available to all workers in Durham should include placing “just cause” limits on North Carolina’s “at-will” employment doctrine -- meaning workers couldn’t be fired without a reason, the right to a grievance procedure to resolve workplace disputes, and the right to free and fair elections should workers choose to join together in union, for example.Before closing, forum organizers distributed placards that read “Durham Works Because We Do!” and called on attendees to consider the creation of the Workers’ Rights Commission as just one step in making Durham a “Union Town” -- a city where workers’ power is taken seriously.

Placard promoting Durham as a "union town"

The group closed the night with a song calling on all those present to take that plea to heart and “Organize, Organize, Organize!”To learn more about this project and to pledge to support worker organizing in Durham, visit