Cover Story: Union movement?

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Angry taxi drivers fighting the man.  Cab companies, they're talkin' ta you.  And they're backed by the most famous labor union on the planet.

On Friday, the streets of Uptown Charlotte - cabbies, dozens of them - protesting.  They claim they have to work 16 hour days, no power, no respect.

Chicago, 1886.  The union movement.  Striking factory workers - slave wages, 16 hour days, no power, no respect.  And the eventual beginning of the modern eight-hour work day.

No violence during Friday's cabbie protest in Charlotte.  But the cause is similar.  Better conditions for drivers, now.  The drivers are backed by the Teamsters Union.

Charlotte's not exactly a union town but unions have stepped in to help cabbies organize.

North Carolina is the least unionized state in the U.S.  But with what's going on at the national level and the economy - could we be seeing an increased labor presence here?

It had all the trappings of a major union rally we don't see often around here.

Signs that carry a biting message:  "Stop the modern day slavery."

And words we've heard out of the labor movement before.  "We work hard for the city of Charlotte. We work hard for the city of Charlotte."

Outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center Friday morning nearly 50 taxi drivers protesting city hall for better working conditions.

"We want equality. We want respect. We want independence," said one taxi driver.

Cabbies complain about long hours.  "I come in at 5 and work till midnight."

They complain about outrageous fees and a pyramid corporate structure.  "We are being suppressed from some of our companies."

The Carolinas have never been a hotbed for union activity.  In fact, in 2009 (the most recent year available) North Carolina had the lowest union membership rate in the U.S. at 3% of workers.

But with Democrats in the White House and controlling Congress legislation is being considered that could increase union presence here and greatly impact states like North Carolina.

A bill in the U.S. Senate would give public service workers like police officers, troopers, firefighters and teachers the right to bargain collectively on pay, benefits and hours.

Right now, North Carolina has a state law (that's been on the books 51 years) that prohibits collective bargaining among public service workers.

"We may be seeing an increased push nationally for strengthening labor unions."

That's Dr. David Swindell, the director of UNC Charlotte's Ph.D. in Public Policy Degree Program.  He says he doesn't see states like North Carolina abandoning their non-union past.

Unions across the country in the last decades have seen memberships decline.  But it is noteworthy scenes like these are playing out in Charlotte - Teamsters helping Charlotte cabbies organize.  Could it lead to something bigger?

"If I were to guess this is an entree into more unionizing and they're using cabs," said Swindell.  "But if you're talking to Teamsters that would be successful in unionizing them and go to other groups and say see what we can do for you."

North Carolina and Virginia are the only states that ban state and local governments from entering into collective bargaining deals with public employees - like cops, firefighters and teachers.

While workers are trying to get a federal law passed that would give them that right they're also working at the state level, there was a rally in Raleigh this week in fact.

What's the status of the federal legislation?

It passed the U.S. House and could pass the Senate before lawmakers break for July 4th.  Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid believes he has as many as 62 votes, which includes some GOP members.

Copyright 2010 WBTV. All rights reserved.