Rich Answers Questions: WNC Central Labor Council

1. What do you believe are the most important issues facing Asheville in the coming years?

Infrastructure resiliency. Asheville’s physical infrastructure – roads, water lines, stormwater services, sidewalks, parks and natural areas, parking garages, and buses – are increasingly struggling under the burden of poorly-managed growth and development, influxes of tourists, and indifferent maintenance. This physical toolkit needs to be brought up to the task of handling the current needs of the population, as well as future needs like continuing growth and climate impacts. The city can still retain the look and feel of the small town we grew up in, but not if we’re stuck in traffic or flooded in a hard rain.

Shared prosperity. Obviously, affordability is on everyone’s mind as costs of living continue to skyrocket in Asheville, forcing more and more workers and retirees to the outskirts of the county and beyond. This is another way of saying the city needs to manage both sides of the affordability equation, making sure there’s more housing at every price point, yes, but also making sure the local economy is diversified and able to provide enough high-paying career-track jobs across a slew of industries. It’s not enough for the people doing well to only do better here. We need to make sure a sense of growing prosperity is shared across the community.

Government accountability. The Wanda Greene scandal and others of late should put us on our guard. Yet many city decisions and operations still happen without public insight and accountability. Boards and commissions tasked with important decisions are unrepresentative and opaque. City zoning is a mess, almost 30 years after its last major overhaul. The police department and fire department are embroiled in scandals that erode the public’s trust in services meant to keep everyone in the community safe. City council seems reactive to crises that could have been foreseen. Without accountability, none of the other issues get productive work done. We need to start with a city government you can trust to hear and respect you.

Many North Carolina residents – including employees providing essential public services – do not earn enough to make ends meet. Women and people of color are disproportionately affected by poverty, as they earn even less than their white male counterparts. No employee working full-time should be unable to feed his or her family, or live below the poverty line. A growing number of cities and states have recognized the dire need for increasing the minimum wage to keep up with the cost of living. Studies have shown that raising the minimum wage benefits local economies, lowers unemployment, and stimulates job creation because employees are able to spend their wages and boost local businesses, which in turn create more jobs. Although local governments are currently prohibited from enacting higher minimum wages, even for their own contractors, they can determine the wages of their own employees.

2. Do you support the concept of a “living wage” of at least $15 an hour for your city employees, and those workers employed by companies with city contracts?

Yes.

3. If yes, would you be willing to test the limits of efforts by the state legislators to preempt such action at the local level?

Yes.

4. Presently, does your city provide a living wage to their city employees?

No. Certain classes of temporary and seasonal employees are still – shamefully – excluded from Asheville’s living wage policy.

Our state has prided itself historically on attempting to attract businesses on the basis of low wages. Our state has much more to offer, and our workers deserve much better. Our state’s workers deserve to earn enough to support their families, enjoy their lives, and help boost their local economies. Spending our citizens’ tax money to entice companies that will not pay decent wages is counterproductive on all counts.

5. Do you support tying tax incentives offered to companies relocating to your town/county to a requirement that those companies pay a living wage with benefits, and adhere to job safety standards?

Yes. I am skeptical of those deals anyway, and studies show most of North Carolina’s fail to produce the promised jobs. But if we have a deal on the table, I will not consider it unless it promises living-wage paying, career-track jobs to local workers (as opposed to companies importing their own high-wage workers with the move.)

6. Given the growth of your city, how would you improve public transportation and access to affordable housing?

As chair of the city’s Multimodal Transportation Commission, I have been helping lead a huge overhaul in city public transportation the last few years. The key goals are service every 15 minutes or less along major corridors, expansion into outlying areas of the city and (with county support) to Fairview, Enka, Leicester and Black Mountain, and later service hours for late-shift workers. The first wave of these changes went into effect on January 5, and others will come later in the year and early 2021.

As for affordability, I think city programs have been inadequate to create enough affordable housing to keep up with population growth. I believe a program to help homeowners expand for basement or backyard rentals, as practiced in other cities, still offers a path to success that doesn’t involve subsidizing large multifamily developments (I’ve heard Asheville successfully ran a similar program in the ‘80s-’90s), but I think there also needs to be more focus on the income side of the equation, with the city working to diversify the economy with higher-paying career-track jobs. We may not be able to keep rents down, so let’s keep incomes up.

The right of workers to join unions and collectively bargain with their employees is the cornerstone of American democracy. Under the Constitution, both public and private sector workers have the right to join a union. Private sector workers across the country are also guaranteed the right to collectively bargain under federal labor law. The majority of states recognize collective bargaining rights for some, if not all, of their public employees. It is well-recognized that public sector collective bargaining promotes labor peace, facilities effective and efficient provision of public services, and combats workplace discrimination.

Despite this widespread consensus, North Carolina remains as one of only three states with a blanket prohibition on public sector collective bargaining. This outlier status has gained negative attention both at home and abroad. In 2007, the International Labor Organization of the United Nations called for promotion “of the establishment of a collective bargaining framework in the public sector in North Carolina.”

A simple repeal of the ban on collective bargaining would be a modest step, bringing North Carolina in line with the rest of the country. Repealing the ban would not require that governmental entities collectively bargain with unions, but would give them the option to bargain should they wish to do so. Also, repealing the ban would not affect existing prohibition on public employee strikes.

7. Do you support the right of public employees to engage in collective bargaining?

Yes. I would be open to other ways of achieving this too, even on an interim basis, such as the city voluntarily engaging with organized groups of workers under the law and providing workers resources to engage in democratic and collective decision-making.

Public employees’ right to join together in a union is rooted in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. When employees join labor unions, they use their collective voice to make positive changes at work. Union dues are an important investment in the strength of labor unions. Dues are used to support the work the union does protecting the rights of employees.

Accordingly, many union members ask their employers to automatically deduct dues from their paychecks and send them directly to unions. This practice is used widely in the private sector as it is convenient for all parties involved, and allows unions to receive regular payment so that it can effectively carry out its duties.

Unfortunately, some public employers and policymakers do not want employees to have the freedom to deduct dues from their paychecks. Given that employers often deduct contributions for United Way and other programs, there is simply no explanation for such opposition other than to undermine union members and their unions.

8. Do you support dues check-off (payroll deduction) for public employees who join unions?

Yes.

The National Labor Relations Act protects the right of most private sector employees to unionize without facing retaliation from their employers. Such protection, for both private sector and public sector employees, is essential to employee choice, given the inherent power imbalance between employees and employers. Without protection from retaliation, employees face intimidation, threats, and potential job loss for trying to form a union or merely talking about working conditions or exploring the possibility of unionization.

9. Do you believe that all workers should be free to choose a union or association of their choice without fear of retribution?

Yes.

10. Do you have any unionized employers in your community? If so, which industries are these?

Asheville public transit drivers are unionized. UPS, the Postal Service and Asheville Fire Department are unionized. Teachers in Asheville City Schools and Buncombe County Schools are members of NCAE, a branch of the National Education Association, though in North Carolina they lack collective bargaining rights and face retaliation for organizing and promoting union membership in some schools. AT&T line workers are unionized and there is an active chapter of IBEW.

11. What is your view of the role unions and union members play in your city?

It isn’t enough. It’s hard not to think of what pushes for living wages and better public services would be like if a strong union presence was bargaining collectively. Employees across the city face discriminatory conditions, workplace abuses, poor workplace safety, chronically low wages and benefits, especially in the service and restaurant sectors. Unionizing would give these workers leverage to improve their conditions and take bad employers to task. It would be a net benefit for the safety and prosperity of the city.

12. If you have the opportunity to name or recommend an individual to a board or commission, would you consider naming a labor union member?

Yes.

13. Briefly describe your strategy to win, including campaign structure, fundraising and communications.

This is my third run for city office. In 2015 and 2017 I was endorsed early and very strongly by the WNC-CLC, the only two-time endorsee in the race. In addition to my campaign infrastructure and name recognition of the last two races, I have built on my experience and built a behind-the-scenes campaign infrastructure of experienced staff. In this presidential-year election (as opposed to off-year), with turnout of three to ten times as many voters as typically vote in city races, I expect my experience and reach to be a huge factor in attracting voters. My fundraising is grassroots, with a huge list of previous supporters to tap. Communications are through my website, richleeforasheville.com, and by email at richleeforasheville@gmail.com.