Ardis Watkins recalls a time when she was lobbying lawmakers inside the Legislative Building for better pay, benefits, and working conditions for state workers and retirees

Watkins, the executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, or SEANC, as the 75-year-old organization with 46,000 members is called colloquially, knew job cuts and other major changes were on the table.

Outside the building, a big crowd was gathered on the grassy mall as part of the Moral Monday movement, protesting the political agenda of Republicans who had gained control of both chambers of the General Assembly and, at the time, the governorship. Among the demonstrators were two busloads of Service Employees International Union members brought in from its New York branch. 

SEIU and SEANC had joined forces in 2008. Watkins, who has been SEANC’s executive director since March 2020 and a legislative liaison for nearly two decades before that, was caught off guard when a legislator asked her what exactly the association was protesting.

“They were a little confused,” Watkins recalled. “They said, ‘Why are you guys doing this? We thought we had been working with you.’”

Watkins was, too. She didn’t know that SEIU had sent out-of-state members to the rally. When SEANC affiliated with the larger union, they had agreed to keep each other abreast of their agendas. Though Watkins no longer can recall the date of the encounter or the specific lawmaker she’d been speaking with, the impression it left persists.

Over the decades, SEANC had earned a reputation as an organization that worked with lawmakers to find common ground, no matter which party was in power. 

That was true when Republicans held majorities in both General Assembly chambers from 2013 through 2016, when there also was a Republican governor. It also has been crucial in an era of divided government as Republicans still hold majorities in the legislative branch but a Democratic governor now leads the executive branch.

Protestors rally during a Moral Monday demonstration at Halifax Mall near the General Assembly in Raleigh on July 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

When Watkins was stopped inside the Legislative Building shortly after Republicans gained control of the General Assembly and the governor’s office for the first time in nearly a century, SEANC had been fighting attempts to overhaul state personnel laws, preserve jobs, boost pay, and get a cost of living adjustment for retirees.

“We like to be at the table instead of outside the door,” Watkins said. “Our members have seen some of [SEIU’s] actions as more radical than they’re comfortable with.”

The dispute over tactics boiled over last month, when the SEANC board voted unanimously to begin severing ties with SEIU.

It may seem like an inconsequential inter-organizational dispute, but as Watkins points out, they represent a workforce that includes educators, law enforcement, recreation, parks, transportation workers, and much more.

“If they care about their services, they should care about the folks that provide those services and the approach lobbying for their rights and workplace benefits,” Watkins said.

Watkins said SEANC has heard back from SEIU, but preferred to keep those discussions private. Efforts by The Assembly to get a response from SEIU by phone and email were unsuccessful.

“Unlike a lot of other organizations, SEANC beats to its own drum,” said state Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat who worked with the organization to stop a recent  proposal to move the state Department of Health and Human Services out of the capital city. “Over the years, it’s evolved into a workers’ rights organization that reflects the political realities of our state—a Republican governing majority in the North Carolina General Assembly and a Democratic governor. As a result, they’ve had real success for their membership.”

SEIU represents nearly 2 million workers in the United States and Canada, in the public sector as well as service jobs in health care, food, janitorial, and building maintenance.

The union formed in 1921, when Chicago janitors, window washers, and elevator operators organized. The union has played a significant role in fast food worker strikes advocating for minimum wages of at least $15 an hour over the last few years.

Brandon Ruffin holds a sign at a “Fight for 15” rally in Durham, N.C., in November 2016. (Kaitlin McKeown/The Herald-Sun via AP)

The advocacy for increasing the minimum wage was one of SEIU’s selling points when SEANC voted in 2008 to affiliate. While SEANC is not a union and its members do not strike, its members thought it would benefit from being aligned with one of the largest public-service unions in the country.

Jimmy Davis, the immediate past president of the SEANC board and 30-year veteran of the state prison and probation system, said there were debates about whether affiliating was the right direction back then, but it was widely endorsed.

“The decision, as I remember it, was overwhelming that we affiliate,” Davis said in a recent interview.

North Carolina is a “right to work” state, which has long kept it from becoming fertile ground for labor unions. Companies cannot require membership in a union as a condition of hiring, nor can they mandatorily deduct union dues and fees from an employee’s wages.

The South, in general, has the lowest number of unionized workers. In North Carolina, just 3.4 percent of workers are represented by a union.

David Zonderman, a history professor at N.C. State University with expertise in American labor movements, stressed that North Carolina has not been a place where unions thrive or workers feel comfortable walking off the job to demand better conditions, as SEIU promoted. SEANC’s decision to affiliate with SEIU is one reason he joined the association; he liked how the union advocated for workers.

“We like to be at the table instead of outside the door.”

Ardis Watkins

“North Carolina is a very hard state to organize in,” Zonderman said. 

He questioned SEANC’s decision to cut ties with SEIU, which would mean fewer advocates for the North Carolina workers from outside the state.

“I just don’t see how leaving is going to strengthen their position,” Zonderman said.

Whatever the SEANC might have gained from the partnership over the last 15 years, it is clear the organization no longer sees it as a benefit. All 51 SEANC board members and executive officers approved the resolution to split from SEIU. A vote to change the bylaws must be put to all SEANC members at its annual convention in September, and SEIU could try to negotiate in the months before the vote.

“It’s just a recommendation. There’s always room for negotiation,” said Martha Fowler, president of the SEANC board since 2021 and a retired grievance counselor from the UNC-Chapel Hill department of human resources. 

But, she added, “There was a clear message to me as a president to pursue the route of disaffiliation.”

SEANC leaders also pointed to a more recent example as a cause for change. In January, Fowler traveled to California with Watkins and other SEANC leaders for an annual SEIU meeting.

Their flight was delayed. By the time they got to the meeting, they had missed almost a day’s worth of activities. As they caught up, the SEANC representatives said they grew uneasy about SEIU’s plans for the South.

That included an instruction booklet on organizing in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama that offered ideas for striking, and suggested phrases for picket signs, chants, and songs for marching workers.

“We have worked with them,” Fowler said. “I think our advocacy is going in just a little bit of a different direction.”

Black SEANC members also said they found the artwork and some of the language in the booklet offensive. Black characters had large red or pink lips and used slang or “Ebonics,” as some members said.

The lyrics of one song stood out as objectionable:

I left my home 

To form a union

My manager said 

I was going to get fired I looked at him 

And said yous a lie 

“They were using Ebonics,” said SEANC General Treasurer Emily Jones, a recent retiree from the prison and parole system who lives in Clayton.

Wendell Powell, SEANC second vice president and a prison system employee, wasn’t in California, but heard about and has since seen the booklet. That troubled him, but the advocacy for striking was what really illustrated how divergent their tactics have become. 

Powell describes SEIU as a “lot more forceful” and less willing to bring management and decision makers into discussions. “We’re more diplomatic,” Powell said. “We talk to the managers, the heads of things.”

That diplomacy, members say with pride, is what led to North Carolina becoming the first state to raise the base pay of most state employees to $15 an hour in 2018.

Watkins recalled sitting down with Jim Blaine, a former chief of staff for Phil Berger, the Rockingham County Republican and Senate leader with a powerful say over what bills get traction. The national “Fight for $15” movement had been gaining steam, but legislators were reluctant to make changes they felt interfered with letting the free market dictate worker pay.

But state revenues had come in higher than projected that year, contributing to a “rainy day fund” of several billion dollars. 

“Our standpoint was, whether or not you feel like you can do that for the state, can you do that for your workforce?” Watkins said. “I think from the beginning, they seemed receptive.”

Blaine recalled years of discussions with Watkins about raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“Part of her problem was it had been adopted as a Bernie Sanders kind of socialist position,” Blaine said. So had politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the U.S. House member from New York that Republicans love to hate.

“AOC and Bernie Sanders,” Blaine said. “You probably couldn’t have a worse group of people advocating for something you’re putting in the budget you’re asking Republicans to vote for.”

Watkins, though, personalized the issue, citing a well-known janitor who helped keep government buildings clean. “Do it for him,” Watkins told Blaine.

Watkins also persuaded him to run the numbers; it was not going to cost the state much more than $50 million within a multi-billion dollar spending plan. But the argument that helped Blaine get Republican leadership and members on board was that many of the low-wage government jobs were proving the most difficult to fill and keep filled.

“She said it was going to advantage the state’s market position in hiring,” Blaine said. “She basically turned around and offered a Republican economic point on these folks.”

Moveover, if Republicans approved a budget that included the minimum wage increase as well as things Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper might not otherwise support, SEANC would still back the budget, she told him.

Blaine admired Watkin’s negotiating style: “Confrontational but in a polite way.”

Ardis Watkins, right, speaks with former House Speaker Richard Morgan in a 2004 file photo. (AP Photo/Karen Tam)

SEANC also points to successful negotiations with state Treasurer Dale Folwell to reduce the investment fees the retirees’ pension fund is paying. And they say their seat at the table helped stop the proposal to move Department of Health and Human Services offices out of Raleigh.

“Between SEIU and SEANC, the only ‘S’ I ever focused on was SEANC,” Folwell said in an interview. “Our relationship has always been about advocating for the invisible.”

The SEANC Employees Political Action Committee, or EMPAC, endorsed Folwell in 2016 and 2020. While they may differ on what is best, they’ve commanded the respect of the Republican known for a populist bent.

“My experience with them is even if I have to say ‘no,’ they are in the K-N-O-W,” Folwell said.

SEANC may have a reputation for fighting for its members beyond the political fray, but it sometimes gets caught in the crosshairs. Take, for example, the North Carolina Association of Educators, or NCAE, which has turned out large numbers of teachers and supporters for the “Red for Ed” rallies in protest of proposed cuts to public education.

Republican lawmakers have also tried to make it more difficult for SEANC and NCAE to draw membership dues and fees from public employees.

That includes Senate Bill 87, from Republican Sens. Ralph Hise, Joyce Krawiec, and Todd Johnson, which would do away with automatic payroll deductions for dues. Though the move seemed more targeted at the teachers’ association, several of its supporters named SEANC as a “highly politicized state employee association” that they hoped it would undermine.

SEANC came into this legislative session with one big thing in its favor: the serious worker shortage across state government.

As WRAL recently reported, 20 state departments, offices, and boards had the highest number of vacant positions in five years; at least a dozen were at 10-year highs.

At the same time, fiscal projections released last month show state revenues $3 billion higher than expected. 

“My experience with them is even if I have to say ‘no,’ they are in the K-N-O-W.”

Dale Folwell, state treasurer

Republicans are talking about using those funds for tax cuts. But SEANC and its allies say  some of the surplus should go to addressing the worker shortages.

“I’ve never heard such open talk among legislators about low pay for state employees,” state Sen. Graig Meyer, an Orange County Democrat, tweeted last month. “Everyone is hearing about vacancy rates and lack of services. We also have the most robust revenue in decades.”

Gov. Roy Cooper will release his proposed spending plan on March 15, which is expected to include double-digit raises for teachers and other school personnel, as well as a recommendation to raise salaries for all state employees. 

SEANC is lobbying to use at least some of the expected surplus for retention and sign-on bonuses this legislative session to help recruit and retain employees at understaffed Department of Health and Human Services facilities, prisons, and other public offices.

Health Secretary Kody Kinsley and his team have also been making the appeal to lawmakers that better pay would go a long way to fixing the worker shortage – and ensuring the agency can provide adequate services. Because of the shortages, many state employees have to fill in gaps with no finish line in sight.

“It’s like we’re running a relay race and the fourth person isn’t there,” Kinsley said in an interview.

“SEANC is probably the most effective lobbying association that we have,” Meyer told The Assembly. “It is always very clear that SEANC is going to look out for its people. They mobilize their people when they have to.”

Watkins thinks she will be able to make a good case for addressing worker shortages—from inside the legislature.

“A lot of these are safety issues,” she said. “A lot of these are taxpayer issues. It’s something we think we will work well with lawmakers on.”

Anne Blythe, a former reporter for The News & Observer, has reported on courts, criminal justice and an array of topics in North Carolina for more than three decades.

More by this author