Loud and Clear
Public Employee Advocate
State employees like Ron Franz believe North Dakota United will help make the public aware of the essential role they play and their contributions to the state's quality of life.
IN FEBRUARY, the North Dakota Public Employees Association and the North Dakota Education Association merged to form North Dakota United, making it the state’s largest public employee union, with more than 10,000 members. North Dakota’s state employees and educators will now have a louder, stronger and more united voice.
When longtime NDPEA activist Mike Stebbins heard about the proposed merger, he was one of the first to sign on.
“The bottom line is that teachers and state employees here in North Dakota have been having the same fights with the Legislature,” says Stebbins, who says he’s long been a believer in unions and the concept of strength in numbers.
Those fights include opposing legislative proposals to limit public employee pay raises and retirement benefits, he points out. The two unions have also come together to mobilize against efforts to pass statewide initiatives that would reduce tax revenues.
Stebbins, who works for the state’s Department of Transportation, also worries that the union-busting he’s seen in other states will find its way to North Dakota. “So far, they are not trying to bust our unions, but we need to stay one step ahead because of what has happened in places like Wisconsin.”
NDPEA president Gary Feist says the merger was a no-brainer. “We had worked together on so many issues and in so many coalitions in the past,” says Feist, adding that the two unions have always shared one important goal: “We want to make sure that the state of North Dakota has quality public services and quality public education.”
Merger discussions between the two unions, which began in 2009, led in 2011 to the NDPEA and NDEA representative assemblies overwhelmingly approving the mission statement and principles of unity presented by the Unity Team (which consisted of members of both unions). The assemblies authorized the Unity Team to draft a constitution and bylaws for a new, merged union that reflected the mission and principles.
“Over the past couple of years, the attacks on public employees and their unions have become all too common across the country,” Feist writes in a column posted on the NDPEA website. “The merger of the two largest public employee unions in North Dakota is a proactive approach to make sure our members will always have the ability to make their voices heard. Through all of our members we will speak with one united voice to policymakers on issues that affect state employees, city and county employees, higher education faculty and staff, and K-12 teachers and school support personnel.”
AFT president Randi Weingarten says the merger “brings together employees who provide all citizens with the public services—from schools to safe roads to health programs—that are the foundation of North Dakota’s quality of life.”
“One strong premise we have continually operated under in the last two years,” says NDEA president Dakota Draper, “is that we either create a new organization that is better than the two organizations would be separately, or we wouldn’t attempt the merger. We believe we have accomplished that premise.”
The merger will also strengthen the labor movement in North Dakota because it doubles the size of the North Dakota AFL-CIO, Feist points out.
More credibility and clout
All too often, the perception of public employees runs counter to the dedication they display day in and day out, and the invaluable services they provide. Jan Phelps, the NDPEA chapter chair at the North Dakota Developmental Center in Grafton, believes that perception has worked against the union’s efforts on behalf of state employees. She thinks now that will change.
“We’re not always looked upon in the best light by legislators,” says Phelps. “I hope the increased numbers will give the union more credibility and clout at the state Capitol when it says things on our behalf.”
Because state employees in North Dakota don’t have collective bargaining rights, it’s critical that the union be a forceful voice when it comes to compensation and other issues affecting public employees, NDPEA member Ron Franz says.
“We have great lobbyists, but they can only do so much. I think the Legislature will be more responsive to our lobbyists now because they can say they represent more than 10,000 active members” as opposed to the 1,600 that the NDPEA represented before the merger.
One of the most important things the merged union can do is to make the public aware of the essential services provided by public employees, who too often go unappreciated, says Franz, who works at the state Department of Human Services in Grand Forks.
Stebbins agrees. It’s important, he says, for citizens to understand that state employees, teachers and other public employees are all working to make life better for the people of North Dakota.
The NDPEA activist is particularly happy that the state Legislature will no longer be able to employ a “divide-and-conquer” tactic when dealing with state employees and educators. “That’s something the Legislature has tried to do in the past,” he says. “But that won’t work now.”