N.C. union welcomes student-athletes

RALEIGH, N.C. -- A North Carolina union for public workers will allow scholarship student-athletes at public universities to join as state employees.

The State Employees Association of North Carolina's governing board voted Friday to open the group's membership to athletes at the state's 17 public campuses, which would include Atlantic Coast Conference members North Carolina and North Carolina State.

The union decision comes two months after a federal labor official ruled that football players at Northwestern could create the nation's first union of college athletes. That ruling is being appealed to the National Labor Relations Board, and some Northwestern players say they voted against forming the union in an election. The results have not been released.

The North Carolina union's decision would not require a team vote and is based on an individual athlete's choice to join. It is unclear whether the union's invitation would be open to just scholarship athletes or walk-ons -- or whether there are NCAA rules preventing the athletes to be classified as state employees. There is no minimum number of athletes needed to join before SEANC can represent them in negotiations.

"What the group has definitively decided is to change our own membership rules to allow them to join," SEANC spokeswoman Toni Davis said Monday.

"And everything beyond that is really in a planning and development stage."

NCAA spokeswoman Emily James did not immediately return an email seeking comment Monday evening.

To join, the athlete would pay the $9 monthly membership dues paid by teachers, corrections officers, health care workers and others working for state agencies.

Charles Johnson, a member of SEANC's board of governors and a corrections officer for 22 years, said the idea "is in its infancy" and the group is only now developing specific ways to help athletes as it would other state workers.

"I don't know if I'd necessarily say they haven't been treated fairly," said Johnson, a shift captain at Raleigh's maximum-security Central Prison. "But I don't think they're represented as a collective group, student-athletes as a whole. I don't think they've been represented and I don't think there's a structure in place that looks out for them individually."

Davis said the group's 59-member board of governors approved the measure to recognize the student-athletes as state employees. The ruling two months ago by an NLRB official said the football players at Northwestern fit the definition of an employee, a ruling that has threatened to change the college-sports system across the country.

Athletes at private North Carolina-based schools, including ACC members Duke and Wake Forest, would not be able to join.

NC State athletic director Debbie Yow said she did not know enough about the employee group's decision to comment, although former UNC athletic director Dick Baddour said, "Any step toward treating (athletes) as employees is a step in the wrong direction."

"If they want to join that association, I don't think there would be any penalty for it -- I can't imagine there would be," said Baddour, who was North Carolina's AD from 1997 to 2011. "Maybe there's something there that I'm failing to see. I just don't see the impact of it."

North Carolina is a right-to-work state, meaning workers cannot be forced to join a union and pay dues. In addition, Davis said, North Carolina and Virginia are the only two states in which state law expressly prohibit public workers to collectively bargain.

SEANC -- which has 55,000 members and is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union -- lobbies legislators on issues ranging from pay raises to retirement benefits and health care coverage for public workers. It can also offer individual assistance to public employees on issues that arise at their jobs, although it does not offer legal representation in a grievance.

"It is a membership-driven association so the members -- in this case the student scholarship athletes -- would let us know what their concerns are," Davis said. "So we're not coming to them saying we're going to solve a set of problems what we've defined. We're looking for the athletes to let us know how they would like us to help."