Yves here. A success in labor organizing in Georgia is a welcome contrast to the working-class defeat of the bitter battle over the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Note that the activists filed 21 objections with the National Labor Relations Board, that Amazon illegally intervened in the processbut that does not mean that their protests will succeed.
Workers at Blue Bird Corporation in Fort Valley, Georgia, have launched a union campaign for better wages, work-life balance and a voice at work.
The company resisted them. History challenged them. Geography worked against them.
But they united, believed in themselves, and won a historic victory that reverberates throughout the South.
Around 1,400 workers at the electric bus maker voted overwhelmingly in May 2023 to join the United Steelworkers (USW)reflecting the rise of collective power in a part of the country where right-wing bosses and politicians have long managed to outwit him.
“It’s time for a change,” said Rinardo Cooper, a member of USW Local 572 and paper machine operator at Graphic Packaging in Macon, Georgia.
Cooper, who helped Blue Bird workers in their union campaign, expects more Southerners to follow suit, even as they face their own tough battles.
Given the south pro-business environmentit is not surprising that Georgia has one of the lowest unionization rates in the country, 4.4 percent. North Carolina’s rate is even lower, at 2.8%. And South Carolina is 1.7%.
In a 2019 study, “The double standard at work”, the AFL-CIO has found that even European companies with good track records in their home countries benefit from the workers they employ in the American South.
They have “impeded freedom of association, aggressively campaigned against attempts to organize workers, and failed to bargain in good faith when workers choose union representation,” the report noted, citing, among other abuses, efforts union busters at a factory in Tennessee.
“They keep lining their pockets and paying pennies on the dollar,” Cooper said of companies cashing in at the expense of workers.
The consequences are disastrous.
States with low union density have significantly higher poverty, according to a 2021 study by researchers at the University of Minnesota and the University of California, Riverside. georgia 14 percent the poverty rate, for example, is among the worst in the country.
However, the tide is turning as workers increasingly see union membership as a clear path forward, observed Cooper, who quit his own job at Blue Bird months before the union’s victory because the he grueling schedule left him with little time to spend with his family.
Today, as a unionized paper mill worker, he not only earns higher wages than at Blue Bird, but also enjoys safer working conditions and a voice at work. And because the USW holds the company accountable, he’s free to take vacation and other time off that he earns.
Cooper’s story helped inspire bus company workers’ quest for a better life. But they also resolved to fight for their fair share as Blue Bird increasingly relies on their knowledge, skills and dedication in the years to come.
The company is waiting to land Tens of millions in grants from President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and other federal programs aimed at putting more electric vehicles on the roads, stimulating the manufacturing economy and supporting good jobs.
These goals are inextricably linked, as Biden made clear in a statement congratulating bus company workers for their USW vote. “The fact is, the middle class built America,” he said. “And unions built the middle class.”
Workers power is spilling over not just into manufacturing, but into many industries in the South.
About 500 ramp agents, truck drivers and other workers at Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina also voted in May to form a union. Workers in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2022 unionized the first Starbucks in the south.
And the first responders in Virginia and utility workers in Georgia And Kentucky also formed unions in early 2023, while Lowe’s workers in Louisiana launched groundbreaking efforts to unionize the home improvement giant.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to tell any worker in any manufacturing location here that the way forward is union. That’s the only equity you’ll get,” said Anthony Ploof, who helped lead dozens of employees at Carfair Composites USA in the USW in 2023.
Workers at the company’s subsidiary in Anniston, Alabama, manufacture fiberglass-reinforced polymer components for vehicles, including hybrid and electric buses. Like all workers, they decided to unionize to get a seat at the table and a way to hold their employer accountable.
Instead of fighting the union effort, as many companies do, Carfair remained neutral so workers could exert their will. In the end, 98% voted to join the USW, showing that workers overwhelmingly want unions when they are free to choose without intimidation, threats or retaliation.
“It didn’t take much here,” Ploof said, noting that workers had little experience with unions, but learned about the benefits and quickly came to a consensus on the USW membership.
“It’s from Carfair,” he added, noting that workers from other businesses in the area have approached him to ask: “How does it work? How do you organize ?
As his new union siblings at Blue Bird prepare to negotiate their first contract, Cooper hopes to get involved in other organizing drives, mobilize more workers, and continue to change the trajectory of the South.
“We really need to keep spreading the message, letting people know there’s a better way than what employers want you to believe,” he said.