Southern workers defy history with union victories
Yves is here. The success in organizing unions in Georgia is a welcome contrast to the defeat of workers in the hard-fought battle for the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Note that campaigners 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.
Tom Conway, International President United Union of Metallurgists (USW). Produced Independent Media Institute
Blue Bird Corporation workers in Fort Valley, Georgia took union action to secure higher wages, work-life balance, and a voice at work.
The company resisted them. History has challenged them. Geography worked against them.
But they stood together, believed in themselves, and won a historic victory that is echoing in the South.
In May 2023, about 1,400 electric bus plant workers voted overwhelmingly in favor of join the United Steel Workers (USW)reflecting the rise of collective power in a part of the country where bosses and right-wing politicians have long contrived to prevent this.
“It’s time for a change,” explained Reinardo Cooper, USW Local 572 member and paper machine operator at Graphic Packaging in Macon, Georgia.
Cooper, who has helped Blue Bird workers with their union activities, expects more Southerners to follow suit, even if they have to face their own uphill battles.
Considering corporate environmentno wonder Georgia one of the lowest union membership rates in the country, 4.4 percent. In North Carolina, this figure is even lower – 2.8%. And in South Carolina – 1.7 percent.
Many corporations actually prefer to be located in the south because the low union density allows them to pay low wages, save on securityetc perpetuate the system oppression.
In a 2019 study “Double standard at work” The AFL-CIO has found that even European companies with a good reputation in their home countries take advantage of the workers they hire in the American South.
They “interfered with freedom of association, launched aggressive campaigns against workers’ attempts to organize, and failed to negotiate in good faith when workers choose union representation,” the report notes, which cites Volkswagen’s efforts to bust unions, among other things. Plant in Tennessee
“They keep lining their pockets and paying pennies on the dollar,” Cooper said of companies cashing in on workers.
The consequences are terrible.
States with low union membership have significantly higher poverty, according to a 2021 study by researchers at the University of Minnesota and UC Riverside. Georgia 14 percent the poverty rate, for example, is one of the lowest in the country.
That’s changing, however, as workers increasingly view union membership as a clear path forward, said Cooper, who left his job at Blue Bird months before the union’s victory because a grueling schedule left him little time for his family.
Now, as a union worker, he not only earns a higher wage than at Blue Bird, but also benefits from safer working conditions and a voice at work. And because the USW holds the company accountable, it can take vacations and other days off that it earns.
Cooper’s story inspired bus company employees to search for a better life. But they also chose to fight for their fair share, as the Blue Bird will increasingly rely on their knowledge, skills, and dedication in the coming years.
The company is preparing to land tens of millions in subsidies from President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure and Jobs Investment Act and other federal programs to increase the number of electric vehicles on the road, increase the productivity of the manufacturing economy, and support good jobs.
These goals are inextricably linked, as Biden made clear in a statement congratulating bus company workers on their USW vote. “The point is, the middle class built America,” he said. “Mrs. unions built middle class”.
The labor force is spreading not only in the manufacturing industry, but also in many industries in the South.
About 500 ramp agents, truck drivers and other workers Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina also voted to form a union in May. Workers in Knoxville, Tennessee, 2022. united the first Starbucks on South.
And the first responders in Virginia and utilities in Georgia And Kentucky also formed unions in early 2023, while Lowe’s workers in Louisiana launched a pioneering effort to unionize the home improvement giant.
“I will not hesitate to tell any worker in any manufacturing plant here that the path you need to take is the union. This is the only justice you will achieve,” said Anthony Plouf, who helped lead dozens of employees at Carfair Composites USA at USW in 2023.
Employees at the company’s Anniston, Alabama, subsidiary manufacture fiberglass-reinforced polymer components for vehicles, including hybrid and electric buses. Like all workers, they decided to band together to get a seat at the negotiating table and hold their employer accountable.
Instead of fighting unions, as many companies do, Carfair remained neutral so that workers could exercise their will. In the end, 98 percent voted to join the USW, showing that workers overwhelmingly want unions when they have the freedom to choose without intimidation, threats, or retribution.
“It didn’t take much here,” Ploof said, noting that the workers had little experience with unions, but learned about the benefits and quickly came to a consensus to join the USW.
“This is from Carfair,” he added, noting that employees from other companies in the area approached him to ask, “How are you? How do we organize?
As his new union siblings at Blue Bird prepare to land their first contract, Cooper is looking to get involved in other organizing initiatives, raise more workers and continue to change the trajectory of the South.
“We just really need to keep spreading the word, letting people know there’s a better way than what employers want you to believe,” he said.