Yves here. A success in union organizing in Georgia is a welcome contrast to the worker defeat of the hard-fought battle over the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Note that campaigners have filed 21 objections to the National Labor Relations Board, that Amazon interfered illegally in the process, but that does not mean their protests will succeed.
By Tom Conway, the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW). Produced by the Independent Media Institute
Workers at Blue Bird Corporation in Fort Valley, Georgia, launched a union drive to secure better wages, work-life balance, and a voice on the job.
The company resisted them. History defied them. Geography worked against them.
But they stood together, believed in themselves, and achieved a historic victory that’s reverberating throughout the South.
About 1,400 workers at the electric bus manufacturer voted overwhelmingly in May 2023 to join the United Steelworkers (USW), reflecting the rise of collective power in a part of the country where bosses and right-wing politicians long contrived to foil it.
“It’s just time for a change,” explained Rinardo Cooper, a member of USW Local 572 and a paper machine operator at Graphic Packaging in Macon, Georgia.
Cooper, who assisted the workers at Blue Bird with their union drive, expects more Southerners to follow suit even if they face their own uphill battles.
Given the South’s pro-corporate environment, it’s no surprise that Georgia has one of the nation’s lowest union membership rates, 4.4 percent. North Carolina’s rate is even lower, at 2.8 percent. And South Carolina’s is 1.7 percent.
Many corporations actually choose to locate in the South because the low union density enables them to pay poor wages, skimp on safety, and perpetuate the system of oppression.
In a 2019 study, “The Double Standard at Work,” the AFL-CIO found that even European-based companies with good records in their home countries take advantage of workers they employ in America’s South.
They’ve “interfered with freedom of association, launched aggressive campaigns against employees’ organizing attempts, and failed to bargain in good faith when workers choose union representation,” noted the report, citing, among other abuses, Volkswagen’s union-busting efforts at a Tennessee plant.
“They keep stuffing their pockets and paying pennies on the dollar,” Cooper said of companies cashing in at workers’ expense.
The consequences are dire.
States with low union membership have significantly higher poverty, according to a 2021 study by researchers at the University of Minnesota and the University of California, Riverside. Georgia’s 14 percent 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 left his own job at Blue Bird several months before the union win because the grueling schedule left him little time to spend with family.
Now, as a union paper worker, he not only makes higher wages than he did at Blue Bird but also benefits from safer working conditions and a voice on the job. And with the USW holding the company accountable, he’s free to take the vacation and other time off he earns.
Cooper’s story helped to inspire the bus company workers’ quest for better lives. But they also resolved to fight for their fair share as Blue Bird increasingly leans on their knowledge, skills, and dedication in the coming years.
The company stands to land tens of millions in subsidies from President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and other federal programs aimed at putting more electric vehicles on the roads, supercharging the manufacturing economy, and supporting good jobs.
These goals are inextricably linked, as Biden made clear in a statement congratulating the bus company workers on their USW vote. “The fact is: The middle class built America,” he said. “And unions built the middle class.”
Worker power is spreading not only in manufacturing but across numerous 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 first responders in Virginia and utility workers in Georgia and Kentucky also formed unions in early 2023, while workers at Lowe’s in Louisiana launched groundbreaking efforts to unionize the home-improvement giant.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to tell any worker at any manufacturing place here that the route you need to take is the union. That’s the only fairness you’re going to get,” declared Anthony Ploof, who helped to lead dozens of co-workers at Carfair Composites USA into the USW in 2023.
Workers at the Anniston, Alabama, branch of the company make fiberglass-reinforced polymer components for vehicles, including hybrid and electric buses. Like all workers, they decided to unionize to gain a seat at the table and a means of holding their employer accountable.
Instead of fighting the union effort, as many companies do, Carfair remained neutral so the workers could exercise their will. In the end, 98 percent voted to join the USW, showing that workers overwhelmingly want unions when they’re free to choose without bullying, threats, or retaliation.
“It didn’t take much here,” said Ploof, noting workers had little experience with unions but educated themselves about the benefits and quickly came to a consensus on joining the USW.
“It’s reaching out from Carfair,” he added, noting workers at other companies in the area have approached him to ask, “How is that working out? How do we organize?”
As his new union brothers and sisters at Blue Bird prepare to negotiate their first contract, Cooper hopes to get involved in other organizing drives, lift up more workers, and continue changing the trajectory of the South.
“We just really need to keep putting the message out there, letting people know that there is a better way than what the employers are wanting you to believe,” he said.
Good news. Surprising news. I remember when US car and other manufacturing companies moved to the South to avoid unionized labor.
Trump broke the back of free trade, and exposed it for what it was. now because of trump, mexico can vote in real unions, and trump exposed whats happened to america under bill clintons china free trade.
so if the parasites running these companies look at mexico, and see real zeal for unionism, and china has run its course as far as parasitical feeding is concerned.
so harder to move now. maybe peru looks promising to the parasites?
Peru’s looking delicious to the imperialists for natural resources. The pool of cheap labor isn’t big enough and the infrastructure isn’t good enough.
Companies are going to have to get used to treating workers with care and respect if they want to keep them.
Maybe Historical, I shall see if I can find a link later, but I recall Alabama once had the largest membership in the Communist Party of America.
If true probably not too many of those now? Which is to say can unions be the vanguard of the Left if there is no Left left?
We have a very large BMW plant which doesn’t pay peanuts but also doesn’t pay Detroit rates. Undoubtedly non-union weighed on BMW’s choice of locations (they’ve also taked about a factory in Mexico) but many globalist perks helped including a next door international airport, dual interstates, ocean port in Charleston.
As far as I can tell there’s no talk about unions in my state these days although there once was when we had the terrible cotton mills that did pay peanuts for lung damaging work. We even had a Democratic party back then which we barely do now.
It just seems to me that to revive unions you are going to need a supportive party and not the Third Way Democrats. After all when talking out of the other side of his mouth “President Joe Biden” shafted the rail workers. For him everything but everything is about his own personal political advantage.
Since the two parties are equally useless, perhaps people are ignoring them, and where they once would have put their dollars and volunteer hours into the donkey party, they now are supporting a union which offers actual help.
There’s a book about that: https://uncpress.org/book/9781469625485/hammer-and-hoe/
I have not read it, it is titled Hammer and Hoe, Alabama Communists in the Great Depression. I recall reading about a history of inter-racial radical organizing in Birmingham in the 1880-1920 timeframe, but I can’t recall the book title. New Orleans Dockworkers: Race, Labor, and Unionism 1892-1923 is also interesting.
As a 40 year “union man”, I can’t get too excited about organizing wins in today’s U.S.–wake me when they get first contracts (which most never will).
I have been impressed with the graduate students at University of Michigan, who have been on an apparently illegal strike for seven weeks (they went on strike during their contract). 7 weeks in, no finals grades for the students..
Hammer and Hoe tells a great story of an alternative South that would have led to real progress! Highly recommended. Robin D.G. Kelley is good.
The CPUSA made brief inroads In the South because it was the only national organization all-in with Civil Rights before the Great Depression. Their motives were not especially pure or disinterested, but they showed up. Which is more than can be said for virtually all other national organizations. One day while driving with my later father-in-law Paul Robeson came in the conversation. He took Robeson to task for being a “communist.” When I mentioned that the CP was on those barricades, so to speak, all I got was “Hmmpf!” The CP also showed up in Scottsboro!
Hammer and Hoe:
There was also the Sharecroppers’ Union, for a while:
I don’t know if it’s still in print, but “All God’s Dangers” is an oral history of Nate Shaw (?), who was a member of the Sharecroppers Union (which CP members were also involved in organizing), and spent years in jail after being involved in a shootout with Plantation gun thugs.
when i lived down south the first time in my life over 6 decades ago, my father was a union man, and new orleans and mobile al. were known as union towns.
This post tells us: “The company [Carfair] stands to land tens of millions in subsidies from President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and other federal programs aimed at putting more electric vehicles on the roads, supercharging the manufacturing economy, and supporting good jobs.” But what is the rest of this story? Did Joe Bidden experience some epiphany on the road to the 2024 election season after so thoroughly gutting railroad workers — not so very long ago? Do u.s. voters really have a memory shorter than that of the proverbial goldfish? Now, after seeing the light, and realizing “unions built the middle class” Biden stands by unions in time before 2024? Was Carfair Composites USA affected by some a deeply moving religious experience wherein “instead of fighting the union effort, as many companies do…” Carfair felt compelled to remain “…neutral so the workers could exercise their will”. Are we to believe that there were no backroom deals, no back-handers?
Are we expected to believe the tide is turning?: “Workers at Blue Bird Corporation in Fort Valley, Georgia, launched a union drive to secure better wages, work-life balance, and a voice on the job.”
“…they stood together, believed in themselves, and achieved a historic victory that’s reverberating throughout the South.”
What did the railroad workers do wrong?
Jeremy – I think the difference can be found in that the Carfair workers organized one factory, and the railroad workers had the ability to shut down most of the freight transportation in the country.
Besides, if Carfair was willing to be neutral that can be seen as a form of assent, so it’s all good no big conflict.
I am sure that if a truly successful union movement was threatening to take hold in the US, both parties would join in outlawing unions entirely, or cripple them legally to the point in forcing them to dissolve.
From what I understand about the rules governing railroad unions, they are different than the ones in other labor sectors, and are specifically written to hamper their ability to strike. If they still did strike “illegally”, I think that the US government could basically impose heavy fines to the point of forcing the railroad unions themselves to go bankrupt.
Railroad workers are widely disbursed and many do not have regular start and end times like the Bluebird factory. Railroad workers are already 100% unionized on the class 1s for almost 100 years and at many shortlines. A large proportion of workers support the union leadership that acquiesces to management. There are a dozen unions, organized by craft, unlike autos or steel. Add the oppressive Railway Labor Act.
Seems Joe Biden wants to paint his IRA bill as support for Labor going into the election season [from the post]:
“These goals are inextricably linked, as Biden made clear in a statement congratulating the bus company workers on their USW vote. “The fact is: The middle class built America,” he said. ‘And unions built the middle class.’”
Does this effort impress no one else for its crass shallowness? Joe Biden, as friend to labor and champion for the middle class?
“Railroad workers are already 100% unionized … A large proportion of workers support the union leadership that acquiesces to management … Add the oppressive Railway Labor Act.”
It sounds like railroad workers are well and thoroughly domesticated — managed by good unions that make no trouble. Railroad workers would make a good poster child for the kind of union Labor Joe Biden can wholeheartedly be proud of. His support and respect for the middle class consists of wavering lip-service.
Starting before Ronald Reagan and put on steroids by RR, unions were demonized and pictured as evil.Workers are finally beginning to see that they were deceived.Workers want a fair share of the pie and they see unions as a way to accomplish this.It will be a long brutal battle and the outcome is uncertain.I’m retired but belonged to a union for my 35 working years. We received many benefits because of our union.Without a union workers are at the mercy of the employer.Treating workers fair is at the bottom of their list. A piece of advice I would share is the union is only as good as its members supporting it.Being united and considering everyone over ones self is important. Also a union has to be reasonable in their demands. I know my union made working conditions and compensation better. United we stand divided we fall.
it was carter and t. kennedy that started the assault on unions. there deregulation of airlines and trucking has been a disaster for everyone but a few small parasites on wall street.
[Volcker’s] goal [Stoller writes] was to crush wages, straight out. To give you a sense of how strongly he felt about this goal, consider that during this period, from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, Volcker walked around with a card of union wages in his pocket to remind himself that his goal was to crush the middle class. Volcker even angered Reagan officials by keeping interest rates too high for too long.
When they complained, he would pull “out his card on union wages” and note that inflation would not come down permanently until labor “got the message and surrendered.” Volcker said that the prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s was a “hall of mirrors” and that the “standard of living of the average American must decline.”