Full of federal money, strings attached, a deep south factory votes to unionize

Full of federal money, strings attached, a deep south factory votes to unionize

Workers at a rural Georgia factory that makes electric school buses on generous federal subsidies voted to unionize on Friday, handing organized workers and Democrats a surprise victory in their hopes of turning Washington’s fresh cash injections into a beachhead. trade unions in the extreme south.

The company, Blue Bird in Fort Valley, Ga., may not have the prestige of Amazon or the ubiquity of Starbucks, two other corporations that have attracted the union’s attention. But the 697-435 vote by Blue Bird workers to join the United Steelworkers was the first significant organizing election at a factory that received major federal funding under legislation signed by President Biden.

“This is just a pointer for the future, particularly in the South where workers have been ignored,” said Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, Friday night after the vote. “We are now in a place where we have the investments coming in and a strategy to increase wages and protections for a good future on the roads.”

The three bills making up that investment include a $1 trillion infrastructure package, a $280 billion measure to revive a domestic semiconductor industry, and the Inflation Reduction Act, which included $370 billion for energy. clean to fight climate change.

Each of the bills included language to help unions expand their membership, and Blue Bird’s management, which opposed the union initiative, had to contend with Democrats’ subtle assistance to steelworkers.

Banners appeared outside the Blue Bird factory in the run-up to the union vote.Credit…Jonathan Weisman/The New York Times

Blue Bird will benefit from the new federal funds. Last year, he hailed the $500 million the Biden administration was providing through the infrastructure bill to replace diesel-powered school buses with zero- and low-emission buses. Georgia’s school systems alone will receive $51.1 million to buy new electric buses, but Blue Bird sells its buses nationwide. Even more money will come through the Inflation Reduction Act, another law praised by the company.

But that money came with conditions – conditions that subtly tilted the playing field towards the union. Just two weeks ago, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency, which administers the Clean School Bus Program, required all federal grant recipients to detail the health insurance, paid vacation, retirement, and other benefits they offered their workers.

They also required companies to “pledge to remain neutral in any organizing campaign and/or to voluntarily recognize a union based on a show of majority support”. And under the infrastructure bill’s rules, no federal money can be used to stop a union election.

The metalworkers’ union used the rules to its advantage. In late April, she filed multiple allegations of unfair labor practices against Blue Bird’s management, citing $40 million in rebates the company had received from the EPA, which stipulated that those funds could not be used for anti-union activities. .

“The rules say if workers want a union, you can’t use money to hire anti-union law firms or use people to scare workers,” said Daniel Flippo, director of the Metallurgists district that covers the Southeast, before the vote. . “I am convinced that Blue Bird did it.”

Politicians also got involved. The two Democratic senators from Georgia and the Democratic member of the House from Southwest Georgia also subtly nudged the plant’s management, in a union-hostile but politically crucial state, to at least keep the election fair.

“I have been a longtime supporter of the USW and its efforts to improve the working conditions and living standards of workers in Georgia,” wrote Democratic Congressman Representative Sanford Bishop of the United Steelworkers in an open letter to workers in Georgia. Blue Bird. “I want to encourage you in your effort to exercise your rights granted by the National Labor Relations Act.”

Blue Bird management downplayed this pressure in its public statements, even as it fought hard to defeat union organizers.

“While we respect and support employees’ right to choose, we do not believe Blue Bird is best served by injecting a union into our employee relationships,” said Julianne Barclay, a company spokeswoman. “During the pending election campaign, we expressed our opinion to our employees that a union is not in the best interests of the company or our employees.”

Friday’s union victory has the labor movement thinking big as federal money keeps flowing, and that could be good for Biden and other Democrats, especially in the crucial state of Georgia.

“Workers in places like the Blue Bird, in many ways, personify the future,” Flippo said after the vote, adding, “For too long, corporations cynically viewed the South as a place where they could suppress wages and working conditions because they believed they could prevent workers from unionizing”.

The Blue Bird union store, with 1,400 workers, will be one of the largest in the South, and union leaders have said it could be a beachhead as they watch the entry of new electric vehicle suppliers – and potentially the biggest and toughest targets: foreign electric vehicle makers such as Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, which have set up shop in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina in part to avoid unions.

“Companies move there for a reason – they want as smooth a path as possible to crushing unions,” said Steve Smith, national spokesman for the AFL-CIO. to make raids like we’ve never had before.”

The Blue Bird factory, which looms up on a country road lined with peach and pecan orchards, has long had a practice of hiring less-skilled workers, some with prison records and most starting at $16 or $100. $17 an hour, said Alex Perkins, a leading organizer for the United Steelworkers in Georgia.

A union was a hard sell for such vulnerable workers against a fiercely opposed management, organizers conceded. Coming off the last shift of the day on Thursday, most workers declined to speak officially. A group of about a dozen workers stood on Friday at the Circle K gas station across the street from the factory in pre-dawn darkness, holding pro-union signs as the first workers arrived to vote under the gaze of monitors. of the National Labor Relations Council.

But Cynthia Harden, who has worked at the factory for five years and voted for the organization, spoke of the pressure workers were under to vote against it. Slideshows of the voting process, which showed ballots marked “no,” said the company could go bankrupt if the union won, and there was a sudden appearance of lunchtime food trucks and perimeter fence banners reading : “We love our Employees!”

“They’ve already made some changes, but if the union hadn’t started, nothing would have happened,” she said.

The letter that Democratic Georgia senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff wrote to Matt Stevenson, CEO and chairman of Blue Bird, was remarkably coy, praising the company for its cooperation and high-paying jobs before “encouraging all involved, whatever their wishes result, to ensure that the letter and spirit of the National Labor Relations Act are followed”.

Mr. Perkins chafed at that tone, considering the work the unions had done to help Mr. Warnock to be re-elected last year. “I won’t forget next time,” he said.

Both senators declined requests to comment on the election.


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