Rural Georgia Factory, Flush With Federal Funds, Votes to Unionize

Workers at a rural Georgia factory that makes electric school buses with generous federal subsidies voted to form a union Friday, signaling a massive new infusion of money from Washington to the Deep South. It was an unexpected victory for organized workers and the Democrats, who hoped to become a union beachhead in the United States.

A Fort Valley, Ga., company called Bluebird may not have the prestige of Amazon or the ubiquity of Starbucks, two other companies that have garnered the attention of labor unions. But the 697 to 435 vote in favor of joining the National Steelworkers Union by Bluebird workers was the first significant vote for a factory receiving significant federal funding under the bill signed by President Biden. Organized elections.

“This is just a wake-up call for the future, especially in the South where workers have been neglected,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said Friday night after the vote. “We are now at a place where investments are coming together and strategies are being put in place to raise wages and security and pave the way for a better future.”

The three bills that make up the investment include a $1 trillion infrastructure program, a $280 billion measure to revive the domestic semiconductor industry, and $370 billion in clean energy to combat climate change. contain suppression methods.

Each bill contained language to support union membership, and Bluebird management, who had opposed the push for unions, had to contend with murky Democratic support for steelworkers. rice field.

A banner was hung outside the Bluebird factory until the union…Jonathan Wiseman/New York Times

Bluebird will benefit from new federal funding. last year, welcomed $500 million The Biden administration had provided through an infrastructure bill to replace diesel-powered school buses with zero, low-emission buses. The Georgia school system alone will pay $51.1 million to buy new electric buses, but Bluebird sells buses across the country. The anti-inflation law will bring in more money. Another Law Company Praises.

But the money came with a condition. That condition slanted the playing field slightly in favor of the unions. For example, just two weeks before him, the Environmental Protection Agency, which manages the Clean School Bus Program, Request for all recipients Revealed details of federal grants to provide workers with health insurance, paid vacation, retirement and other benefits.

It also requires companies to “remain neutral in any organizing campaign and/or to voluntarily recognize trade unions with majority support.” And under the infrastructure bill’s rules, federal funds cannot be used to interfere with union elections.

The Steelworkers’ Union used this rule to their advantage. In late April, Bluebird filed multiple unfair labor practices charges against Bluebird management for $40 million in rebates received from the EPA. determined Those funds could not be used for anti-union activities.

Daniel Flippo, director of the Steelworkers’ District, which covers the southeast, said before the vote, “If the workers want a union, pay for an anti-union law firm or scare them.” It stipulates that you can’t use people for your sake,” he said before voting. . “I’m sure Bluebird did it.”

Politicians also got involved. Two Democratic senators from Georgia and a Democratic congressman from southwestern Georgia, in a union-hostile but politically pivotal state, have also sacked factory management to at least maintain electoral fairness. moved slightly.

“I have long supported the USW and its efforts to improve working conditions and living standards for workers in Georgia,” Democratic Rep. Sanford Bishop said in an open letter to Bluebird Workers. I wrote about the National Steel Workers Union. “I would like to encourage efforts to exercise the rights granted by the National Labor Relations Act.”

Bluebird management minimized such pressure in public statements, even though they fought hard to fight off union organizers.

“While we respect and support the right of our employees to choose, we do not believe it is in Bluebird’s interest to introduce unions into our employee relationships,” said Julian Berkley, company spokesman. No,” he said. “During the pending election campaign, we have made it clear to our employees that unions are not in the best interest of the company or its employees.”

Friday’s union victory has given the labor movement big thoughts as federal money continues to pour in, and it will be good news for Biden and other Democrats, especially in the key state of Georgia. there is a possibility.

“Workers in places like Bluebird represent the future in many ways,” Flippo said after the vote, adding, “For too long, corporations have made the South ironic, wages and They saw it as a place where working conditions could be controlled, and they believed they could prevent workers from unionizing.”

With 1,400 workers, the Bluebird Union will be one of the largest unions in the South, and it could become a beachhead as union leaders look to the entry of new electric-vehicle suppliers. Foreign electric vehicles are likely to be the biggest and most difficult target, he said. Automakers such as Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz and BMW are based in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, partly to avoid unions.

“There’s a reason companies are moving there. They want the smoothest possible path to crushing the unions,” said AFL-CIO national spokesman Steve Smith. It’s a foray like you’ve never experienced before. ”

The Bluebird factory rises abruptly from a rural highway lined with peach and pecan orchards and has a long history of hiring poorly educated workers, some of whom have been in prison. and most of them start at $16 or $17 an hour. Alex Perkins, principal organizer of Georgia’s National Steelworkers.

To vehemently opposed employers, organizers acknowledged that unions would be a tough sell for such vulnerable workers. Most of the employees who finished their last shift of the day on Thursday refused to talk about the record. On Friday, at a Circle K gas station across the street from the factory, about a dozen workers stood in the predawn darkness with pro-union placards watched by observers from the National Labor Relations Board. The first workers arrived to vote.

But Cynthia Harden, who worked at the factory for five years and voted for unionization, did speak of workers being pressured to vote against unionization. A slideshow of the voting process shows a ballot marked “No”, stating that the company could go bankrupt if the union wins, and suddenly a food truck appears at lunchtime and slams into the perimeter fence. was hoisted with a banner that read, “We love us.” employee! “

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

The letter from Georgia Democratic Senators Raphael Warnock and John Ossoff to Blue Bird CEO and President Matt Stevenson was surprisingly timid, expressing a strong desire for the company’s cooperation and high standards. He praised the income work and then said he would “encourage whatever the parties concerned want”. To ensure compliance with the letter and spirit of the National Labor Relations Act. ”

Perkins was furious at the tone, considering union efforts to help Warnock win reelection last year. “I’ll remember next time,” he said.

Both senators declined requests for comment on the election.

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