A woman from a Georgia communications workers union stood up and told a room full of workers from across the state on Feb. 22 that she had just gone to the state Capitol for the first time, motivated by her opposition to a bill that labor organizers say would make it harder for employees to join unions. 

Teachers, electricians, painters, glaziers, film crew members, public college employees and other workers shouted out in response that they felt “empowered,” “encouraged” and “agitated” by their own visits to the Gold Dome.

The gathering, held at the Atlanta headquarters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, or IBEW, was a rousing follow-up to a morning spent lobbying Georgia House members against SB 362. The bill, which is championed by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, would prohibit employers receiving state economic development incentives from voluntarily recognizing employee unions. It passed the state Senate on Feb. 8 by a 31-23 vote and is now before the House.

The AFL-CIO organized the lobbying effort to convince Georgia lawmakers that the bill would hurt workers. The organization, which includes the United Auto Workers (UAW), is the nation’s largest umbrella group of affiliated unions.

James Williams, secretary-treasurer of the Georgia AFL-CIO, said SB 362 “takes away a pathway” to unionizing a workplace, and is an example of the “state government dictating business-employee relations.”

Under federal labor law, when more than half the employees at a workplace sign cards saying they want to join a union, employers can choose to recognize the union based solely on the “card check,” as it’s known.

But SB 362 would prohibit companies receiving any state economic development incentives like tax breaks from voluntarily recognizing a union–or else be forced to repay all the incentives they’ve received. Instead, the proposed law would require holding a secret-ballot election administered by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to determine if the workers can unionize–the federal procedure if an employer refuses to recognize a card check.

SB 362 would violate the National Labor Relations Act, according to Hannah Perkins, political director for the Georgia AFL-CIO. Allowing an employer to recognize a union once a majority of workers have indicated that they want it through a card check “is a federally-protected right,” she said.

Perkins called Kemp’s push for SB 362 and the Tennessee legislature’s approval of a similar law last May “a testing ground.” Both appear to be versions of the “Taxpayer Dollars Protect Workers Act,” a cookie-cutter bill drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a conservative coalition of legislators and private industry. Alabama and South Carolina have passed related laws.

Most employers tend to hold out for NLRB elections anyway, but in recent years more companies have been willing to recognize their employees’ right to join a union without taking the extra step, according to the U.S. Department of Labor–including Microsoft and Major League Baseball.

By contrast, the union representatives organizing Thursday’s event told Al ilmu, SB 362 would only throw up more roadblocks for workers trying to gain representation on issues such as pay, benefits and schedules–beyond the time and expense of an election campaign.

“At the Capitol, we heard legislators say that this bill would ‘protect workers from intimidation,’” said Perkins, the Georgia AFL-CIO political director. Instead, she said, the opposite is true: Holding elections gives companies time to pressure employees to vote against joining a union. “Forty-two percent of employers are charged with unfair labor practices during the walk-up to elections,” she said–like threatening workers, pressuring them in mandatory “captive audience” meetings, or placing cameras next to ballot boxes.

Union inroads in Georgia?

The stakes could hardly be higher at time of growing support for labor unions, with two-thirds of U.S. respondents approving them in an August poll. Meanwhile, the UAW’s new push to unionize Southeastern workers at Hyundai and Mercedes factories in Alabama and a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee is gaining traction. At the first two plants, more than 30% of workers have already signed union cards; in Tennessee, more than half have done so, the UAW recently announced.

Alabama’s Republican Gov. Kay Ivey lambasted the UAW’s organizing push last month, using the time-tested Southern politicians’ tactic of labeling the union organizers “out-of-state interest groups.” Similarly, Henry McMaster, South Carolina's Republican governor, recently labeled labor organizing in tourism as “infiltration.”

On the heels of its historic contract wins with the Big Three automakers last fall, the UAW announced this week that it will spend $40 million on new organizing efforts, focusing on the South.

In Georgia, a successful union campaign made history last spring, when over 1,100 workers at the Blue Bird electric school bus factory in rural Fort Valley voted to join United Steelworkers by a 62% majority. Employees at the company had been trying to unionize since the 1960s.

The UAW is also seeking to unionize workers at electric vehicle and battery plants, which are slated to employ a growing number of workers in Georgia. Battery maker Rivian projects that it will employ 7,500 workers at a new factory planned for Morgan and Walton counties, for which the state has promised $700 million in tax breaks.

Georgia, like the rest of the South, has historically been unfriendly to labor organizing: Less than 5% of the state’s workers belong to a union, the tenth-lowest rate in the nation. But as the state attracts new manufacturing industries, the UAW and other unions are trying to change that.

Melanie Silverstein, political director for the Southeastern district council of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, said partisan politics may decide SB 362 in Georgia’s majority-Republican legislature.

Silverstein has been lobbying lawmakers on the proposed law for several weeks. “Behind closed doors,” she said, “there are Republican lawmakers who say they’re not fans of the bill. But in committee meetings, they say the opposite–because this is the governor’s bill.”

At the Georgia Chamber's annual Eggs and Issues breakfast on Jan. 10, 2024, Gov. Kemp highlighted his plans to propose what he called pro-business legislation, including what is now SB 362. Learn more in this Instagram reel.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *