This summer, national labor actions could cause big shifts in Georgia's labor landscape. Unionzied Starbucks shops continue to bargain for a contract after getting Starbucks to agree to “find a way forward” in February. Three groups of Delta Air Lines employees – flight attendants, ground workers, and mechanics are pushing to unionize – and Congress members have weighed in, calling on Delta to stay neutral.

Meanwhile, United Auto Workers (UAW) is continuing its push to unionize auto workers in the South. Will we see more union elections spring up after the UAW’s big win at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, followed by a big loss at a Mercedes plant in Alabama?

At the moment, we’re not seeing many one-off union elections for local Georgia shops, according to National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) data. Rather, we’re seeing big unions and coalitions attempting to lay the groundwork for a sea change – at a time when unionized workforces remain near an all-time low, particularly in the South.

Another big national development could rock the world of local college sports. The National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) and its Power Five conferences – the top five college football team associations – have voted for the first time to allow member colleges to compensate student players directly.

This decision follows the NCAA’s Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) rule introduced in 2021, which allows players to receive compensation from companies for using their personal attributes. However, schools paying athletes directly could lead to more questions about fair labor considerations and protections.

Here’s Al ilmu’s breakdown of recent local labor activity.

Starbucks continues to hammer out a contract-bargaining framework with unionized shops

Representatives from Starbucks and Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) met last week in Chicago for another two-day bargaining session to hammer out a basic contract framework for every single-store bargaining session going forward.

SBWU represents over 10,500 unionized workers at over 425 Starbucks nationally, including seven in Georgia. But Starbucks has refused to negotiate a single national contract with SBWU since the first shops unionized in late 2021, instead insisting on negotiating individual contracts store by store. To date, no stores have won a contract, also known as a collective bargaining agreement.

Starbucks and the union agreed during mediation in February to begin discussions about a “foundational framework” for each unionized store’s collective bargaining agreement. They resumed talks in late April with a two-day session in Atlanta attended by 150 workers elected as bargaining delegates.

Starbucks expressed optimism about the Chicago talks on its One Starbucks website, the coffee giant’s preferred method for communicating about labor negotiations with the union:

“We are pleased that the matters discussed were grounded in the needs and concerns of both the company and the union-represented partners. Agreements were made that ensure the support and education of partners choosing union representation and a steady, transparent sharing of information between the union and Starbucks,” read the June 4 post.

“We will meet again soon to continue talks,” the post concluded, but the parties have not yet announced a date.

Warnock asks Delta CEO to stay neutral on unionizing, following other senators

Delta Air Lines employees trying to unionize received a boost in late May when U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) sent a letter to Delta CEO Ed Bastian, asking him to remain neutral toward union organizing.

Neither Warnock nor Georgia’s other senator, Jon Ossof (D-GA), had signed on to an earlier May 15 letter from 25 U.S. Senators asking the head of the Atlanta-based airline to “pledg[e] not to interfere in any union organizing activities by adopting a neutrality agreement.”

Delta pilots and dispatchers are currently the U.S. carrier’s only unionized employees. The pilots negotiated a new contract in 2023 that will secure significant pay rises through 2026. 

Delta flight attendants have been trying to unionize with the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA for years – and they’ve been pushing hard after a stallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike more typical workers, airline employees have to clear extra hurdles to unionize under the Railway Labor Act.

Delta mechanics and groundworkers are also pushing to unionize with the International Association of Machinists and the Teamsters, respectively.

Now universities can pay student athletes directly

The NCAA and its Power 5 conferences (SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12) agreed on May 23 that schools can now pay student-athletes directly.

As part of the settlement agreement to antitrust class action lawsuits brought by student players, the college athletics associations will pay over $2.7 billion in damages to past and current athletes over the next 10 years. A federal judge still has to sign off on the settlement – a major shift in college sports where students would play for pay, not just scholarships, exposure, and the hope of going pro.

This development follows a related 2021 NCAA decision that players can be compensated by companies for using their name, image and likeness – a policy commonly referred to as NIL. If the judge approves the college payments settlement, it too will allow players to receive direct compensation while still in school without losing their amateur status or eligibility.

In a vacuum, this isn’t a labor issue. But in the context of the Dartmouth College men’s basketball team becoming the first college sports team to unionize in early March, the new NCAA decision could raise interesting labor rights questions.

The NLRB has allowed graduate student-workers to unionize at both public and private colleges because their institutions pay them for teaching and other work – but it had previously ruled that sports teams did not have the same employee-employer relationship.

The NLRB allowed the 15-member Dartmouth basketball team to unionize because the federal agency determined them to be employees of the university.

The landmark NLRB ruling concluded that the players perform “work” that benefits the university in the form of revenue from broadcast rights, ticket sales and alumni donations – and that, even without athletic scholarships, the players receive in-kind “compensation” for that work in the form of equipment, apparel and supportive services through a “peak performance” program for student-athletes. Therefore, they are employees.

Now, if all Power 5 schools can directly pay student-athletes (and will utilize that ability to get better recruits) for the “work” they perform at their university, will the players be considered employees and therefore have a right to unionize?

The answer to that question could change the foundation of college sports – and add thousands of unionized employees to the workforce in the South.

Big win, big loss for UAW at Volkswagen and Mercedes plants

Chattanooga Volkswagen workers voted to unionize with the UAW by a resounding 2,628 to 985 vote in April. That marked the first time the UAW has been able to unionize workers at a foreign-owned automaker in the South. Non-U.S. automakers and battery plants have flocked to the region, due to the anti-union climate.

The vote marked the third time the plant workers had tried to unionize since 2014, despite opposition from Volkswagen and a group of Republican governors in the South, including Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. Kemp and five other governors from Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Texas issued a joint statement in mid-April opposing the UAW’s bid to unionize the VW plant.

The UAW had hoped the momentum from the VW vote would help it win another big Southern union election in May at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Alabama. But the Mercedes workers on May 17 rejected the union by a 56% “no” vote of 2,642 to 2,045.

“While this loss stings, we’ll keep our heads up,” UAW President Shawn Fain said to local union supporters after the loss.

Quest and LabCorp workers band together for union push

After a cohort of 70 LabCorp drivers in Tucker narrowly voted against unionizing in early 2023, they may now get another shot, depending upon an NLRB decision regarding unfair labor practices. That’s because the federal agency’s notable Cemex decision from last August establishes a new framework for it to recognize unions.

An organizer with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) and eight Labcorp drivers met in early May to discuss what another chance at unionizing might look like. A driver from local competitor Quest Diagnostic joined the group and lent support and advice following their organization's union win in October.

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