June 6, 2023

Workers at a rural Georgia factory that builds electric school buses with generous federal grants voted to unionize Friday, marking a surprise victory for organized workers and Democrats in their hopes of turning massive new cash injections from Washington into a union bridge in the Deep South .

The company, Blue Bird in Fort Valley, Georgia, may lack the cachet of Amazon or the ubiquity of Starbucks, two other companies that have drawn union attention. But the 697-to-435 vote by Blue Bird workers to join the United Steelworkers was the first major organizing election at a plant that received major federal funding under legislation signed by President Biden.

“This is just a barometer of the future, especially in the South, where working people have been ignored,” AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler said Friday night after the vote. “We are now in a place where we have the investments in place and a strategy to raise wages and protections for a good high-road future.”

The three bills that make 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 clean energy to combat climate change. to go.

Each of the bills contained language to help unions expand their membership, and Blue Bird management, opposed to the union action, had to contend with the Democrats’ subtle aid to the 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 it praised the $500 million the Biden administration provided through the infrastructure bill for the replacement of diesel-powered school buses with zero- and low-emission buses. Georgia school systems alone are getting $51.1 million to buy new electric buses, but Blue Bird sells its buses nationwide. More money will come through the Inflation Reduction Act, another law the company is touting.

But that money came with strings attached — strings that subtly tilted the playing field toward the union. Just two weeks ago, the Environmental Protection Agency, which administers the Clean School Bus program, requested that all recipients of federal grants provide detailed information about the health insurance, paid time off, retirement and other benefits they offer their employees.

They also required the companies to “commit to remain neutral in any organizing campaign and/or to voluntarily recognize a union on the basis of a vote of majority support”. And under the rules of the infrastructure law, no federal money can be used to thwart union elections.

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

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

Politicians also got involved. Georgia’s two Democratic senators and Southwest Georgia’s Democratic House member also subtly pushed management of the plant, 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 working conditions and living standards for workers in Georgia,” Democratic Congressman Representative Sanford Bishop wrote of the United Steelworkers in an open letter to Blue Bird workers. “I want to encourage you to exercise your rights granted by the National Labor Relations Act.”

Blue Bird management minimized such pressure in its public statements, even as it fought hard to hit back union organizers.

“While we respect and support employees’ right to choose, we do not believe Blue Bird is better served by injecting a union into our relationship with employees,” said Julianne Barclay, a spokeswoman for the company. “During the upcoming election campaign, we expressed our view to our employees that a union is not in the best interest of the company or our employees.”

Friday’s union victory makes the labor movement think big as federal money continues to flow, and that could be good for Mr. Biden and other Democrats, especially in the crucial state of Georgia.

“Employees at places like Blue Bird embody the future in many ways,” Mr Flippo said after the vote. believed they could dissuade workers from joining unions.”

The union shop Blue Bird, with 1,400 employees, is set to become one of the largest in the South, and union leaders said it could be a bridgehead as they keep an eye on new electric vehicle suppliers — and possibly the biggest, toughest targets: foreign electric cars. automakers such as Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, who have settled in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina in part to avoid unions.

“Companies are moving there for a reason — they want the smoothest possible path to crushing unions,” said Steve Smith, a national spokesperson for the AFL-CIO. intrusion like we’ve never had before.”

Rising suddenly from a rural highway lined with peach and pecan orchards, the Blue Bird factory has long made a practice of hiring lower-skilled workers, some of whom have prison records and most of whom start at $16 or $17 an hour, said Alex Perkins, chief organizer of the United Steelworkers in Georgia.

A union was a hard sell for such vulnerable workers against a management that was vehemently opposed, the organizers admitted. When the last shift of the day came out on Thursday, most of the workers refused to speak officially. A group of about a dozen workers stood at the Circle K gas station across the street from the factory in early darkness on Friday, holding pro-union signs as the first workers arrived to vote under the eyes of National Labor Relations Board monitors .

But Cynthia Harden, who has worked at the factory for five years and voted in favor of organizing, did speak of the pressure that pressured workers to vote against. Slideshows about the voting process, which showed ballots marked ‘no’, said the company could go out of business if the union won, and there was a sudden appearance of food trucks at lunchtime and banners on the fence 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 written by Georgia Democratic senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to Matt Stevenson, CEO and president of Blue Bird, was remarkably timid, praising the company for its partnership and its well-paying jobs before “encouraging all involved, what their wishes were too”. result, to ensure that the letter and spirit of the National Labor Relations Act are followed.”

Mr. Perkins was offended by that tone, given the work the unions had done to help Mr. Warnock win re-election last year. “I won’t forget next time,” he said.

Both senators declined requests for comment on the election.