Unions Notching Wins in South

The United Steelworkers and United Auto Workers unions are beginning to crack the non-union walls at plants in the South, with organizing wins in Georgia and Missouri.

Joseph Szczesny

May 26, 2023

4 Min Read
Workers assemble electric school buses at Blue Bird’s Fort Valley, GA, plant.Blue Bird

After years of seeing its efforts fall short, organized labor has cracked the solid South, scoring a major victory by successfully organizing 1,400 workers who build school buses for Blue Bird.

After a contentious organizing drive, employees at Blue Bird in Fort Valley, GA, outside Macon, voted to join the United Steelworkers union in an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

United Steelworkers International President Tom Conway says the workers will now have a voice on the job so they can address concerns, including workplace health and safety, work-life balance and fair pay. 

“We’re proud that Blue Bird workers chose to join our union,” says Conway, “and we’re ready to help them bargain a fair contract that accounts for their contributions to the company’s success,” Conway adds.

Blue Bird is described by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as one of Georgia’s best known manufacturing companies. It is the second-largest bus manufacturer in the country, after Daimler Truck’s Thomas Built Buses in North Carolina, where employees have been represented by the United Auto Workers since the 1990s.

Up until the 1990s. Georgia was home to unionized assembly plants operated by Ford and General Motors, but those facilities closed as both automakers downsized, and new plants built by South Korean automaker Kia have been non-union. Only 4.4%of Georgia’s workers belong to unions.

Surrounding Southern states such as Tennessee, South Carolina and Alabama are home to non-union auto plants belonging to Volkswagen, BMW, Volvo, Hyundai, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz and Nissan, where UAW organizing efforts have floundered in the face of stiff corporate opposition and anti-union campaigns.

At VW and Nissan, efforts to block the UAW’s organizing drives included campaigns by local political figures and outside groups such as the National Right to Work Foundation.

The USW success at Blue Bird caps a three-year campaign, which follows the steelworker’s success in organizing workers at a plant in Macon operated by the Kumho Tire of South Korea. 

“Workers at places like Blue Bird in many ways embody the future,” says USW District 9 Director Dan Flippo, who represents workers in Georgia and six other Southern states. “They’re the ones who are making the investments in our infrastructure a reality, the ones who are building the safer, cleaner communities for generations to come.

“For too long, corporations cynically viewed the South as a place where they could suppress wages and working conditions because they believed they could keep workers from unionizing,” says Flippo.

The USW position was bolstered by the union’s representation of other workers in Georgia at BASF, which makes chemicals used in plastics, detergent, and paper manufacturing, Anchor Glass and the paper giant Graphic Packaging International.

Nonetheless, Maria Somma, organizing director for the USW, tells Labor Notes, “It’s been a long time since a manufacturing site with 1,400 people has been organized, let alone organized in the South, let alone organized with predominantly African American workers and let alone in the auto industry.”

The main issues in Georgia were pay – wages range from $13 per hour to start to $25 per hour –and safety, according to Labor Notes.

Labor Notes also says paltry vacation time is another sore point. Workers earn two vacation days after working five years at the company, and a week off after eight years, and even these benefits are subject to the whims of supervisors.

“We work hard, and we deserve fair pay, safe working conditions and to be treated with respect on the job,” says Patrick Watkins, a Blue Bird worker who served on the volunteer organizing committee. “It was clear that our only path forward was to take our future into our own hands – and that’s what we did when we voted to organize.”

In another union victory in a conservative Red state, workers at the Yanfeng USA Riverside Facility outside Kansas City, MO, have voted to join UAW Local 710 with 310 yes votes to 26 no.

This is the sixth UAW-organized Yanfeng facility, joining over 1,000 members at the supplier in Highland Park, Romulus, and Monroe, MI; Mississauga, ON, Canada; and McCalla, AL. The Riverside location produces parts for the GM Fairfax Assembly Plant in Kansas City, represented by UAW Local 31.

Yanfeng workers organized to put an end to low pay, lack of seniority rights, understaffed shifts, and little to no work-life balance. Workers of color have faced discrimination from management in job placement and rights at work, according to UAW organizers.

“The Yanfeng workers, our UAW organizers and Region 4 Director Brandon Campbell have notched a huge win for working people,” says UAW Vice President Rich Boyer, who oversees the Independents, Parts, and Suppliers division of the UAW. “We look forward to winning a good, equitable agreement at Yanfeng,” he adds.



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