The Labor Movement Just Scored One of Its Biggest Victories in the South This Century
In Georgia, 1,400 workers at a school bus manufacturer voted to join the United Steelworkers, marking a watershed union victory in the region.
Luis Feliz Leon
After a bruising three-year fight, workers at school bus manufacturer Blue Bird in Fort Valley, Georgia, voted May 12 to join United Steelworkers (USW) Local 697.
“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,” said Maria Somma, organizing director with the USW.
“It’s not a single important win. It’s an example of what’s possible — workers wanting to organize and us being able to take advantage of a time and a policy that allowed them to clear a path to do so.”
The vote was 697 to 435 with 80% turnout. At two factories and a warehouse near Macon, the workers build school buses and an array of specialty buses.
Blue Bird is the second-largest bus manufacturer in the country, after Daimler Truck’s Thomas Built Buses. The Auto Workers represent workers at a Thomas Built facility in North Carolina.
The main issues in Georgia were pay and safety. Workers began organizing in earnest at the height of the pandemic in 2020 after Blue Bird workers reached out to a Steelworker organizer following a union win at a tire factory in nearby Macon. They overcame a fierce anti-union campaign in a right-to-work state where only 4.4% of workers are union members.
But Somma adds that workers tapped into local union networks. “People think the South is non-union, but we have a lot of members in middle Georgia,” she said.
The Steelworkers represent thousands of members in the state — at BASF, which makes chemicals used in plastics, detergent, and paper manufacturing, Anchor Glass, and the paper giant Graphic Packaging International.
No rhyme or reason
Despite receiving torrents of federal subsidy money that was supposed to require it to remain neutral, Blue Bird pulled out all the stops to try to beat the union.
The company received $40 million in rebates as part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean School Bus program, part of $500 million handed out last year to replace diesel school buses with ones with zero or low emissions. The funds are part of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed in 2021, which includes $5 billion in funding for clean buses through 2026.
These funds can’t legally be used to thwart union organizing, but that didn’t stop the company from campaigning against the union. The Steelworkers filed seven unfair labor charges with the National Labor Relations Board.
Among the charges for illegal union-busting were polling employees on their union support, threatening to close the plant, telling workers collective bargaining was an ineffective means to settle workplace grievances, and putting up slide shows telling workers to vote against unionization.
In one particular egregious move, the company allegedly told workers that if they were part of a successful union drive at Blue Bird, no other employers would hire them. With a high churn rate, Blue Bird workers often cycle through other manufacturing employers like Frito Lay, so the threat struck a nerve.
The company also launched a charm offensive, parking food trucks outside the warehouses and unfurling banners that read, “We Love Our Employees!”
When union-busting wallops didn’t do the trick, the company began making improvements — putting in place more predictable schedules, doling out optional overtime, and issuing company handbooks workers had never seen in all their years of employment.
The company even claimed to have patched up a leaking roof that was creating hazardous working conditions.
Crucially, it boosted pay. “Some people got a $2 adjustment, who were already making high money; some people got eight cents,” said Somma. “And so there was no rhyme or reason to the adjustments that anybody could see.”
Good jobs required?
Pro-union provisions have been attached to federal funds in the infrastructure package, as well as the $280 billion investment in the semiconductor industry and $370 billion to combat climate change in the Inflation Reduction Act. These include requirements to pay union scale wages on the construction of clean energy facilities, and prohibitions against using funds to campaign against unions.
Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed its most ambitious new regulations yet for cutting pollution from vehicles, by requiring two-thirds of new cars and trucks sold in the U.S. all-electric by 2032. Heavy-duty vocational vehicles like school buses have their own standards, aimed at cutting emissions in half by 2032.
Tailpipe emissions from vehicles on roads are the largest source of greenhouse gases. The U.S. is the second-biggest polluting country after China. Diesel-powered school buses can emit over 40 toxic air contaminants, causing asthma and other respiratory issues.
But the government guardrails in the Clean School Buses program are relatively weak. The EPA, for example, has asked recipients of federal subsidies for clean buses to disclose the benefits they provide their employees, including health insurance, paid leave, and retirement, though disclosing this information is not required.
Still, Somma said workers were able to shine a spotlight on the company’s union-busting and charge it with using public money to prevent workers from exercising their rights to organize a union.
The union also countered the company’s efforts to plead poverty, pointing out it had received millions from the government to build electric buses. The company’s stock had shot up 37%, with 120 million in backlog deals with municipalities purchasing fleets of electric buses, according to The American Prospect.
“This was a campaign that was built by one-on-one conversations and by standard organizing tactics,” she said.
Federal policy started to be a factor once workers filed for a union election. “This is an employer that would have fired workers,” Somma said. “And so while they broke the law, this policy allowed us to calm the employer’s union-busting down.”
Water and electricity
The organizing spark predated all that.
Jontae Lockett, a 10-year veteran at Blue Bird, remembers the campaign’s origins when the coronavirus was ravaging the country. “We had to report to work like nothing was happening,” he said, and the company didn’t follow social distancing guidelines: “We were working on top of each other.”
Production demands were incessant — without hazard pay, another sore point — slowing down only for a week due to supply chain snags delaying part deliveries.
But the safety issues go beyond Covid. Some days, rain pours through the roof. The company has supposedly made repairs, but the problem persists. “The water is landing on electrical boxes and sockets, computers and fans,” Lockett says, and he worries about getting electrocuted in the sloshing water.
Fed up with their treatment during the pandemic, and the disrespect and favoritism supervisors dished out, Lockett and his co-worker Patrick Watkins began thinking about building a union.
“You see supervisors talk to a grown man like he’s a child,” Lockett said.
They began holding weekly committee meetings at churches, parks, and the local library, eventually transitioning to Zoom. Participants grew from a handful to two dozen.
People from different production lines came together to learn about the campaign. They spread union literature and information to the two factories and a warehouse in the complex.
Workers also heard from Steelworkers from union plants in other states who came to support their counterparts in Georgia.
In a series of videos posted to YouTube, Steelworkers organizer Alex Perkins interviewed former Blue Bird workers who had left the company and picked up unionized manufacturing jobs. They talked about the difference a union makes.
In one short video, Perkins interviews a former Blue Bird employee Quenterrious Booze, a USW member at the unionized paper manufacturing giant, Graphic Packaging. He says the union job is better: the pay is much higher and the work isn’t as hard.
The videos countered company union-busting tactics.
Built by hand
A long list of problems spurred Blue Bird workers to unionize. One is a hated attendance point system, where showing up late dings you half a point; six accrued points at any time results in a termination. The company says that points roll off on a monthly basis if there are no absences or lateness, but workers say supervisors command inordinate levels of power, selectively applying the policy.
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.
Even these benefits are subject to the whims of supervisors. Lockett said favoritism runs rampant, from who gets hired to who gets their time-off requests approved.
Another complaint: unpredictable schedules. Long days on the assembly line can stretch past 10 or 12 hours in the sweltering summer to meet a production quota of 38 buses daily.
At the end of a shift, workers said, a supervisor would keep them on the line longer until the production quota was hit — or tell them they had to come in two hours early the next morning, making it difficult to get kids ready for school or strike a work-life balance.
One more shared grievance: unequal pay.
The hourly wage ranges from $13 for those just starting out to $25 for those with many years at the company — but ultimately, there’s no standardization, leaving pay up to the discretion of supervisors. With a decade in, Lockett is in the upper end of that range. But he finds the system unfair, echoing Teamsters and auto workers who say lower pay and benefits for newer hires wrecks solidarity.
“We’re building these buses by hand,” said Lockett. “Nobody should be making $13 an hour.”
This story was first posted at Labor Notes.
Luis Feliz Leon is an associate editor and organizer at Labor Notes.