CW: To highlight the racist roots of the right to work laws, this piece cites racist statements made by proponents of the policy.

The central theses:

  • On this Labor Day we are reminded that in Georgia there are still anti-labor policies on the books that reduce worker power and economic opportunity for all.
  • Unions play an important role in building a better future for Georgian workers, their families and the economy at large.

Why it matters

At the expense of low-wage workers, those who exercise more than their fair share of corporate and political power have enabled and benefited from a historic rise in racial and economic inequality. Policy makers and business interests have worked together through government and local action long enough to make Georgia the No. 1 for business and the home of the No. 1 for income inequality at the same time.

The weakening of occupational health and safety in Georgia made it possible for measures such as the Georgian Senate Act (SB) 359 to go through this legislative period. This bill protects companies from liability by creating a nearly impossible standard for evidence of gross negligence when an employee contracts COVID-19 at work. In other words, state lawmakers have strengthened the protection of employers, but not those who were forced to return to work early during a deadly pandemic in a state with one of the highest rates of infection, particularly among Black and Latin American Georgians.

Georgian lawmakers didn’t wait for a pandemic political window to take advantage of our state’s premier anti-labor environment, where corporate interests take precedence over the interests of everyday workers, as SB 359 was certainly not the first anti-labor legislation here approved. Rather, this policy is the latest chapter in a long history of anti-worker policy choices that go back to slavery. Georgia prohibits local governments from raising the minimum wage above the state’s hourly wage of $ 5.15, enacting paid vacation, and enacting fair planning laws. There are currently no explicit, comprehensive statewide laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ people in employment in Georgia. Employers rob Georgia workers of $ 301 million each year through wage theft. Businesses enjoy billions in annual tax breaks on special interest rates, which depletes the revenue needed to invest in critical services to combat economic and racial disparities between Georgia across the state.

One reason workers’ rights have been restricted here is that Georgia is a right to work in which workers do not have extensive collective bargaining rights. The right to work has little to do with the right to work. Instead, the law makes it illegal for a group of unionized workers to negotiate a contract that requires all workers who benefit from the terms of the contract and union representation to bear their share of the administrative costs. This undermines the bargaining power of the unions by making it difficult for the unions to feed themselves financially. As a result, the laws have negatively affected workers’ wages and benefits, as well as the local economy. Currently 28 states have the right to work.

The racist roots of the right to work

Georgia has played a central role in the anti-labor movement since the 1940s. In 1947 Georgia became a right to work. The law’s chief attorney, Vance Muse, was a well-known white supremacist who campaigned for the law not only to destroy the unions but also to uphold the unjust racial order of the south. Using southern racism to fuel unions’ fears, Muse argued that “white women and white men are forced into organizations with black African” monkeys “they call” brothers “or lose their jobs.” Muse worked closely with Georgia’s segregationist governor Eugene Talmadge to fuel disapproval of New Deal-era reforms and disguise a racist cause as a business thing.

Georgia’s right to work weakens the ability of unions to build the membership required for collective bargaining. This could be the main democratic tool that workers could use to ensure better protection and higher wages in the workplace. Without collective bargaining power, workers in entitled states and the communities in which they live are worse off. Workers in states with a right to work receive lower wages than workers in states with no right to work. They are also less likely to have health insurance, which leads to higher healthcare costs. In states with the right to work, there are fewer workers with access to pensions or retirement provisions, higher poverty rates, less investment in education and higher death rates in the workplace.

“In our glorious struggle for civil rights, we must be careful not to be deceived by false slogans such as the right to work. It is a law to rob us of our civil and labor rights. Its purpose is to destroy the unions and the freedom of collective bargaining through which unions have improved wages and working conditions for all. Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, employment opportunities are lower and there are no civil rights. – Martin Luther King Jr. on the right to work in 1961

As one would deduce from policies rooted in racism against blacks, abolishing the right to work and strengthening collective bargaining in Georgia would promote racial justice. Unions and collective bargaining eliminate wage gaps between black and white workers, as black workers are more likely to join unions than white workers, and black workers in unions receive a larger increase in wages when unionized than white workers. Unionized Black and Latin American workers earn 14 percent and 20 percent more, respectively, than their non-union counterparts. Unfortunately, the decline in trade union formation in Georgia has played a significant role in increasing economic disparities for all workers. Only 4 percent of Georgian workers are union members, compared with 10 percent at the national level.

Worker Power Works

When I talk to my peers in other countries about trade unions and working-class power building in Georgia, they often make fun of the possibility. But Georgia still has small but powerful work organizations that may grow. After an illegal campaign of intimidation, workers were granted the right to unionize under United Steel Workers at a tire plant in Macon, Georgia, in August. Workers overwhelmingly voted in 2018 to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) at a fulfillment center in Union City, Georgia. With the COVID-19 pandemic, RWDSU is also amplifying the voices of poultry workers on the forefront of poor working conditions.

The Union’s victories in Georgia must also be discussed. In 2013, unions organized to stop government lawmakers attempting to go beyond the National Labor Review Board’s rules to weaken union membership. The unions won the battle in court. The Fight for $ 15 campaign, organized by a broad coalition of Georgia unions, has helped secure a minimum wage of $ 15 for metro Atlanta urban workers in recent years. United Campus Workers of Georgia won a 2019 pay raise for the University of Georgia low-wage workers. Despite Georgia’s anti-labor laws, the union victories build on a century of organizing unions made up of teachers, plumbing workers and farm workers who have proven that worker power works.

We want Georgia to be not only a great place to do business, but also a state considered the best place to work and start a family. We can get there by making guidelines that help workers build power. It is time for Georgian lawmakers to stand up for workers and put in place a new set of rules that promotes racial and economic justice by putting people first.