Georgia is trying to make it harder for workers at new electric vehicle factories to join unions

Sen. Mike Hodges, R-Brunswick, speaks in support of Senate Bill 362 at the Georgia State Capitol on February 8, 2024. Natrice Miller – Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

As Georgia shovels billions of dollars in economic incentives to electric vehicle manufacturers and other companies, the state's ruling Republicans are trying to make it harder for workers at those companies to join unions, which could violate federal law.

The state Senate voted 31-23 Thursday to approve a bill backed by Gov. Brian Kemp that would ban companies that accept government incentives from recognizing unions without a formal, secret ballot. This would prevent unions from voluntarily obtaining recognition from a company after enrolling a majority of workers, commonly referred to as a card check. Senate Bill 362 moves to the House of Representatives for further debate.

Labor leaders and Democrats argue that the bill violates the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which governs union organizing, by blocking part of federal law that allows companies to voluntarily recognize unions that show the support of a majority of workers .

“At the end of the day, voluntary recognition is a protected right, period,” said Hannah Perkins, political director of Georgia’s AFL-CIO, which has 500,000 members in the state. Only 4.4% of Georgia workers are union members, the eighth lowest share of any state.

The National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency responsible for union affairs, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Thursday.

Georgia's bill is modeled after a law passed in Tennessee last year, but there could be similar laws in many other states. The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council is promoting the idea. The nationwide push could also be a response to a decision last year by the Democratic-controlled NLRB that made it easier for unions to organize through card control.

Governors in other Southern states, traditionally hostile to organized labor, have spoken out against unions in recent weeks after the United Auto Workers announced a new push to organize non-union auto factories after several failed attempts.

Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey said her state's economic success is “under attack.” Henry McMaster, the Republican governor of South Carolina, told lawmakers in the country's least unionized state last month that organized labor posed such a threat that he would fight unions “to the gates of hell.”

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced his support for the bill in a January speech to the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, echoing the chamber's own agenda. He said the move would protect workers' “right to opportunity” from President Joe Biden's pro-union agenda and outside forces “that want nothing more than to grind the free market to a halt.”

Alabama and South Carolina are among five states that passed state constitutional amendments guaranteeing access to secret union ballots in 2010 or 2012. Like Tennessee, Indiana has passed a state law. The National Labor Relations Board challenged the Arizona amendment in court, but a federal judge declined to overturn it in 2012, saying it was too early to judge whether the state amendment conflicted with federal law.

Kemp and other Georgia Republicans argue that they are protecting workers from being pressured into joining unions by giving them the protection of a secret ballot.

“Why is it such bad policy to say if you're in the state of Georgia, you have a right to be protected, you have a right to choose whether or not to join a union, and you won't be bullied? “And you're not being blackmailed?” asked state Sen. Bo Hatchett, a Cornelia Republican whom Kemp appointed as one of his Senate caucuses.

But Democrats say the bill is really about making it harder for unions to organize and for companies to accept them. Most employers who oppose unions require their workers who vote to organize to attend mandatory anti-union meetings before a vote, which can result in workers voting against unions.

“All too often, employers engage in these scorched-earth campaigns against workers,” said state Sen. Nikki Merritt, a Democrat from Lawrenceville, who said a union contract protected her in her previous job. Like most Senate Democrats, Merritt wore a red bandana on Thursday as a symbol of union solidarity.

Condition. Sen. Mike Hodges, a Republican from Brunswick who supports the bill, denied that it would violate federal law.

“It does not prohibit a company’s employees from unionizing and does not require an employer to oppose unionization in any way,” said Hodges, another Kemp executive.

Hodges said he has a number of relatives who have been union members and understands “the value that union wages add to a lifestyle.”

“If I thought this bill was hurting unions or union members in any way, shape or form, I would not pass it,” Hodges said.

But Democrats said they think the bill is an attempt to attack federal labor law.

“They think they found a loophole, so they want this to be a test case,” said Sen. Jason Esteves, a Democrat from Atlanta. “They want the matter to go to court because they hope the Supreme Court will allow them to recuse themselves.”