The pandemic-fueled Apple union motion is unlikely to spur a right-to-work pattern in Georgia

By Ray Glier, Georgia Recorders [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]
May 11, 2022

Business is brisk at the Apple Store in the Cumberland Mall on a Thursday afternoon. Judging by the behavior of the staff, there is not a hint of dissatisfaction among the retail workers. Before you can walk from the front of the store to the back of the store, three cheerful Apple employees want to know how they can help you.

It doesn’t have the Hollywood look of a sweat shop begging for collective bargaining by workers. Apple says it pays workers at least $20 an hour and the local culture seems lively.

Still, Apple workers at the Cumberland Mall location will hold a public vote June 2-4 on whether to bargain collectively with the company under the Communications Workers of America banner.

The legal and persuasive weight of Apple, the world’s most valuable company, is impressive, but it’s not the antagonist workers should be most concerned about.

This is the South, and the South has been unfriendly to organized labor for decades.

“I think a key point about unionizing is that the political landscape of each state is very different,” said Matt Knepper, an assistant professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business.

“They’re more work-friendly in the Northeast. And most importantly for unions, the states in the Northeast by and large have no right-to-work laws. In the South, particularly the Southeast, right-to-work laws are widespread.”

Georgia passed its Right to Work Act in 1947, which prevents a union from requiring non-members to pay dues as a condition of employment. The “free riders” mean the union has less funding and less influence, Knepper said, so it has historically been more difficult to organize unions in states with the right to work.

“I’d be surprised if this unionism that’s sweeping parts of the country holds up in a state like Georgia,” Knepper said.

According to data from the National Labor Relations Board, unionization requests in the US have increased by 57% over the past six months. But partisan politics that permeate every corner of society can quell the seeping labor movement, particularly south of the Mason-Dixon line, but also north of it.

The South is dominated by Republican-leaning voters, and Gallup polling data shows that while 56% of union members nationwide identify as Democrats, only 39% of union members identify as Republicans. Consider that in Republican-rich states like South Carolina and Alabama, and in a battleground state like Georgia, the percentage of Republicans posing as pro-union is even lower.

Just examine the union ballot at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, Amazon (failed) and the union ballot at Starbucks in a large Northeast city, Buffalo, NY (succeeded). Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, NY, opposed unionizing, which is not surprising given that Republican Donald Trump defeated Joe Biden in the 2020 New York borough presidential election with more than 62% of the vote.

Gallup said in an article on its website, “Similar to recent data on union members’ political affiliations, exit polls show union households voted by a 17 percentage point margin for Biden over Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.”

There is deep indoctrination among conservatives that unions are synonymous with communism.

Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that the percentage of workers represented by a union in Georgia fell from 6.5% to 5.8% from 2020 to 2021. In 1999, 9% of workers were unionised. But Georgia’s organized workforce is still not as tenuous as South Carolina, where 2% of wage earners are unionized. Only six states had fewer unionized workers than Georgia in 2021, and five of those states were in the South.

For decades, Georgia was home to unionized auto plants where assembly line workers assembled Ford and General Motors vehicles. The Ford plant closed in 2006 and the General Motors assembly in Doraville closed shortly thereafter in 2008.

While they were open, there was still enough union activity in Georgia that you might see unionized United Parcel Service drivers refusing to cross a picket line to deliver packages to the GM plant. Today, the unions are far less visible, save for the occasional picket line by airline pilots at Atlanta Airport.

Here’s the key takeaway from the Gallup analysis and whether unionization could be creeping into these states with the right to work all around us:

“Views about unions do not significantly divide rich and poor, the highly educated and the less educated, or women and men. Views about unions are largely a factor in the underlying political and ideological orientation of the individual.”

It is not surprising, then, that the Georgia AFL-CIO backed a Democrat, Senator Jen Jordan, in the upcoming Attorney General election.

Beth Allen, a CWA spokeswoman, said Apple was “running an anti-union campaign.” She said the company is holding “mandatory” meetings to tell workers why they shouldn’t join a union. According to a memo from Jennifer Abruzzo, general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, these meetings with captive audiences constitute a violation of labor law.

This is where someone like Jordan, a Democrat, could step in as the state’s chief police officer and take a closer look at these mandatory meetings. Chris Carr, the incumbent she would challenge if he survives the May 24 GOP primary, would likely never do such a thing.

In addition, Biden is pushing for the PRO Act, or protection of the right to organize. The PRO Act would repeal the right to work in 27 states. Georgian US Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock support the PRO Act.

Conservatives stress that the right to work is a key reason national and international companies are flocking to the South. Thomas J. Holmes of the University of Minnesota and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis wrote a widely circulated paper in 1998 stating that “when you cross a state line from a hostile state ( No right-to-work laws) to a pro-business state (right-to-work laws in place).

But that was at a time when manufacturing was gaining a foothold in the economy. Critics claim that companies in states like Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina are coming because of the huge tax incentives on offer, not right-to-work laws.

And according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, nine quality-of-life measures were used to rank the 50 states, and eight of the ten worst states on quality of life are right-to-work, while eight of the top 10 are not.

The tight labor market, with an unemployment rate of 3.6% (the lowest in 50 years for all but two months) could help, but also hamper, unionisation. Companies have had to raise wages and benefits to attract workers, which some argue reduces the need for a union. At the same time, workers have a rising power and are beginning to voice concerns about their rising status.

Allen, the CWA spokeswoman, said Apple workers at the Cumberland Mall are rallying more than any other reason for issues related to the pandemic-created union shadow.

“Apple retail associates have turned up in person during the pandemic, putting their health and well-being at risk,” Allen said in an email. “The company’s employees were now able to work from home and had more say in their general working conditions.

“Workers want the kind of workplace voice and lasting change in working conditions that they can achieve by joining a union and bargaining for a collective agreement.”

According to the CWA, the union movement includes Apple salespeople, technicians, creatives and operations specialists. As of April 20, 70% of the more than 100 eligible workers had signed union authorization cards.

Speaking through the CWA media office, Derrick Bowles, Apple Genius worker and Cumberland Mall union member, said: “Some of us have been here for many years and we don’t think you stay in a place that you don’t love. Apple is a deeply positive place to work, but we know the company can do better to live up to its ideals, so we look forward to working with our colleagues to bring Apple to the negotiating table and make this an even better place to work .”

Less than a mile from the Apple Store at Cumberland Mall, at the Atlanta Braves clubhouse in Truist Park, shortstop Dansby Swanson spoke about what makes the Major League Baseball Players Association the strongest union in all sports. A month after players returned to work this spring after being locked out by owners, Swanson said the key to the players union’s success is to pour the opinions of 1,500 players into one funnel and have one vote to come out the other end. There are certainly several opinions, he said, but one vote.

It was words of caution for retail workers. Don’t force opinions at each other’s throats to reach a collective agreement.

“Unanimous thinking is dangerous, and I think the more you put all those opinions together and come out with one voice, the more important it is to just have unanimous consensus,” Swanson said. “I feel like there is such beauty and freedom of thought and expression in people, and I feel like our union is doing such a good job of getting the opinions of 1,500 people and being able to have them in to join in one voice. We all put our feelings aside at the end of the day and stand up for one another.”

Ultimately, however, a unified voice from a union cannot match the unified opposition of conservative voters and the lawmakers they represent.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. If you have any questions, contact the editor, John McCosh: Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.