Unions in Georgia oppose bill that would ban companies from voluntarily recognizing unions

A woman from a communications workers union in Georgia stood up on Feb. 22 and told a room full of workers from across the state that she had just gone to the state Capitol for the first time, motivated by her opposition to a bill that union organizers said would kill it make it difficult for workers to join a union.

Teachers, electricians, painters, glaziers, film crew members, public college employees and other workers shouted in response that they felt “strengthened,” “encouraged,” and “excited” by their own visits to the Gold Dome.

The meeting, held at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) headquarters in Atlanta, was a rousing continuation of a morning of lobbying Georgia House members against SB 362. The bill, sponsored by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, would prohibit employers that receive federal economic development incentives from voluntarily recognizing employee unions. It passed the state Senate on February 8 by a vote of 31-23 and is now before the House of Representatives.

The AFL-CIO organized the lobbying effort to convince Georgia lawmakers that the bill would harm workers. The organization, which includes the United Auto Workers (UAW), is the nation's largest umbrella organization of affiliated unions.

James Williams, secretary-treasurer of the Georgia AFL-CIO, said SB 362 “closes the path” to workplace unionization and is an example of “state government dictating relationships between companies and workers.”

Under federal labor law, if more than half of the workers in a workplace sign a card stating that they want to join a union, employers can recognize the union based solely on what is known as a “card check.”

But SB 362 would prohibit companies that receive government economic development incentives, such as tax breaks, from voluntarily recognizing a union — otherwise they would be forced to pay back any incentives they received. Instead, the proposed law would require the holding of a secret ballot conducted by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to determine whether workers can unionize – the federal procedure when an employer refuses to honor a card check.

According to Hannah Perkins, policy director for the Georgia AFL-CIO, SB 362 would violate the National Labor Relations Act. Allowing an employer to recognize a union once a majority of workers have indicated through a card check that they want to do so “is a federally protected right,” she said.

Perkins called Kemp's push for SB 362 and the Tennessee legislature's approval of a similar law last May a “testing ground.” Both appear to be versions of the Taxpayer Dollars Protect Workers Act, a standard piece of legislation drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative coalition of lawmakers and the private sector. Alabama and South Carolina have passed corresponding laws.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, most employers tend to wait on NLRB elections anyway, but in recent years more companies have been willing to recognize their employees' right to join a union without taking the extra step – including Microsoft and Major League Baseball.

In contrast, union representatives who organized Thursday's event told the Atlanta Civic Circle that SB 362 would only create more hurdles for workers trying to gain representation on issues such as pay, benefits and work schedules – through the time and cost of an election campaign.

“At the Capitol, we heard lawmakers say that this bill would 'protect workers from intimidation,'” said Perkins, the political director of the Georgia AFL-CIO. Instead, she said, the opposite is true: holding elections gives companies time to pressure their employees to vote against joining a union. “42 percent of employers will be accused of unfair labor practices in the run-up to the election,” she said — such as threatening workers, pressuring them in mandatory “audience meetings” or placing cameras near ballot boxes.

Union invasion of Georgia?

At a time of growing support for unions, the stakes could hardly be higher, with two-thirds of U.S. respondents in an August poll approving of them. Meanwhile, the UAW's new push to unionize Southeastern workers at Hyundai and Mercedes factories in Alabama and a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee is gaining traction. In the first two plants, more than 30% of workers have already signed union cards; In Tennessee, more than half have done so, the UAW recently announced.

Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey criticized the UAW's organizing efforts last month, using the tried-and-tested tactic of Southern politicians of calling union organizers “international interest groups.” Similarly, Henry McMaster, the Republican governor of South Carolina, recently called tourism unionization “infiltration.”

Following last fall's historic deal with the Big Three automakers, the UAW announced this week that it will spend $40 million on new organizing efforts focused on the South.

In Georgia, a successful union campaign made history last spring when more than 1,100 workers at the Blue Bird electric school bus factory in rural Fort Valley voted by a 62% margin to join the United Steelworkers. Since the 1960s, the company's employees have attempted to unionize.

The UAW is also seeking to unionize workers at electric vehicle and battery factories, which are expected to employ growing numbers of workers in Georgia. Battery maker Rivian expects to employ 7,500 workers at a new factory in Morgan and Walton counties for which the state has promised $700 million in tax breaks.

Georgia, like the rest of the South, has historically been unfriendly to unionization: Less than 5% of the state's workers belong to a union, the 10th lowest proportion in the country. But as the state attracts new manufacturing industries, the UAW and other unions are trying to change that.

Melanie Silverstein, political director of the Southeast District Council of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, said partisan politics could decide SB 362 in Georgia's majority-Republican Legislature.

Silverstein has been lobbying lawmakers for the proposed legislation for several weeks. “Behind closed doors,” she said, “there are Republican lawmakers who say they are not fans of the bill. But in committee meetings they say the opposite — because this is the governor’s bill.”

At the Georgia Chamber's annual Eggs and Issues Breakfast on January 10, 2024, Governor Kemp highlighted his plans to propose what he described as pro-business legislation, including today's SB 362. Learn more in this Instagram Reel.