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Workers at Georgia school bus manufacturer Blue Bird begin voting to form a union – WABE

Workers at Georgia school bus manufacturer Blue Bird begin voting to form a union – WABE

Workers at one of the country’s largest school bus makers in Georgia will begin voting Thursday on whether to be represented by a union — a chance for organized workers to make a profit in the stony soil of the Deep South.

More than 1,400 employees at Blue Bird Corp.’s two factories and warehouse. in Fort Valley will vote by Friday on whether to unionize under the United Steelworkers banner. This union represents more than 850,000 workers in various industries across the country.

Blue Bird workers have said they are demanding higher wages, a more regular schedule and better vacation and sick pay from the Macon-based public company, which has long been the largest employer in nearby Peach County.

“The company has forgotten the people,” pro-union worker Dee Thomas told WMAZ-TV. “We should be able to have some sort of say in things that we want. We are the ones working there, but they make all the decisions.”

But Blue Bird has met with workers to urge them to oppose unionization, a common tactic among employers, saying it is undesirable to use a union as an intermediary between the company and workers.

“Blue Bird believes that most employees do not want a union at Blue Bird facilities,” Julianne Barclay, a company spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

It is Blue Bird’s first serious attempt to form a union in decades. The United Auto Workers tried it in 2001, but withdrew their petition before a vote could take place, saying it did not have enough support. These efforts included a pro-union rally that was disrupted by anti-union workers.

Maria Somma, organizing director at United Steelworkers, says the majority of workers have signed a petition for an election this time, although the company says the final vote is crucial. Supporters often dwindle under anti-union pushes by employers.

“Only after the secret employee ballot will anyone know if a majority of the Blue Bird team wants a union,” Barclay said.

The proportion of unionized workers nationwide has been falling for decades, falling to 10.1% last year, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. And workers in the private sector are far less likely to be union members: only 6% pay dues.

Organized labor represents an even smaller portion of Georgia workers, with only 4.4% of workers unionized. That’s the eighth-lowest union rate in the country, which is part of a belt of southern and western states where workers and employers have long resisted unionization.

Union organizers at Blue Bird have filed formal complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that the company’s anti-union campaign exceeded legal limits and unduly threatened and harassed employees.

In the indictments filed last month, the union claimed that the company unlawfully stalked workers outside the plant, threatened to close the plant and warned it could freeze wages and benefits or not negotiate a contract fairly. The union alleges that Blue Bird also threatened workers that all local employers would ban pro-union workers from future jobs and that managers failed to properly consult workers on how they would vote.

The company declined to comment on the specific allegations, but denies doing anything improper or illegal.

“We have respected the rights of our employees and the USW at all times,” Blue Bird said in a statement.

US Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, both Democrats, wrote a joint letter to Blue Bird CEO Matt Stephenson on May 3 urging “free and fair elections.”

The NLRB will only resolve the complaints after the vote.

One problem is the payment. The company hires general workers at $16 an hour and says its average starting wage is $17.69 an hour. Workers say wages have not kept pace with inflation, pointing out that Blue Bird received $40 million in federal aid to build electric school buses.

Workers also say the company forces them to work overtime, making it difficult for them to plan their own schedules, but penalizes workers who take unplanned absences.

“We have an eight-hour work schedule, but we work too much. You never get out on time,” Thomas told WMAZ-TV. “People have families and want to spend time with their families.”

Barclay said absences can be excused if workers call at least an hour in advance, and sometimes later.

“Employees who are not present for scheduled work put unnecessary strain on their colleagues and result in costly rescheduling to meet customer demands,” she said.

The company and the pro-union workers also bicker over how much vacation and sick leave workers get, and share wildly different views on benefit levels.

“We think they just haven’t kept up with the times and workers felt like they didn’t have the opportunity to grow and perform well like the company did,” Somma said.