“Yes” from the union at Blue Bird: Employees of the Georgia bus manufacturer achieve great union success

September 11, 2023

The employees of the Georgian bus manufacturer Blue Bird Corp. voted in large numbers to join the USW this spring, a major organizing victory that garnered national attention for its remarkable success in the notoriously anti-union South.

It was the largest union organizing victory at a manufacturing plant in the region in 15 years.

“We are proud that Blue Bird employees have chosen to join our union,” said International President Tom Conway. “We are ready to help them negotiate a fair contract that takes into account their contribution to the company’s success.”

Preparations for negotiating this first contract were underway USW@Work went to print after the election of the unity negotiating committee in mid-June.

Strong voter turnout

A month earlier, more than 1,100 hourly workers at the plant participated in the Blue Bird election, with nearly two-thirds voting to join the USW.

For Blue Bird workers like Patrick Watkins, the union election, which took place over two days in May, was an opportunity for him and his colleagues to have a voice in the workplace and use the power of solidarity to address pressing concerns such as safety and health Workplace management, scheduling, work-life balance, and fair wages and benefits.

“We work hard and deserve fair pay, safe working conditions and respectful workplace treatment,” said Watkins, who was a member of the volunteer organizing committee. “It was clear that our only way forward was to take our future into our own hands – and that’s what we did when we voted to organize.”

Blue Bird, one of the largest bus manufacturers in the United States, employs nearly 1,500 hourly workers at the factory, located about 100 miles south of Atlanta in Fort Valley, Georgia, outside Macon.

The USW's decisive victory was further evidence that US workers are hungry for unions. A recent Gallup poll found that support for unions among U.S. workers is at 71 percent, a 57-year high.

“Yes” from the union at Blue Bird: Employees of the Georgia bus manufacturer achieve great union success

Federal funding

Until recently, however, this support has not been as evident in the Deep South, where so-called right-to-work laws and other anti-union laws are widespread and employers take full advantage of this environment, making the idea of ​​union organizing a success for many workers a particularly difficult and even frightening prospect.

In April, USW filed an unfair labor practice lawsuit, alleging that Blue Bird management violated federal labor laws when it monitored and interrogated workers and threatened to close the plant or freeze wages and benefits to prolong the bargaining process pull The workers voted to unionize.

Still, the company's anti-union rhetoric may have been somewhat tempered by the fact that the company, which makes low-emissions and electric vehicles, is receiving $280 billion in funding from the Biden administration's $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill , federal funds to receive CHIPS and Science Act to promote domestic semiconductor production and the Inflation Reduction Act, which provided $370 billion for clean energy initiatives.

The legislation included provisions intended to ensure that the laws would create good-paying jobs for American workers and that employers who received government assistance would not use the funds to block workers' efforts to unionize.

“Blue Bird stands to be a significant beneficiary of our nation's much-needed infrastructure investments,” said Daniel Flippo, director of District 9, whose district includes tens of thousands of USW members in Georgia and six other southern states as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands. “Blue Bird owes it to taxpayers to respect workers’ rights.”

Voices of support

President Joe Biden and other leaders also expressed support for Blue Bird workers. Georgia's two U.S. senators, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, called on the company in a letter to respect its workers' right to vote without interference.

U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, Georgia's 2ndnd Stacey Abrams, a voting rights activist and former Georgia state representative in the US congressional district, also reiterated the right of workers to unionize freely.

“I am a long-time supporter of the USW and its efforts to improve the working conditions and living standards of workers in Georgia and across the country,” Bishop wrote in a letter to workers. “For decades, unions have been an important voice for workers in their fight for fair wages, fair benefits and safe working conditions through collective bargaining.”

In a statement after the election, Biden said the Blue Bird result was just one example of what workers can achieve through his administration's investments in the future and its support for labor rights.

“The middle class built America, and unions built the middle class,” Biden said. “The workers at Blue Bird and similar companies across the country are proving that the future can and will be built in America. And union members will be a big part of that future.”

Organizing on the rise

Fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic and historic job-creating investments from Washington, workers across the country have ramped up union organizing and pro-worker actions in recent years.

“This is just a sign of things to come, especially in the South where working people have been ignored,” said AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler. “We are now at a point where we have the necessary investments and a strategy to increase wages and protections for a good future in road transport.”

With only 4.4 percent of the workforce belonging to unions, Georgia is one of the states with the lowest density of union members. Still, the Peach State has been the scene of increased union organizing in recent years.

In addition to Blue Bird, the NLRB in 2021 certified an election for about 350 workers at Kumho Tire in nearby Macon who voted to join the USW. The union also has several other active organizing campaigns in Georgia, South Carolina and other states in the region.

Craig Corbin, a Blue Bird employee and member of the volunteer organizing committee, said he repeatedly heard discouraging comments during the campaign from people who told him that forming a union in the South would be a nearly impossible task.

“I even heard I was going to lose my job,” he said. “But you do it in Fort Valley, you could do it anywhere in the South.”

Millions of workers in the South and across the country deserve the wages, benefits and security that unions provide, Flippo said, and, given true freedom of choice, would vote for them.

“Workers at places like Blue Bird represent the future in many ways,” he said. “They are the ones who make the investments in our infrastructure a reality, the ones who build safer, cleaner communities for generations to come.”