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Big Victory in Southern Unionism


The South has always been the biggest problem in American unionism. In short, it’s extremely hard to organize there for a number of reasons, including but not only race. But yesterday saw a rare victory and one that demonstrates the absolutely critical point that unions have almost always have only won in this nation when the government plays a neutral role in union issues rather than assists the employer.

Workers at a rural Georgia factory that builds electric school buses under generous federal subsidies voted to unionize on Friday, handing organized labor and Democrats a surprise victory in their hopes to turn huge new infusions of money from Washington into a union beachhead in the Deep South.

The company, Blue Bird in Fort Valley, Ga., may lack the cachet of Amazon or the ubiquity of Starbucks, two other corporations that have attracted union attention. But the 697-to-435 vote by Blue Bird’s workers to join the United Steelworkers was the first significant organizing election at a factory receiving major federal funding under legislation signed by President Biden.

“This is just a bellwether for the future, particularly in the South, where working people have been ignored,” Liz Shuler, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said Friday evening after the vote. “We are now in a place where we have the investments coming in and a strategy for lifting up wages and protections for a good high-road future.”

The three bills making up that investment include a $1 trillion infrastructure package, a $280 billion measure to rekindle a domestic semiconductor industry and the Inflation Reduction Act, which included $370 billion for clean energy to combat climate change.

What role did the Biden administration play here?

Blue Bird stands to benefit from the new federal funds. Last year, it hailed the $500 million that the Biden administration was providing through the infrastructure bill for the replacement of diesel-powered school buses with zero- and low-emission buses. Georgia school systems alone will get $51.1 million to buy new electric buses, but Blue Bird sells its buses across the country. Still more money will come through the Inflation Reduction Act, another law praised by the company.

But that money came with strings attached — strings that subtly tilted the playing field toward the union. Just two weeks ago, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency, which administers the Clean School Bus Program, pushed a demand on all recipients of federal subsidies to detail the health insurance, paid leave, retirement and other benefits they were offering their workers.

They also required the companies to have “committed to remain neutral in any organizing campaign and/or to voluntarily recognize a union based on a show of majority support.” And under the rules of the infrastructure bill, no federal money may to be used to thwart a union election.

This is being spun as being “pro-union.” But it really isn’t. It’s pro-union neutrality. It allows workers to have a choice. It only prohibits the government money from actively union busting. But in America, this is like some sort of red wave of Marxism or something.

In any case, this is a huge victory for the Steelworkers and while I need to see more to say anything fundamental has changed in the South, this definitely helps.

It also helps to have the first Democratic president in my lifetime who actually cares about unions.

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