Union ‘Yes’ at Blue Bird: Workers at Georgia Bus Maker Achieve Major Organizing Victory

Workers at Georgia bus manufacturer Blue Bird Corp. voted in huge numbers this spring to join the USW, a major organizing victory that gained national attention for its remarkable success in the notoriously anti-union South.

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

“We’re proud that Blue Bird workers chose to join our union,” said International President Tom Conway. “We’re ready to help them bargain a fair contract that accounts for their contributions to the company’s success.”

Preparations were underway for bargaining that first contract as USW@Work went to press, following the election of the unit’s bargaining committee in mid-June.

Strong Turnout

A month earlier, more than 1,100 of the plant’s hourly workers participated in the election at Blue Bird, with nearly two-thirds voting in favor of joining the USW.

For Blue Bird workers like Patrick Watkins, the union election, held over two days in May, was an opportunity for himself and his colleagues to gain a voice on the job and to use the power of solidarity to address urgent concerns including workplace safety and health, scheduling, work-life balance, and fair wages and benefits.

“We work hard, and we deserve fair pay, safe working conditions and to be treated with respect on the job,” said Watkins, who served on the volunteer organizing committee. “It was clear that our only path 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 that sits about 100 miles south of Atlanta in Fort Valley, Ga., outside Macon.

The USW’s decisive victory was further evidence that U.S. workers are hungry for unions. A recent Gallup Poll showed approval of unions among U.S. workers at 71 percent, a 57-year high.

Federal Funding

Until recently, however, that support was not as evident in the Deep South, where so-called right-to-work laws and other anti-union statutes are widespread, and employers take full advantage of that environment, making the idea of unionization a particularly difficult and even scary prospect for many workers.

In April, the USW filed unfair labor practice charges alleging that Blue Bird management broke federal labor law when it engaged in surveillance and interrogation of workers, as well as in threatening to close the plant or freeze pay and benefits to drag out the bargaining process if workers voted to unionize.

Still, the company’s anti-union rhetoric may have been somewhat muted by the fact that the company, which produces low-emission and electric vehicles, is slated to receive an infusion of federal funding through the Biden administration’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure law, the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act to boost domestic production of semiconductors, and the Inflation Reduction Act, which included $370 billion for clean energy initiatives.

The legislation included provisions intended to make sure that the laws would result in good-paying jobs for American workers, and that employers who received federal support would not use the funds to block workers’ efforts to unionize.

“Blue Bird stands to be a significant beneficiary of the much-needed investment in our nation’s infrastructure,” said District 9 Director Daniel Flippo, 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 made a point of voicing support for the Blue Bird workers. Georgia’s two U.S. senators, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, wrote a letter calling on the company to respect its workers’ right to vote without interference.

U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, from Georgia’s 2nd Congressional District, and voting rights activist and former Georgia State Rep. Stacey Abrams, also reinforced workers’ right to pursue unionization without interference.

“I have been a longtime supporter of the USW and its efforts to improve labor conditions and living standards for workers in Georgia and across the nation,” Bishop wrote in a letter to workers. “For decades, unions have served as an important voice for workers in their fight for fair wages, fair benefits, and safe working conditions via collective bargaining.”

In a statement following 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 at companies just like it all over the country, are proving the future can and will be built in America. And union workers will be a big part of that future.”

Organizing on the Rise

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

“This is just a bellwether for the future, particularly in the South, where working people have been ignored,” said AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler. “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.”

With only 4.4 percent of its labor force belonging to unions, Georgia is among the states with the lowest density of union workers. Still, in recent years, the Peach State has been the scene of increased labor organizing.

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 throughout the area.

Blue Bird worker Craig Corbin, a member of the volunteer organizing committee, said that he consistently heard discouraging comments during the campaign from people telling him that organizing a union in the South was a nearly impossible task.

“I even heard I’m 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 offer, Flippo said, and, when given true freedom to choose, will vote for them.

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

Press Inquiries

Media Contacts

Communications Director:
Jess Kamm at 412-562-6961

USW@WORK (USW magazine)
Editor R.J. Hufnagel

For industry specific inquiries,
Call USW Communications at 412-562-2442

Mailing Address

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