Steelworkers win vote at Blue Bird bus plant in Georgia
Matthew Pearson/WABE via AP

FORT VALLEY, Ga.–In a big win for the Steelworkers and a big break in the normally union-hostile South, workers at the Blue Bird school bus company plant in rural Fort Valley, Ga., voted for the union on May 12, 697-435. The bargaining unit would cover 1,350 workers, the National Labor Relations Board reports. Total employment at the plant is 2,400.

The win is notable for several reasons. Besides being in the South—hostile to unions in general—it’s in the rural South, Peach County, as opposed to its cities, notably Atlanta. The second is that, when a first contract is reached, Blue Bird would become one of the largest unionized firms in that region. It’s also the Peach County’s largest employer.

And the third is, as Harvard’s OnLabor  blog pointed out, Blue Bird, via county school systems,  receives federal funds to build electric school buses, which is what workers at the Fort Valley plant will manufacture. Those funds came with a key federal condition the Biden administration and Congress wrote into the applicable law: Company neutrality during union organizing drives.

Key issues in the 18-month organizing drive were better pay, better working conditions, and company refusal to fix problems inside the plant when workers brought them up to bosses, workers told WMAZ-TV of Macon.

After all, 10-year worker Dee Thomas pointed out, it’s a little hard to put together a school bus at your factory when a thunderstorm hits and it’s raining inside the plant, too.

“When it rains, it rains inside the building. If we get sent home during that time, we don’t get no pay. You just go home,” Thomas told the station’s interviewer.

Had a fire alarm that failed

“Recently, we had a fire back there, and they (workers) pulled the fire alarm and it didn’t go off. We didn’t even have to come outside, we just kept working.”

“We work hard, and we deserve fair pay, safe working conditions and to be treated with respect on the job,” Blue Bird worker and volunteer organizer Patrick Watkins told the Steelworkers. “It was clear that our only path forward was to take our future into our own hands–and that’s what we did today when we voted to organize.”

The conditions that came with the federal funds helped the organizing drive, Harvard’s Will Ebeler reported. Seven county school districts in rural Georgia received a total of about $8 million in fiscal 2022, which ended that Sept. 30, and ordered around 40 electric school buses from Blue Bird, Environmental Protection Agency records show.

EPA conditions the grants on mandating any transportation company that gets funds, through the districts, “to report whether it has committed to labor neutrality or voluntary recognition and explain the benefits it offers to employees,” Ebeler said.

“And under last year’s infrastructure bill, federal money can’t be used to suppress a union election.” In other words, no union-busting.

Which didn’t stop Blue Bird bosses from harassing pro-union workers and warning the company “could go bankrupt if the union won,” workers told the Macon TV station. That led to the Steelworkers filing labor law-breaking—formally called unfair labor practices—charges with the NLRB two months ago.

Blue Bird spokespeople told the station unionizing would “inject” a labor union and cause “outside interference” in direct communication with workers—a standard corporate line bosses use to keep control.

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

“Workers at places like Blue Bird in many ways embody the future,” said USW District 9 Director Dan Flippo, whose district covers workers in Georgia and six other Southern states. “They’re the ones who are making the investments in our infrastructure a reality, the ones who are building the safer, cleaner communities for generations to come.”

“For too long corporations cynically viewed the South as a place where they could suppress wages and working conditions because they believed they could keep workers from unionizing,” Flippo said. “Our union has a long history of fighting on behalf of workers in the South and across the country. Now as members of the USW, workers at Blue Bird have the same opportunity to make positive changes in their workplace.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.