Editor’s note: This article is part of Labor, Democracy & the Common Good, our series on workers’ rights and unions. It’s, in part, born out of our Democracy SOS fellowship, where we are one of 21 newsrooms across the country reimagining how media reports on critical issues facing our democracy. 

At a time of displeasure with the two-party political system, the Great Resignation, debates, about the future of work, and the reality that the American Dream is out of reach for too many of us and the next generation, it’s clear labor organizing is a topic worth reporting. 

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The unionization wave rapidly taking hold across the United States has attracted a good bit of media coverage, but most Georgians don’t know much about unions. That’s understandable in a state where less than 5% of the workforce is unionized. Here’s some background on the state of unions nationally and around Georgia.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s onset in 2020 sparked many workers’ desire to unionize, because they grew unhappy with working long hours on erratic schedules and risking their personal health and safety while watching many employers reap huge profits that were not shared.

Quite a few quit their jobs–and at a notably higher rate for non-union workers in 2020 than for people in unionized workplaces, according to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report. That caused the national unionization rate in 2020 to increase from 10.3% to 10.8%, although that gain dissipated in 2021 as larger numbers of workers returned to non-union jobs. 

“One thing we saw during COVID was if you had a union, you had a mechanism by which to advocate for yourself,” said labor expert Bob Bussel, the emeritus director of the University of Oregon’s Labor Education & Research Center. “You had a tool by which to try to improve your conditions, whereas a non-union worker just doesn’t have that.”

A desire for safer workplaces and improved, more consistent scheduling amid the lingering pandemic are two big drivers for the recent surge in unionization efforts, say workers who have been unionizing Starbucks’ branches, along with those trying to unionize, like Amazon warehouse workers and Delta flight attendants. Both nationally and in Georgia, workers are also saying they want better pay and benefits and more of a voice in job security, training. and other workplace issues.

Union elections, such as the successful ones this summer at the Howell Mill  and Ansley Mall Starbucks stores, are popping up all over Georgia. Other notable local union campaigns include one by Atlanta Apple employees at the Cumberland Mall store (temporarily on hold as they regroup) and a national push by flight attendants at Delta Air Lines, headquartered in Atlanta.

“I sometimes joke that there aren’t any workers in America anymore. Everybody’s either a partner or an associate–a crew member or a team member,” Bussel said, pointing out that this kind of language implies a sense of parity among workers and management. With the current unionization push, he added, “Workers are saying ‘We like the idea, but let’s make it genuine.’”

Though the United States has a long history of collective bargaining in the workplace, only 10.3% or 14 million U.S. workers were union members in 2021. That is only about half of the 20.1% union membership rate in 1981, with 17.7 million workers, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

While the national percentage of unionized workers dropped slightly in 2021, the unionization rate in Georgia inched up to 4.8%, from 4.6% in 2020. Still, Georgia is considerably behind states like Hawaii and New York, which had 24.1% union participation rates last year.

Unions in Georgia

Despite Georgia’s low unionization rate, the state has a richer history of labor activism than many realize.

Back in 1881, Atlanta laundresses, who were overwhelmingly Black women, started the Washing Society trade organization to get better pay and working conditions. They called a strike, joined by 3,000 laundresses, who withstood arrests, fines, and financial intimidation from municipal authorities to win higher pay in one of the city’s biggest industries.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which primarily represents trucking, airline, and rail workers, won their first Georgia contract in 1932. Atlanta sanitation workers in the Teamsters union successfully struck in 1968, 1970 and 1977 for better pay and working conditions. As recently as 2018, Atlanta sanitation workers in Teamsters’ Local 728 went on a one-day strike to win a new contract.

One reason Georgia’s union participation rate lags so far behind that of blue states like California, New York, and Washington Is because union membership is typically a lot lower in red states, due to more restrictive labor laws.

Another factor may be that many red states have fewer immigrants, who generally have pro-labor politics, Bussel said. What’s more, he added, laws allowing collective bargaining for public sector workers are rare in the South.

“I think there’s both cause and effect going on in the sense that blue states might tend to make it easier for workers to join and participate in unions. But it’s also that unions tend to make workers more blue-oriented, you might say,” said another workplace expert, Florida State University management professor Jack Fiorito.

Modern union examples

Unions may play a role in the lives of fewer workers now, but some Georgia industries have powerful unions. The United Auto Workers, the United Steelworkers, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers are still fighting for employee rights and benefits throughout Georgia.

Delta’s pilots are longtime members of the Air Line Pilots Association, but Delta remains the only major U.S. airline without a flight attendants union. However, a growing cadre of Delta flight attendants are organizing to join the national Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.

The state’s professional sports teams also are leading the way on collective bargaining. Atlanta Braves players and ownership helped negotiate a new labor deal in March between Major League Baseball and the league’s players union, the MLB Players Association.

The new deal puts more money in the players’ pockets in a variety of ways, including an increase in the minimum salary. It also improves competition throughout the league by introducing a new penalty for teams that spend significantly over the salary cap, and by expanding the number of playoff teams from 10 to 12.

“There’s a real sense of solidarity, particularly I think among baseball players, but other athletes as well, to that commitment to try to raise more for folks who are at the lower end [of the payscale],” Bussel said.

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