Labor, Democracy & the Common Good

About one in 10 U.S. workers is in a union. In Georgia, the rate is less than one in 20. 

Nationwide, public employees lead in union participation. Across the country, about one in three teachers, librarians, other educators, cops, prison guards and firefighters carry a union card, according to 2021 federal numbers

But Georgia law takes some of the shine off solidarity for public sector unions.

In Georgia, teachers and cops can join professional groups like the Georgia Association of Educators or the International Brotherhood of Police Officers. And those groups can lobby or ask for better employment conditions. 

But those groups can’t build the kind of muscle that unions do.

In Georgia, any police officer, educator or state employee who goes on strike has quit their job, according to state law.  So there goes a union’s most iconic action.

Collective bargaining — having a union negotiate wages, hours and working conditions on behalf of all its members — is off limits for Georgia teachers and cops. (Oddly, firefighters can have such a deal, and a national union is working on getting more folks in red to follow Atlanta’s lead and activate their collective bargaining rights.) 

And Georgian cannot be made to join a union when they join a workplace — it’s a “right to work” state. 

So that leaves a worker in a unionized workplace with a good question: Why join the union and pay dues if there’s an option to get all the benefits with none of the cost?

That may be good for an individual worker, but in aggregate, the law means unions will have fewer members, less money and less say.

Editor’s note: Follow along on this series Labor, Democracy & the Common Good, our series on workers’ rights and unions. It’s born, in part, 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. 

If you have story ideas, scoops, or would like to learn more about the Labor, Democracy & the Common Good series, please reach out to our newsroom. We welcome your feedback.

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