If Georgians want to live in a truly democratic society, then their public sector workplaces should be democratic too. That was one of the messages expressed—sometimes loudly—at a rally Tuesday afternoon at Liberty Plaza by a coalition of union organizers, activists, and pro-labor elected officials.
Members of United Campus Workers of Georgia (UCWGA) and the Democratic Socialists of America’s Atlanta chapter lobbied lawmakers to pass SB 166, a Democrat-sponsored bill that would grant Georgia’s 680,000 public sector employees, including University System of Georgia workers, collective bargaining rights over things like wages, health care benefits, and workplace conditions.
“We are calling on the Georgia State Legislature to do what’s right and reverse their anti-worker policies, so that public workers can take back their seat at the table and legally advocate for their rights in the workplace,” Kelsea Bond, an Atlanta DSA co-chair, told a group of about 50 supporters just outside the state Capitol.
Georgia is one of a handful of states that permits state, county, and municipal workers to join unions, but prevents the unions from bargaining on their behalf.
It’s no coincidence, advocates say, that the state is among the bottom nationally in average salaries for government workers. According to job data from ZipRecruiter, the average Peach State government worker earns just $29,847—second to last in the nation.
Overall, government employees earn about 21% less than private sector employees in Georgia, “suggesting that Georgia considerably underpays its public employees in comparison to other states,” says a labor studies report released by Morehouse College in September.
Sen. Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta), one of nine state Senators sponsoring SB 166, called Georgia’s ban on collective bargaining “shameful.”
“Of course we should have collective bargaining for public employees, and we can point to places in the nation that have enjoyed that basic right to organize, have dignity and a voice on the job and negotiate for their demands,” Orrock said.
Organizers of the Feb. 28 rally say Democrats in the Legislature whom they’ve met with about the bill are “very enthusiastic” in their support, but it’s been difficult to get Republicans to respond. “We’re still working on talking with Republican legislators about dispelling some of their views about why public sector collective bargaining wouldn’t be a good thing,” said Heather Pincock, an associate professor at Kennesaw State University.
In his first term, Gov. Brian Kemp delivered $5,000 in one-time cost-of-living pay raises to teachers and other state employees, and he promised $2,000 more for 2023 at his January inauguration. “From the classroom to the state patrol, if you want to keep good people in jobs critical to the safety and wellbeing of our children, our communities, and the state as a whole, we must be willing to be competitive with state salaries,” Kemp said.
That’s good, but far from good enough, said Pincock. “Inflation and the cost of living keep rising in Cobb County and the greater Atlanta area, yet wages have remained stagnant.”
“Our pay is just not keeping up,” she said.
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