UAW targeting South, Georgia as part of new union drive

No longer seen as impossible, organizing gets traction as labor shortage gives workers more bargaining power and public views soften on unions

For decades, union power in the auto industry has been in reverse, and in the South, it hasn’t gotten traction at all, but the United Auto Workers has vowed to get organized labor back into the fast lane.

The UAW in late February committed $40 million to an organizing drive aimed at non-union workers at auto and battery plants, especially in the South, targets that include large Georgia factories — some in operation, some still being built.

How much of that is in play?

“All of it,” said UAW spokesman Josh Furman. “It’s a national fund and there is a major Georgia component,”

The ambitious plans represent a high-speed turnaround from decades in which the once powerful union’s membership and clout shrunk.

Plants closed — most of them unionized factories owned by long-time U.S. companies whose share of the market was shrinking. Most were in the north, but two of those shuttered were in metro Atlanta: a General Motors plant in Doraville and a Ford factory in Hapeville.

The auto industry did grow, but with non-union factories — mostly in the South.

In Georgia, a few years after the Detroit-owned closures, Korea-based Kia opened a huge plant in West Point, a factory that remains non-union. Throughout the South, other Asian and European companies were opening their own manufacturing facilities.

All were non-union, although those companies were unionized at home.

Representatives of Rivian and Kia declined comment. But Hyundai, Kia’s parent company, recently reached a contract with the union representing more than 26,600 Korean members, boosting pay by about 12%.

“Hyundai has a history of productive relationships with unions,” the company said in a statement. “For Hyundai’s operations in the U.S., the decision to be represented by a union is up to our team members.”

Still, employees do better when they have “direct and communications with management,” the statement said.

ELLABELL, GA. - JUNE 5, 2023: Large cranes and heavy earth-moving equipment work a construction site at the Hyundai Metaplant site, Monday, July 5, 2023, in Ellabell, Ga. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

The United Auto Workers shrank from 1.5 million members to 380,000 — even while the industry grew. Sporadic attempts at unionization in the South — including two high-profile, intense organizing efforts at the Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga — sputtered and stalled out.

But now, the union engine has new fuel.

Experts give a mix of reasons for the change: a labor shortage that gives workers more bargaining power, a pandemic in which blue-collar workers kept the economy moving, demographics that have brought younger, more progressive employees into the workplace and a general softening of public views on unions.

“Workers are increasingly recognizing the value of having a collective voice to negotiate the terms of their employment,” said Tara Furiani, a human resources consultant. “That’s especially true in an industry on the brink of major technological and structural shifts — and they aren’t staying silent.”

A series of labor actions led to some high-profile victories. In Georgia, that included employees at a half-dozen Starbucks stores, bus drivers at Georgia Tech, graduate students at Emory, assembly line workers at Blue Bird, the Fort Valley-based bus maker.

Meanwhile, Teamsters negotiated a generous contract with Sandy Springs-based UPS.

The UAW used innovative, targeted walk-outs to win much of what they wanted in new contracts at General Motors, Ford and Stellantis. Coming off that victory, the UAW made clear they would go after many of the non-union plants.

The leverage of the UAW contract wins was clear. Implicitly, most non-union companies agreed, raising wages for their workers in the hopes of neutralizing resentment that could have nourished a union drive.

It didn’t keep the UAW from getting its campaign in gear. In recent weeks, the union said it had majority support at Volkswagen, followed by similar announcements at Hyundai in Montgomery and at Mercedes-Benz in Vance, Ala.

Absent an unexpected challenge, union votes are likely at those plants.

“If you had asked me three or four years ago, I’d have said that the chances for winning were slim and none,” said Arthur Wheaton, director of labor studies for Cornell University’s school of industrial relations. “But their likelihood of success has gone up a great deal.”

Getting the majority to sign cards in favor of a vote does not mean the UAW will win a vote. During the VW campaigns, company management kept quiet, but state and local politicians loudly lobbied against the union.

If there’s a vote at a big Georgia plant, there will be a political backlash, said Wheaton. “I would guarantee it. It’s against the law for Hyundai and Kia to interfere with a union election, but the law wasn’t written to protect you from Congressmen and public officials.”

Georgia has a long history of cultural, political and legal obstacles to unionization. Legislators now are considering a bill that would effectively forbid the card signature campaigns that the UAW just waged at Hyundai and VW at companies that have received certain state tax breaks and other incentives and instead require secret ballot voting at those factories, or else the companies would be forced to repay those incentives. Hyundai and Rivian both received hundreds of millions of dollars in state incentives to locate their factories in Georgia.

So even with a slice of that $40 million, UAW organizers in Georgia are headed uphill, said Aron Solomon, chief strategy officer for Amplify, a legal and marketing consulting company.

“Success in organizing non-union plants in the South — especially Georgia — remains a seriously big job,” he said.

When it comes to the auto industry, that job has repeatedly been too big. But if the UAW wants to grow, it has little choice but to take on the task.

The mission is especially tough with plants like Kia or new factories like Rivian and Hyundai, where auto workers are already paid better than most others in the community, said Dan Bowling, visiting professor at the Georgia State College of Law. “The community is important and those are areas of the country that are hostile to unions. I just think they are going to have a hard time.”

Yet the UAW can point to its triumphant deal with Detroit automakers last fall, he said. “That is certainly a weapon they didn’t have before. They have a story to tell.”

Even better for UAW prospects in Georgia would be pro-union votes at auto plants in nearby states, Bowling said. “They could get a foot in the door if they could organize one, two or three plants and get some fat contracts. I think there are a lot of obstacles. But I wouldn’t say it’s impossible.”

Cox Enterprises, the parent company of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, also owns about a 4% stake in Rivian.