Blue Bird workers vote to join Steelworkers union

Leadership changes on Monday see CEO Matt Stevenson out, replaced by retired CEO Phil Horlock

Blue-collar workers at the Blue Bird Corp. factory in Fort Valley, one of the nation’s premier bus manufacturers, voted late last week to unionize, one of the largest victories in years for organized labor in Georgia.

The roughly 1,400 factory employees will join the United Steelworkers.

The company, one of the state’s best-known manufacturers, did not respond Monday to an inquiry from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In contrast, union officials were quick to crow about the triumph.

“We’re ready to help them bargain a fair contract that accounts for their contributions to the company’s success,” said Tom Conway, president of the United Steelworkers International, in a statement.

Blue Bird, the largest employer in Peach County, is poised to accelerate into a new era of low-emission and electric vehicles. Blue Bird is, as reported in the AJC’s Morning Jolt political newsletter, a key recipient of funding from recently passed federal legislation aimed fueling the electric vehicle industry.

The legislation includes more than $10 billion for clean public transit and school buses nationally, much of it targeted to replacing existing school buses with zero-emission and low-emission models. Also, Georgia schools have been awarded $50.8 million to buy buses, while communities in the state are receiving $31 million to purchase transit buses, according to a release from the White House.

“Workers at places like Blue Bird in many ways embody the future,” said Dan Flippo, director of Steelworkers Union’s District 9, which represents 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.”

Workers said they want higher pay, more dependable schedules and better benefits. Among positions listed for Blue Bird this week on job site Glassdoor were forklift operator from $37,000, paint specialist from $32,000 and a general laborer at $31,000.

With unemployment low and many companies struggling to find and keep employees, the past several years have seen a much-hyped wave of organizing in a number of high-profile companies — some successful, some not. And while a group of Starbucks stores in Georgia have voted to organize, the Blue Bird vote carried many more workers into the ranks of organized labor all at once.

The vote was 697 to 435 in favor of joining the union.

In the company’s recent annual report, Matthew Stevenson, at the time the chief executive, forecast that this year’s results would likely be “dramatically better” than last year’s. Orders for buses, he wrote, were expected to rise by 17%.

But Stevenson left Blue Bird on Monday morning, the company announced. He was replaced by Phil Horlock, who had been CEO until announcing his retirement in 2021.

It was not known whether either Stevenson’s unexpected departure or Horlock’s return were related to the union vote. The company’s announcement said Stevenson was leaving “for personal reasons.”

Blue Bird stock in the past year has traded as low as $7.37 a share, a mark reached in October. Its year-high was Friday, when it crested at $27.52. Blue Bird finished the trading day Monday at $23.61 a share.