Georgia labor organizations dismayed as Legislature pushes anti-union bill

Labor organizers have described legislation moving through the Georgia General Assembly that would restrict union activity as “a solution in search of a problem.”

A priority of Gov. Brian Kemp, Senate Bill 362 would eliminate the ability for businesses to receive state economic development incentives if they voluntarily recognize unions through a check of signed union cards rather than through a secret-ballot election. Businesses would also be penalized if they share their workers’ contact information with unions, even though doing so is federally protected.

The bill would specifically prevent access to tax credits designed for mega-projects that create 1,000 or more jobs, such as Hyundai Motor Group’s electric-vehicle and battery plant in Savannah or Rivian’s electric-vehicle factory an hour east of Atlanta.

But given that Georgia does not currently have a particularly robust climate for union organizing, labor officials are scratching their heads at the potential new restrictions.

“No one has given a straight answer on why this bill is happening and what the hurry is,” said James Williams of the Georgia chapter of the AFL-CIO, the council of labor groups.

Under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act, workers have the right to form a union and collectively bargain for wages and working conditions without being fired.

Since the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, Georgia has been a right-to-work state, meaning that workers are not required to join a union or pay dues, even though they may benefit from contracts negotiated by a union with their employer. In 2023, just 5.4% of Georgia workers belonged to a union, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

When workers form a union, employers have two options: They can voluntarily recognize the union, based on a card check, or they can mandate that workers hold a secret-ballot election.

Union organizers typically wait for at least 70% of support from workers to present a request to employers as a show of overwhelming interest that would translate to approval of a union in a ballot election. Labor advocates favor voluntary recognition because it allows unions to begin negotiating with companies immediately, whereas ballot elections, they say, take longer to conduct and allow employers more time to deter workers from supporting a union.

State Sen. Mike Hodges, a Brunswick Republican and one of Kemp’s floor leaders who sponsored the bill, said this measure would not preempt federal law because employers could still choose to voluntarily recognize unions — they would just lose out on tax credits.

The aim of this bill, he said, is to prevent organizers from trying to “coerce, intimidate or harass employees publicly” into joining.

In testimony before the House Industry and Labor Committee, Vincent Vernuccio, a senior fellow at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a right-wing think tank based in Michigan, said “this is about protecting workers’ choice, privacy and right to decide confidentially if they want to be represented and want to be organized.”

However, a study from the pro-union Economic Policy Institute found that employers were charged with violating federal law, by using intimidation or threats, in 41.5% of cases between 2016 and 2017 when a company required a secret election. For organizing campaigns with more than 60 employees, that rate jumped to 54.4% of companies.

Workers who do experience harassment or intimidation can report their concerns to the National Labor Relations Board, which would investigate it as an unfair labor practice and issue a fine or another punishment against the organizing union.

A spokesperson for Kemp said the legislation is about “furthering our commitment to being a right-to-work state at a time when we are seeing big government and big labor threaten those commitments nationwide.” The governor’s office denied that motivation for the bill was in response to strikes held last year, including when members of the United Auto Workers, as well as actors and writers in Hollywood, joined picket lines.

If the bill becomes law, Georgia would follow other Southern states, such as South Carolina and Tennessee, that have enacted or supported similar legislation.

“This is an attack on our rights. It’s an attack on workers. It’s an attack on free agency to run a business,” said Stacey Mixson, a representative of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Macon.

Georgia used to employ thousands of union workers at a Ford plant in Hapeville and a General Motors factory in Doraville, but those closed in the mid-2000s. Today, Williams is concerned about the safety of Georgia workers in the automobile industry.

“One of the reasons we’re building up a fight to help these workers is because they’ve already had a fatality,” he said. A subcontractor died last year after falling from a building under construction at the Hyundai Metaplant site in Bryan County.

In a written statement, Hyundai defended its safety record.

“Hyundai maintains a very strong safety culture in all its operations, including at the Hyundai Motor Group Metaplant America (HMGMA) construction site and we have a full commitment to following Occupational Industrial Safety and Health policies,” said Hyundai spokesperson Michael Stewart.

SB 362, which passed the Senate, would head to a full House vote next.