A new film and books about organizer and strategist Bayard Rustin bring attention to the crucial, hidden tradition of practical radicalism.
Workers at Blue Bird Corporation in Fort Valley, Georgia, launched a union drive to secure better wages, work-life balance, and a voice on the job.
The company resisted them. History defied them. Geography worked against them.
But they stood together, believed in themselves, and achieved a historic victory that’s reverberating throughout the South.
About 1,400 workers at the electric bus manufacturer voted overwhelmingly this spring to join the United Steelworkers (USW), reflecting the rise of collective power in a part of the country where bosses and right-wing politicians long contrived to foil it.
“It’s just time for a change,” explained Rinardo Cooper, a member of USW Local 572 and a paper machine operator at Graphic Packaging in Macon, Georgia.
Cooper, who assisted the workers at Blue Bird with their union drive, expects more Southerners to follow suit even if they face their own uphill battles.
Many corporations choose to locate in the South because low union density enables them to pay poor wages and skimp on safety. Georgia has one of the nation’s lowest union membership rates, just 4.4 percent. North Carolina’s is even lower, at 2.8 percent. And South Carolina’s is 1.7 percent.
In a 2019 study, the AFL-CIO found that even European-based companies with good records in their home countries take advantage of workers they employ in America’s South.
They’ve “interfered with freedom of association, launched aggressive campaigns against employees’ organizing attempts, and failed to bargain in good faith when workers choose union representation,” noted the report, citing Volkswagen’s union-busting efforts at a Tennessee plant among other abuses.
The consequences are dire. States with low union membership have significantly higher poverty, according to a 2021 study. Georgia’s 14 percent poverty rate, for example, is among the worst in the country.
But the tide is turning, observed Cooper, who left his own job at Blue Bird before the union win because the grueling schedule left him little time to spend with family. Now as a union paper worker, he not only makes higher wages but also benefits from safer working conditions and a voice on the job.
Cooper’s story helped inspire the bus company workers’ quest for better lives. They resolved to fight for their fair share as Blue Bird increasingly leans on their knowledge, skills, and dedication in the coming years.
The company stands to land tens of millions in subsidies from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill and other federal programs aimed at putting more electric vehicles on the roads, supercharging the manufacturing economy, and supporting good jobs.
These goals are inextricably linked, as Biden made clear in a statement congratulating the bus company workers on their USW vote. “The fact is: The middle class built America,” he said. “And unions built the middle class.”
Worker power is spreading across numerous industries in the South.
About 500 ramp agents, truck drivers, and other workers at Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina voted to form a union in May. So did first responders in Virginia and utility workers in Georgia and Kentucky earlier this year.
As Blue Bird workers prepare to negotiate their first contract, Cooper hopes to get involved in other organizing drives, lift up more workers, and continue changing the trajectory of the South.
“We just really need to keep putting the message out there, letting people know that there is a better way than what the employers are wanting you to believe,” he said.