Despite low union membership, Georgia unions are flexing their muscle

Over a thousand of union members and supporters packed into Teamsters 728's Union Hall to rally in support of SAG-AFTRA on Tuesday, August 22, 2023. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Although Georgia has long been a place where efforts to advocate for worker’s rights have been historically unsuccessful, labor unions throughout the state seem to have picked up steam this summer.

Christi Hulme, president of the Savannah Regional Central Labor Council, believes that the newfound interests in unions may be a sign of a culture change for a state typically unfriendly to organized labor.

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“I was so happy to see that we’re finally getting success stories,” she said. “Instead of hearing how we lost this or we lost that, we’re winning. And people are starting to recognize unions … that unions are still needed [and] they continue to be needed.”

Georgia, which has over 200,000 union workers, saw numerous labor movements push for better pay and working conditions throughout 2023, including a victory for the Teamsters at Atlanta-based UPS, with the shipping company agreeing to one of the largest contracts in the union’s history.

Earlier this year, Atlanta Teamsters members picketed UPS in a fight for fairer wages and working conditions. (Marlon Hyde/WABE)

Ian Scmutte, a labor economist with the University of Georgia, says that the influx we see in union influence here is a combination of social and economic pressures.

“In the post-pandemic era, we had tight labor markets for the first time in over a decade since the financial crisis,” he said. “Workers are trying to find ways to lock in whatever gains they’ve sort of had over the last couple of years.”

Despite recent union wins, the state ranks eighth-lowest in the U.S. for union membership at 4.4%. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, that is nearly 6% lower than the national average.

One big reason union membership has lagged is that Georgia is a right-to-work state, meaning that workers do not have to join a union as a condition of employment.

Some experts say that the lack of union influence is a major selling point for attracting businesses and manufacturing plants here.

Recently, labor union advocates from Alabama and Georgia sent a letter to Hyundai to negotiate a community benefits agreement that would enshrine better protections for their workers.

Hyundai is constructing a plant near Georgia’s coast that seeks to bring more electric vehicle manufacturing to the south. Labor advocates are concerned with the company’s history of violating workers’ rights and use of child labor at a Hyundai subsidiary factory in Alabama.

“We’ve got a big challenge with Hyundai coming up,” said Hulme. “But we’re up for that challenge; we take it.”