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Georgia Makes it Harder for Workers to Become Union Members

The bill could bar companies that accept state incentives from recognizing unions.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks, Feb. 26, 2024, in Athens, Ga.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks, Feb. 26, 2024, in Athens, Ga.
Nell Carroll /Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia lawmakers have made it harder for workers at companies getting state economic incentives to unionize, in what could be a violation of federal law.

The state House voted 96 to 78 Wednesday for Senate Bill 362, which would bar companies that accept state incentives from recognizing unions without a formal secret-ballot election. The measure, which has been backed by Gov. Brian Kemp, now goes to the Republican governor for his signature.

The bill would block unions from winning recognition directly from a company — without the additional step of a secret ballot — after signing up a majority of workers, in what is usually known as a card check.

The proposal comes as Georgia is giving billions in economic incentives to electric vehicle manufacturers and other companies.

Union leaders and Democrats argue the bill violates 1935's National Labor Relations Act, which governs union organizing, and will be challenged in court.

"If this bill passes, there will be a lawsuit and it will cost Georgia taxpayers millions of dollars and the state will lose," state Rep. Saira Draper, an Atlanta Democrat, said on the House floor Wednesday.

Georgia AFL-CIO President Yvonne Brooks condemned passage of the bill, calling it a "political ploy by the corporate elite."

"Georgia's working families deserve lawmakers who will defend our right to organize and advocate for good, union jobs with fair pay and good benefits," she said.

Democrats say the bill is really about making it harder for unions to organize and for companies to accept them. Other Democrats took to the House floor to argue that the bill would harm Georgia businesses by making workers from other states reluctant to move here.

"Why would we do anything to be anti-labor when we need to attract more workers from any source available?" asked Rep. Gregg Kennard of Lawrenceville.

Republicans denied that the bill is anti-labor, saying it aims to protect workers' privacy. Some, including Kemp, argue that the secret ballot protects workers from being bullied into joining unions.

"Nothing in this bill stops a union from being formed," said Rep. Soo Hong of Lawrenceville. "We are ensuring that when the state invests state resources to drive job creation that hardworking Georgians who hold those jobs have the agency to determine whether to be represented by a labor union."

Only 4.4% of Georgia workers are union members, the eighth-lowest rate among states.

Georgia's bill is modeled after a law passed in Tennessee last year, but there could be similar legislation offered in many other states. The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council is promoting the idea. The national push could also be a response to a decision by the Democratic-controlled NLRB last year that made it easier for unions to organize by card check.

Governors in other Southern states traditionally hostile to organized labor have been speaking out against unions, after the United Auto Workers vowed a fresh push to organize nonunion auto factories after multiple failed attempts.

Alabama Republican Gov. Kay Ivey said her state's economic success is "under attack." Henry McMaster, South Carolina's Republican governor, told lawmakers in the nation's least unionized state last month that organized labor is such a threat that he would fight unions " all the way to the gates of hell."

Kemp proclaimed his support for the bill in a January speech to the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, echoing the chamber's own agenda. He said the move would protect workers' "right to opportunity" from President Joe Biden's pro-union agenda and outside forces "who want nothing more than to see the free market brought to a screeching halt."

Alabama and South Carolina are among five states that have passed state constitutional amendments guaranteeing access to secret union ballots. Indiana, like Tennessee, has passed a state law.

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