CW: To highlight the racist roots of right-to-work laws, this piece quotes racist statements proponents of the policy have made.

Key Takeaways:

  • This Labor Day, we are reminded that there are still anti-labor policies on the books in Georgia that diminish worker power and economic opportunity for all.
  • Unions play a significant role in shaping a better future for Georgia’s workers, their families and the economy overall.

Why it matters

At the expense of low-wage workers, those who wield more than their fair share of corporate and political power have facilitated and benefited from a historic rise in racial and economic inequality. Policymakers and business interests have collaborated long enough through state and local policies to make Georgia simultaneously the No. 1 place to do business and home of the No. 1 place for income inequality.

The weakening of labor protections in Georgia allowed for policies like Georgia’s Senate Bill (SB) 359 to ram through this legislative session. This bill shields businesses from liability by creating a near-impossible standard to prove gross negligence if a worker contracts COVID-19 on the job. In other words, state lawmakers bolstered protections for employers, but not for the people they employ who were forced to return to work prematurely during a deadly pandemic in a state with one of the highest infection rates, particularly among Black and Latinx Georgians.

Georgia lawmakers didn’t wait until a pandemic policy window to take advantage of our state’s top-tier anti-labor environment that prioritizes corporate interests over the interests of every day working people, as SB 359 certainly wasn’t the first anti-worker legislation approved here. Rather, this policy is the latest chapter in a long history of anti-worker policy choices that date back to enslavement. Georgia bans local governments from raising the minimum wage above the state’s $5.15 per hour wage, enacting paid leave and passing fair scheduling laws. There are currently no explicit, comprehensive statewide laws that prohibit LGBTQ discrimination in employment in Georgia. Employers rob Georgia workers of $301 million through wage theft each year. Corporations enjoy billions in annual special interest tax breaks, draining the revenues needed to invest in critical services to help Georgia combat economic and racial disparities across the state.

One reason worker rights have been diminished here is because Georgia is a right-to-work state, where workers have no comprehensive collective bargaining rights. Right-to-work has little to do with the right to a job. Instead, the law makes it illegal for a group of unionized workers to negotiate a contract that requires all employees who benefit from the contract terms and union representation to pay their share of the costs of administering it. This undermines union bargaining strength by making it more difficult for unions to financially sustain themselves. As a result, the laws have negatively impacted workers’ wages and benefits as well as local economies. Currently, 28 states have right-to-work laws.

The Racist Roots of Right-to-work

Georgia has been central to the anti-labor movement since the 1940s. In 1947, Georgia became a right-to-work state. The law’s chief advocate, Vance Muse, was a well-known white supremacist who championed the law as a means to not only destroy unions, but to also maintain the unjust racial order of the South. Muse leveraged southern racism to stoke fears among working class people in unions, arguing that “white women and white men will be forced into organizations with Black African ‘apes’ whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.” Muse worked closely with Georgia’s segregationist governor Eugene Talmadge to stir up disapproval of the New Deal-era reforms and dress up a racist cause as a pro-business cause.

Georgia’s right-to-work law weakens the ability of unions to build the membership needed to engage in collective bargaining, the primary democratic tool workers could use to secure greater protections and wages in the workplace. Without collective bargaining power, workers in right-to-work states and the communities they live in are made worse off. Workers in states with right-to-work laws are paid lower wages than those in non-right-to-work states. They are also less likely to have health insurance, resulting in more out-of-pocket health costs. Right-to-work states have fewer workers with access to pensions or retirement plans, higher rates of poverty, less investment in education and higher rates of workplace fatalities.

“In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone…Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights.”  – Martin Luther King, Jr. on right-to-work laws in 1961

As one would suspect from a policy rooted in anti-Black racism, repealing right-to-work and bolstering collective bargaining in Georgia would advance racial justice. Unions and collective bargaining address wage disparities among Black and white workers since Black workers are more likely than white workers to join unions, and Black workers in unions get a larger boost in wages from being in a union than white workers. Unionized Black and Latinx workers make 14 percent and 20 percent more in wages compared to their non-union peers, respectively. Unfortunately though, the decline of unionization in Georgia has played a significant role in increasing economic disparities for all workers. Just 4 percent of Georgia’s workers are union members compared to 10 percent nationally.

Worker Power Works

When I discuss unions and building worker power in Georgia with peers in other states, they often scoff at the possibility. But small-but-mighty labor organizing is still happening in Georgia and may grow. After an illegal intimidation campaign, workers won the right to unionize under United Steel Workers at a tire plant in Macon, Ga., in August. Workers voted overwhelmingly to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) at a logistics center in Union City, Ga., in 2018. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, RWDSU is also amplifying the voices of frontline poultry workers who face poor working conditions.

Union victories in Georgia need to be discussed as well. In 2013, unions organized to put a halt to an attempt by state lawmakers to go further than the National Labor Review Boards rules to weaken union membership. The unions won the battle in the courts. The Fight for $15 campaign, organized by a broad coalition of labor unions in Georgia, helped secure a $15 minimum wage for municipal employees in metro Atlanta in recent years. United Campus Workers of Georgia won a wage increase for the University of Georgia’s lowest wage workers in 2019. Union victories, in spite of Georgia’s anti-labor laws, build upon a century of organizing from unions comprised of teachers, sanitation workers and farm workers who have proven that worker power works.

We want Georgia to not only be a great place to do business, but also a state ranked as the top place to work and raise a family. We can get there by enacting policies that help workers build power. It is time for Georgia lawmakers to stand up for workers and write a new set of rules that advance racial and economic justice by putting people first.

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