ATLANTA — Unions could claim their most significant victory in years at the Volkswagen auto plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., an organizing coup that, if successful, would give dwindling unions a critical foothold in the burgeoning Southern auto industry.
Labor groups representing autoworkers, government employees, bus drivers and fast-food workers see the current economic climate as ripe for organizing.
Georgia, Atlanta in particular, sits squarely in their sights. Unite Here, for example, has signed up more than 550 retail and food-service workers at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport within the past year and a half. The Teamsters got DeKalb County’s permission last month to organize 450 sanitation workers. School bus drivers in Fulton and DeKalb counties are targeted by a government employees union.
“The South is hugely, hugely critical for us,” said Tefere Gebre, the executive vice president for the AFL-CIO. “If we work smartly, and patiently, I believe the South would rise again for workers.”
Yet only 11.3 percent of American workers are union members – an all-time low. Less than 5 percent of Georgians belong to a union. And only four other states – all in the South – are less-unionized.
Chris Clark, president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, isn’t unduly worried about organized labor’s latest Southern push.
“Unionization efforts, long-term, in the South are going to fail,” he said. “Employees know and treat their workers well, so there’s no need to unionize.”
This time, labor experts say, could be different. The recession, which began six years ago, hit workers hard. The nation’s 7.3 percent unemployment rate is two points higher than before the recession.
Employers cut hours and hired part-timers or contract workers. Salaries stagnated. Health benefits dwindled. CEOs at large Georgia companies earned on average 120 times more than the average worker in their industries last year, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis.
Meanwhile, Southern unions struggle for traction.