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Interest in Labor Issues Remains Strong in State Legislatures

May 29, 2024 (5 min read)

Back in November, we told you about a surge in victories by labor unions across the country, both on the picket line and in statehouses.

Six months later, labor’s momentum continues—but that’s also sparked a backlash from anti-labor contingents.

Anti-Union Legislative Effort Makes Gains in South

Three southern states have enacted legislation in the 2023-2024 biennium denying eligibility for state economic development incentives to employers that allow workers to unionize without holding an election by secret ballot first. The laws in all three states are similar to model legislation released last year by the American Legislative Exchange Council. 

Labor Movement Notches Big Win in Tennessee

In what’s being described as a historic victory for unions in the South, thousands of Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee voted last month to join the United Auto Workers.

NPR’s All Things Considered called the vote “one of the most closely watched labor events this year.” UAW President Shawn Fain told The Guardian “The workers at VW are the first domino to fall,” and Vox reported “The UAW has no intention of slowing down now.”

The potential impact of a pro-union vote in the South, where labor has notoriously struggled, cannot be overstated, making this event perhaps just as noteworthy as last year’s “hot labor summer.”

At the same time in California, Assemblyman Matt Haney (D) is looking to codify new rights for workers with his AB 2751, which would grant employees the “right to disconnect,” a proposal to protect workers from the expectation that they always be available to their supervisors thanks to the power of cell phones, Zoom and other technologies.

“Work has changed drastically compared to what it was just 10 years ago. Smartphones have blurred the boundaries between work and home life,” Haney said in a press release announcing the bill’s introduction. “Workers shouldn’t be punished for not being available 24/7 if they’re not being paid for 24 hours of work. People have to be able to spend time with their families without being constantly interrupted at the dinner table or their kids’ birthday party, worried about their phones and responding to work.”

Labor Suffers Legislative Setbacks in Georgia and Washington State

But not everything has been rosy in statehouses for labor.

In Washington—a labor friendly blue state if ever there was one—companion measures HB 1893 and SB 5777 would have granted unemployment insurance to workers on strike for more than two weeks. But despite the bills’ long list of authors, the measures failed in the Evergreen State Legislature.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, a bill (SB 362) that prevents companies in the Peach State from receiving economic incentives from the state if they allow workers to form a union without a secret ballot sailed through the legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp (R).

“This bill is concerning the use of state economic development funds. It’s not a regulatory action,” said one of Kemp’s floor leaders, Rep. Soo Hong (R). “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.”

Labor advocates didn’t see it the same way.

“Senate Bill 362 is an illegal attack on working people and private businesses in Georgia,” the Georgia AFL-CIO said in a statement. “When workers are asking for basic rights and are supported by the employer, the state government stepping in to ban that recognition simultaneously harms workers and takes away individual freedoms from business owners.”

“A majority of Americans would join a union right now if they could, and working people across all sectors of the economy are organizing like never before,” the statement continued. “The new era of the Georgia labor movement is here and S.B. 362 is evidence that Gov. Kemp and his political cronies are scared of workers getting their fair share.”

Labor Taking Hits in Other Southern States

Georgia’s SB 362 appears to be just the beginning of the backlash labor unions are facing from legislatures in the South.

The Georgia bill appears to have been patterned after model legislation drafted by the conservative group, the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. Similar legislation was enacted in Alabama (SB 231) this year and in Tennessee (HB 1342) last year, shortly before ALEC released its model policy.

ALEC’s involvement could help the legislative effort expand into other red states in the South, as Stateline reported.

“We’re seeing a snowball effect,” Vincent Vernuccio, a senior fellow at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said of the legislation. “It is getting noticed and I fully expect it to spread.”

Meanwhile in Louisiana a trio of bills have been introduced that would hamper unions:

  • HB 119, which would shorten the length of time that workers could receive unemployment benefits.
  • HB 156, which would repeal mandatory breaks for working minors. The bill’s author, Rep. Roger William Wilder (R), has argued that other states don’t have laws allowing child workers to take breaks.

But perhaps the biggest recent blow to unions in the South has come at the ballot box. On May 17, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) said Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama voted against union representation by the United Auto Workers.

A week later the UAW asked the NLRB to order a new vote, claiming the automaker employed methods to defeat the union drive that violated labor laws. Mercedes denied the allegation, saying it had followed NLRB guidelines throughout the election process.

This summer is shaping up to be a different kind of hot labor summer, with heat being generated by labor supporters and opponents alike.

—By SNCJ Correspondent BRIAN JOSEPH

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