Workers at Georgia School Bus Maker Blue Bird Approve Their First Union Contract

The contract will provide all 1,500 covered workers with at least a 12% raise.

An all-electric school bus sits on display in front of the Blue Bird Corp. factory in Fort Valley, Ga., on Feb. 8, 2023.
An all-electric school bus sits on display in front of the Blue Bird Corp. factory in Fort Valley, Ga., on Feb. 8, 2023.
Matthew Pearson/WABE via AP, file

FORT VALLEY, Ga. (AP) β€” A year after they voted to unionize, workers at a Georgia school bus manufacturer have approved their first contract.

The United Steelworkers union and Blue Bird Corp. said union members at Blue Bird's assembly plants and warehouse in Fort Valley have voted to approve a three-year contract between the company and the union.

The union said the contract will provide all 1,500 covered workers with at least a 12% raise, with some of the lowest-paid workers getting raises of more than 40%. The union says the company will contribute to a retirement plan for workers, share profits, and improve health and safety.

The negotiations had been closely watched by President Joe Biden's administration, in part because Blue Bird has gotten $40 million in federal aid to build electric school buses.

Biden released a statement Thursday saying acting Labor Secretary Julie Su had helped bring the negotiations to a successful agreement. Contract talks after a first union vote are often difficult.

"Congratulations to members of the United Steelworkers and to Blue Bird for proving once again that meeting our clean energy goals is an opportunity to create good-paying union jobs for American workers," Biden said.

Blue Bird is one of three major school bus manufacturers in the United States, along with Thomas Built Buses, a subsidiary of Daimler Truck AG, and IC Bus, a unit of Navistar International.

Blue Bird had urged employees to reject unionization last year, but CEO Phil Horlock said in a statement Friday that contract talks had been "very collaborative" and that the company is "looking forward to a strong partnership with our USW team members." The company said higher pay, benefits and opportunities for career development will help Blue Bird attract workers.

"We reached an agreement which provides positive outcomes for all parties involved and will continue to drive our One Team, high-performance culture," Horlock said. "We are confident that the agreement will further bolster Blue Bird's position as an employer of choice in the region."

Blue Bird is a publicly held company based in Macon. With about 2,000 employees overall, it has long been the largest private employer in Peach County.

The vote for the USW was a notable win for organized labor in the traditionally unfriendly Deep South.

"Federal investments like these must come with a seat at the table for workers," United Steelworkers District 9 Director Dan Flippo said in a statement. "Our union has a long history in the South fighting for better wages and working conditions in a variety of industries, but for too long, corporations and their political cronies have tried to characterize the South as a place where they could run away from unions, cut corners and pay workers less."

The share of workers who are unionized nationwide has been falling for decades, dipping to 10% last year, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. And private sector workers are much less likely to be union members, with only 6% paying dues.

Organized labor is an even smaller sliver of Georgia workers, with only 4.4% of workers being union members. The state's business leaders have long been hostile to unions, with Republican Gov. Brian Kemp this year pushing through a law that would bar companies taking state incentives from recognizing unions without a formal secret-ballot election.

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