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Report: Georgia must allow public service workers to unionize to lift up the vulnerable

Photo By: Tetra Images
By Raju Chebium ·

The Georgia legislature’s chronic failure to hire enough public service workers is hurting vulnerable people throughout the state – rural residents, African Americans, women and the working class, according to a recent report.

The Morehouse College report, released in September, urged Georgia policymakers to expand collective bargaining rights to all 680,000 public service workers in the state as a way to improve the fortunes of those left behind as Georgia recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report comes as inflation emerges as a key issue for Georgia voters in the hotly contested races for governor and the U.S. Senate. Pro-worker candidate Stacey Abrams is taking on the incumbent governor, Brian Kemp, and pro-worker Sen. Raphael Warnock faces a challenge from Herschel Walker.

Expanding collective bargaining rights “will ensure all public workers will benefit from the union fair wage premium – especially working class public employees with no college degree,” the report said. “Collective bargaining provides an important fair wage premium to these workers, ensuring they earn as much as 8% more than their private sector counterparts and as much as 20 percentage points higher … than public workers in states where public collective bargaining is banned.”

The report’s authors pointed to Virginia as an example for Georgia to follow. In 2020, following a strong push by AFSCME, the commonwealth expanded collective bargaining rights to local government workers. This year, Colorado lawmakers passed a landmark measure that extended collective bargaining rights to more than 36,000 county workers throughout the state. This law, championed by AFSCME members, allows public service workers to negotiate over the terms and conditions of their employment.

“Although the health of the Georgian economy benefits from a strong public sector, politicians have allowed the share of public sector workers in the Georgian economy to decline over the past 15 years,” according to the report.

The American Rescue Plan (ARP), which AFSCME members helped push through Congress last year, includes $350 billion for state and local governments. That money is designed to shore up public services and help governments hire more workers to provide those valuable services. According to the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee, Georgia’s share of the ARP funds is $8.40 billion.

While some states and localities have used the ARP money to spark an equitable recovery in their communities, many others have yet to step up the pace of public sector hiring. As AFSCME President Lee Saunders has noted, now is not the time for austerity. State and local governments must expand their workforces to provide the services their communities need and deserve, using ARP funds provided for that purpose.

Yet, Georgia lawmakers have clearly not heard the message – highlighting the need to elect leaders like Abrams and Warnock.  

According to the Morehouse College report, public sector employment in Georgia has declined by 12% since the Great Recession in 2008 – and 4.3% since the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020. The report says more than one in 10 public sector jobs has vanished over the past decade in Georgia.

“This relative scarcity of public sector employees means that Georgians receive worse services and public sector workers are functioning under increasingly stressful working conditions,” the report said. “A strong public sector – particularly one with collective bargaining rights – creates good jobs and sets a high standard for all employers in the state. With collective bargaining rights, public sector workers have a voice on the job, and they can ensure that they and their clients (the people of Georgia) are treated well.”

AFSCME members are pushing Congress to pass the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, which would set a minimum nationwide standard of collective bargaining rights that states must provide. Nearly half of U.S. states lack meaningful collective bargaining laws for workers in the public sector. The legislation would allow public service workers across the country to join together in unions to win respect and fair treatment on the job.

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