Alabama unions grapple with right-to-work laws
Hundreds of members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) march to the Manhattan headquarters of BlackRock, the largest shareholder in the mining company Warrior Met Coal on November 04, 2021 in New York City. The miners and their supporters held a rally outside of BlackRock in support of over 1,100 UMWA members who were on strike for seven months at Warrior Met Coal over demands for better pay and benefits. Mine workers returned to work in early 2023 without winning concessions. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Alabama occupies an unusual place when it comes to unions.
The state’s unionization rate is low compared to the rest of the nation. In 2022, about 7.2% of Alabama’s workforce (149,000 workers) belonged to a union, with 8.4% (173,000 workers) represented by one, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That was lower than the 10.1% rate nationwide.
The number of unionized workers in the state has also fallen in the last decade. In 2014, about 10.8% of Alabama’s workforce (208,000 workers) belonged to a union.
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Unions blame the relatively low numbers on Alabama’s “right-to-work” law, which prohibits union security agreements between unions and employers requiring union members to pay dues.
“Alabama is a right-to-work state and Republicans have a supermajority,” said Edward Brazier, president of the local Communications Workers 3902 in Birmingham. “When they do right-to-work, you don’t have to join a union to be represented by a union.”
That along with other factors specific to companies put downward pressure on union memberships throughout the state. Some of the union representatives interviewed by the Alabama Reflector spoke of intimidation of its employees or moving workers to different locations–all that have kept their numbers lower.
Alabama still has the highest percentage of unionized workers in the South, according to BLS. About 5.6% of Mississippi’s workforce belongs to a union. In Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana and Arkansas, fewer than 5% of the workforce is organized. The state’s unionization rate stemmed in part from a history of heavy industry, such as mining, steel and textiles.
But the power of unions has been low in the state to begin with because of its history.
“Generally, the story with most of the south is that there has been a concerted effort by the power structure to oppose unions, especially during the Jim Crow era, because unions were seen as a direct threat to the southern power structure because they wanted to form unions that would bring white workers and Black workers together,” said David Madland, senior fellow and senior adviser for the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. “This was a threat to the racial hierarchy.”
According to a paper published by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute in 2021, right-to-work laws lead to reduced unionization rates. In Montana, which is not a right-to-work state, about 6.5% of private sector workers are represented in a union versus 4% in the neighboring states with right-to-work laws in place.
That has an impact on the livelihoods of people. For one, people who do not participate in a union earn less. The paper states that people who work in locations with right-to-work laws earn about 3.1% less on average than similar workers in states without such laws.
Aside from that, companies also exercise tremendous leverage on their employees and can affect the strength of unions in local areas.
“We had a call center that had 200 people,” Frazier said. “AT&T said it was going to move the call center to Florida. Therefore my headcount in Alabama will lose 200 people and then the headcount will no longer belong to me, it will belong to Florida or Georgia.”
Frazier also spoke of union busting tactics employed by companies, telling them of the dues they will have to pay, in attempts to discourage people from joining unions.
The state’s overall unionization rate increased between 2021 and 2022, and the number of unionized workers rising from 115,000 to 149,000.
“Depending on which way you look at it, Alabama is a slight bright spot compared to some of its neighbors but compared to the rest of the country, the union density is pretty low,” Madland said.
But two recent high-profile labor actions in the state have fallen short of goals. Efforts to organize Amazon workers in Bessemer appeared to end in a vote against a union in 2022, though the results have been challenged. The United Mine Workers of America struck Wrrior Met Coal in 2021, seeking higher wages and better working conditions, but ended the strike earlier this year without winning concessions.
But Jennifer Sherer, director of the Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN) State Worker Power Initiative at the Economic Policy Institute, said the Bessemer efforts had ripple effects.
“It was really the Bessemer Amazon workers organizing that ignited what continues to be a growing national and international movement among Amazon workers to begin organizing in what is now one of the largest private employers in the world,” she said.
There could be an appetite for more organizing. Oxfam, an international charity aimed at addressing poverty, ranked Alabama one of the worst states in the nation to work in a report last week. The report cited poor minimum wage laws; a lack of worker protections, including paid family and sick leave, and laws that are hostile to unions.
“The labor movement in Alabama is building power right now,” said Dev Wakeley, the worker policy advocate for Alabama Arise. “The atmosphere has changed drastically over the last few years to become much friendlier amongst the actual people of Alabama toward the idea of unionization.”
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