Atlanta — On the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tenn., low-wage workers in Georgia scored a significant victory. School employees such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers and crossing guards will once again be receiving unemployment benefits while they are laid off during school breaks.
In 1968, King had gone to support Memphis sanitation workers in their fight for decent wages, safe working conditions and — importantly — respect. In 2012, these were the same demands that motivated Georgia school workers to take on what seemed an impossible fight — and win after a year of struggle.
Mark Butler was elected Georgia labor commissioner in November 2010, the first Republican to hold that office. For decades before that, privately employed school workers had been eligible to receive unemployment benefits during school vacations. In early 2012, Butler arbitrarily decided to disqualify tens of thousands of school workers throughout the state who are employed by companies like Sodexo, Aramark and First Student.
These companies are subcontracted by schools and universities to provide food service, bus transportation, and custodial and other necessary jobs. They are laid off with no guarantee they’ll return when school comes back into session, even though many have held their jobs for years.
Most of these workers found out about this rule change when they were laid off for the summer last year. Already among the lowest-paid workers, with many only getting minimum wage or a few cents more, the loss of any income for several months until school resumed was a devastating blow.
Almost simultaneously with Butler’s ruling, the Georgia Assembly passed legislation cutting both the amount and number of weeks unemployed workers could receive benefits. At the time, Georgia’s unemployment rate was above 10 percent, higher than the national average. The state was borrowing tens of millions of dollars from the federal government to keep pace with the increasing number of claims.
During the economic boom years of the early 2000s, Georgia had granted employers a “tax holiday” from paying into the unemployment fund, saving the bosses tens of millions of dollars. Pro-business elected officials chose to solve their crisis by sacrificing the well-being of workers, who were out of a job through no fault of their own, and their families.
Campaign to restore jobless benefits
Two organizations quickly took action to fight this illegal attempt on the part of the state of Georgia to ease its budget shortfall on the backs of a largely female and Black workforce. The Atlanta chapter of Jobs with Justice and the Teamsters union, which had organized school bus drivers in Atlanta and Savannah, Ga., initiated a campaign which mobilized support from students, parents, teachers, faith organizations, organized labor and community groups.
Numerous demonstrations were held at unemployment centers, Butler’s office and the federal Department of Labor. Thousands of petitions were turned in demanding the restoration of unemployment compensation to these workers. Press conferences, leafleting, media interviews and more helped inform the public about the injustice that was being done.
A well-attended town hall meeting last Aug. 18 let the affected workers tell their stories of eviction and foreclosure, repossessed cars, utility cutoffs, unpaid bills and empty refrigerators as well as the emotional toll of being unable to provide for their families.
Students working with United Students Against Sweatshops, alongside campus cafeteria workers at the Atlanta University Center and at Agnes Scott College organized letter delegations to university presidents and worker speak-outs that galvanized Atlanta campuses around the issue.
The workers were encouraged in their struggle when the U.S. Department of Labor weighed in on their side that same month and threatened the loss of federal funds if the policy was not rescinded. But weeks went by with Butler defending his decision and the policy remaining in effect.
State capitulates to workers
Then, when the Georgia General Assembly began its 2013 session, among the many right-wing pieces of legislation was a bill that would elevate into law Butler’s interpretation of the Georgia statute regulating unemployment compensation. Intense lobbying was undertaken by the state AFL-CIO and advocates for low-wage and poor communities. On the final day of the session, March 28, the bill failed passage in the Georgia House.
On April 4, Butler and the Georgia Department of Labor capitulated.
The victory was announced at a Morehouse College worker speak-out by an Emory University food service worker to an audience of Atlanta campus workers and students. The audience erupted at the news.
On April 4, Butler announced that some 64,000 school workers will be eligible to file for unemployment benefits. Moreover, Georgia will pay about $8 million to those workers who were illegally denied their benefits in 2012. Unfortunately, only about 4,000 workers persisted and filed claims following receipt of Butler’s ruling.
Nonetheless, in a state that ranks among the lowest in union membership and has a long history of anti-worker legislation, this victory represents a valuable lesson about the power of unity, grassroots mobilizing, and creative and persistent tactics.