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July 2018

Nearly 700 Atlanta Gas Light Workers
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In life and in organizing, the longest odds make for the sweetest victories. Given what they faced, the election victory of nearly 700 Atlanta Gas Light workers April 19 and the creation of Atlanta Local 1997 is like biting into a fresh-picked peach on an August afternoon.

When the drive began, it had so much against it. Deep in the right-to-work South in a state with one of the lowest union densities in the country, members were spread between 23 service centers from Rome in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains to Savannah on the Atlantic coast, more than 350 miles away. A previous union had been decertified and four subsequent organizing attempts had failed.

"It was always going to be hard," said Assistant to the International President for Membership Development Ricky Oakland. "We had some things going our way, but no one thought this was a sure thing."

What they had, Oakland said, was a platoon of volunteer organizers who had no quit in them, a strategy to make use of them and organizers, led by Fifth District Regional Organizing Coordinator Joseph Skinner, who would walk through walls to get it done.

"From the first meeting to the last house call, we executed it perfectly," Oakland said.

Rebirth of a Union

Until 2004, most of AGL's gas technicians, troublemen, appliance repairmen, pipefitters and meter readers were members of the Teamsters.

Steve Galloway, a 30-year veteran AGL field specialist, was a chief steward and sat on the negotiating committee for three contracts with the Teamsters. But he supported the decertification and, when the IBEW tried to organize the utility in 2006 and again in 2012, he sat it out.

"I didn't think our previous representation was doing anything good, and I was skeptical about anyone new," he said.

But in the summer of 2015, Southern Company — the second-largest utility company in the U.S. — announced it was buying AGL. The takeover was completed in 2016. AGL workers were making less than union utility workers in Georgia — in some cases up to $10 less an hour. After the merger, Galloway said, things got worse.

They were switched to a Southern health plan that cost more. Pensions were changed. Bonuses at AGL were $10,000 lower than at Southern subsidiary Georgia Power.

The IBEW has 12 contracts with Southern Company subsidiaries, and each one provided better pay and benefits than AGL.

By this time, some of Galloway's colleagues, including Joey Leach, Mike Strange and Justin Gardner, had reached out to the IBEW to try again. This time, Galloway signed on to help.

When Galloway was called into a captive audience meeting to urge people not to support any union drive, he stood up to speak.

"They were putting out the same misleading stuff they did years ago: union dues will be $160. Negotiations will start at zero," Galloway said. "I stood up and introduced myself. I told people, I started with the gas company 30 years ago. Near everything I have I owe to AGL, and in two years I am out the door. AGL is a good company, but it could be better, and even though it won't benefit me any, we need a union."

A Plan Comes Together

In 2015, Oakland proposed a professional and industrial organizing strategy to newly appointed International President Lonnie Stephenson: don't just take what comes up; go out and find opportunities with companies we already have a good relationship with. Stephenson signed on.

"Our best advertisement is our members, and it isn't just workers who notice. Some companies have figured it out too," Stephenson said.

Nick Akins, the CEO of American Electric Power, filmed a commercial for the IBEW. Alabama Power CEO Mark Crosswhite spoke at the 39th International Convention in 2016. When the IBEW organized at Baltimore Gas and Electric last year, new owner Exelon told the formerly virulently antiunion company to stay neutral.

"The most important part of the 2015 plan was to pick better targets. Don't organize whatever comes through the door. Don't prioritize organizing companies that will fight us to the death," Oakland said. "We focus on companies that we have good relationships with and start there. We don't need more moral victories; we need more members."

So, in March 2017, Fifth District International Vice President Joe Davis and Oakland asked Fifth District Regional Organizing Coordinator Joe Skinner to reach out to some of the leaders of the 2012 campaign and ask if it was time to give it another go. Skinner was soon joined by Fifth District lead organizers Jimmy Flynn and Doug Williams.

"I got in touch with some of the guys and they thought it was worth a meeting," Flynn said.

Joey Leach signed the first card April 17 at the first meeting.

"This is my third or fourth try, but I was taught young not to be a follower, to stand up for what you feel is right," Leach said. "I stepped up because it takes one person to get it started and moves to two."

A few weeks later, at the next meeting, all 19 people in the Marietta office showed up and every one signed a card. Within weeks, Flynn said, they had volunteer organizers across the state and by the end of the campaign, there were volunteer organizers at every site, more than 60 in all.

"From the beginning, we said this was about only two things," Flynn said. "First, it has to be your campaign. We will do everything to help you, but we can't do it for you. And second, all that matters is a contract. To get that contract, you can't just have a win, it has to be big, and you can't just have a local, you need people to pay their dues."

One of the most important decisions, Flynn, Oakland, Skinner and Williams said came when Davis recommended, and Stephenson approved, the creation of a new local for the AGL workers, Local 1997.

"I wanted a union of our own. Nobody else. We will do it all in house," Leach said. "A lot of people jumped on board when we got our own union. It just cut off a lot of what the company was saying."

For example, some managers at the company said dues would be upwards of $160 a month, that they would be forced out on strike and they could lose what they already had, common tactics nearly all organizing drives face.

"We could say, 'Only if you vote for it,'" said Director of Professional and Industrial Organizing Jammi Juarez. "We tell them being a member of the IBEW costs $19 a month. Everything after that is up to you. You want a full-time business manager? How much do you want to pay him or her? Want a secretary? An office? A political fund? Your bylaws are decisions that you and the leaders you choose will make for yourselves. That resonates, especially in the South."

It also dealt with the major complaint about the previous union, Galloway said. They were part of a large local and members felt like they didn't have a voice. With their own local, the focus would never drift. The issues that mattered to the local would always be the issues that mattered to the members.

The main concerns were favoritism, lack of advancement and losing pay and benefits.

Skinner, Flynn and Williams heard age-old stories common to every worker without a contract. Health care costs go up, and the cost is shifted completely onto the workers. The guy who goes fishing with the supervisor gets the promotion and never has to work weekends. One constant was the lack of advancement.

"We have guys with 30 or more years that have still not topped out in their classification," Skinner said. "I said, man, you could be a brain surgeon in 12 years, and you're telling me the company doesn't think you're a senior gas technician? That is a joke. It's a way they are taking advantage of you because you don't have a contract."

For some, the final straw was when the company began installing dash cams in company trucks, but not just facing out, they also faced in. Whenever a driver accelerated too quickly or braked too hard, the camera and microphone would start recording.

"We'd been told a lot of things. The company is going to do this, the company is going to do that. The drive cams were put in for safety purposes, then they were there for disciplinary purposes. You will get a raise, but we didn't get one for seven years, not even a cost-of-living increase," Leach said. "I know when that camera points inwards, it is not for your safety."

Skinner said they were always careful to be honest but positive.

"We want even the people who hate us to agree on something, so we would say, 'AGL is a great company. Southern is even better. And we'll be a good partner. This will be positive for everyone,'" he said. "If you can get them to nod their head at least twice, you can start there and maybe change some minds."

The Final Push

In many ways, the campaign was like others. The company held captive audience sessions; the volunteer organizers had meetings off-site to answer the misinformation from those sessions. The company, which had worked to decertify the Teamsters and had fought the IBEW in the past, did not change.

"The truth is we had some potential unfair labor practices charges that we could have filed, but instead we called Ricky [Oakland], who talked to President Stephenson, who called Southern Company CEO Tom Fanning," Skinner said.

Not long after, Skinner received a call from AGL CEO Bryan Batson with a pledge that the company would stay neutral.

It was like uncoiling a spring, he said.

"Supporters didn't fear retaliation. Even nonsupporters' attitudes changed to, 'Well, it may not be so bad. At the end of the day, the company has worked with us before," Williams said.

The Win

By March, the campaign was 11 months old, and new cards were slowing to a trickle.

"That can happen in any campaign. It can happen when you have 30 percent of the workers signing cards, or 80 percent or, like it did here, 61 percent," Skinner said. "Then you have to ask, are we comfortable with this number? Do we push on and try for more, call the election or bail?"

For Skinner, it was close.

"I did not feel good. I told my wife, according to these numbers we should lose. I had not won a campaign with less than 65 percent of the cards. We've been close, but didn't win," he said.

The volunteer organizing committee, Skinner said, had no doubts.

"I was 100 percent sure," Leach said. "They were scared and said, 'I won't sign a card, but I promise you I will vote yes.' But these are guys I grew up with. We are all 25, 30, 35-year employees. When they give you their word, I trust these guys."

Skinner, Flynn, Juarez, Williams and Oakland had to decide they would trust them as well, file the cards with the National Labor Relations Board and move to a vote.

Oakland recommended, and Stephenson approved, following the model used so successfully at Baltimore Gas and Electric last year. The goal was personal visits to all of the nearly 700 households, which is only possible by sending in dozens of International Office organizers and representatives from the Fifth and Tenth Districts — something Membership Development calls the Strategic Winning Action Team.

Stephenson even approved sending Oakland, Juarez and other senior members of the International Membership Development Department to make those personal connections during the final days.

"It is a significant investment of time and money, but the reward was within reach," Stephenson said. "The future of 700 families was in the balance. The volunteer organizers had done thousands of hours of work leading up to the vote. It is moments like this that the IBEW was created for. Of course, we were going to do whatever it took to help them bring their campaign home successfully."

More than two dozen came in all, driving hundreds of miles from apartment buildings in Atlanta to isolated homesteads in the farmlands outside Valdosta.

When the election was over, the data wasn't quite right: it underestimated their victory by a single percent. On the day of, several dozen people who — for whatever reason — did not sign cards, went and voted for the union by 62 percent.

"I get up at 1:30 in the morning to go to work. I was sure that we were going to win and was in bed trying to go to sleep," Leach said. "Skinner texted me as soon as the board certified the vote, Jimmy Flynn called me 10 minutes later and then I had another 20 or 30 calls to me with texts in between. It was like they could all breathe again. I really wasn't worried. I left worrying to Skinner and Flynn."

Williams, like Flynn and Skinner, is already out on new campaigns — including another subsidiary of Southern Company. The win was still a moment to savor.

"There are low lows and months will go by where you feel like all you hear is 'no.' And then you're standing there after a vote listening to people whooping outside in the parking lot because life just changed for 700 families, and you never want that feeling to end," he said. "They did it. We just helped, but you know what it is going to mean for them."

As Skinner said from the beginning, this victory is a sweet moment, but it was never the goal. The goal is a contract, and that is the next step.

"Now they will elect the leaders of Local 1997 and they will decide what they want in their contract, and we will help them get there," Williams said.

For Juarez, the victory, following close on the heels of the BGE win, tells her that an on-site team laying the foundation supported by a large team arriving just before the vote is a plan that has legs.

"The V.O.C. is what makes this work. After the petition they need a lot more support, but it is their work throughout that 12 months that makes it possible," Juarez said.

Leach sends the love back the other way.

"Without the organizers, none of this would have been possible. It got frustrating and I quit 100 times. Next day, they'd call me back," Leach said. "I know their wives. I know their kids. There was never a time when they didn't pick up the phone, calm me down or cheer me up when it got frustrating. I just can't say enough about them."

Victory, Oakland said, is contagious.

"A win like this, in the South, sends a message: the plan works," Oakland said. "And we had the people in the fleet division and at the call center asking us if they could join in. We had to tell them, 'Not this time; but get busy. Start the conversation, and we will be there when you are ready for us.'"

Southern Company has 34,000 workers and, with this contract, the IBEW will represent nearly 9,000, which means the plan still has room to grow, Oakland said.

"When a company understands that an IBEW-organized workforce is good for business, and our members get pay and benefits that make a permanent difference for them and their families, we have a map and a destination," Stephenson said. "Get ready for a lot more stories like this."


Organizers Joe Skinner, Doug Williams and Jimmy Flynn celebrate after the votes were counted with AGL workers and V.O.C. leadership, including Ronnie Smith, Timothy Jackson, Marcus Green, Wavers Smith, Ed Leland, Kristy Rounds, Robert Barber, Thomas Stores, Colin Smith, Gary Smith, Justin Gardner and Raeshaun Martin.


In the final days of the campaign, Director of Professional and Industrial Membership Development Jammi Juarez and a team of international organizers and representatives from the Fifth and Tenth Districts fanned out across the state.


Organizers and international representatives from the Fifth and Tenth Districts campaigned across the state, including Jeff Henderson, organizer Doug Williams, Brian Thompson and Ed Mobsby.


Some of the first members of the V.O.C., Steve Galloway, Joey Leach, Kevin Jackson and Ronnie Smith, came together for a final meeting before the vote.