Organizers Doug Williams and Jimmy Flynn with members of the Atlanta service center Volunteer Organizing Committee and the 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, Raeshaun Martin and campaign coordinator Joe Skinner celebrating after the votes were counted.

Nearly 700 Atlanta Gas Light workers will join newly created Atlanta Local 1997 after a successful election held April 19.

In the weeks before the vote, 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.

The victory came after a yearlong organizing drive at 23 service centers of the largest natural gas utility in the Southeast from Rome in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains to Savannah on the Atlantic coast, more than 350 miles away.

“Reaching that many people spread out as much they were was always going to be hard, but the Volunteer Organizing Committee owned this campaign from the start and they delivered,” said Assistant to the International President for Membership Development Ricky Oakland.

Oakland gave particular praise to Fifth District Regional Organizing Coordinator Joseph Skinner.

“He came up with an awesome plan and, together, we executed it perfectly,” Oakland

AGL’s gas technicians, troublemen, appliance repairmen, pipefitters and meter readers had tried unsuccessfully to organize with the IBEW in 2006 and 2012.

Then, in 2015, Southern Company took over AGL. The IBEW already has contracts with 12 subsidiaries of Southern – the second largest utility in the U.S. by customer base – and International President Lonnie R. Stephenson has a good relationship with CEO Thomas Fanning.

Last year, the IBEW successfully organized Baltimore Gas and Electric on their fifth attempt after new owner Exelon told the formerly virulently antiunion company to stay neutral, and organizers took lessons from that campaign and applied them to AGL.

“We wrote a new professional and industrial membership development strategy in 2015 and the most important part was to pick better targets,” Oakland said. “Focus on companies that we have good relationships with, win votes and sign contracts. We don’t need more moral victories; we need more members.”

In March 2017, Stephenson, Fifth District International Vice President Joe Davis, Oakland and Director of Professional and Industrial Organizing Jammi Juarez 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 joined by Fifth District Lead Organizers Jimmy Flynn and Doug Williams.

AGL workers were paid significantly less than their unionized counterparts at Georgia Power, Skinner said, and policy changes since the merger had increased health care costs for workers and retirees. When they reached out to some of the leaders of the 2012 organizing campaign, they were ready.

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

“It just cut off so much of the misinformation,” Skinner said.

Almost a year after the first meeting some of the first members of the AGL V.O.C. including Steve Galloway from the Conyers office, Joey Leach and Kevin Jackson from Gwinnett and Ronnie Smith from Atlanta V.O.C.- came together for the final meeting before the vote.

“When the company told people dues would be $160 a month, we could say, ‘Only if you vote for it.’” Juarez said. “We tell them straight up: being a member of the IBEW costs $19 a month. Everything after that is up to you and the local leaders you choose.”

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 will 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.”

Like most campaigns, the volunteer organizers faced captive audience meetings and, at times, what they felt were violations of labor laws. Instead of filing charges with the National Labor Relations Board however, Skinner said they forwarded the complaints to Stephenson, and a call with Fanning yielded a pledge that the company would remain neutral.

After that the mood lightened.

“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 two weekends before the vote, following a model used so successfully at BGE, President Stephenson authorized a “SWAT Team,” about two-dozen Fifth and Tenth District International Representatives and organizers to flood the 350-mile area covered by AGL. They visited more than 600 houses.

“The core group is planting seeds, and you don’t need a dozen people doing that. Come harvest time, that’s when you need a crew,” Juarez said. “There is an expense, but there is a greater cost in not winning, and you can’t argue with the results.”

When the vote came April 17 to 19, more people voted “yes” than signed cards, an excellent sign, Juarez said, that the model is valid and that AGL workers will have the numbers to get a contract and build their membership.

“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.”