Fifth District International President Brian K. Thompson, left, and interim Business Manager Steve Galloway hold the charter for newly-formed Atlanta Local 1997. Negotiations team member Jim Higgins, Local 1997 President Edward Leland, Fifth District International
       Representative Anna Jerry, Utility International Representative Chris Harris and negotiations team members Mark Ellis and Brent Goring also are pictured.

The IBEW has its first new local in the state of Georgia in nearly 40 years. The birth of Atlanta Local 1997 on June 29 marks a major victory for the rights of working people in the Deep South.

Fifth District Vice President Brian K. Thompson speaks and International President Lonnie R. Stephenson listens and takes notes just before Stephenson signed the charter signifying the birth of Atlanta Local 1997.

International President Lonnie R. Stephenson signed the new local’s charter surrounded by leaders from the new local, the Fifth District and the International Office.

Local 1997 will represent about 675 gas employees of Atlanta Gas Light, a division of Southern Company. The signing ceremony was held at the Atlanta Local 613 hall, which assisted with the organizing effort and donated office space to Local 1997. AGL employees voted for IBEW representation in April 2018.

“This was a special moment for me and our entire brotherhood,” Stephenson said. “Looking out and seeing the faces of people from so many different backgrounds who came together to make their lives better was tremendously inspiring. Many thanked me for the work we’ve done, but in reality, we should be thanking them. No organizing effort is successful without working men and women taking the lead.”

Fifth District International Representative Anna Jerry, who is working with local leaders on negotiations for a first contract, said 1981 was the last year a new local was chartered in Georgia. When the contract is completed, AGL’s workers will join gas workers at Nicor Gas in Illinois and Virginia Natural Gas among IBEW members working for Southern Company.

The utility conglomerate also has longstanding relationships with the IBEW through its electric-side subsidiaries, Alabama Power and Georgia Power.

The Local 1997 charter continued a recent run of success in organizing utility employees. Just days before the Atlanta ceremony, members of Baltimore Local 410 – who are employed by Baltimore Gas & Electric Company – ratified their first contract.

Stephenson was joined at the ceremony by International Secretary-Treasurer Kenneth W. Cooper and interim Local 1997 Business Manager Steve Galloway, a field service specialist for AGL. Galloway will serve as business manager until elections are held in June of next year.

Galloway said he’s pleased to have spoken several times with Stephenson, who along with the International Office helped four employees keep their jobs through a mutually-negotiated complaint procedure with AGL. The process was not available prior to the vote for IBEW representation.

Galloway, who has worked for AGL for 31 years, was part of two other organizing campaigns with the IBEW in 2006 and 2012 that fell just short.

“Lonnie Stephenson promised a family atmosphere to us and, so far, he and others have provided it,” he said. “It just feels good to have the charter signed and be part of IBEW history. It’s been a long road.”

Members of Atlanta Local 1997 during the ceremony on June 29 when the charter giving birth to the local was signed. The ceremony was held at the hall for Atlanta Local 613, which has donated office space.

In addition to the charter, Stephenson signed a founders’ list, which included the names of 78 Local 1997 members who were instrumental in the organizing effort. He told the new members of how some older IBEW local unions have their original charters framed and signed by Henry Miller, the IBEW’s founder and first president, prior to his death in 1896.

Hopefully, Local 1997 members in 100 years will be looking back on today’s pioneers with the same appreciation, he said.

“In any kind of organizing drive, the workers have to understand they are the driving force of their campaign,” Director of Professional & Industrial Organizing Jammi Juarez said. “They have to own it. We’re here to help them through the process. These working families in Georgia led the way. It’s about stepping up and fighting for the things that are good for you and your family and your community.”

Now, Local 1997 has two important pieces of work to attend to.

The first is reaching agreement on a contract. Chris Harris, an international representative in the Utility Department, who is leading the negotiating team, noted the IBEW’s partnerships with the Southern Company, and he thinks that will lead to a fair agreement.

“It has not been clear sailing from the get-go, but we’ve made steady progress,” said Harris, who negotiated with Southern officials previously while business manager of Aurora, Ill., Local 19, which represents Nicor workers.

“It’s going to take some time because I think there’s a trust factor that needs to be developed between the IBEW and Atlanta Gas Light. I know the negotiation committee that [former Fifth District Vice President Joe Davis, who retired earlier this year and succeeded by Brian K. Thompson] has put in place has the employees’ best interests at heart.”

The second task is creating a true sense of unity and solidarity among AGL workers. Galloway and the new local’s leaders plan to put real effort into making everyone – even those who voted against IBEW representation – feel like they have a personal stake in the success of Local 1997 and the company.

Galloway said even skeptical employees have noticed the IBEW already making a positive difference, and he hopes that once a first contract is completed, he’ll have an easy case to make to those who remain wary of the union.

“One area that I think is particularly a concern for everyone here is getting our wages up to the national average [for utility workers],” he said. “AGL has a skilled workforce. It’s only fair that we address that.” He and other negotiators are optimistic they’ll get positive results.

For now, leaders hope AGL’s workers will celebrate their new local and embrace what it means to be an IBEW member: solidarity with one another and an uncompromising commitment to excellence.

“Signing the charter of a new local union is a highlight for any international president and it’s no different for me,” Stephenson said. “As great as the journey was to get here, I’m even more excited about what the future holds for our new members. We plan to show AGL and other utility companies the benefits of having IBEW members work for them.”