The AGL contract was overwhelmingly approved by the membership after more than 30 in-person and a dozen virtual presentations led by international representatives Chris Harris and Anna Jerry and the negotiating committee

One of the largest organizing victories in the South in recent years reached a crucial milestone when the members of Atlanta Local 1997 voted overwhelmingly to approve their first contract with Atlanta Gas Light.

The final votes were cast May 1 after failed organizing drives in 2006 and 2012, a change of ownership in 2015 when Southern Company purchased AGL and the ultimately successful organizing drive in 2018.

Negotiations were often contentious, said Utility Director Donnie Colston, who gives all of the credit to the seven-member negotiating committee and their support team, international representatives Chris Harris and Anna Jerry.

"There are a few milestones in the creation of a union. Collecting cards. Calling and then winning the election. Starting negotiations and reaching an agreement on that first contract. Each is a victory, but it is victory on the way," Colston said. "The true finish line is getting that first contract ratified by the membership and hammered in stone. I know the work doesn't end there, but for the term of that agreement, it is a truth that cannot be ignored, a truth with the power to change lives."

The deal covers everything from the companywide pay scale — and a promise that people will actually advance through the pay scale — to training, disciplinary procedures and rare language that gives Local 1997 right of refusal for any work and any overtime that would go to contractors.

"This is an excellent first contract and they would not have gotten there without the steadfast unity of the membership," Colston said. "They earned this in the negotiating room and on the job."

Negotiations began in January 2019 and negotiators met more than 60 times, Jerry said.

"We thought it would be a couple of months," said Local 1997 Business Manager Steve Galloway. "We thought we could take language from other Southern Company-IBEW contracts and put something together, but it wasn't that way."

Before negotiations, Galloway and the newly appointed members of the bargaining team (Jim Higgins, Edward Leland, Tim Dasher, Cyril Watnes, Brent Goring and Mark Ellis) asked the membership for their priorities. They were helped by the other members of the volunteer organizing committee, many of whom were transitioning into quasi-stewards since there are no actual shop steward roles until a contract is in place.

By far the highest priority, Galloway said, was the pay scale. AGL's overall pay scale was lower than unionized utilities nearby. Jerry described it as "egregious."

That wasn't too much of a surprise. What was a surprise was how few of the members of the bargaining unit were making the top of the scale.

"We found out that only about 10% were making the top wage on the sheet they posted on the bulletin board," Jerry said. "And then there were people there six years who topped out and people who were there 26 years who had not."

It was all at the whim of the supervisor, Galloway said, and every one of the 23 service centers ran like its own little company with its own rules.

What the membership wanted was fairness. Everyone who did the same job should be paid the same for doing it.

But hopes for a quick resolution quickly evaporated.

Harris has been negotiating contracts with Southern Company for a decade. He wasn't quite as optimistic as the less experienced negotiators, but he still thought it could be wrapped up in a few months.

"The problem is that when you are used to being in full control over everything like AGL was — from controlling workforce and rules to benefits and wages — it's tough to suddenly have to live up to a contract. And they didn't want some of that language from 50, 60-year-old contracts," Harris said. "We had to build a relationship, a trust factor."

"Basically, they wanted to do business as usual, but written in a contract," Jerry said.

There was no single moment when the logjam of "noes" broke, Galloway, Harris and Jerry agreed. With every new section of the contract, IBEW proposals were met with a wall of rejections, and a compromise days or weeks away. Then they did it again.

"It was 'no, no, no, no, yes, no, no, no, no, no, yes,' again and again," Harris said.

Crucial to holding the membership together over the long negotiation was the size and variety of the negotiating committee. AGL workers had been part of a union before, but they had voted to decertify. Under the previous union, the negotiating committee had been too small, Galloway said. Too many classifications or parts of the state were unrepresented, and the deals they signed left too many feeling unheard.

"Chris and Anna brought someone from every department," he said. "That meant when we sent out word about some new tentative agreement, every member saw the name of someone they knew."

The diversity mattered at the table too. Timothy Dasher was in his second stint at AGL when he joined the negotiating committee. He started with the company in 2002 as a meter reader, but in 2005 the company contracted out all meter reading. He went to work for the contractor, but the pay scale dropped and he lost his insurance.

"We even had the pension frozen," he said.

He never forgot how that affected his family, Harris said, and the final agreement includes protections for AGL workers that are nearly unheard of. Contractors can only work when AGL workers are working, and AGL workers get first right to the work and first right to the overtime.

"We got it because of what happened to him," Harris said. "It was Tim telling how it impacted his family; it really set him back."

Dasher and Galloway said the low point was at the end when they finally talked wages. Harris said he tried to warn them that AGL's first offer would be insulting if they let it affect them, but that it was just a tactic. Nevertheless, Dasher said it stung.

"It was way below what we already had. That was hard not to get mad. Chris was saying 'Hold on. Don't lose your cool. This is the game and they are playing it well,'" Dasher said. "'But we are playing it too.'"

As bad as it was, though, Harris said they were never close to an impasse, and didn't have to call on the good relationship between Southern corporate brass and the IBEW senior leadership.

"It was as it should be. A hard negotiation that leaves everyone in favor of the deal," he said.

Immediately after the last tentative agreement was struck, the negotiating committee hit the road. The utility covers the entire state, and there are service centers from Rome in the Appalachians to Savannah on the Atlantic Coast. Harris said they put thousands of miles on their cars doing two presentations. Every available worker was assigned and paid by the company to attend.

"It is unusual to pay wages for the committee to travel and 700 employees to listen, but by that point the company wanted the contract as much as we did," Harris said.

After every presentation, they collected ballots.

Jerry explained, Harris ran the presentation and the negotiating committee answered questions.

"I loved watching the countenance of these peoples' faces, from wondering to pure amazement at all the things we were able to get for them. And then we described new classifications and told them their new pay … I loved that part of the process, seeing the 'ah ha' moment," Jerry said.

"I turned to one guy in Augusta and asked what he thought, and he said, 'I can buy a house,'" Galloway said.

By then, the coronavirus pandemic had gone from an overseas headline to a threat no one could ignore.

First the meetings were made smaller and went from twice to three times a day.

After 30 in-person meetings, following the guidance of the state of Georgia, they were shut down. They decided to do virtual presentations followed by a virtual vote through online survey software.

And then they started to fall ill. In the end, five of the seven members of the negotiating committee got sick, as did Galloway, Higgins and Harris. Dasher just lost his sense of taste and smell for a few days. Galloway, Higgins and Harris were hospitalized — Harris spent two days on a ventilator. Higgins spent months in the ICU and was recovering at a rehabilitation center when this issue went to print in early June.

"All the negotiating committee members that weren't in the hospital were on the call," Jerry said. "It was so disappointing that we had to finish with calls. You can't see their faces or read people. That was a huge disappointment. But we were adamant that we wanted to get it done."

And by then, with the pandemic unleashing a hurricane of layoffs nationwide, the contract presentation added a new component.

"If the economy bottoms out, if the company even loses money because of the pandemic, this contract is fixed and cannot be reduced," Jerry said. "That really drove things home."

In the end, nearly 90% of the bargaining unit voted and more than 70% voted "yes." ("It was 72%," Harris said. "I want that 2% counted.")

"It really came down to this: people were sick of not being paid appropriately for the work they were doing," Jerry said.

Now the work of running and keeping a local begins. For now, dues are low, Galloway said, and there will be no full-time local staff. Elections for new officers are scheduled for September.

Georgia is a right-to-work state and the local leadership is signing up members. More than a quarter signed up in the first weeks. In early May, the new paychecks with the new scale began to drop and Galloway says that he expects a lot of people to start signing up when they see that new number. But internal organizing is just the next stage in the process.

"I am giving everyone two pay periods before we really reach out to the ones who haven't joined," he said. "Let them see the new money. That's life-changing money there."