ACC firefighters keep pushing for union recognition

ACC firefighters showed up in force at Tuesday’s mayor and commission meeting to ask for a second time that the local government recognize their union and allow collective bargaining to begin.

Are public sector unions legal in Georgia?

The Professional Firefighters of Athens-Clarke County (Local 2795) have been attending commission meetings for almost a year, requesting official recognition. While public sector unions are generally prohibited in Georgia, firefighters are an exception.

Collective bargaining by firefighters is legal in Georgia if the city council or county commission adopts the Firefighter’s Mediation Act under Georgia code, title 25. Currently, only Atlanta and the city of South Fulton recognize their firefighters’ unions.

After months of lobbying by the ACC Firefighters’ union, ACC Commissioners finally took a vote in December on a resolution in support of local government employees joining labor unions, which passed 5-4. Commissioners Tim Denson, Melissa Link, Jesse Houle, Russell Edwards and Mike Hamby voted in support of the resolution, while Commissioners Ovita Thornton, Carol Myers, Patrick Davenport and Allison Wright voted against it.

After the vote, Mayor Kelly Girtz immediately vetoed the resolution, saying he was concerned about the “fracturing and atomization” that might happen if some local government employees (firefighters) held privileges over other employees (for example, police officers). The commission can overrule a mayor’s veto, but they need seven votes to do so.

Thinking quickly, Hamby proposed that they table a companion vote until April, giving the firefighters a second chance with a new commission.

The second vote – can Girtz’s veto be overcome?

Firefighters speak out

ACC firefighters and supporters lined up to give public comment before the commission vote on adopting the Firefighter’s Mediation Act at this week’s meeting.

Lieutenant Jeremy Williams, an ACC firefighter for 23 years, said that official recognition of his union is the only way firefighters’ voices can be heard by the local government. ACC employees are prohibited in the charter from speaking directly to the mayor and commission about their concerns and must follow the chain of command by going through the ACC Manager’s Office.

But the manager’s office has not been sympathetic.

“I was told by multiple administrators that the manager’s office and the county government would have nothing to do with our association,” Williams said. “None of our ideas would be listened to. When these communications ceased, service and public safety suffered.”

Nate Bailey, President of the Professional Firefighters of Georgia, also spoke at the podium during public comment. He emphasized the benefits to employee morale and recruitment that would come from recognizing their union.

“By passing this tonight, you’re giving your firefighters a voice,” Bailey said. “You’re going to boost their morale, and the applicant pool, and it doesn’t cost you a dime.”

Regarding the process of collective bargaining itself, Bailey reassured commissioners that it would not have an impact on this year’s budget. “We’re already [too] close to the fiscal year, so you’re going to give them 15 months to discuss this. There’s no threat to this. Atlanta passed this 14-0 without a discussion.”

The ACC Democrats wrote an open letter to the mayor and commission in favor of collective bargaining and Mara Zúñiga, former Treasurer of the Athens GOP, spoke in favor of the motion on Tuesday, showing that the issue of public safety cuts across party lines.

21 people spoke in support of the firefighter’s union for about an hour in total with none opposed.

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Commissioners weigh in

Commissioner Jesse Houle
Commissioner Jesse Houle

Houle started the discussion behind the rail by motioning to adopt the Firefighter’s Mediation Act and allow ACC firefighters to collectively bargain.

“We’re really just talking about bringing our workers to the table for a conversation, empowering our employees to participate in the democratic process,” Houle said. “That includes them being able to negotiate the realities of their jobs that cost money. I wish we could extend this under state law to more departments.”

Myers seconded Houle’s motion, saying that the Professional Firefighters of Athens-Clarke County has demonstrated a higher degree of organizational cohesion than it did in December.

“Despite not supporting the ordinance in the previous vote, I’m supporting it tonight,” Myers said. “What I was concerned about was that we were giving our staff and management something new. I wanted to make sure everything was sort of lined up with how the union itself was functioning.”

Dexter Fisher
Commissioner Dexter Fisher

Then Commissioner Dexter Fisher made a substitute motion, calling to hold the vote until June 6 so that he could learn more about the fire department’s situation in a work session next month. 

“I need more information,” Fisher said. “If our equipment is that bad, I need to know why. If we’re not recruiting or retaining firefighters, I need to know why. They do a heck of a job, and I understand that.”

Commissioner John Culpepper seconded Fisher’s motion. Both Culpepper and Fisher took office in January, meaning they were not on the commission for the previous vote and might be forgiven for a little uncertainty.

Hamby asked for the firefighter’s union to be invited to Fisher’s proposed work session, to which commissioners generally agreed. But ACC Attorney Judd Drake expressed a minor concern about the legality of that suggestion, which caused procedural thickets to sprout and overwhelm the meeting for almost 30 minutes.

After emerging from the legal and procedural jungle, commissioners voted unanimously in favor of Fisher’s motion, with Hamby’s amendment included. That means a work session will take place on the topic (likely on May 9) before the vote in June.

It remains to be seen if commissioners have the seven votes that are required to override the looming threat of Girtz’s veto. APN will keep you informed on this topic as it progresses.

Meissner Filtration Products opening plant in Athens

Hamby announced at Tuesday’s meeting that Meissner Corporation will open a plant in Athens that will provide 1,700 jobs over the next 8 years with an average salary of $83,000. That’s a big win for the ACC Development Authority and for the entire community.

Meissner’s new facility will be located at 1310 Spring Valley Road. It’s expected to begin operations in early 2026.

For more information on this exciting development, check out Blake Aued’s coverage in the Flagpole.

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