Athens’ Unions are Fighting for Recognition

Bryant Barnes thinks the biggest myth about unions is that they work against the members within them […]

Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Tim Denson speaks to members of the University of Georgia chapter of the United Campus Workers of Georgia and ACC fire sergeant Emily Thompson at a union happy hour event on Nov. 17, 2022, in Athens, Georgia. Thompson is advocating for the passage of a county ordinance that would allow collective bargaining rights for local firefighters. (Photo/Maddy Franklin)

Bryant Barnes thinks the biggest myth about unions is that they work against the members within them. He is co-chair of the University of Georgia chapter of United Campus Workers of Georgia, an organization made up of employees of the University System of Georgia that advocates for “labor, justice and dignity,” according to its website

“It’s ultimately about democracy in the workplace,” said Barnes about the goal of unions. 

Once widespread in the U.S. during the labor movement of the 1930s-60s, union membership has steadily declined over the decades. Though it seems like the tide might be changing. According to a Gallup poll, 71% of Americans approve of labor unions — the highest percentage since 1965. 

Across the country, there have been recent efforts to unionize workers at Starbucks locations, Amazon warehouses and even on airport runways. Retired lawyer and professor at UGA’s law school Weyman Johnson called these efforts significant and said he believes unions’ resurgence affects Athens just as much as it does communities nationwide. 

According to the National Labor Relations Board, only one petition for representation has been filed in Athens and two petitions have been filed in nearby cities of Winder, Georgia, and Jefferson, Georgia, in the past two years. Compared to a statewide increase in filings, these numbers don’t indicate a local trend but they aren’t capturing what’s bubbling just under the surface. 

(Graphic/Maddy Franklin)

Barnes, a Ph.D. history student at UGA, said he’s aware of current unionization efforts in town that don’t involve those on campus. And an upcoming resolution that Athens-Clarke County Commissioners are slated to vote on Dec. 6 has created excitement around the future of unions in the county. 

The proposed resolution asks that collective bargaining rights be extended to county firefighters through their union, Professional Firefighters of ACC Local 2795. Georgia is one of 27 “right-to-work” states meaning workers don’t have to be a member of a labor union or pay dues to be employed. For a union to be officially recognized and have collective bargaining rights, a contract with the employer must be established. Public sector employee unions don’t have collective bargaining rights in Georgia. 

But, Emily Thompson, president of PFACC and an ACC fire sergeant, found a workaround for firefighters. The “Firefighter’s Mediation Act” located in Title 25 of Georgia’s code states that “permanent members of any paid fire department of a municipality should be not accorded the right to strike … This necessary prohibition, however, shall not prohibit such municipal employees from being represented by a labor organization … and from bargaining collectively concerning wages, rates of pay and other terms and conditions of employment.” 

Such rights have already been won for firefighters in Atlanta and South Fulton, Georgia, and Thompson and Barnes are hopeful that Athens will soon join the ranks. Thompson said ACC’s fire department is struggling — it’s understaffed and the firefighters are overworked. As the union’s president, she said she represents 140 out of the department’s 150 employees. Still, Thompson said she’s had trouble talking to the fire chief about staff concerns because the union isn’t officially recognized. 

Today, the department is down an entire battalion, according to Thompson. She said many people have left over a gap between the job’s benefits and wages. Thompson is worried that if firefighters’ needs aren’t met soon, it could impact the service given to the community. 

“If we don’t do something, we’re not going to have a fire department,” she said. 

If the “Firefighter’s Mediation Act” is passed, Thompson believes the county could recoup the personnel it lost. Barnes said its passing could pave the way for other public sector employees to secure official recognition as well. 

UCWGA-UGA is supporting Thompson’s efforts because as Barnes put it, “a win for organized labor is a win for all organized labor.” While UCWGA-UGA has had achievements in the past such as the elimination of a Special Institution Fee and a pay raise for graduate student workers, its power is very limited without USG or UGA’s recognition. 

Currently, the chapter is working on a living-wage campaign as well as a campaign for campus workers to have free parking. Barnes said the latter was spearheaded by custodians on campus and is gaining support fast. A petition for free parking was recently created and as of Nov. 21, 329 signatures have been collected. Once the goal of 500 signatures has been reached, Barnes said the petition will likely be delivered to UGA President Jere Morehead. 

Whether or not the campaign is effective or the resolution is passed, Barnes said UCWGA-UGA will continue its mission by organizing people. There is no giving up. 

“We have a very long fight, not just here in Athens, but in Georgia and in the U.S.,” he said.