An effort by some members of the Athens-Clarke County Commission to give collective bargaining powers to a labor union at the Athens-Clarke County Fire Department failed to pass Tuesday evening, but those discussions will continue in the new year.
A resolution of support and a proposed ordinance for the union were both before the commission and while a resolution supporting the measure passed with a five to four vote, the commission later voted to move the issue to a meeting in April.
A motion to approve the ordinance would have taken six votes, which the union supporters did not have on the commission. Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz said later that he would have vetoed the ordinance had it been approved.
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The firefighter’s union is a unique situation in that state law – enacted in the 1970s under former Gov. Jimmy Carter – gives firefighters in the state the right to unionize under the Firefighters Mediation Act.
The local fire department has a chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters as Local 2795, but it does not have collective bargaining rights to negotiate on wages, hours and working conditions.
The ACC government had announced Dec. 2 that an ordinance to empower the fire department’s union would go before the commission in a special called meeting on Tuesday.
But several commissioners such as Ovita Thornton, Carol Myers and Allison Wright expressed the sentiment they were not prepared to approve such a far-reaching measure on such short notice.
Prior to the commissioners’ discussion, they heard from several people supporting the union at the fire department, including firefighter Emily Thompson, president of the fire department’s union chapter, who asked the commissioners to adopt the ordinance.
There were others, including an officer with the United Campus Workers of Georgia, who expressed support for unions in general and their rights for collective bargaining.
“They deserve a union because they are workers,” said one woman, who said she did not know anyone in the fire department.
Commissioner Jesse Houle spearheaded the effort to approve the resolution, often fending off concerns by those reluctant to approve the measure. Others supporting the union measures were Melissa Link, Tim Denson, Russell Edwards and Mike Hamby.
Houle expressed that the fear that emerges from such an idea “is much larger than the reality we will face” and he suggested the union would create a situation “where people thrive, rather than survive.”
Denson said he fully supported the union and not only for the fire department.
“I definitely wish we could enact this for all workers,” he said, adding he believed approving this union could “spill over” to other departments.
Myers said she initially supported the union, but “I have too many concerns to proceed tonight.”
“There are concerns that might eventually be addressed in a satisfactory way,” Myers said
Thornton said that during the past four years, the commission has heard concerns and issues from the police department, sheriff’s office, emergency services and corrections.
“This is the first time I have heard anything from the fire department,” she said, adding that she was embarrassed that firefighters did not know they could come to the commission with their concerns.
“You have to educate me if you want my vote,” she said.
Several commissioners told of their own union connections.
Link, a member of the University Campus Workers, said she is descended from four generations of steel workers in Pittsburgh and her mother was a member of a nurse’s union. Hamby said his father was a member of the Teamsters union, and Edwards said he was once a member of the American Federation of Teachers union.
“I’m a union person and I support the resolution,” Edwards said.
This article originally appeared on Athens Banner-Herald: Proposed ordinance to empower Athens fire department union stalled