By Mara Zúñiga
It should have been as simple as just voting yes on December 6, 2022, for the recognition of the Professional Firefighters of Athens-Clarke County Local 2795.
This request for recognition by the local government required nothing more than an administrative change that would enable the existing 15-year-old Athens firefighter’s union to have a seat at the table with their employer, the local government. This change would enable the firefighters to have a voice in negotiating matters such as their complex and seemingly unfair wage step-plan along with the increasing costs of benefits that are negatively affecting the firefighter’s quality of life. This mediation process is called collective bargaining and only the firefighters union is given this exception under Georgia law.
They weren’t fighting for unions in the private or public sector overall. That is not their fight. Their fight was won a long time ago in the 1970’s when Governor Jimmy Carter signed into law the Firefighter’s Mediation Act. Through this Act, if recognized in Athens, local firefighters would have been able to gain a voice and offer solutions to the problems facing them presently. Additionally, if recognized, they would have been able reach out to the International Association of Firefighters for much needed resources like Grant-Funded Peer Support and Behavior Health training, Federal Grant Writing Assistance, Grant funded Fire ground Survival Training and others that would benefit the fire department at no cost to the city budget which has already been stretched thin with costly benefits being provided to a select few in Athens.
However, that night, the firefighter’s cause was hijacked by commissioner Jesse Houle and friends as they have often done with other causes for their own agenda. The firefighter’s resolution was worded as such- “Resolution in support of ACC Employee Labor Unions” instead of just writing a simple resolution to recognize one union-local 2795. It also included wording such as “The commission shall be required to approve a Resolution designating any future employee organization(s) or unions with the authority to provide input as set forth in Section 4 above”.
The resolution was passed with a narrow 5-4 vote, but when it came to the actual ordinance which amended the code and was more specific to Local 2795, the subject matter took a twist. Commissioner Houle wanted an immediate vote. Commissioner Hamby reminded him that the ordinance needed six votes to be adopted which they clearly did not have. Still, Houle wanted to vote on it, knowing he would not have that result. Hamby asked him to hold the vote for a later time and still Commissioner Houle insisted on an immediate vote. Why? If he really wanted to help the firefighters, why not wait until they could get six votes? Hamby reminded Commissioner Houle that failure to get the six votes would mean the main issue would “come to a stop in some ways” and recommended he put a hold on the matter, until they could get the necessary votes to pass because of what he saw as “unfolding”. Commissioner Houle refused. Commissioner Edwards motioned to put it on hold, which eventually went through. Commissioner Hamby emphasized that although the hold was the best option, “that still allows for if the mayor does sign the resolution-for those actions to take place and if not then we will have an opportunity of overriding that veto, which will take seven votes”.
There was something seemingly odd going on among some of the usual notorious commissioners. They didn’t seem in agreement. They wanted the firefighters to speak up. They wanted the public to hear their needs and why their union was important, but it didn’t seem as if it was for the firefighters. It was for their own agenda to push labor unions in general and issues surrounding that. Commissioner Houle said that if this ordinance did not pass, and clearly it was not going to pass, that at least there would be conversation about “other” unions coming together and having a conversation with their employer, even if they did not have collective bargaining.
I wondered, “what is a union with no collective bargaining”? It’s just an organization that individuals like Commissioner Houle and friends could use to organize people and protest for their purposes. The radical commissioners have lost Mariah Parker who normally would create a problem, protest and come up with a solution all in one. They have also been losing credibility among progressives, democrats and liberals. They really need new strategies because they now have a track record of their biases and agendas which the community has come to see more clearly this past year.
But Local 2795 is not looking to be used this way. All they want is to be heard and for the local government to come to reasonable agreements with them in accordance with the existing state law. Recognizing them doesn’t change state law about unions or give pathways toward changing them either. According to my source, their bylaws prohibit them from striking or engaging in any work stoppage or slowdown. Rather a method of mediation of disputes is established. It also doesn’t change the status of Georgia as a “right to work state”.
So how did the Athens firefighters get to this point?
If the voice of the firefighters would have been heard in the first place, maybe a solution for their increasing concerns, be it public safety or their benefits, would have been addressed without the firefighters seeking more advocacy for public safety, themselves, their families.
According to some sources, they cannot bring these concerns to the commissioners. It could be a violation. They must go through the chain of command. But what if communication gets clipped at some point in the chain? Back in 2012, Local 2796 President, Jeremy Williams, spoke up against the closure of Ladder seven housed in Fire Station seven on 2350 Barnett Shoals Rd. According to Mr. Williams, “the county was going to cut 3 drivers and 3 officer positions. The county manager at the time had thought this was a good idea to save some of the county’s budget. However, this would have severely reduced response times to a significant portion of the population.” This, according to Mr. Williams, would have doubled or tripled the amount of time to arrive at the scene putting lives at risk. He emphasized that when it comes to response time, firefighter believe seconds matter because lives matter. Community members helped stop this dangerous reduction in fire protection services and as of today that ladder continues to be open. Though that outcome was a success, the city manager ordered the Fire Chief and Jeremy Williams to stop communication with union personnel and prohibited them from utilizing union resources.
On Sunday December 18, 2022 at a massive fire, at a lumber yard, on Tallassee Road, they were short a Ladder truck.
Not too long ago, five points had a station with not enough firefighters, so Ladder 343 was not in operation. No one in five points would have known. They see the station and they see a truck inside but there were no firefighters to service their area.
According to one of my sources, Athens’ fire department has the highest tier rating given to any fire department, an ISO Class 1. Only a fraction of the top 1% of all fire departments nationwide have this rating. We would not have this rating if the local had not saved Ladder 7 years earlier. Having an ISO rating of 1 helps to also reduce the cost of insurance for the community.
According to one of my sources, at one point in time, there were more than 400 applicants seeking to fill about 17 positions. Nowadays, there are approximately 40 openings, and cannot fill them. Many come to get the professional training that has given this fire department their rating but soon leave for better work environments.
Firefighters have a dangerous job and undergo many stresses. Not only are they walking into the inherent perils of firefighting, car crashes and/or community violence but they are at high risk of cancer from just wearing their uniforms. They also get exposed to harmful chemicals from the different substances that burn at fires. They need their health insurance, but unfortunately it has become almost unaffordable even with a wage increase. One source told me that for a family health insurance the cost is about $16,500 a year with very high deductibles. When you look at an average salary of $46k, those costs and others can eat away at their wages, especially if you have a family. Expensive wage studies that the city paid for, created wage compression and a step plan that most don’t understand but see existing unfair compensation in the way it was set up. Firefighters are fleeing to other counties because even though their salaries may not be higher, their insurance and benefits costs are less, thus they have more take home pay. They are also well received and respected. We are experiencing a shortage of firefighters that affects response time which in turn risks citizen lives. Some are working overtime and second jobs just to make a decent living. According to another source that I spoke to, out of approx. 175 firefighters they have lost approximately 30 last year. That is a huge number and soon the community will learn that our fire department is on life support.
Both the mayor and the city manager, presently, have made it clear that they are opposed to giving the firefighters their due right under state law for whatever reason they claim is just. Jimmy Carter would have disagreed with them.
Other things I learned while visiting fire stations and speaking to our first responders are that: they also service the University of Georgia and, when needed, Oconee County. They buy their own food, which eats into their wages, the station gets cleaned by them and they take turns doing their own payroll. If they get certifications for any higher training, there are no additional benefits at all.
Our local government has become a political machine. No longer is it about the general welfare and safety of our community as a whole.
It seems as if something suits most of the community members but not the local government leaders and their inner circle, then it won’t get done. If something doesn’t suit most of the community members but will benefit local government leaders and their inner circle, then it will get done.
When will this stop? This will only stop when we begin to vote for individuals and not parties. When moderate people get more involved in the issues facing their local communities and exercise their civic responsibilities, especially in those areas affecting the health and safety of the entire community, will we finally begin to see the positive changes Athens so desperately needs.
Mara Zúñiga is an Athens resident who is former treasurer of the Clarke County Republican Party and in 2022 ran for mayor of Athens-Clarke County, but lost to the incumbent