Atlanta unions campaign to unionize Atlanta Olympics, 1991-1993

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionPDF versionPDF version
Timing
Time Period:  
1991
to
1993
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Atlanta, Georgia
Goals: 
Union wages, union benefits, and jobs and union apprenticeships for the local community.
 

On 19 September 1990, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the city of Atlanta the contract to host the 1996 Summer Olympics. The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) believed that by hosting the Olympics, Atlanta would be able to reinvent itself as an international city, and investment in the Games would help fuel urban development. The Committee leaned on the city of Atlanta’s strong civil rights history to secure the bid.

In its application to the IOC, the ACOG stated that rewards of the Games would be “fairly and equitably apportioned among all of the citizens of our community.” However, once The Atlanta bid committee received the bid, a member of the ACOG, former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, stated that the Games were “not a welfare program but a business venture.”

With preparation for the Games underway, ACOG officials intended to spend $500 million on housing and sports facilities. This included the building of a $207 million Olympic stadium. City officials estimated that the project would create more than 85,000 jobs, mostly in construction.

As early as 1991, the American Labor Council (ALC) started negotiations with the ACOG to ensure that the $1.6 billion investment in the Olympics adequately touched the communities who would suffer during preparation for the games.

It became clear to the ALC that the ACOG intended to do the work as cheaply as possible and exclude the union. So, they began to organize in the communities surrounding the Olympic area, including Summerhill, Peoplestown, Techwood Homes, and Mechanicsville. Community leaders Columbus Ward, Duane Stewart, and Gene Ferguson became important allies. The ALC together with community activists demanded that work be done by union workers with 10% of jobs be set aside for the people in the community.

A coalition between the ALC and the Building Trades gained the support of Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson. The Atlanta City Council passed a “resolution calling for the estimated 85,000 Olympics jobs to be done with contractors that paid prevailing wage, offered health insurance and pensions, and provided training and a safe workplace.” The ACOG ignored the recommendations of the City Council and made no such promises.

In May 1992, against the backdrop of protests over police brutality against Rodney King in Los Angeles, CA, Stewart Acuff, leader of the ALC, called again for the ACOG to require the work be done by union workers. He also proposed to the ACOG that it train unemployed Atlantans for Olympic construction. Acuff stated, "if the construction work is done by unions, we can recruit residents out of the Olympic neighborhoods and put them to work and put them into our apprenticeship programs.”

An ACOG representative stated that a training program would be premature since a decision on who would build the venues or even design them had not yet been made, and the committee committed to providing employment. The state of Georgia was a “right to work” state, meaning that, by law, the ACOG could not command contractors to use union labor. The ALC called for the ACOG to commit to using union labor by the end of the summer, or the ALC together with its coalition would begin to protest.

On 18 September 1992, the Olympic flag arrived in Atlanta and on that same day, Reverend Jesse Jackson led a march of thousands of union workers condemning the ACOG for not requiring union workers on its projects. When the coalition between ALC and civil rights groups first received word of the flag delivery, they immediately started to plan an action in protest. Their planning ultimately spanned six months.

In order to mobilize as many people as possible, the coalition printed 100,000 leaflets and distributed them at worksites, public transit stations, and churches. They also went on the radio and broadcasted that, on 18 September, they would demonstrate their strength to the ACOG. All unionized construction workers stopped working so they could join the march; union leaders reported between 10,000 and 20,000 marchers.

Protestors carried signs and shouted slogans as they marched from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers building to downtown Atlanta, not far from the flag display. During the march, Acuff singled out the top two Olympic executives, Billy Payne and A.D. Frazier, shouting "you better get it right or get used to it. We're here to fight." A plane flew overhead with a trailing banner that read, “Treat workers right Billy and A.D” Shouts of “Unions yes, Payne no” could be heard.

Slogans on some signs read, “Unions built Atlanta, why not the Olympics?” Reverend Jackson also gave a speech calling for first-class wages and benefits along with first-class athletes and facilities. Union leaders feared that without an agreement to use union workers, minimum wage jobs would go to transient workers, and could potentially create a domino effect that would pull down overall wages, working conditions, and living standards.

On 22 December, after two months without a commitment from the ACOG, a coalition of 85 construction workers and 15 community activists occupied the offices of the ACOG seeking to speak with Frazier. Young tried to speak with the group, but he was shut down by the protesters, who no longer saw him as a legitimate voice in the struggle. After holding the office for almost two hours, the protesters presented Frazier with a list of demands, including union wages, union benefits, and jobs and union apprenticeships for local communities. Frazier responded by saying that he expected a significant number of the jobs would be done by union workers but was not prepared to require contractors to use 100 percent union labor.

At the beginning of the new year, the ACOG had yet to make a commitment to the labor unions, and Acuff maintained that the coalition of unions and local groups would continue to push for an agreement to go all union. The campaign was no longer about construction jobs alone but for the people of the neighborhoods to do as much of the work as possible. Acuff stated, "I'd like to see...an agreement to go all union. We need as many people as possible from the neighborhoods doing the work––not just construction.”

Groundbreaking for the Olympic Stadium was set for 10 June 1993, but the coalition asserted that there would be no ceremony without a union agreement. Five days before the groundbreaking, they set up a tent city at the corner of Capitol and Georgia Avenues at the perimeter of the future stadium. Protesters from groups including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), AFL-CIO and homeless support groups held picket signs, read statements, sang songs, and vowed to stay until the groundbreaking ceremony.

At 6:30 pm on 9 June, the unions marked a victory. The building trades council signed an agreement with some of the contractors establishing union wages and benefits for all workers and setting aside ten percent of the jobs for community residents. The agreement with the contractor only covered half of the Olympic Games construction and the ALC continued to push forward for more inclusivity.

With the upcoming mayoral election on 22 July, the ALC endorsed candidate Bill Campbell. Campbell was a city councilor with a history of voting in favor of unions, but he was not very well-known among the union members. His opponent, Michael Lomax, was a businessman who built millions of dollars of Fulton county construction with non-union workers.

Acuff became deputy campaign manager of Campbell’s campaign and spoke with him at local union meetings. Volunteers went to precincts, churches, and shopping centers to hand out leaflets on the weekends. The ALC set up a phone bank that called each union member three times to educate them on the candidate. Union members also received mailings about Bill Campbell.

On 2 November, Bill Campbell won the election with 73 percent of the vote and thanked the labor unions for his success. After his inauguration, Mayor Campbell appointed Acuff to the Board of Directors of the ACOG as the representative of labor. Through the appointment, Acuff was able to get union members on every ACOG construction project, including union jobs in non-construction sectors. Acuff also succeeded in getting the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and Communication Workers of America (CWA) to provide transportation and communications for the Games.

After two long years of grassroots campaigning, the labor unions were able to secure a voice at the table. Overall, the ALC and its coalition of activist groups were partially successful in attaining their goals. Ten percent of jobs were set aside for local community members and while they were able to have the wages set as union wages, all jobs were not done by union workers and the agreement did not cover all Olympics construction jobs. Acuff’s appointment to the ACOG was a huge success that allowed him to negotiate contracts for union workers on other Olympics related jobs.

Research Notes
Sources: 
Anon. 1993a. “Protest of Atlanta Olympic Site.” The New York Times, July 9. Retrieved February 25, 2019 (https://web.archive.org/web/20190415005136/https://www.nytimes.com/1993/07/09/sports/protest-of-atlanta-olympic-site.html).

Anon. 1993b. “Plan for Olympic Park Spurs Atlanta Protest.” The New York Times, November 21. Retrieved February 25, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190415001354/https://www.nytimes.com/1993/11/21/us/plan-for-olympic-park-spurs-atlanta-protest.html).

Acuff, Stewart. 1996. “Organized Labor and the Olympics.” Southern Changes. 18(2):19-20. Retrieved February 25, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190415004828/http://southernchanges.digitalscholarship.emory.edu/sc18-2_1204/sc18-2_006/).

Acuff, Stewart. 1999. “Expanded Roles for the Central Labor Council: The View from Atlanta.” Pp. 133-142 in Which direction for organized labor? Essays on organizing, outreach, and internal transformation edited B. Nissan. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. Retrieved February 24, 2019.

Foskett, Ken. 1993. "Protesters Rally Against Olympic Stadium site ‘Tent City’ Pitched at Proposed Venue.”," The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution, July 9, pp. G/3. Retrieved February 24, 2019. (https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=AWNB&t=&sort=YMD_date%3AA&fld-base-0=alltext&maxresults=20&val-base-0=protesters%20rally%20against%20olympic%20site&fld-nav-0=YMD_date&val-nav-0=1992%20-%201996&docref=news/0EADA06398E1343E#copy).

Perry, Phyllis. 1992. "Olympic jobs being watched for fairness Union chief warns of not using Games to benefit residents," The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution, May 3, pp. D/7. Retrieved February 24, 2019. 2019.(https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=AWNB&t=&sort=YMD_date%3AA&fld-base-0=alltext&maxresults=20&val-base-0=%22Atlanta%22%20%22Unions%22%20Protest%20Olympics&fld-nav-0=YMD_date&val-nav-0=1992%20-%201996&docref=news/0EB7D433C4892F830).

Perry, Phyllis Roughton, and Bert Jr. 1992. "Olympic Watch: A day of celebration and protest. City welcomes the flag as unions march for jobs," The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution, September 19, pp. A/14. Retrieved February 24, 2019. 2019.(https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=AWNB&t=&sort=YMD_date%3AA&fld-base-0=alltext&maxresults=20&val-base-0=%22Atlanta%22%20%22Unions%22%20Protest%20Olympics&fld-nav-0=YMD_date&val-nav-0=1992%20-%201996&docref=news/0EB7D46A6CD7FD73#copy).

Perry, Phyllis. 1992. "Activists protest at ACOG. They want unions to do all Olympic workOthers protesting plan to use Techwood Homes," The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution, December 22, pp. A/1. Retrieved February 24, 2019. 2019.(https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=AWNB&t=&sort=YMD_date%3AA&fld-base-0=alltext&maxresults=20&val-base-0=%22Atlanta%22%20%22Unions%22%20Protest%20Olympics&fld-nav-0=YMD_date&val-nav-0=1992%20-%201996&docref=news/0EB7D48FB43B7706#copy).

Perry, Phyllis. 1993. "Olympic Watch, Push for job guarantees likely in '93 Organizers can expect to get pressure from several sources," The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution, January 2, pp. B/4. Retrieved February 24, 2019. 2019.(https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=AWNB&t=&sort=YMD_date%3AA&fld-nav-0=YMD_date&val-nav-0=1993%20-%201993&fld-base-0=alltext&maxresults=20&val-base-0=Atlanta%20Olympics%20Protest&docref=news/0EADA01ACAD0BC89).

Zamon, Christina. n.d. “GSU Library Research Guides: Southern Labor Archives: Work n’ Progress - Lessons and Stories: Part VI: Modern Era.” Retrieved February 25, 2019. (https://web.archive.org/web/20190415004006/https://research.library.gsu.edu/c.php?g=115684https://research.library.gsu.edu/c.php?g=115684&p=752642&p=752642).

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Shakina Kirton 03/03/2019