Atlanta City Council considers tying social benefits programs to transportation referenda projects

By David Pendered

Atlanta city councilmembers are citing Atlanta’s Olympic Games in their emerging effort to ensure that city residents are hired for at least 30 percent of jobs, and that other community benefits be provided, if city voters in November approve two referenda totaling $2.8 billion for transportation projects.

1996 OIympics opening ceremony

The 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta were conducted in venues built by, and with some materials produced by, union members, following an agreement signed by Olympics organizers and organized labor. Credit: olympic.ca

A city attorney already has red-flagged the proposals, saying they relate to territory protected by Georgia’s right-to-work laws. Marc Goncher, of the city’s Law Department, said he didn’t think the proposals have been vetted with Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration.

Regardless, the proposals outlined in Resolution 4061 don’t have teeth, Goncher told the council’s Community Development Committee on July 26.

“The resolution as written has a lot of ‘shall’ and ‘required’ language,” Goncher said. “It’s more an advisory paper. The ‘shalls’ will be interpreted as, ‘please do this.’”

Supporters counter that the city can devise a way to thread the needle and make sure money collected from Atlanta taxpayers helps Atlanta residents.

After all, the city found a way to do something similar during the $1.6 billion in construction leading up to the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, according to Councilmember Andre Dickens, a co-sponsor of the original resolution with Councilmember Kwanza Hall.

“We did it for Atlantic Station, for the Olympics, for the consent decree,” Dickens said, with the last example being the multi-billion-dollar renovation of the city’s water and sewer system.

The Community Development Committee passed the paper with one amendment. All members present wanted their names attached: Michael Julian Bond; Joyce Sheperd; Ivory Lee Young, Jr.; and Cleta Winslow.

Greensferry sewer tunnel

Atlanta’s ongoing effort to improve its water and sewer systems is being built with a labor force that is required to include Atlanta residents, according to Atlanta Councilmember Andre Dickens. File/Credit: lachel.com

Dickens, the committee chair, said the paper can be refined during the council’s two-week summer recess. The item is tentatively on the council’s Aug. 15 agenda.

The deal reached with organized labor before the 1996 Olympics is the stuff of urban legend among some Atlanta neighborhood organizers.

The Olympic deal was evoked, without effect, during the debate over the redevelopment of Fort McPherson. The deal was evoked, with effect, in negotiations before Atlanta agreed to provide $200 million for the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The deal was evoked, with no effect yet, in the pending deal to redevelop Turner Field.

Of note, a resolution passed by the Atlanta City Council did not factor into the deal between Olympics organizers and organized labor.

Civil protest forced the deal, according to a report in 1996 by Stewart Acuff. At the time, Acuff headed the Atlanta Labor Council and was a leader in the negotiations with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.

Acuff cited the Olympics deal in his 2011 book, Playing Bigger Than You Are: A Life in Organizing. Former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders wrote the preface to the book.

Stewart Acuff, on 2013 book tour in England

Stewart Acuff, on 2013 book tour in England

Acuff’s 1996 piece states:

  • “The City Council passed a resolution [in 1991] urging ACOG to ensure the work was done at fair wages with benefits and training by local workers and contractors. No effect.”

What did have an effect was the occupation of a tent city that labor erected next to the Olympic venue five days before the official groundbreaking, planned for June 10, 1993. Demonstrators planned to take over the groundbreaking, Acuff wrote. A deal was reached at 6:30 p.m. on June 9:

  • “[T]he building trades council signed an agreement with the contractor setting union wages and benefits and setting aside 10 percent of the jobs for community residents. Although the agreement covered about half of ACOG’s total construction, there was still a lot of work left. We weren’t done.”

“Done” occurred in early 1994. The Atlanta Labor Council announced its support for Bill Campbell for mayor in July 1993. Campbell won a run-off against former Fulton County Chairman Michael Lomax race with 73 percent of the vote. Campbell appointed Acuff to represent labor on ACOG’s board.

“We got their full attention,” Acuff wrote.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium July 2016

The Mercedes-Benz Stadium is being built with the help of city residents who found jobs through the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency. Credit: David Pendered

Atlantic Station, 2005

Atlanta Station was built following negotiations between the developer and the city that benefited city residents, according to Atlanta Councilmember Andre Dickens. Credit: emseal.com

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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