Organized Labor and the Olympics

Organized Labor and the Olympics

By Stewart Acuff

Vol. 18, No. 2, 1996 pp. 19-20

On September 18, 1992 the Olympic Flag arrived in Atlanta from Barcelona, Spain signifying the transfer of the Olympic Movement, the Olympic Spirit, and the Olympic Games.

The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games held a celebration at Underground Atlanta to greet the flag.

The Atlanta Labor Council held a ten thousand person march and demonstration to greet the flag.

The march and rally led by Rev. Jesse Jackson and Dr. Joseph Lowery was the largest and most-noticed event in a three year battle between the labor movement and its allies and the Olympic committee to make sure the work done for the Olympics was done without exploiting local workers or undermining local labor standards and wages.

Although the labor movement didn’t get everything it wanted, our campaign is a remarkable story of success resulting from a long-term strategy that combined direct action and political action. We are proud of a victory that almost every union in metro Atlanta contributed to.

The Olympic stadium was built under an agreement negotiated and signed between the building trades council and the contractor. Even the bricks in the stadium were made in a brick factory represented by the United Steelworkers.

All the communication work is being done by members of the Communication Workers of America.

Much of the printing is done by the Graphic Communication International Union.

Members of the building trades have been on all the construction projects controlled by the Olympic committee.

Members of the Amalgamated Transit Union have provided most of the Olympic transportation through our city’s mass transit system. When the Olympic committee announced that the temporary bus drivers would only make six dollars per hour, quiet negotiations upped the wage by

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fifty percent to nine dollars per hour.

Even most of the staging work–particularly on the opening and closing ceremonies–is being done by members of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees.

And since early 1994 I have served as a member of the Board of Directors of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.

Early negotiations with the Olympic committee were frustrating and unfruitful. Olympic committee leaders–with the exception of Andy Young committed to putting on the Olympics without public funds were determined to do the work as cheaply as possible.

We knew we didn’t want to fight unless we had to because we could easily be accused of being too self-serving or not thinking of the good of the community or opposing one of the world’s great international peacetime events and institutions. But we were equally aware that we had to be part of the process because a $1.6 billion infusion of work at substandard wages could pull down everyone’s wages, working conditions, and living standards. We were afraid that workers who never get close to the Olympics would suffer if the work was done without regard for the workers and their communities.

So, by the beginning of 1991 we were determined that the work done on the Olympics would be done at fair wages and benefits and where possible under union contracts.

After early discussion with ACOG proved unfruitful we began a political lobbying strategy we hoped would encourage ACOG to deal with us. Then Mayor Maynard Jackson agreed. He made numerous public and private statements that the Olympic work should be done with union labor. The City Council passed a resolution urging ACOG to ensure the work was done at fair wages with benefits and training by local workers and contractors. No effect.

We then turned to the community. We developed a relationship with the leaders and organizations representing the people in the community where the stadium was built. We agreed to call for the work to be clone union with ten percent of the jobs set aside for the people in the community. Longtime community leaders Columbus Ward, Duane Stewart, and Gene Ferguson proved to be critical allies. ACOG began to get interested in the issue of training and jobs for people in the community but not in union contracts or agreements.

Then after a year and a half of lobbying and meetings and coalition work we heard that the Olympic flag would come to Atlanta on September 18, 1992 and that there would be a huge celebration. We began a six-month planning process to disrupt the celebration, demonstrate our collective anger, and raise the stakes for ACOG. The planning ended on that Friday when every union construction job in Atlanta was shut down, when ACTWU closed one of their clothing plants so their members could march in solidarity, when ten thousand workers hit the streets in a march led by Rev. Jesse Jackson and Dr. Joseph Lowery that shut down downtown Atlanta, affirming in the most dramatic way the historic alliance between civil rights and organized labor.

The march got their attention. But they still weren’t ready to deal.

Two months later, at the end of November, community activist Duane Stewart, building trades leader Charlie Key, and I met in Charlie’s office. We put together a Christmas demand list and planned a small but very dramatic demonstration.

On December 22, eighty five construction workers and fifteen community activists physically took over ACOG’s headquarters forcing a meeting with Chief Operating Officer A.D. Frazier and holding the office for two hours. We got even more of their attention. But still no deal.

The following spring ACOG announced that the groundbreaking for the Olympic stadium would be held June 10. We said there wouldn’t be a groundbreaking without a union agreement. With our allies from the community we set up a tent city on the edge of this property five days before the announced time of the ceremony. I moved in with several community activists. We planned the demonstration that would take over the groundbreaking.

Then at 6:30 p.m. June 9, the building trades council signed an agreement with the contractor setting union wages and benefits and setting aside ten 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.

On July 22 the Atlanta Labor Council endorsed Bill Campbell for Mayor. Although Campbell was the underdog in the three-way contest, he was pro-union and very energetic. The labor movement threw everything we had into his race and I became a deputy campaign manager. Four months later he won with seventy three percent of the vote.

He came to the first labor council meeting after his inauguration–press in tow. He thanked the delegates for labor’s support, acknowledging that he wouldn’t be mayor if not for organized labor. Then with a dramatic flourish, announced his appointment of me as a representative of labor to the Board of Directors of ACOG.

We got their full attention.

Stewart Acuff is president of the Atlanta Labor Council.