While Bibb countians went into the voting booths on Tuesday to choose a mayor and four members of the new Bibb County Commission to round out the five selected on Sept. 17, there was another election going on south of the county, and in many respects, the election of new union leadership is as important to Middle Georgia as the new consolidated government is to Bibb County voters.
Several months ago, retired Gen. Robert McMahon, now president and CEO of the 21st Century Partnership, sent a warning shot across the bow of Middle Georgia. He identified labor relations as the “No. 1 threat to the future of Robins Air Force Base.”
McMahon went on to say there were problems with base management and its unions and that those problems were “long-standing.” The numbers bear out his contention. Robins workers filed 328 grievances in fiscal 2012, 76 more than Hill Air Force Base in Utah and Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma combined. Robins also went through 229 arbitrations in the same period, 133 more than Tinker and Hill combined. The trend continued into the next fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
For a time, community leaders and others, discounted the disparity between bases as counting apples as opposed to counting oranges. That wishful thinking turned out not to be the case. Sequestration, something no one counted on happening, happened and base workers started taking furloughs. Another round of Base Realignment and Closure loomed on the horizon, although elected officials in Washington initially pooh-poohed the thought. McMahon foisted the idea that a sequester was worse than a BRAC because of its ham-fisted, meat cleaver approach, to cutting costs.
While not saying the union was the lone culprit in the diverging numbers between Robins and the other bases, workers decided to take a different direction in voting for a new union president. Tom Scott, the nine-year incumbent, was ousted by Robert Tidwell and every candidate on Tidwell’s ticket rolled to victory, obviously a message for change.
Will this move alone straighten out the labor issues at Robins? Probably not. As Tidwell said, “We’ve got a lot of work to do.” But the pathway to that work is clear. Tidwell acknowledged McMahon’s concerns were real when he first declared his candidacy for president of the American Federation of Government Workers, the largest union on the base.
That realization must have sunk in with other base workers as well. While there is no inoculation from sequestration, there are ways to make the base more competitive when -- not if -- another round of BRAC occurs.