Wastewater Workers Walk Off the Job
Protest 81 Percent Cut to Workforce
By Zenobia Jeffries
The Michigan Citizen
DETROIT — The battle between the city’s water employees and management has no end in sight. On Sept. 30, members of AFSCME Local 207, wastewater plant workers, walked off the job. The wastewater workers, over 400, make up almost half of the total Local, which has 950 members. Organizers say this is not just a workers strike, but a fight against a further erosion of city services and an attempt to take the water department.
“The strike is about the attempt to separate the water department from Detroit and cut services to the community,” AFSCME Local 207 President John Riehl told the Michigan Citizen the second day of the strike. “(The city’s) mechanism is to reduce the workforce by 81 percent.”
This, Riehl says, would have a particular impact on the community if there’s a water main leak, broken sewer line or fire hydrant not working.
The strike began to protest the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s (DWSD) proposal of a one-year contract, wage and benefit concessions. Local 207 wants a five-year deal that limits outsourcing.
“Our people, all day long, operate the machinery,” says Riehl, adding that the conditions are pretty bad because staff has been “very, very short.”
“We barely have enough operation workers now,” he said.
The workers were ordered back to work Oct. 1 by U.S. District Court Judge Sean Cox, who issued a temporary restraining order on behalf of the city of Detroit to force the strikers to return to their jobs.
“Unions, their members employed by DWSD, and any and all persons acting in concert with them are hereby enjoined from … engaging or participating in the strike; obstructing, preventing or interfering with DWSD or any of its employees … committing acts of violence assault or battery at or near DWSD … failing to report to work or conduct work in accordance with DWSD personnel,” Cox wrote in his order.
He further stated the strike will harm the safety of the public.
In a press statement, Mayor Dave Bing’s office wrote: “It is imperative that there be no interruption in the service or an impact on the quality of water provided to our citizens or any negative impact on the environment.”
That same day, attorneys for members of Local 207 filed a motion to have Cox recuse himself from hearing or deciding matters related to the city’s request for preliminary and permanent injunctive relief.
“It’s outrageous,” said Attorney George Washington during a press conference after filing the motion. “Judge Cox has set himself up as the personnel director and issued orders without hearing from the employees.”
Washington says Cox knew he was in his office and didn’t attempt to contact him to allow the unions to respond to the city’s motion for injunctive relief.
According to the motion, Cox has established himself as the supervisor and facilitator of management’s plans to drastically alter the employees’ working conditions and their contractual and bargaining rights.
“We are asking Judge Cox to recuse himself,” said Washington. “Let’s face it. What we have is a white judge telling an 80 percent Black workforce to go back to work and lose their benefits. This man is acting like an emergency manager on steroids.”
In November of last year, Cox issued an order that allows for unprecedented changes to the DWSD. In addition to the significant changes in collective bargaining, the order empowers the department’s director to outsource, change work rules for union employees, hire, fire and promote managers.
Cox’s order was issued following his threat two months prior to implement a “more intrusive remedy” if local leaders did not negotiate a plan for the department to come into compliance.
Those leaders included Mayor Bing, City Council President Charles Pugh and Council Pro-Tem Gary Brown.
In August, a Toronto-based firm presented a plan to cut 81 percent of the department’s workforce. EMA Canada, Inc. was awarded a $48 million no-bid contract.
Riehl says getting rid of 81 percent of the workers and replacing them with contractors is not going to provide efficiency.
“Contractors don’t give a hoot about the city of Detroit,” Riehl said. “They’re supposed to fix things … and our maintenance workers have to go behind them.”
He added that DWSD is trying to use outside contractors that do a “shoddy job.”
Riehl says the union is trying to “get them off their concession demands and get a fair contract.” The strike, he says, will continue “until further notice.”
“They’ve been threatening to fire people and lay people off.”
As this paper went to press, DWSD suspended 34 of the striking workers and recommended their termination. They were given until the end of the week to request a hearing or risk being fired by Oct. 10.
Riehl says the protest was getting results, as other union members — including electricians, laborers and operating engineers — refused to cross the picket lines.
The Sixth Circuit is scheduled to hear a multi-union appeal of Cox’s November 2011 order, Oct. 9 at 9 a.m. in Cincinnati. A hearing on a permanent injunction is scheduled for Oct. 11 at 10 a.m. before Judge Cox.
Contact Zenobia Jeffries at email@example.com