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Water workers back to work — on probation

Union officials say strike was a victory

By Zenobia Jeffries
The Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — Detroit wastewater workers returned to work Oct. 5 after a five-day strike.

The 36 workers initiating the strike, which included top union officials John Riehl and Michael Mullholland, were suspended and threatened with termination only days after they walked off their jobs Sept. 30 in protest of a proposed 80 percent cut to their workforce.

The cuts were among other drastic changes made to their contracts in an order written by U.S. Judge Sean Cox last November (See “Wastewater workers walk off the job,” Oct. 7-13).

Riehl, president of American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 207, called the strike a victory for the workers and the city of Detroit.

“This is a victory for the city of Detroit because it has set the precedent that unions, the community and the city of Detroit can stand up against the whole array of powers-that-be and win,” he said in a press statement. “The courts, the mayor, the water board management, working in concert, could not defeat this strike and cannot defeat us if we unite and militantly fight together.”

According to the press statement by the union’s attorneys, the decision to end the strike was made after management of the  Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DSWD) signed an agreement with the union to: “1) reinstate all 36 fired workers, 2) to stop stonewalling and refusing to discuss union rights and job security and any of the other subjects covered by Judge Cox’s November order in bargaining, and 3) agreed to reopen the contract if Local 207 prevails at the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in its lawsuit to strike down the anti-union parts of Judge Cox’s order.”

The statement also indicated that Local 207, the city’s largest union representing water and sewerage workers, will return to the bargaining table immediately and union members will still have the opportunity to vote on any final contract settlement.

“We are proud to be representing Local 207 in this fight,” said attorney Shanta Driver. “We are proud that our city stood behind this strike because without the support of the city, we never would have won. If the people of Detroit draw the correct conclusion that we have the power to control the destiny of our city and its resources, even when just a few of us stand up and fight to win, this struggle will have achieved a great deal.”

She added: “For 35 years, our union and the workers of Detroit have been excluded from participation in the lawsuit that will determine the future of Detroit’s water supply. In just five days of striking, we achieved more to get our voices heard by the court than all the legal maneuvers and lobbying ever achieved. Building on this victory, the people of Detroit can stop the privatization or suburban takeover of the Water Board and actually be able to improve and protect the environment and the water supply for the people of the tri-county area.”

DSWD Director Sue McCormick said in a press statement that she’s pleased operations at the wastewater plant have returned to normal. However, the DSWD’s statement released after negotiations called the workers’ strike “illegal” and focused on disciplinary actions.

“We recognize that many employees who walked away from operating equipment were misled into believing that there would be no penalty for their actions,” said McCormick. “Those 33 employees will receive a five-day unpaid suspension, and each has executed a last-chance agreement that provides that the employee may be terminated without recourse for any future disciplinary event that is punishable by a suspension. Each has made a personal commitment that these actions will not occur again.”

McCormick also announced that the union leaders from Local 207 who organized the strike — Riehl, Mullholland, Local 207 secretary treasurer, and Sue Ryan, recording secretary — are suspended without pay for 10 days and are subject to the same last-chance agreements as the other employees.

The union officials had no regrets.

“Whatever happens to me, fighting side by side with the rest of my crew in this struggle is the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” said Ryan in a press statement. “I’m so proud of my union, which showed incredible resolve in the face of every conceivable threat and now has won a great victory.”

Mulholland says all unions should be encouraged by their power.

“Every city union should draw the conclusion from this victory that our unions have strength and with united action we do not have to accept management’s unilateral imposition of terrible wages and working conditions and continuous job insecurity,” he said. “They should remember that one city-wide strike of all the public sector unions will have the complete backing of the community and can win.”

The Local 207 lawsuit was scheduled for Oct. 9 at the Appeals Court in Cincinnati as this paper went to press. Attorneys for the Local were not available at press time.

DWSD supplies high-quality drinking water to Detroit and 126 communities in southeast Michigan. The department provides wastewater services to Detroit and 76 other southeast Michigan communities.

Contact Zenobia Jeffries at

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