City of Detroit Department of Water and Sewage employees represented by AFSCME 207 went out on strike September 30, 2012. The workers are opposing lay-offs and pay cuts. (Photo: Abayomi Azikiwe), a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
October 1, 2012 at 7:07 pm
Wastewater plant workers defy judge's order, continue strike
By Christine Ferretti and Steve Pardo
The Detroit News
Detroit - Some Water and Sewerage Department workers on Monday defied a judge's order to return to work and are continuing to strike outside the department's wastewater treatment plant.
Work is not getting done inside the plant on Jefferson, said Shanta Driver, an attorney representing AFSCME Local 207, which has about 950 members. About 50 workers were picketing Monday; some members of other unions at the plant also refused to cross the picket line, Driver said.
"The strike is definitely continuing," Driver said. "There are some managers in there, but all they can do is a very bare-bones skeletal operation."
The workers are targeting the waste treatment plant, not the fresh water division, union attorneys said. Water services to the 126 communities served by the department won't be affected, attorneys said. Under state law, it is illegal for public workers to strike and the workers could lose their jobs.
U.S. District Judge Sean Cox issued a temporary restraining order Monday, one day after members went on strike, ordering the strikers to return to work. The union is fighting against a plan to reduce 80 percent of the workforce over five years.
Cox's ruling said the duties performed by union employees "impact the safety of the public and the threatened strike by such employees will harm the safety of the public."
Hours after the ruling, union attorneys blasted the decision, saying the judge was acting like "an emergency manager on steroids." Attorneys George Washington and Driver said Cox overstepped his bounds because he is acting as both arbitrator and as part of management by dictating issues regarding personnel.
"I've practiced labor law for 35 years. This is the most outrageous injunction I've ever seen," Washington said. "We have a judge who is acting as the personnel director and then issues orders like this without hearing from employees."
Officials from AFSCME Council 25 urged the workers to comply with the judge's order. But members of Local 207 have vowed to press on.
"The strike will continue," Michael Mulholland, AFSCME Local 207 secretary treasurer, said in a statement. "The workers have been demanding better staffing, training and equipment to improve water quality for years, and management has always lent a deaf ear. Now, with the disingenuous claim of 'environmental protection,' they are simply union-busting and privatizing."
The judge has ordered the unions to appear in federal court at 10 a.m. on Oct. 11 to answer the department's motion and to show cause why the court should not issue the injunction. Washington and Driver filed suit Monday in U.S. District Court asking Cox to recuse himself.
The department has been under federal watch since 1977 because of violations to the Clean Water Act regarding pollution discharges into the Detroit River. A Nov. 4 ruling by Cox gave the department director could have greater powers over personnel. The ruling said management could ignore union contracts and gave greater power with outsourcing work.
The union appealed. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 9 at the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
"In this case the court has essentially become a part of the management negotiating team …" the union's suit reads. "This court self-evidently cannot at the same time be the supervisor, prime mover, and confidant of the DWSD management team on labor relations and a neutral judge of the actions of a team of which it is a crucial part."
In a separate filing in U.S. District Court, union attorneys also asked for the temporary restraining order to be dissolved, saying federal courts have no jurisdiction to issue injunctions to stop strikes.
At the core of the dispute is the plan put forth by consulting company EMA Inc. to cut more than 80 percent of the department's employees over five years in a drastic overhaul to cut costs and reduce the frequency of rate increases.
If the plan is adopted, the department would go from having 1,978 employees to 374 over the next five years. Another 361 employees would still work for the department but would be outsourced through other companies, according to the proposal announced in August.
Officials estimate it would save about $139 million a year in personnel costs. Mayor Dave Bing called the plan "the type of cost savings measures that are essential to moving our city forward to long-term financial stability."
A spokesman for Bing on Monday said the mayor appreciates Cox's ruling so that service can continue.
"Mayor Bing is pleased and appreciative of the judge's ruling," spokesman Robert Warfield said."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."
Meanwhile, union leaders have called on the community to join with them in the picket.
"Are we scared about people losing their jobs for being on this strike?" Driver said. "It is a certainty that 80 percent of those people will lose their jobs if they can't win this strike. They're fighting for their jobs. They're fighting for the city of Detroit."
From The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20121001/METRO/210010376#ixzz286cefgKH