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Detroit city workers asked to ‘sacrifice’

Published May 12, 2005 3:31 PM

The City of Detroit administration is making it more and more clear that it intends to solve its economic problems by making city workers pay for them.

In an April 29 letter sent to many unions that represent over 15,000 city workers, Labor Relations Director Roger Cheek demanded that union members immediately accept 26 days off without pay (DOWOPs) in the fiscal year starting July 1—the same day the unions’ contracts expire.

Cheek appealed to “those of us who love the City of Detroit” to “sacrifice” as a “primary focus.” He called for this to be done “fairly” among “all employees, all retirees and all citizens.”

The letter insisted that the unions accept the plan by mid-June with no discussion and no negotiations. He also insisted that this “concession” could not be tied to other contract matters.

Detroit’s City Council voted to apply the 10-percent cut in hours to non-union city employees.

City workers are in no mood to listen to these demands. Only 13 years ago, all city workers suffered a 10-percent cut in hours or pay (applied differently to different unions, but amounting to the same thing) for two years. And the four-year contracts that most unions are finishing now inclu ded wage freezes for the first two years.

Cheek’s call for “equal sacrifice” rings hollow.

The fire and police departments won’t be affected. The Fire Department and EMS drivers had earlier been targets of planned city layoffs.

Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has been widely exposed in the media for extravagant spending. It was revealed several months ago that the mayor’s wife was driving a new Lincoln Navigator leased for $25,000. He tried to deny the story for weeks before finally admitting it. Just weeks ago the press ran front-page stories about the mayor running up a $210,000 tab on a city credit card for champagne and lobster dinners for over two years.

At least one city union went beyond these exposures. Auto Workers Local 2334’s newsletter, SCATA-News, stated: “But to be fair, it’s not just the Mayor. For decades big tax breaks have been given to the corporations and real estate developers. Has anyone asked them to ‘sacrifice?’ And how about the big banks who have pushed all kinds of development loans onto the city … and then gouge us for the interest for the rest of our lives. How much are these loan sharks sacrificing for the city they love (to exploit)?”

Union, community action needed

A Detroit-area coalition of union, community and political leaders has also been educating the public on the growing costs of the Iraq war and the Pentagon budget, and the resulting cuts to vital local programs.

The National Conference to Reclaim Our Cities has shown that the entire Detroit budget deficit (a total of $300 million for three years) could be wiped out by reclaiming Detroit’s contribution to the recent $81-billion appropriation for the occupation of Iraq.

It is not clear, however, that the true dimensions of the attack on the city workers and their unions is understood by the union leadership. Until now only a few unions have even organized public protests. These have drawn at best a few hundred workers.

When large numbers of bus drivers were scheduled for layoffs, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26 held picket lines and mobilized riders to pack City Council hearings. This resulted in fewer service cuts and layoffs. Threatened layoffs of firefighters and EMS personnel brought over 100 of them into the streets April 27 in a picket of City Hall. But the firefighters didn’t show up at the bus drivers’ protests and the bus drivers were absent when FFA Local 334 walked the line.

While over 20 State, County and Muni cipal Employees local presidents voted in April not to accept DOWOPs, most have not been seen at recent protests.

Today’s assault on city unions shouldn’t be seen simply as the result of a temporary budget crunch. The budget crisis results from over 20 years of federal bud get cuts to the cities, directing the funds instead to military expansion. It will not go away.

Wall Street bankers who finance the huge municipal debts are also eager to undermine and destroy the largest body of unionized workers in the United States. While only 9 percent of private-sector workers are unionized, over 30 percent of public sector workers are.

A presentation to the Detroit City Council by outgoing City Auditor Joe Harris made it clear that this is their real agenda. Harris started with the familiar claim that city workers must be “realistic” and accept concessions in pay and benefits. But he went much further. He claimed that unions were the real problem and the cause of the city’s and state’s decline.

A program for fightback

Detroit city workers’ unions can play a leading role in the coming struggle to preserve jobs, wages and city services. But the leadership needs to understand what it is facing. What is needed?

1. Immediate convening of a committee of all city union leadership (from stewards up to presidents) under the slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

2. If this body is to successfully lead and defend the workers, it must also open itself up to the leadership of the broader community that will suffer from service cuts, including rank-and-file union members, youths, seniors, the unemployed, welfare recipients, etc. The unions cannot afford to allow themselves to be divided from the community. This crisis calls for the formation of a union/community alliance.

3. The union/community alliance must demonstrate to the public that the money is there--but it is going to the banks, the corporations and the Pentagon instead of to those who need it most, the people. This means a tremendous education campaign to counter the anti-union, anti-poor mass media.

4. The union/community alliance must prepare for a serious struggle—openly and calmly. If the unions refuse to accept pay and benefit cuts, the city may try to impose them unilaterally. Or the state may put the city under receivership. Receiver ship would allow immediate cuts and cancellation of union contracts—a virtual dictatorship over the city. Would the unions just submit to this dictatorship? If not, then plans must be made now to respond, inclu d ing the possibility of a strike, or even a gen eral strike that goes beyond just city workers to include all unions in the metropolitan area.

A lot could be learned from the Detroit newspaper strike, whose 10th anniversary is being marked this year. In the months leading up to that strike, union leaders apparently didn’t recognize the magnitude of the attack that was coming.

Even after it began, they never grasped how to respond to the escalation of threats and violence against their members. They feared injunctions and fines and ended up calling off picket lines that had drawn up to 10,000 workers from across the state to help shut down the Sterling Heights North Plant.

The strike dragged on for years, became a lockout, and ended in a serious setback for the newspaper unions and workers.

The Detroit city workers and the larger Detroit community have shown that they are ready to defend their jobs and services. Like the newspaper workers, they will sacrifice and fight to the utmost. But only a clear program and a trusted leadership can put up the kind of fight needed to win.

Sole is president of Auto Workers Local 2334, representing workers at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. He was a steering committee member of the AFL-CIO-sponsored Labor-Community-Religious Coalition to Support the Newspaper Strikers in 1995.