On Oct. 4, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union Local 207 ended their five-day strike, claiming victories. The powerful forces arrayed against the 450 workers at the Detroit Waste Water Treatment Plant included Mayor Dave Bing, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department management, and federal Judge Sean Cox, who oversees the department under a consent decree going back 35 years. Cheering on these anti-union forces were the corporate mass media. In the end they could not defeat the workers, who had begun to garner support in the broader union and community arenas.
The strike began on Sunday, Sept. 30, when 34 workers walked off the job at the largest consolidated waste water treatment facility in the U.S. For the next few days, strong picket lines — bolstered by other union members, students, Occupy Detroit activists, members of the Michigan Emergency Committee Against War and Injustice, and other supporters — kept many truckers, skilled trade contract workers and others out of the plant. Management personnel scrambled to keep the facility operating, forcing many to work 12-hour shifts and even longer.
On Oct. 1, Judge Cox issued an injunction ordering the striking workers back to work. The strikers defied this injunction and stayed out. On Tuesday, Oct. 2, management escalated the conflict by announcing that the 34 workers who walked off their jobs two days earlier were to be fired, along with Local 207 President John Riehl and Secretary-Treasurer Mike Mulholland.
According to Local 207, several hundred strikers returned to work on Wednesday under this tremendous pressure. Management announced the strike was over. They were joined by the leadership of AFSCME Council 25, who had never given the strike any support.
A special “settlement conference” was called for Thursday, Oct. 4, by representatives of Mayor Bing’s office, Judge Cox and the water department, where they no doubt expected Local 207 to surrender. Instead, the strike leaders refused to call off the strike and informed the management side that they would never call off the strike with workers fired and other issued unresolved.
Bosses cave, reach settlement with union
The management side, perhaps fearing growing public support for the strike and sympathy for the fired workers, then agreed to a settlement acceptable to the local union. All fired workers were returned to work (although it is unclear what future disciplinary action may follow). The DWSD agreed to return to the bargaining table over anti-union issues imposed by Judge Cox in a November 2011 order. Included are provisions regarding seniority and union representation that Cox had gutted.
If the union wins an appeal at the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, scheduled to be heard on Oct. 9 in Cincinnati, then management has agreed to “reopen the contract and re-bargain any areas of the contract Cox had changed,” according to a bulletin issued by Local 207.
The settlement also recognized the union membership’s right to vote on any final settlement agreement.
This struggle represents the first time in 35 years of a federal judge’s oversight of the DWSD that a union has had access to the proceedings which affect so many workers. Local 207, with 950 members, is the largest union among almost 2,000 water department workers.
The real importance of this strike goes far beyond the concessions granted by DWSD management, the mayor and a federal judge. This struggle serves as a lesson about the power of organized and militant workers. It was a long overdue response to the many years of attacks against city workers and the entire Detroit community by the politicians, bosses and bankers who have been extorting wage and benefit concessions, threatening pensions and slashing essential city services in order to satisfy the profit needs of the banks and corporations.
Sole is a longtime Detroit Water and Sewerage Department worker and past president of the Sanitary Chemists and Technicians Association, formerly United Auto Workers Local 2334.