DETROIT, MI — The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has suspended 34 workers pending termination, saying the striking employees “endangered public health and safety by unlawfully abandoning their jobs at the plant.”
Workers from the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant walked out and began picketing Sunday, protesting a planned 81 percent reduction in the city’s Water and Sewerage Department.
“The individuals were ordered not to enter on to any DWSD property and directed not to misrepresent themselves as department employees in good standing during the suspension period,” department officials announced in a news release Tuesday.
Their termination will go into effect Oct. 10, but workers can request a hearing to contest their suspension.
The striking workers have defiantly picketed outside the plant, ignoring a federal court order to return to work.
Lawyers for AFSCME Local 207, which represents 950 water workers, were reviewing suspension notifications and have been fighting for a court hearing to challenge the ruling from U.S. District Judge Sean Cox, who they say caused the labor dispute in the first place.
AFSCME Local 207 is an affiliate of Michigan AFSCME Council 25.
AFSCME Council 25 officials have urged the workers to comply with the court order, but Local 207 officials refused.
Council 25 President Al Garrett said that he sympathizes with the workers’ frustrations with “poor working conditions, lack of equipment and inadequate staffing levels,” but said they should comply with the court order.
Shanta Driver, an attorney for Local 207, said Council 25 officials’ pleas for an end to the strike were firmly rejected by demonstrators.
The Local reprimanded Council 25 in a release sent Monday night.
“The leaders of Council 25 know that their decision to try to break the Local 207 strike has completely discredited them with Local 207 members and will discredit them with other union members that hear about what they did,” the Local said in a detailed document (Read in full here). “But they have a sense of how powerful our strike is and how quickly it could go from the strike of one union to the strike of many.”
Detroit’s water department supplies drinking water to the city and 126 other Michigan communities, many of which have had to raise water rates to pay for the service.
Ypsilanti City Council will discuss proposed water and sewage rate increases tonight.
Cox ruled last year that water department union contracts could be broken to improve efficiency, in an order stemming from a federal pollution lawsuit.
A Board of Water Commissioners given broad authority to make dramatic changes has planned sweeping reductions and privatization moves in the department.
AFSCME Local 207 has rejected contract concessions that include the right to replace workers with non-union contractors and voted last week to authorize a strike.
Cox on Monday morning issued a temporary restraining order against the strike, ruling that “the job duties performed by DWSD employees represented by the unions perform job duties that impact the safety of the public and the threatened strike by such employees will harm the safety of the public.”
Driver filed motions asking for the dissolution of the restraining order and for the recusal of Cox from the case.
“Judge Cox is the cause of this strike,” said Driver. “He took over and unilaterally started deciding what union rights would be… We just don’t think he can be employer and judge. We don’t think you can act as management and then pretend to be neutral party.”
The dispute is one of several over sweeping department cuts in the city.
A number of other departments are being reduced under a separate fiscal stability plan outlined in a consent agreement with the state approved in April after Gov. Rick Snyder determined Detroit to be in financial emergency.
A judge last week dissolved a restraining order that stalled the outsourcing of the city’s health department to a nonprofit agency. That move was scheduled to begin this week.