Judge acts like ’emergency manager on steroids,’ says lawyer for water workers

By John Wisely

Detroit Free Press

(MCT)

Oct. 01–Lawyers for striking Detroit water and sewer workers want U.S. District Judge Sean Cox booted off their case, arguing he is acted as both a judge and a party to the dispute.

“This man is acting like an emergency financial manager on steroids,” said George Washington, one of the lawyers representing AFSCME 207, the union that represents more than 1,000 workers for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. “This is being managed as a dictatorship.”

Washington argued in a brief filed today that Cox has “essentially become a part of the management negotiating team by repeatedly issuing, at management’s private request, orders that have changed major contractual and bargaining rights of Local 207’s members while denying any efforts by Local 207 or any other labor organization to intervene or oppose those changes.”

The union’s filing today asks Cox to recuse himself. Earlier today, Cox ordered striking employees back to work, ruling that their walkout “will harm the safety of the public.”

— EDITORIAL: In Detroit’s water department dispute, balance needs of city, workers, region

Cox scheduled an Oct. 11 hearing on whether to make his temporary restraining order permanent but he has not yet schedule a hearing on the union’s request that he recuse himself.

Cox issued the order this morning after workers struck Sunday over concessions and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s plan to eliminate 82% of department workers under a reorganization that would privatize many functions now performed by union workers.

Mayor Dave Bing was pleased with Cox’s order, according to a statement from the city.

“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,” Bing said in the statement.

The department asked Cox for the order, arguing that if critical functions performed by union workers, including maintaining equipment at the Wastewater Treatment Plant, were not done, pollution would make the Detroit River “unsafe for human contact and can cause damage to aquatic species.”

It’s unclear if sewage at the plant is being processed. Shanta Driver, another lawyer for Local 207, said workers on Sunday’s day and afternoon shifts did not report. She wasn’t sure about the midnight shift but said that crew is typically smaller than the other shifts.

Sewage flow at the plant also is down recently because of a lack of rain.

Driver said workers targeted the wastewater treatment plant because it didn’t threaten the supply of drinking water to the region, which is produced at other plants.

Asked if the walk-out would increase pollution in the Detroit River, she said the department’s plan to eliminate 82% of workers poses the greater threat to pollution control.

Citing attorney-client privilege, she wouldn’t say whether she will advise workers to return to their jobs or not.

The department has been under federal oversight since 1977 because of a pollution lawsuit that found it violated the Clean Water Act by discharging too much pollution from its sewage plant into the Detroit River.

Last year, Cox issued an order telling the department it could bypass union contracts, city ordinances and even the city charter to expedite compliance with the Clean Water Act. The union is appealing Cox’s order and has a hearing scheduled for next week at the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

The Detroit Board of Water Commissioners voted last month to move forward with a consultant’s plan to eliminate up to 82% of employees by outsourcing hundreds of jobs.

AFSCME has refused the department’s contract offer, a one-year deal which includes the right to outsource.

The union wants a five-year deal that preserves limits on outsourcing and includes a $6 per hour raise over those five years.

“If we continue to bargain without striking, they will eventually impose concessions and in less than a year, be back for more,” union leaders wrote in a flier inviting members to a meeting last week to authorize a strike. AFSCME leaders insist the effort is union-busting and told members it was best to strike now because of the coming elections in November.

“The Democrats are posing as the kinder, gentler alternative to the crazy Republicans,” the union flier said. “They can’t have a Democratic politician like Bing openly busting a union which is only trying to defend or modest living standards.”

The flier went on to note that Chicago teachers struck and won 17% pay raise over four years, reduced other concessions and improved education for students.

“We must utilize the opportunity that is before us from now until the elections,” the flier said.

Contact John Wisely at 313-222-6825 or jwisely@freepress.com.

 

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