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Defying federal judge's order, Detroit water department workers stay on strike

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

Defying a federal judge’s order, Detroit water department workers continued to strike Monday night.

Many rank-and-file workers at Detroit’s wastewater treatment plant walked off the job after AFSCME Local 207 member authorized a strike Sunday.

Workers say the strike is a last stand against what they call attempts to dismantle the city’s water department—and the union.

The water department has been under a federal judge’s oversight since 1977 for Clean Water Act violations. The current judge, Sean Cox, has approved department leaders’ plans to largely privatize the department, and cut its staff by up to 80%.

Last year, Cox issued an order telling DWSD that it could bypass union contracts, city ordinances and even the city charter to expedite compliance with the Clean Water Act.

Tuesday morning, Cox issued a preliminary injunction ordering the strikers back to work, noting that the walkout will “harm the safety of the public.”

But union workers, and their lawyers, call that order illegal. They’ve filed a motion for Cox to recuse himself from the labor dispute.

“The Court has established itself as the supervisor and facilitator of management’s plans to drastically alter the employees’ working conditions and their contractual and bargaining rights,” the motion argues.

“In this case, the Court cannot be or appear to be impartial. It has become a part of the management team at DWSD.”

Union lawyers say the workers are willing to negotiate, but aren’t haven’t been given a chance.

“He’s [Cox] never scheduled a hearing that allowed the workers in this case, and the unions in this case, to have their say,” said attorney Shanta Driver. “Issuing orders that determine what union policy is going to be, without hearing from the unions? That’s an outrage.”

Asked whether it was worth it for workers to risk their jobs—and possible jail—to continue the strike, Driver said, “It is a certainty that 80% of those people will lose their jobs if they can’t win this strike.”

Union lawyers are also taking their case to the US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. A hearing is set for October 9th.

For workers to consider returning, they must be offered full amnesty for walking out, said Susan Ryan, a representative with Local 207. She said Judge Cox must also recuse himself from the labor dispute.

“We want this judge to be recused,” Ryan said. “He shouldn’t be able to set the terms of our contract, and then order an injunction on top of us.”

Ryan said union representatives are tentatively scheduled to meet with Judge Cox and water department officials Tuesday.

Not all the city’s labor unions agree with the tactic, though. Members of AFSCME Council 25 passed out pamphlets to picketers, calling the strike “illegal” and urging them to return to work. Local 207 leaders spent time on the picket line doing damage control, urging their members to ignore the message.

In the meantime, city officials are taking a “wait and see” approach to the situation, according to Bob Warfield, spokesman for Mayor Dave Bing.

Warfield said picketers aren’t blocking trucks from entering and leaving the plant, and “we don’t plan to have them arrested.” He also said that plant operations are functioning “just fine” so far, despite the walkout.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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