The battle over the privatization of public water services is playing out in Detroit, as water department workers now risk losing their jobs as they continue a strike over what they see as a "union busting and privatizing" plan by the city.
Wastewater workers in the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) who are members of AFSCME Local 207 began their strike on Sunday, in violation of a state law that prohibits strikes by public employees, over the city's plan to sign five-year, $17 million contract with private corporation EMA Inc. which would eliminate over 80% of DWSD jobs
Explaining the background that lead to the EMA contract, MLive.com reporter Khalil AlHajal writes:
[U.S. District Judge Sean] 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.
On Monday, Judge Cox issued a restraining order prohibiting the strike, but the union vowed to continue the strike anyway.
"The strike will continue. We are fighting to stop the contracting out of over 80% of our jobs to a company that caused an environmental catastrophe in Toronto. The workers have been demanding better staffing, training and equipment to improve water quality for years, and management has always lent a deaf ear. Now, with the disingenuous claim of 'environmental protection' they are simply union busting and privatizing," Michael Mulholland, AFSCME Local 207 Secretary Treasurer, said in a statement.
On their website the union explains the power of their strike and its implications:
A strike is a clash of two forces and a struggle for power. The moment that crew 5 of Local 207 walked out of the plant on Sunday morning, the balance of power shifted in favor of the union. Until we acted, nearly all of the power to determine the future of the city of Detroit, the fate of our union, what our jobs, wages and working conditions would be--was in the hands of Judge Cox, Mayor Bing, the Water Board, and all the rich suburban interests that have stood together to try to break our union and destroy the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in Detroit and its neighbors. But once we acted, the pendulum shifted in our favor, beginning with those first thirty workers. Our union gave the people of Detroit a voice and a leadership and a cause that could win--and a chance to build a new civil rights and labor movement and era of mass struggle throughout the area.
Virtually every national media correspondent and environmental group has said that people all over the country regard this struggle in Detroit as the key to determining whether the water supplies of this country remain in the hands of the public or become privatized. If we win this fight, it will be one of the first and most important victories for Detroit, for the labor movement, for the new civil rights movement, and for the environmental movement--which has had a great deal of publicity but next to no successes.
Michigan made waves for its anti-union and privatization efforts last year when the state enacted an 'Emergency Manager Law,' which allows the governor to appoint managers with broad powers including the power to fire elected officials and break union contracts.