Signs of fomenting discontent among the City of Detroit’s unionized employees erupted last week when more than 100 Water and Sewerage Department employees participated in a sick-out.
Nearly 16,000 unionized city workers have been without a contract since last summer. (The Detroit Police Command Officers Association is the only union to reach a contract agreement.) On January 12, Mayor Dennis Archer offered the unions a new three-year contract with a 1 percent pay increase. The offer was rejected.
Delbert Walls Sr., the president of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 207, denies knowing who spearheaded the protest action, but says he understands why workers are disgruntled. He cites poor pay, privatization and Archer’s recent contract offer as reasons why employees called in sick.
An additional half-percent in merit pay also was included in Archer’s contract offer, but only if the unions agree to forgo their seniority rights, says Walls, who called this "a slap in the face."
If the unions consented, he says, supervisors would decide which workers are promoted, transferred, and granted other privileges.
"They’re trying to erode seniority rights," says Walls. "What is the point of organized labor without seniority rights?"
Archer’s office referred the Metro Times to Roger Cheek, who heads the city’s labor relations department. He could not be reached for comment.
According to city employees, when Archer learned workers intended to call in sick, he issued a written statement declaring that anyone who didn’t have a doctor’s notice would not be paid. Walls says that violates city policies.
"I will take it to arbitration," warns Walls, who says most workers who called in belong to Local 207.
James Heath, assistant director of water supply operations for the Water and Sewerage Department says that 117 employees were off the job — out of about 3,200 — and their absence did not have much impact.
Michael Mulholland, a Local 207 union steward, and another department employee who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, say more than 300 workers called in sick.
Mulholland says he fears that without seniority rights, supervisors can promote workers and give raises to employees who do not report safety violations, file grievances, or complain when mistreated.
"It has a chilling effect on workers’ freedom to stand up for themselves," says Mulholland. "The passive worker is the good worker."