Detroit unions weigh strike option as layoffs loom

May 2, 2012 - 1:59 PM
Detroit Finances Union Fight

In this April 2, 2012, photo, Al Garrett, president of the AFCSME, addresses city council during public comment discussing union contracts at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Building in Detroit. Some Detroit municipal union leaders say striking is one of several options being discussed during ramped-up strategy sessions before new contract talks with the city begin. (AP Photo/Detroit Free Press, Andre J. Jackson) DETROIT NEWS OUT; TV OUT; INTERNET OUT; MAGS OUT; NO SALES; MANDATORY CREDIT: DETROIT FREE PRESS

DETROIT (AP) — Unions angry that Detroit is trying to mend its financially-battered books by laying off hundreds of workers and imposing steep contract concessions on those who remain are considering an illegal strike.

Several Detroit municipal union leaders said striking is one of several options that have been discussed at union strategy sessions being held in advance of contract talks with the city set to begin later this month.

They said those sessions have become increasingly agitated since the city and state came to a consent agreement last month that allowed Detroit to avoid having Republican Gov. Rick Snyder appoint an emergency manager to oversee it in exchange for the city's promise to make deep spending cuts and extract big union concessions.

Detroit has a $265 million budget deficit and $13.2 billion in long-term structural debt, and the city qualified for a state takeover when a state-appointed panel in March deemed it to be in a "severe financial emergency."

Emergency managers have the authority to tear up and redo collective bargaining agreements and to remove the elected mayor and city council. Four Michigan cities and three school systems, including Detroit's, are currently overseen by emergency managers.

Under the consent agreement, Detroit must reach financial and structural targets to remain outside of state control.

Mayor Dave Bing has presented a budget to the City Council that would cut more than 2,500 of Detroit's 10,800 jobs and shave $250 million in annual expenses. Bing's office on Wednesday declined comment about the possibility of a strike by city workers.

While state law forbids public employees from striking, Detroit's city unions have a strong history of using organized walk outs to get their way or better contracts.

Last November, bus drivers held a half-day work stoppage over safety concerns. Drivers also walked off the job in May 2007 over similar safety issues. They were promised more police protection both times and returned to the road.

Garbage collection was stopped and bus service shut down for 19 days during a 1986 strike by 7,000 workers over pay and other issues. Trash accumulated at a daily rate of about 4,000 tons during the heat of July and early August. In 1978, unions representing 1,700 workers held a three-day strike that stranded tens of thousands of bus riders and left garbage piled on city streets and alleys.

Short strikes in 1971 and again in 1975 also left trash piled high.

"We have not taken a strike vote at this point," said Ed McNeil, a spokesman for American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees Council 25. "It's at that point. You can't keep pushing people in the corner and expect they are going to lay in that corner and not fight."

Under the consent agreement, the city must seek a uniform contract with public worker unions. Worker concessions could also include potential job outsourcing, no automatic reinstatement of higher pay levels and health care and pension givebacks.

"People in other locals are buzzing around that striking has been mentioned, but there is no exact plan," said Larry Nunnery, who works as a lifeguard and lifeguard instructor in the city's Parks and Recreation Department. "There was a meeting a couple of weeks ago where people are ready to shut the city down."

Deep concession requests could lead to a strike, said John Riehl, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 207.

"If they think they are going to tear up our union rights, the sky's the limit," Riehl said. "We may end up in a strike if this goes the way they are pushing on it."

Though possible, a strike by disgruntled workers likely is not the best option, organized labor experts said.

"At some point you have to know when to hold them and know when to fold them," Detroit labor law attorney John Entenman said. "Yeah, they can strike and yeah, strikes are illegal and some court — after political wrangling — may issue an injunction."

A sustained strike that further undermines already shaky operations like bus transportation and ambulance service could set back a city image recovering from separate public corruption scandals tied to a former mayor and council woman.

Public opinion also would be against the unions, said Arthur Schwartz, a labor relations and economics professor.

"Right now, their leverage is not particularly good," Schwartz said, adding that the "most pragmatic thing is to try and regroup and wait for the city to try and get back on its feet."

Not all workers are fully behind the strike talk.

"It is illegal for public employees to strike and we're not taking that position," said Yolanda Langston, Detroit chapter president of the Service Employees International Union. "It would be good to stand in solidarity, and it would also send a strong message if everybody was in unison."

Still, McNeil said all options remain on the table and unions may instead seek recalls of Detroit and state elected officials who supported the consent agreement.

Meanwhile, workers like 46-year-old Ernestine Smith are "scared."

"I don't know if I will have a job tomorrow," said Smith, a 10-year general services park maintenance employee, adding that she's already living paycheck to paycheck on a $13.61 per hour salary and doesn't know how she'll handle increased health care costs.

In the end, going on strike may be "all that's left to do," Smith said.

"They are bullying us. Do this or you are not going to have a job."