Judge orders end to water-sewer strike

By Jeff Karoub

Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) -- Workers rejected a judge's "ridiculous" order Monday to end a strike protesting job cuts at the Detroit regional water department, a union lawyer said.

Union attorney George Washington called federal Judge Sean Cox's injunction "outrageous" and filed a motion to dissolve it. Cox's order also bars anyone affiliated with the union from obstructing operations.

The union doesn't want Cox handling the case at all because he already has oversight of some Detroit Water and Sewerage Department functions under a long-running legal case not related to the strike, Washington said. Nobody will return to work until they have talked with their union leaders, he said.

"Judge Cox is the manager -- he's the guy who is setting terms and conditions of employment," Washington said. "It's like having your boss being the judge. That is unprecedented and ridiculous."

The 950-member union went on strike Sunday to protest plans to lay off many of them and privatize some of the work. The workers belong to Local 207 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.

The union local continued its walkout Monday afternoon after a request from the larger union to comply with the judge's order. Still, AFSCME Council 25 President Al Garrett said in a release that the union understands "the frustration felt by the hardworking men and women in the water department."

Local 207 officials did not immediately return calls to The Associated Press about the request.

The proposed job cuts followed an April agreement between Mayor Dave Bing and Gov. Rick Snyder to head off a state takeover of the city's finances because of persistent budget deficits. A plan unveiled by Bing's administration Aug. 8 would cut the number of department employees from about 2,000 to about 375 over five years. About 360 outside employees would work for the department.

Bing said in Monday statement that he "is pleased and appreciative of" Cox's ruling, which said that job duties performed by water department employees affect the public and a strike therefore harms the public safety.

"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.

Meanwhile, department spokeswoman Mary Alfonso said striking workers' responsibilities are being covered by other employees at all facilities, including the water treatment plants and pumping stations, and there has been no effect so far on service or quality.

"We have a strike plan," she said. "We're doing everything we can to ensure that we meet state and federal requirements in regard to providing services."

Earlier in the morning, about two dozen workers were picketing in front of the delivery entrance at the department's wastewater treatment plant in heavily industrial southwest Detroit. The sign-waving workers circled the entrance and surrounded vehicles attempting to enter as a few police officers tried to keep peace between strikers and drivers. While some truckers drove away, others entered, including one that ran over two empty lawn chairs on a patch of grass next to the driveway.

Roger Young, a sewage plant operator, said he's worked at the plant for less than two years. He said he came after being laid off from a Michigan manufacturing plant that closed and moved to Ohio.

"I just thought it'd be a lot safer -- everybody needs water," he said. "This is the last place I thought that would be contracted out."

Detroit's water system serves about 4 million people in communities across southeastern Michigan.


Associated Press writers Ed White and Corey Williams contributed to this report.

Published: Wed, Oct 3, 2012