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David beats Goliath: AFSCME Local 207 wins strike!

THE ANATOMY OF A VICTORY

On Thursday, October 4, AFSCME Local 207, the city of Detroit’s largest union that represents water and sewage workers, won its five-day strike. The Local 207 Executive Board ended the strike after signing a deal with the Water Department management that addressed the issues that the union had gone on strike to win.

All 36 fired workers will return to work

First, the 34 fired workers who initiated the strike on Sunday, September 30, when they walked off their jobs and set up their picket lines, were all returned to work. In addition, the two top union officials, John Riehl and Michael Mulholland, who also had been terminated, were reinstated through the agreement.

Management forced to bargain

Second, the agreement won by Local 207 forces the Water Board management to return to negotiations and actually bargain over the issues raised by the union—ending a policy of sheer stonewalling.

The city workers had initiated the strike because management was refusing to bargain on several key issues, including seniority and union rights that had been completely eviscerated by a union-busting federal court order issued November 2011 by Federal Judge Sean Cox. Judge Cox’s order called for 80 percent of all union jobs to be eliminated. It stripped the contract of seniority and other protections for workers and dismantled the previous union representation structure.

Local 207’s lawyers had filed a lawsuit against Judge Cox’s order in November 2011, which will be heard on Tuesday, October 9, 2012 by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. One term of the settlement is that, if the union prevails in this lawsuit, it can reopen the contract and re-bargain any areas of the contract Cox had changed.

Membership right to vote on any contract protected

Third, the union won the right to preserve its membership’s right to vote on a final contract settlement.

Union wins access to Water Dept. court proceedings

The union’s other motivation for striking was to win access to the legal proceedings over the fate of the Water Department controlled by Judge Cox. The lawsuit concerning Detroit’s water system that led to Cox’s union-busting order had been initiated thirty-five years earlier to restrict pollution emitted from the sewage plant, but Local 207 and the other unions that worked in Detroit’s water and sewage department had never been allowed to be a part of the legal proceedings. Thirty-five years of failed legal maneuvers by the union to gain entry into the lawsuit had convinced the Local 207 leadership that only a strike would give them the access to Judge Cox they needed to alter his order if it continued to stand. By the time the strike was being settled, it had already succeeded at giving the union the ability to make its case directly to Judge Cox: five days of striking achieved more for the union than thirty-five years of negotiations and legal maneuvers.

The settlement reached to end the strike addressed all of these areas and gave the union what it had been seeking. Management could “win” no more than the exercise of its right to suspend three Local 207 officers—President John Riehl, Secretary-Treasurer Michael Mulholland, and Recording Secretary Sue Ryan—and to give lesser suspensions to the 34 brave members of the crew that initiated the strike by walking out on Sunday morning. These so-called punishments are, in reality, badges of honor for our union’s heroes.

The key to Local 207’s victory

To many who had been following this strike and some who had been participating in it, the union’s victory seemed incredible—especially given that, twenty-four hours before the settlement was signed, management was declaring that the strike was dead and AFSCME Council 25, the AFSCME body above Local 207, was also declaring that the strike had ended.

Management’s declaration that the strike was dead was based on the claim that about 300 of the 450 Local 207 workers who worked at the wastewater treatment plant, the main target of the strike, had crossed the picket lines on Wednesday. Council 25 declared that the strike was over. Every elite power in the Detroit area, from the Mayor’s office to the wealthy suburban interests that have been trying to take over control of the Water Department, to the billionaire investors who have controlled the fate of Detroit and want to privatize the Water Department, and many union and community misleaders in the area—simply assumed that the Local 207 leadership would accept defeat, let the union be broken, and disappear, discredited and humiliated.

If the Local 207 leadership had seen itself as merely the leaders of a single, small union—rather than as both as union leaders and a new political leadership for the city of Detroit—they would have done what their opponents expected and called off the strike on Wednesday evening.

A strike is a struggle for power.

The power that management possesses is always the same. On its side, management has its own resources to use to defeat a strike, in addition to the courts, the police, and the resources of the rich and powerful at its disposal. On the union’s side, there always exists known and unknown variables that determine its power. The known variable is the size of the union itself and the proportion of its workers dedicated to striking until a just settlement is reached. The unknown variable is its ability to organize the vast majority of poor, working-class, and middle-class people in its community to provide political and material support for the strike.

Local 207 understood that their strike had to be a strike to win its members a good contract and a strike to save the city of Detroit.

The Local 207 leaders understood that this strike was more than a union action, because this strike had the potential to prove that, if the people of Detroit stand up and fight and build the new civil rights movement that will support them, we can begin to reverse the waves of racist attacks that our city has been subjected to. Local 207 understood that their strike had to be a strike to win its members a good contract and a strike to save the city of Detroit. The power that Local 207 had to wield in this struggle was therefore far greater than could be measured by the size of the union.

Since the defeat of the great Detroit newspaper strike of 1995-96, few American union leaders have been prepared to call strikes, and even fewer have called strikes with any intention of winning a victory for the workers. Understandably, most workers are convinced that a single union striking in isolation is likely to lose—even lose badly.

The leaders of Local 207 avoided this danger because they refused to be isolated.

They formed a firm alliance with the militant community and civil rights organization, BAMN (the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration & Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary). The Local 207 leaders saw BAMN as the one force in the city that has consistently, actively, and effectively opposed every attack on the rights, the jobs and the dignity of the people of Detroit. This strike of Detroit’s city workers was, from its inception, both a trade union and a political strike aimed at changing the balance of power between the rich and the powerful versus the oppressed in Detroit and its surrounding areas.

From the very beginning of this struggle, the Local 207 leadership—arm-in-arm with BAMN—has reached out to the community of Detroit. The Local 207 leaders have conducted this strike as a fight for their members, threatened with the loss of their union, and as a fight for the embattled people of Detroit, threatened with the loss of all real power over their community.

The story of David beating Goliath

How did Local 207 succeed at winning a strike in which a great number of strikers were crossing the picket lines, management seemed to have all the power and full control of the situation, and AFSCME Council 25 misleaders were actively trying to sabotage the strike? Answering this question requires going through the history of how this strike occurred and how Local 207 increased its power during the course of the strike despite fierce attacks and treachery—even from some union leaders.

Local 207 has, for more than a dozen years, been the largest and most militant union of the more-than-a-dozen unions that represent workers who are employed by the city of Detroit. On Wednesday, September 26, after months of futile bargaining, the members of Local 207 met and voted to strike. Unlike most of the city unions, the Local 207 workers had managed to prevent the 10% wage cut imposed on many of the other city-workers unions from being imposed on them. It was clear, however, to the leadership of Local 207 that, if management continued to stonewall and delay in bargaining, then the union faced the danger of never concluding a contract and ending up with the 10% wage cut and other concessions being imposed on its members.

The strike authorization meeting was a spirited meeting with lots of discussion before the vote was taken. Al Garrett, the president of AFSCME Council 25, was present at the meeting and told the Local 207 members and leaders after the vote to strike was taken that he would back up the Local’s decision even though he didn’t agree with it. He went so far as to tell the Local that he would personally pay for the printing of the union’s picket signs for the strike.

The Local 207 leaders, working closely with BAMN, used the days immediately following the strike vote to try to publicize the vote and to work out tactics for the strike that could win. By the weekend of September 29-30, it was clear to all the wastewater plant workers that, as the strongest, best-organized, and most strategically-important section of the local, it would be their job to initiate, lead, and carry the weight of the strike.

On Sunday, September 30, the day-shift crew at the wastewater plant, led by Local 207 Secretary-Treasurer Sue Ryan, walked out of the plant and put up the first picket lines, beginning the strike right then and there. The fact that the strike had begun on Sunday took many workers in 207 by surprise; however, that did not prevent the workers at the plant from wholeheartedly supporting the strike. No one on afternoon shift or the night shift crossed the picket line that Sunday.

On Monday morning, the picket lines had grown in numbers and in determination, and spirits were high. Monday was the most successful day of the strike.

Skill-trades workers, including electricians, carpenters, and laborers refused to cross the 207 picket lines, and many Teamster drivers also refused to bring their trucks into the plant while it was on strike.

The Water Department management knew the strike was coming, but was caught off-guard when it began. By Monday morning, however, it had succeeded in going to court and getting Judge Cox to issue a temporary restraining order/injunction that declared that the strike was illegal and must end immediately.

The rise and fall of a court injunction

The injunction added very little to the array of tactics that management could utilize to stop the strike from continuing. With or without the temporary restraining order/injunction, the Department could bring in large numbers of police to clear the picket lines, could have workers arrested for standing or sitting on or near a driveway, and could fire the workers who participated in the strike. Having a court order banning the strike, while not adding much to management’s firepower, did give the leaders of Council 25—the most faithful and servile allies of management—a weapon to use against the striking workers whom they had pledged to support.

Court injunctions to end public-worker strikes have about the same relationship to strikes as the prospect of heartburn has to eating pizza.

The two always go hand-in-hand. And an injunction is not really any more effective in deterring a strike than the possibility of heartburn is to preventing a hungry person from eating a delicious pizza. While an injunction is issued by a judge and is backed by the full authority and power of the courts, enforcing it when a union ignores it can be a tricky business. In theory, the court can hold a contempt hearing and find that the union has violated the injunction. Then, in theory, a judge can either levy a heavy fine or send one or more union leaders to jail for “contempt of court.”

However, in the case of Local 207, the union hardly has enough money to make a fine meaningful. And, in reality—and this is very important—for Judge Cox to send Local 207 President John Riehl or other union officers to jail would have risked provoking a community-wide explosion of anger against the court and an enormous increase in publicity and support for Local 207’s strike. By Wednesday, it was obvious to Judge Cox himself that the general public throughout the Detroit area recognized that John Riehl and the other Local 207 leaders had the moral high ground in their conflict with the court and the Water Board management. A threat by Judge Cox to jail John Riehl, or other Local 207 leaders, would only make Judge Cox more hated and create a real risk of spreading the strike.

The main usefulness of court injunctions, therefore, is, first, that they can scare and demoralize workers who are uncertain about what the consequences of defying the court order might be. But second, and much more importantly, in the past several decades, injunctions have provided union misleaders with a way to shut down strikes that they had been forced to pretend to support because of rank-and-file pressure.

When union misleaders and treacherous union lawyers falsely spread fear of an injunction among the membership, it can be difficult for a fighting membership to follow its own instinct to defy the injunction, in reality because their union leaders are refusing to make any attempt to defend them against an unjust court order, pretending that there is nothing that can be done about it.

On Monday, October 1, the leaders of Local 207 were never served with any restraining order, and so were under no obligation to enforce it. Neither the Water Department management nor Mayor Bing seriously attempted to serve the injunction on Local 207 leaders or members.

The leadership of Council 25, being more like management than management, went to Local 207’s picket line and tried to serve the injunction to 207 leaders and members themselves. The treacherous Council 25 leaders even asked the police to film their action in case management would ever need proof that service had been given and wanted to take action against individual workers who had received the restraining order and still continued to strike.

When Local 207 leaders arrived at the picket lines and denounced the actions of Council 25, the Council 25 leaders lost their nerve, could not argue for their position, failed to serve the order on the Local 207 leaders, and scurried off with their tails between their legs.

Management brings out the stick

By Tuesday, October 2, the Water Department and the Mayor’s office, recognizing that Council 25’s effort to shut down the strike had failed, unleashed their multitude of weapons against the strikers. Police in flak jackets and armed with billy clubs took over enforcing the “law” on the picket lines. Management announced the firing of the 34 union members that had initiated the strike. Supervisors throughout the plant repeatedly called the workers they knew to threaten or cajole them back to work.

By the end of Tuesday, management offered amnesty to any striking workers other than the 34 who crossed the picket lines and returned to work. Because this workforce is, like most workforces in America, almost completely new to striking and unfamiliar with how to assess the balance of power between the strikers and their enemies, the barrage of management’s intimidation tactics scared many back to work. Some of the most vocal fired workers, feeling weak and uncertain about their fates—especially once their coworkers started crossing the picket line—placed enormous pressure on the union leadership to simply call off the strike and allow them to beg management to reinstate them.

On Wednesday, October 3, Mayor Bing, the Water Department, Council 25, and Judge Cox—imagining that they had succeeded in demoralizing and weakening the strike so much that the Local 207 leaders would be grateful to them for any actions that they might take to at least restore the jobs of the fired workers—organized a settlement conference for the strike. The Mayor’s office, the Water Department, and Council 25 measured the strength of the strike solely by the number of workers out on the picket lines and who were prepared to stay out.

The union’s power in this strike went far beyond what the workers themselves were capable of doing.

By Wednesday, the strike had gained enormous popular support. Workers from other unions were joining the BAMN youth and the Local 207 workers to maintain the picket lines. Other city workers, including bus drivers and clerical workers, were asking the BAMN strike supporters to supply them with copies of the union’s flyers and strike bulletins to give to their coworkers and customers. Announcements about the strike in high schools and college classes were receiving enthusiastic responses. Crowds of Detroiters, waiting for their buses at the downtown central bus terminal, applauded the speeches given by strike supporters and strikers’ family members.

To virtually every Detroiter who heard about the strike and to many workers living in Detroit’s poor neighboring suburbs, this strike was a beacon of hope and an expression of Detroit’s resilience and pride.

A majority of Detroit’s black, Latina/o, and immigrant communities hate the enemies of the strikers: the courts, the police, the Mayor, the rich, suburban business interests, and billionaire investors who had dedicated the last ten years of their lives to destroying Detroit’s neighborhoods and schools and to decimating its union jobs.

It was obvious to the powers-that-be that, if this strike continued—even as mostly a campaign of 34 fired workers to spread the strike action in order to get their jobs back—it could become the spark for a resurgence of militant struggle and the catalyst for the growth and expansion of a new civil rights movement.

Virtually anyone with a brain who has any relationship to Detroit can feel that the continuous, suppressed, but continuously simmering anger of the people of Detroit can move from passivity to a riot in a heartbeat.

If the strike stayed alive and continued, even skeletal pickets at the wastewater plant could evoke actions within the plant that would be far more costly to management than a work stoppage would. An attack by the police—or an attempt by Judge Cox to enforce his restraining order/injunction by placing some of the strikers or their leaders in jail—would certainly cause enormous public outcry but also have the danger of igniting the anger of youth and of the community.

The power of the strike was in how much the modest action of the workers in Local 207 spoke to and for all the aspirations and pain experienced by the people of Detroit.

The anatomy of a victory

On Judge Cox’s initiative, a settlement conference was convened on Wednesday, October 3. Cox faced a dilemma. In reality, even with the help of the treacherous Council 25 bureaucrats, he had been unable to get his injunction enforced. He feared that this would expose his weakness and the weakness of the court in general over against a fighting alliance of unionized workers and the people of Detroit determined to stand up against his and the other attacks on Detroit. Yet actually enforcing his injunction would have meant jailing union leaders for “contempt of court”—a provocative act that he feared could spread active strike support like wildfire. Everything could get out of control.

Cox called the meeting because he hoped the Local 207 leadership did not recognize his weakness and their own strength. He thought that the growing problems for the strike would demoralize the Local 207 and BAMN leaders and disorient them into calling off the strike. Representatives of the Mayor, the Water Board, and Council 25 were united with Judge Cox in hoping that Local 207 and BAMN would just give up in despair. The Judge adjourned the Wednesday meeting until Thursday, confident that the strike would be called off Wednesday by the Local 207 leaders. Cox and his allies expected to face a broken Local 207 leadership on Thursday morning.

Judge Cox and his allies were wrong.

Immediately after the conference was adjourned on Wednesday afternoon, the Water Department told reporters that large numbers of workers had crossed the picket line and that the strike was dead. Once again, Council 25 misleaders, presenting themselves as the union leaders with the authority to end the strike, told reporters that the union had called off the strike.

When Local 207 officials and lawyers were contacted by reporters to find out whether the union had called off the strike, the Local 207 leaders made clear that the strike was definitely continuing and would never be called off until the supposedly fired workers got their jobs back. In part because the stand of the Local 207 leadership seemed so unusual to reporters who had covered labor disputes over the past two decades, the Local’s emphatic determination to keep the strike going received a lot of coverage.

The next day, when the settlement conference continued, Judge Cox, representatives from the Water Department and the Mayor’s office, and the Council 25 leadership were all furious because they recognized that their willingness to settle the strike while it was still alive would reveal the weakness of their position and the power of the striking workers. Instead of being able to portray themselves as the “magnanimous” despots who had saved the “poor, naïve, submissive” workers from the “evil, outlier, delusional” leaders of Local 207 and BAMN who dared to believe that the oppressed could fight and win, the enemies of the strike looked like weak blowhards who, despite their tremendous objective power, had been unable to defeat a strike by a tiny number of city workers.

If the judge had called off the settlement conference, or if management or Council 25 leaders had broken off the settlement talks, they knew that, so long as the Local 207 leaders were prepared to maintain the strike, there was no action they could take that would not have led to the strengthening and broadening of the strike itself. In reality, had Judge Cox jailed the increasingly popular Local 207 leadership or their lawyers, had management actually fired the 34 workers or the union leaders who had led the strike, Cox risked committing the kind of provocation that would merely set off exactly the chain reaction he and his allies most feared.

Because of Local 207’s declaration that they would continue to strike until the fired workers were reinstated, the enemies of the strike had no choice but to settle the strike then and there.

They knew they had nothing else to hurl at the strike and, having failed to break the strike, time would give the striking workers the ability to turn their massive but passive support into active and potentially explosive support.

The victory achieved by Local 207 could not have been achieved but for the anger and real power of the people of Detroit.

The clear lesson of this strike is that even a small but well-organized segment of Detroit or union can win, and with a leadership determined to win, can stop the seemingly endless attacks against our city and build a new civil rights and labor movement strong enough to make Detroit into the city we want it to be.

 

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About The Author

BAMN is a mass, democratic, integrated, national organization dedicated to building a new mass civil rights movement to defend affirmative action,integration, and the other gains of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and to advance the struggle for equality in American society by any means necessary.

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