Oct 15, 2012
On October 1st, a federal court judge ordered striking workers at the City of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to return to work immediately.
On the same day, the city let it be known it was firing 36 strikers, most of them the workers who first walked out, including three top officials of the local who stood with the strikers, John Riehl, Michael Mulholland and Sue Ryan.
The City expected the strike would crumble.
Instead, workers stayed out. And even when some workers did go in, the rest of the strikers made it clear they wouldn’t go back so long as their fellow workers remained fired.
Three days later, the City blinked. It backed off from firing the workers – even though it kept a discipline on their record. Another piece of paper workers can tear up! The City also announced it would negotiate with the union over the concessions and layoffs it had already announced.
Of course, negotiations in the context of an ongoing onslaught on city workers means little. BUT it does mean the city blinked.
Since before the strike, city officials claimed that mere pieces of paper – called the Detroit Consent Agreement and the November 4, 2011 judge’s order – gave them unlimited dictatorial power.
These pieces of paper allowed them – they said – to ignore union contracts, city ordinances and the city charter. Above all, city officials claimed that these papers allowed them to dictate unilaterally whatever they wanted.
The workers showed that their determination could trump arrogant city officials with their little pieces of paper.
One small group of workers striking is not enough to “win” in the face of an orchestrated attack on all City of Detroit workers – and in fact on municipal workers everywhere.
But DWSD workers did something important. Threatened with losing their jobs, feeling they had nothing to lose by fighting, they decided to strike.
In fact, that’s true for all of us today. We have lost, we are losing, we will go on losing until we take the “risk” the Water Department workers took. It’s a bigger risk to do nothing.
And, if more workers fight, the first ones to go out, like the Water Department strikers, won’t stand alone.