Wayne County union pledges to fight wage, benefit cuts

2015-04-23 | Detroit Free Press

April 23--The union representing many Wayne County government employees is pushing back hard against a contract proposal that includes cuts or changes to wages, healthcare and pensions.

Al Garrett, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 25, derided the proposed four-year contract from the Warren Evans administration as "draconian."

Garrett, who pledged that the union would be filing an unfair labor practice charge with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission this week, said the proposal shifts the burden of fixing county finances to working families.

"It is wrong. It is unfair," Garrett said, during a news conference at the AFSCME office in Detroit today. Garrett said the union represents about 1,700 of the county's approximately 3,900 employees, making it the largest single union out of 11.

Garrett said Evans has a "Burger King mentality" toward the workforce because of the proposal's call for a 5% wage cut, referencing the recent protests by unions and others over hourly wages paid to fast food workers.

The proposal also calls for, among other things, county employees to give back four holidays, raises the retirement age to 62, eliminates vision coverage for current employees as well as health care for retirees, raises healthcare contributions while placing employees into high-deductible health plans and mandates higher pension contributions while reducing benefits.

Changes to overtime would require employees to work 40 hours in a work week before accruing overtime, meaning vacation, sick, bereavement or similar paid days off would no longer be counted, and double time for time worked on an employee's seventh day would be eliminated.

The announcement by the union comes just over a week after Evans began a series of community meetings to discuss the county's financial woes.

Last week, Evans told a crowd at the Wayne County Community College District's Eastern Campus in Detroit that cuts to healthcare costs and pension plans would be necessary. Evans is trying to erase a $52-million structural deficit and boost funding of the pension system by $20 million per year.

In response to the union's announcement, Lloyd Jackson, a spokesman for Evans, said in an e-mail that the county would face a financial emergency unless steps are taken to address the persistent structural deficit.

"The county executive is asking no more of the county's AFSCME employees than he is asking from all the other stakeholders. Fixing these problems, which have festered for years, will require a shared sacrifice from all stakeholders. Wayne County can no longer afford to pretend it is business as usual given the dire financial circumstances it faces," Jackson said.

Chris Roggero, a roads division foreman and president of AFSCME Local 2057, said the administration had made a vague threat during a meeting last week. He said union negotiators were told that the county would give "plenty of work" to "the alligators who handled the Detroit bankruptcy and are not working."

Roggero called the proposal a "ludicrous plan" that would cost individual employees thousands of dollars.

"You've got to be reasonable," he said.

In his public comments, Evans has said the county does not need an emergency manager and does not need to file for bankruptcy but does need to make substantial cuts.

Arash Roshanrouz, president of Local 2926, which represents engineers, noted that reduced benefits would make it harder to hire good-quality engineers. Civil engineers start with the county at $43,500 a year, but could make $55,000-$60,000 to start in the private sector, he said.

"The only reason we can hire engineers is by giving them these benefits," Roshanrouz said.

The union is planning to rally before the last of Evans' community meetings at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Ted C. Scott Multi-Purpose Room of the Wayne County Community College District's Western Campus, 9555 Haggerty Road in Belleville.

Garrett said much of the last decade has been "hell" for county employees. He said county workers had agreed to concessions in the past and should not be made to suffer for the "misdeeds" of those who have run the county, a reference to the issues that dropped pension system funding from 95% to 44% during the Robert Ficano administration.

"We want the public to know we've been a responsible union," Garrett said.

The previous union contract expired at the end of September, and employees had seen a previous 10% wage reduction restored.

Garrett said the resolution to the financial situation has to be a "grand bargain," an apparent reference to the deal that limited pension cuts for Detroit retirees during bankruptcy and preserved the art collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Garrett also asserted that the root of the county's problems is a reduction in property tax revenue and that county voters could be asked to approve an additional 2 mills in taxes.

Contact Eric D. Lawrence: elawrence@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter: @_ericdlawrence.

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