A lot of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) union employees have gone out on strike, extremely upset over a consultant’s report proposing job cuts. As reported in the Detroit Free Press, the plan would “cut more than 80 percent of the department's employees over five years in a drastic overhaul to cut costs and reduce the frequency of rate increases.
“If the plan is adopted, the department would go from having 1,978 employees to 374 over the next five years. Another 361 employees would still work for the department but would be outsourced through other companies, according to the proposal announced in August.” (“Wastewater plant workers defy judge's order, continue strike”).
Sounds like a drastic solution, doesn’t it? But bear in mind that Detroit still needs twice as many people per gallon of water than Chicago – where they ain’t exactly strangers to union overreach.
In response to the report, John Riehl, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 207, which represents many of the DWSD employees, told the Detroit Free Press that the department needs more workers.
"They don't have enough people as it is right now," Riehl said. "They are just dreaming to think they can operate that plant with less."
And what better way to prove they can’t operate the plant with less, then to have a lot of employees walk out and show management just easy it really might be?
According to the consultant’s report, he “found 257 job descriptions” at DWSD, “including a horseshoer,” even though the water department hasn’t got any horses. (“No Horses, But Detroit Water Department Employs 'Horseshoer'”)
“The horseshoer’s job description is "to shoe horses and to do general blacksmith work … and to perform related work as required." The description was last updated in 1967.”
DWSD doesn’t deny the position exists : they brag about it on their web page: “DWSD is only one of two city departments (the other being the Police) to operate a blacksmith’s shop.”
We simply had to visit the picket line at lunchtime to learn more. When I asked one striker, who identified himself as Nigel, 57, if the department really needed a blacksmith, he told me that really wasn’t the point. “The point,” said Nigel, who is one of DWSD’s 35 journeymen cobblers, “is that once you get rid of the smithie, where’s the job security for the tinmakers and the tailors?”
For all that, I suggested, how many cobblers did a modern water department really need?
“Don’t make me laugh,” said Tharp, whose expression suggested anything but laughter. “They’re dreaming if they think they can get by with fewer of us. If anything, we need twice the hammers we’re getting along with now.”
One man was holding a picket sign that read: “Our Sewers, Our Selves!” He wanted the public to know that these strikers weren’t just overpaid malcontents, but each had a story to tell. He told me how as a teenager he’d started as apprentice to the miller, but after ten years successfully won a bid for the falconer’s job that he’d now held for 29 years.
“But what in the world has falconing got to do with water treatment?” I asked.
“Typical,” said the falconer, looking up at his sign as if to size it up for its head-smashing qualities. “People like you just turn the handle on the faucet and expect the water to come out. You really have no idea, do you?”
I found similar sentiments from a trio of bakermen, a plowman, and a rather rough sort of woman who pointed to the sign indicating she was a proud union midwife. “And believe me, Buster,” she said, poking a very thick finger into my sternum, “I’m good at what I do.”
Some critics have said that “union rules have turned the department into a government jobs program.” Others have accused the unions of featherbedding at DWDS, leaving many employees “stuck in superfluous, overly specialized jobs and, as a result, are probably not employable elsewhere.”
At least, according to a DWDS contracts manager, the blacksmith is still safe in his shop at the department’s Central Services Facility. He was transferred from horeshoeing at the Detroit Police Department five years ago, though he no longer works with animals. The manager explained that “the shop also ... repairs equipment and works with various metals and welding for the department when needed.’"
And both the armorer and the tinker have threatened to down their tools and walk off the job if they’re ever asked to get along without him.