Former MSD board chair James Craig
Former MSD board chair James Craig

In the midst of a contentious contract negotiation between the board of the Metropolitan Sewer District and 150 of its union employees, recently resigned board chairman James Craig tells Insider Louisville much of the blame for the impasse should go toward the board’s vice chair, Tom Austin, whom he described as virulently anti-union, referring to workers as “union terrorists” and “animals.”

At Monday’s meeting, the MSD board rejected the final contract compromise offered by representatives of the workers’ union, LIUNA Local 576, and then voted to strip their recognition of the union as the collective bargaining unit. MSD executive director Greg Heitzman told Insider Louisville that if these workers want union recognition, they’ll have to find another union.

Craig — who resigned from the board earlier this month — says one of the main reasons the MSD board has been so reluctant to compromise with the union is the influence of Austin’s anti-union viewpoints expressed in meetings.

Tom Austin, MSD board vice chair
Tom Austin, MSD board vice chair | Image from video of Austin on YouTube

“One of the main obstacles that I faced very early on in this negotiation is Tom Austin himself,” says Craig. “Tom Austin is a very conservative Republican and he is very anti-union. Throughout so many of our discussions when we were trying to hammer this out, he’d go on these really raging tirades where he is describing unions as ‘screwing America.'” He also says he witnessed Austin calling MSD’s union employees “union terrorists” and “animals.”

Craig says these anti-union viewpoints began to gain more sway with board members once LIUNA began an aggressive organizing and advertising campaign to pressure board members into agreeing to a binding arbitration process to settle grievances disputes.

“We got to a position where board members were seeing union members going up and down the streets of their neighborhood,” says Craig. “I was receiving phone calls because the union had posted my personal cell phone number. Union members showed up at Tom Austin’s business and tried to organize a union campaign there.”

At one point, Craig says he was so frustrated by this that he was in favor of stripping the recognition of LIUNA, but eventually he stepped back and realized this wasn’t about personal slights, but the larger good of MSD and its employees.

“These board members are government actors, and we all need to rise above the fray as government actors, which can be very difficult,” says Craig. “I won’t say they took it personally or made any decisions for the wrong reason — I would say that for Tom Austin, but I wouldn’t say that for any of the other members who were a part of the process. Frankly, I can’t get into the head of those members.”

Austin recently filed an ethics complaint against Craig and current board member Lonnie Calvert, which was sent to MSD’s internal audit committee at Monday’s meeting. While the complaint has not yet been made public, Craig says the complaint deals with information the entire board has known about since early August, when he and Calvert were able to convince LIUNA to back off of their demands for binding arbitration. He added that the timing of Austin’s complaint is notable, as Austin recently lost his election to become chairman of MSD’s board, which happened due to Craig’s vote against him.

Craig called Austin’s ethics complaint against him “a partisan airing of grievances by someone who got jilted in an election. But it’s also an airing of grievances by someone who refers to the employees in this negotiation as animals.”

Austin did not return a call from Insider Louisville seeking comment on Craig’s charges.

To Craig, stripping the recognition of MSD workers’ union is escalating the dispute into the worst-case scenario he feared could happen this summer.

“In a Democratic city, a government board has withdrawn recognition of employees’ chosen union… in this town, that is unprecedented,” says Craig. “In a world where we’re talking about income inequality, where most economists agree that the dwindling authority of unions is contributing to the disappearing middle class and income inequality, taking even more power away from a union is not a step in the right direction. It is a step back. I’m very sad.”

MSD director Greg Heitzman and former board chair James Craig in October
MSD director Greg Heitzman and former board chair James Craig in October

Craig said MSD executive director Greg Heitzman likely would have supported a contract compromise if the board had supported it, but says that “some over there may be relieved” that they won’t be negotiating with the workers’ chosen union anymore. Asked if Mayor Greg Fischer — who appoints MSD’s board members and executive director — or Metro Council should get involved to settle the dispute, he says that something needs to happen, though he is not sure what that would be at this point. Fischer spokesman Chris Poynter referred our questions about the state of MSD back to MSD.

LIUNA previously has mentioned the possibility of a strike, work stoppage and TV ad campaign against MSD if the contract dispute was not resolved. Heitzman reaffirmed Monday that if a work stoppage happens, they are prepared to replace those workers with contract labor.

According to Craig, a work stoppage at MSD now appears to be a real possibility. Asked what that would look like, Craig says, “I don’t know. I worry about how that will look for everyone — both for the union, city and MSD.”

***** UPDATE 12/18 *****

Asked if Mayor Fischer has concerns about Tom Austin’s comments referring to MSD workers as “animals” and “union terrorists,” his spokesman Chris Poynter replied: “His comments are inappropriate and disappointing.”

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]