MSD meets in closed session after voting to exclude board member from labor contract discussion
MSD meets in closed session after voting to exclude board member from labor contract discussion | Photo by Joe Sonka

The ongoing struggle between Metropolitan Sewer District employees and administrators over a contract dispute spilled into the MSD board meting Monday, as a board member critical of the lack of progress was barred from a closed session discussing those negotiations.

As the MSD board attempted to go into their closed session to discuss labor negotiations, board member Lonnie Calvert spoke up to say he would no longer recuse himself from contract discussions as he had agreed to in the past due to his supposed conflict of interest from belonging to the Laborers’ International Union Of North America (LIUNA). Calvert said that while he had previously followed the legal advice of MSD, he actually belongs to a different union than the MSD workers — who belong to LUINA’s Local 576, not the regional union like himself — that is autonomous from it, with his own personal counsel telling him there is no conflict.

MSD workers have tried since 2012 to have their employers agree to a binding arbitration contract with their LIUNA local, in which labor disputes would go to an independent mediator whose ruling would stand, instead of going through a more costly and contentious system in the courts. A large coalition of labor unions in Louisville have stood behind this effort, pointing out that most city workers — even the MSD counterparts at Louisville Water Company — have binding arbitration. The unions argue that MSD workers’ poor pay relative to LWC workers is discriminatory, and LIUNA has strongly pressured MSD administrators and board members through print advertisements to end the contract dispute.

MSD attorney Paula Purifoy and board vice chair Tom Austin immediately spoke up to say Calvert did have a conflict.

“You have a conflict of interest with MSD’s ethics policy, and it is in your best interest to step aside out of the discussion as it relates to our negotiation with LIUNA,” said Austin.

Discussing the motion to remove him from the closed session, Calvert said he was frustrated by being kept in the dark by board members on these contract negotiations as they dragged on for years.

“I want to see this thing resolved,” said Calvert. “I also want to see MSD be a good corporate citizen and do the right thing, and I can’t say that I’ve seen that up to this point. This has been going on for two years. It’s been going on long enough.”

The MSD board eventually voted to remove Calvert from discussions of the contract in closed session, where no action was taken. Outside the closed session, Calvert continued to express his frustration to Insider Louisville.

“I tried being a team player from day one, but for something as minute as this, I don’t understand what the big sticking point here is,” said Calvert. “Most of the time when people are negotiating, it’s normally over health insurance or wages. In this case it’s arbitration. Every progressive city has this, there’s hundreds of thousands if not millions of people across this country have some sort of arbitration. So to me it’s a no brainer.”

Calvert said no board members have asked him about his many experiences with binding arbitration except MSD board chairman James Craig, who did not show up at the board meeting until after the closed session had ended. LIUNA has recently expanded its pressure from MSD executive director Greg Heitzman to Craig over the stalled negotiations, distributing fliers at a recent Democratic Party dinner telling Craig, a Democrat, to stop “acting like a Republican.”

One of the many calls to actions by local unions on MSD contract negotiations
One of the many calls to actions by local unions on MSD contract negotiations

Insider Louisville called Craig at his law firm during the closed session to ask about his absence and Calvert’s removal from the closed session; Calvert told us, “Mr. Calvert is frustrated with the way that contract negotiations have been going, and I understand his frustration.”

City workers have expressed growing frustration with the labor policies of Mayor Greg Fischer. A coalition of local unions under the Louisville Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO recently sent a letter to Fischer urging him to stand behind binding arbitration for MSD workers, pointing out that he won their endorsement when he ran for mayor in 2010 by saying he supported binding arbitration as a best practice for dispute resolution.

“MSD is run by your appointees and is implementing the vision of your administration,” read the letter. “We, the undersigned, hope that your MSD board appointees embrace your commitments and accept binding arbitration, which ensures both parties’ agreement to be bound by their mutual promises. We are confident your vision has not changed and look forward to a speedy conclusion of our sisters’ and brothers’ contract negotiations with MSD. In the event that we are collectively mistaken about your position, please have your staff contact Ken Koch at (Central Labor Council) to schedule a closed meeting to discuss.”

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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]