MSD workers wait outside MSD's October board meeting
MSD workers wait outside MSD’s October board meeting

The board of the Metropolitan Sewer District rejected the final contract offer of its 150 union workers represented by LIUNA Local 576 on Monday, and then followed by stripping their recognition of LIUNA as a collective bargaining unit.

LIUNA representatives were optimistic prior to Monday’s MSD meeting that they had found a compromise to resolve the heated contract dispute that has dragged on for over two years. While the MSD board had stood firmly against LIUNA’s preference for an arbitration process that requires a supermajority of the board to overturn an arbitrator’s ruling on grievances — saying this was illegal under state law — LIUNA’s newest contract offer said that if Attorney General Jack Conway deemed this arrangement to be illegal, it would only require a simple majority.

However, after two and a half hours of deliberation in closed executive session, the MSD board did not approve the contract, believing the legal opinion of their in-house and outside counsel who said such an arbitration process is contrary to state law.

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

MSD executive director Greg Heitzman told Insider Louisville that LIUNA’s compromise offer was supported by Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration — who appointed both himself and the MSD board members — but he agreed with the board’s decision to reject it.

“I would agree with the board’s decision,” said Heitzman. “With Mayor Fischer, he saw – along with Ellen Hessen, his chief of staff – the alternative of going to the attorney general as a potential compromise solution that the board could consider. And that was very carefully considered by the board in their deliberation, of whether that should be offered as an alternative. And ultimately the board made the decision not to do that, because of hearing the legal opinions (of MSD counsel).”

And even if Conway were to rule the supermajority requested by LIUNA is legal, Heitzman said that doesn’t necessarily mean the MSD board would change its opinion.

“Just like (our) attorneys’ opinions that we have to date, the attorney general is also only opinion,” said Heitzman. “You only get a final decision if a judicial system — through a judge in a court process — would make a final decision on the matter. And right now, there is not a specific state statute that says you can or you can’t … So if there is an opinion of the attorney general, or of other parties, such as legal advice from the mayor, I’m certain the board would entertain that.”

At the end of the board meeting, vice chairman Tom Austin made a motion to suspend the recognition of LIUNA as the collective bargaining unit for 150 of its employees, as well as provide a 1.8 percent raise for workers that MSD and LIUNA had previously agreed upon. The motion passed without any discussion by a 4 to 2 vote, with new board chair Cyndi Caudill and Dan Arbaugh voting against it.

Heitzman said this decision was made because negotiations with LIUNA were at an “impasse,” calling it “a time out.” He said these MSD workers would have to find another union, unless the board decides at some point to the reassess LIUNA’s “suspension,” which he differentiates from a “full withdrawal of recognition.”

David Suetholz, the attorney for LIUNA who says the MSD board is receiving terrible legal advice, blasted the decision by the board and called on Mayor Fischer and Metro Council to get involved.

“While Greg Heitzman and (outside counsel) John Sheller’s MSD board found money for themselves and over 10 percent wage increases for their executive staff, they could not bring themselves (with the exception of Board Chair Cyndi Caudill and Member Dan Arbaugh) to care about the women and men who actually maintain our metropolitan sewer system and agree to a contract that is enforceable,” Suetholz wrote in a statement to Insider Louisville. “The insular culture criticized by the state Auditor is alive and well. The Mayor and the Metro Council should exercise their statutory oversight and bring this entity back into the service of the community and not the privileged few running the show.”

LIUNA organizer Lawrence Winburn Jr. blasted the retaliation of the board stripping its recognition, saying “It’s sad that a board of volunteers can strip away the rights of the CMF workers that keep our city safe. Corruption and discrimination continues. Mayor Fischer, this is an embarrassment.”

Both Suetholz and Winburn say they are weighing their options for future strategy on a contract. Previously, LIUNA workers had suggested the possibility of voting for a strike or launching a television ad campaign aimed at pressuring the board to compromise. Suetholz says they will remain by their members’ sides, whatever they wish to do.

“CMF workers chose the Laborers Local 576 to demand fair treatment by MSD management, and if they still want the Union to fight for them, we are not going anywhere,” said Suetholz.

Asked about the potential for a strike, Heitzman says he doesn’t expect that to happen, but reaffirmed that if a work stoppage happens, they will be ready to replace those workers.

“The employees of MSD, because we’re a public entity, do not have the right to strike or do a work slowdown,” said Heitzman. “If they should attempt to do so, we’ll deal with that at that point in time. I do not believe they will. What we do would depend on whether two people or 100 people would leave. It would also depend on the amount of work that has to be done. But we’re prepared with our own internal employees – management, as well as contractors – to address the situation through a series of priorities.”

Neither Fischer nor Council President Jim King — who suggested last week that he became involved trying to solve the contract dispute — chose to comment to Insider Louisville about the latest developments at MSD.

A source at MSD told Insider Louisville that their human resources director Lynn Fleming informed workers this morning that they would be presented with an agreement to sign at 2:30 p.m. today that puts in writing the consequences of going on strike or conducting a work stoppage. MSD spokesman Steve Tedder confirmed the 2:30 p.m. meeting but said in an email that this was so workers can “get a copy of the work rules and conditions — this spells out the wage increases and work procedures that was previously spelled out in past union contracts (they are not now covered by a union contract). They are not signing a contract/agreement — we are just checking off to make sure that all the employees get a copy.”

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

At Monday’s meeting, the MSD board also discussed an ethics complaint filed by vice chairman Austin against the board’s former chair James Craig and current member Lonnie Calvert. The board voted unanimously to send the complaint to the internal audit committee. Heitzman and Tedder told Insider Louisville that the ethics complaint is not available to the public until their investigation is complete and ruled upon, though Austin in past meetings was quite critical of the members’ ties to labor unions.

Both Calvert and James were asked to recuse themselves from contract negotiations months ago because they were supposedly “contaminated” by unions, though James, an attorney, resigned earlier this month — after criticizing the opinion of MSD’s legal counsel that rejected the legality of both binding arbitration and LIUNA’s supermajority provision.

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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]