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Protesters blocking a truck from leaving an MSD facility this morning

Over 20 members of various labor and social justice groups blocked the exit gates at a MSD maintenance facility for two hours this morning in protest of the MSD board’s refusal to agree to contract demands of 150 workers and their vote last week to strip recognition of the workers’ union.

Though they eventually allowed MSD trucks to pass at two different gates once ordered to do so by police, the protesters stood in front of most trucks for several minutes before letting them pass, usually followed by thumbs up and honks of approval from the MSD workers.

The protesters included members and representatives of various local labor unions — including United Food and Commercial Workers, Teamsters, Kentucky AFL-CIO, LIUNA — as well as social justice organizations Kentucky Jobs with Justice, Kentucky Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression, and Louisville Standing Up For Racial Justice. They led chants calling for a fair contract for MSD workers and for Mayor Greg Fischer to demand that MSD board vice chairman Tom Austin resign over calling MSD workers “animals.”

Many carried signs reading “#BlackWorkersLivesMatter,” noting that 59 percent of MSD workers at their Central Maintenance Facility are African-American, and are paid much less than their counterparts at Louisville Water Co.

David Suetholz — the attorney for LIUNA Local 576, which represents 150 workers at MSD’s Central Maintenance Facility — said this morning’s action was likely just the beginning of future actions if no progress is made on a contract and no action is taken against Austin.

“MSD just witnessed the beginning of the community standing up with these workers at CMF,” said Suetholz. “I think now that Tom Austin has shown who he is and who he’s been the entire time, members of the community are no longer going to be on the sidelines. They’re going to be standing with these workers until they get the justice they deserve.”

LIUNA business manager Lawrence Winburn Sr. told Insider Louisville he is not sure if MSD workers will vote to strike, but he expects community action to continue pressuring MSD’s board until they come back to the negotiating table with a contract that has an acceptable arbitration process.

photo (15)“The workers at MSD deserve better than this,” said Winburn. “They are rate payers, too, just like everyone else, and they are doing hazardous work and should be appreciated for the job they’re doing, rather than them trying to work against them. And the point of it is, they’ve got to have someone to back them. They need a fair contract so that they can be treated fairly.”

Kentucky AFL-CIO president Bill Londrigan took part in the protest, saying people should tell Mayor Fischer to force Austin off the MSD board so the two-year contract dispute finally can end.

“We’re going to keep on coming out here until they hear our message,” said Londrigan. “We need a change over at MSD. It’s an organization that’s out of control, that gives ridiculous raises to management and treats the workers, I hate to say it, like ‘animals’ … And I’m telling Fischer, it’s Christmastime, send these workers home with a fair contract.”

MSD spokesman Steve Tedder has not responded to Insider Louisville’s request for comment on this morning’s action. Mayoral spokesman Chris Poynter has called Austin’s statements “disappointing,” but has not responded to questions asking if the mayor still has faith in Austin’s ability to serve on the board to which Fischer appointed him. MSD executive director Greg Heitzman has stated that if MSD workers go on strike — none participated in the protest today — he is prepared to replace their labor with contract workers.

In addition to this morning’s protest, LIUNA began airing the following TV ad on local stations today, referring to Austin’s statements and MSD pulling recognition of their union, telling viewers to “call Mayor Fischer and demand that the discrimination against these workers ends now.”

***** UPDATE 3:19 p.m. *****

Tom Austin submitted his resignation to Mayor Greg Fischer this afternoon.

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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]