Over 25 Metropolitan Sewer District workers requested time off from work this afternoon to attend the MSD board meeting, during which two workers told the board that if they do not agree to their contract demands, they will launch a TV ad campaign for their cause and possibly begin a strike.

MSD director Greg Heitzman and board chair James Craig
MSD director Greg Heitzman and board chair James Craig

MSD has been in a contract dispute with their workers, represented by LIUNA Local 576, for nearly three years. The workers have sought a contract with binding arbitration, but the board has not relented, even forcing the only two board members receptive to binding arbitration to recuse themselves from contract negotiations. Mayor Greg Fischer, who appoints both the MSD director and their board members, told Insider Louisville three weeks ago that he is opposed to granting binding arbitration.

As MSD worker Chris Galloway told the board today in a statement drafted by all Central Maintenance Facility workers, LIUNA has given in to MSD’s demand that their contract not include binding arbitration, but if their new proposal is not agreed to by the end of the week, they will take more drastic measures.

“The package you currently have is our last and final contractual offer,” said Galloway. “We, along with (LIUNA Local) 576, have conceded on binding arbitration months ago, but you continue to hold up our contract.”

Galloway added that if MSD management continues to “intimidate” its workers and stiff-arm a contract, “wait until our TV ads run next week, which will begin the next step of our fair binding-contract campaign.” While LIUNA targeted MSD management with newspaper ads earlier this year, union leader Lawrence Winburn told Insider these TV ads are set to begin airing on WHAS next week.

Galloway also hinted at more direct action, noting that LIUNA members at MSD had previously voted near-unanimously to strike after rejecting a previous contract offer, and that such strikes “have taken place in Atlanta and bigger cities across the country.”

LIUNA attorney David Suetholz told Insider that unlike public sector workers such as police or firefighters working directly for a Metro Government department, MSD workers are not legally prohibited from striking, as they are a public corporation separate from Metro Government.

Suetholz also says that this final offer from LIUNA grants MSD’s concession that binding arbitration for workers be removed from the contract. Instead of the arbitrator’s final decision being binding, it allows a three-fourths majority of Metro Council to overturn the arbitrator’s decision, therefore giving the council final say.

Both Suetholz and Winburn say that Lynne Fleming of MSD’s management team and Ellen Hessen — Greg Fischer’s chief of staff — met with LIUNA representatives and city mediator Billy Meeks in mid-August and worked out a tentative agreement that is nearly identical to LIUNA’s current contract offer. However, he said MSD management reneged on the deal shortly afterward and has not come back to the table to reach an agreement.

Insider Louisville asked Fischer spokesman Chris Poynter if the mayor’s chief of staff was open to such a deal in August and if Fischer is now, as well his thoughts on the legality and implications of an MSD strike. Poynter responded, “These are questions for MSD.”

MSD spokesman Steve Tedder did not immediately respond to our call or email seeking comment.

In addition to his comments on the contract, TV ads and possible strike, MSD worker Galloway also accused MSD management of manipulating worker’s surveys in order to paint a happier picture of worker conditions.

“Not one of you have taken the time to come speak to us, despite what you have said here in this room,” said Galloway. “The board’s personnel committee has condensed our surveys to mean nothing. Things have never changed for us. Our statements have been stricken or marked out. We do not trust management and we do not trust the members of this board because of your actions toward us. You say you don’t trust 576, but 576 is the only one doing the right thing.”

Galloway also called out Mayor Fischer for reportedly telling a LIUNA member this Saturday that the union just needed to sign the contract, saying the mayor is a “CEO” who has “no clue of what’s really going on in his administration.”

“Mayor Fischer has been lied to or is hiding behind his director,” said Galloway. “No matter what, this is a reflection of his administration. It’s apparent that his compassionate performance is only used during TV or feel-good campaign opportunities, and is not a real trait. Mayor Fischer, you have a group of workers that your administration has punished for far too long. It’s time for you to do the right thing, or do you want to punish us more by asking us to concede more?”

MSD workers wait outside the MSD board meeting
MSD workers wait outside the MSD board meeting

Darius Calloway, a nine-year veteran of MSD who also spoke to the board, said that workers like himself are always there for the city when there is a problem, but that the MSD board does not have their backs.

“Why is it so hard for you all to give us a contract?” Calloway asked the board. “The people that work for you all every day — we bust our butts for you all, for this board, for this company, for this community … So why can’t we get this job done right here? Why? Can somebody tell me? Anybody?”

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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]