Interview with bus mechanics’ Local President Leamon Wilson (seen speaking at City Council hearing in part of video above).
By Diane Bukowski
Nov. 4, 2011
VOD interviewed Leamon Wilson, president of Local 312 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), representing Detroit’s bus mechanics, just three days before the city’s bus crisis exploded in a drivers’ work stoppage.
He told VOD that Bing cannot, or WILL not, properly manage DDOT by providing proper bus service for city residents, despite his recent announcement that he wants Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to appoint him as Detroit’s Emergency Manager.
He said the city has not yet replaced retired mechanics, including 50 who left in the last year due to draconian provisions the Mayor imposed in their new contract. Despite demands from his union and City Council, Bing has not also not canceled furlough days, provided overtime, or even the numerous parts needed to fix the buses.
“As an example, we told them there are over 40 buses out there with blown motors, there is only one engine in stock, and they haven’t got those engines yet,” Wilson said.
He said he is breaking his silence now because it has been more than two weeks since he and members of his board met twice with Bing and his Chief Operating Officer Chris Brown to resolve the problems, pledging that they would not negotiate in the media.
(Click on http://voiceofdetroit.net/2011/02/22/utility-privatizer-running-water-department/ to read about Chris Brown’s history as former DTE executive vice-president, and managing director of the privatized Singapore Power International.)
Wilson said Brown was supposed to call him back within 48 hours, but that he has yet to hear from him. Brown was at the deserted Rosa Parks terminal Nov. 4, security guards told VOD. VOD missed him then, but approached him after the press conference on that day’s bus stoppage. He refused comment, saying he had to “go with the Mayor.”
Bing’s media representative Dan Lijana has not yet responded to the following inquiry from the Voice of Detroit (now forwarded to Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org )
1. Has the Mayor canceled bus mechanics’ furlough days, restored overtime, and provided the necessary parts for them to fix the buses? If not, why not?
2. Is the Mayor setting DDOT up to fail by not doing so? (In other words, if DDOT is seen as failing, it will be an excuse either to regionalize the system or abolish DDOT altogether as the daily newspapers have advocated.)
3. What is the Mayor’s stand on Gov. Rick Snyder’s plan for a regional transportation system independent of DDOT and SMART?
4. If the Mayor takes over as Emergency Manager (as he has announced his desire to do), does he plan to abolish or regionalize DDOT?”
Wilson said he and his board members met with Bing and Brown shortly after the Detroit City Council passed a resolution Oct. 18 calling for Bing to honor the mechanics’ demands so repaired buses could start rolling again in 30 days.
Wilson said Bing handed the meetings over to Brown, who came to Bing’s staff from DTE. He said Brown threatened to “get rid” of “some of the people sitting around the table,” including union board members, if they were not on the “same team.”
DDOT officials under former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick gave 30-day suspension notices (equivalent to discharge) to Wilson and his chief steward James Thomas in 2003 despite their union positions. Thomas’ notice claimed he had organized a “work stoppage.” The mechanics picketed, AFSCME Council 25 and their attorneys intervened and the city withdrew the action.
At the time, Local 312’s attorney George Washington said, “All union local presidents in southeastern Michigan will see this as an attack on labor as a whole, and we intend to make them aware of it.”
This time, Bing and other city officials have accused the mechanics of organizing a “slowdown,” which they have vehemently denied. Now it has exploded into a full-scale service stoppage.
Wilson paraphrased Brown, “We really can’t just give you all back those furlough days, because [Michigan Gov. Rick] Snyder is saying we have to do this and that in order to get our revenue-sharing money from the state.”
“In other words,” Wilson said, “Snyder is saying to leave the bus service all f—ed up.”
Wilson, who has been head of his local for over two decades, said he had gone through a similar situation with former Mayor Dennis Archer and former Governor John Engler in the ‘90’s.
“Even though we had our problems with Archer, he ended up suing Engler because the state constitution requires Detroit to get its revenue-sharing money,” Wilson said. “Engler made a deal with Archer and we got our money.”
Bing and Brown said they wanted a guarantee that all the buses would be fixed in 30 days if they meet the union’s demands, Wilson said. But he told them the buses have been run into the ground for a long time due to the city’s negligence, and it will take time to get them all back up on the road.
“This isn’t normal repairs now,” Wilson said. “For an example, they took one bus off the street because it needed brakes, and it turned out it needed brakes so badly that the driver ran it straight into the garage wall at the Coolidge Terminal. That’s how bad the buses are that are still on the road now.”
But, he said, if the union and council demands are met, “Things will start to improve immediately. As time goes on, they will get better and better. At one time, it would have taken us five months to get all the buses back on the road, but not now, with staff cuts. It’s like if you don’t fix the water pump in your car, eventually your engine will blow.”
Wilson said he lambasted Bing and Brown for cutting mechanics’ overtime just before the school year started, when children are depending on the buses to get to school, rather than waiting for winter to end.
“Every winter, we lose one-quarter of our fleet due to accidents on the icy streets,” he explained.
Wilson said if Bing continues his inaction, he has attorney Washington on stand-by to invoke provisions of the federal Urban Mass Transportation Act (UMTA), which provide specific guarantees for workers whose departments receive federal grants, as DDOT does. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced Oct. 17 that the city is in line for an additional $7 million in funds to upgrade its buses and terminals.
In their analysis of the UMTA, attorneys G. Kent Woodman, Jane Sutter Starke, and Leslie D. Schwartz say:
“Section 13(c) generally requires, as a precondition to a grant of federal assistance by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), that fair and equitable protective arrangements must be made by the grantee to protect employees affected by such assistance. The statute requires that provisions addressing five specific matters be included in such protective arrangements:
(1) The preservation of rights, privileges, and benefits under existing collective bargaining agreements;
(2) The continuation of collective bargaining rights;
(3) The protection of employees against a worsening of their positions with respect to their employment;
(4) Assurances of employment to employees of acquired mass transportation systems and priority of reemployment for employees terminated or laid off; and
(5) Paid training or retraining programs.”
The federal government can withhold money from departments that do not comply with these provisions. Wilson said he did not invoke the act earlier when Bing imposed contracts on the city unions, but that he may have no choice now.
“Brown asked me why I would want to hurt DDOT by cutting off its federal money since that would hurt my members too,” Wilson said. “I told him, look, you’re not replacing people, you’re not restoring the furlough days, overtime or parts, and you appear to be intent on getting rid of DDOT, so what difference would it make to us?”
The SMART unions have already complained to the federal government about violations of the mass transit act, Wilson said. They have experienced hundreds of lay-offs and service cutbacks.
Now Gov. Snyder appears to be intent on taking an end run around both DDOT and SMART by proposing a pseudo-public “regional transit authority” that would not include either system. It would have representatives from Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw Counties, and would be operated and funded independently through a fee on vehicle registrations or a similar method.
Snyder’s proposal is meant to “jump-start” a regional transit system to replace both DDOT and SMART, his administration officials said.
Many Detroiters have long fought against regionalization of their resources, funds and services, including the bus system. They are already suffering from:
- The privatization of the city’s public hospital, founded in 1917.
- The abolition of Detroit’s Recorders Court, leaving them with mostly white suburban juries;
- Two state takeovers of the school district, leaving them with closed schools with up to 75 students in a class and devastated neighborhoods;
- The privatization of the Public Lighting Department, the Detroit Zoo, the Institute of Arts, the Historical Museum, the “Workforce Development Department,” and numerous other institutions, costing the city tens of thousands of resident jobs, devastation of services, and stepped up requirements for payment for services.
Now Judge Sean Cox has stripped them of their right to vote on any sale of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and numerous workers’ rights there, including seniority. (See upcoming story.)