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GR City Workers Hold Informational Picket

February 9, 2011

Yesterday, members of the Grand Rapids Employees Independent Union (GREIU) held an informational picket in from of City Hall to let the public know that they are not happy about the ongoing city efforts to cut benefits, downsize staff and privatize services.

Last Saturday, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell said in his State of the City address,The current level of benefits received by municipal employees is, I am convinced, unsustainable in the long-haul.” I asked some of the GREIU members what they thought about the Mayor’s statement.

Loran Moyer said that when the local government can afford to increase the salary of the City manager by $6,000 they cannot tell him that he needs to continue to take cuts in benefits. (Although it was announced this morning in the GR Press that the City Manager and other salaried officials want to give back their raises.)

Joe Casalina agrees and thinks that whenever cuts are being considered by City management it always begins with lower level positions. Joe said that the union recognizes that times are tough and that they always take into consideration the economic climate before negotiating a contract. “We all have families to take care of and to feed, just like everyone else. We aren’t doing this to get rich, but just to make a decent living.”

I also asked the union members what they thought about Mayor Heartwell’s criticism of the current level of benefits that GREIU members have  – “This benefit level is not typically found in the private sector and, if we cannot control it, it will break the back of local government.”

GREIU President John Good responded by saying that they are not private sector employees they are public sector workers. Good also stated that their workforce has been cut by 25% and that they have made numerous concessions in recent contracts. The GREIU president also said that they are willing to further negotiate if the city was willing to make some compromises.

Joe Casalina said in response to the comparison of benefits to the private sector that it is a false argument. He said that when the economy is good they never make this comparison, especially when benefits are really high in the private sector. “Now that things are not so good in the private sector they want to make comparisons.”

Some of the GREIU members talked about the threat of further job loss because of privatization. The unionized city employees are concerned about the upcoming budget creation and the strong possibility that the city might want to privatize more services in order to “balance the budget.”

One worker, Mike McKay, who has 25 years in as a city employee, said that he was very concerned about talk of privatizing the city’s water & sewage services. “I don’t feel valued as a city employee. Not too long ago Mayor Heartwell referred to us as low hanging fruit, meaning that many of us would be workers who could easily lose our jobs. I wear this vest as a form of protest against that kind of mentality. We deserve to be treated better.”

Time will tell in terms of what the City will do about the labor contracts, but it seems clear that there is a serious conflict between what city management wants to do and what city employees are asking for.




4 Comments leave one →
  1. Kate Wheeler permalink
    February 10, 2011 1:42 am

    I feel torn about this issue, but I feel this article is way too one-sided. It does not present any facts or figures that either support or undermine the word-of-mouth statements of the workers.

    In fact, Grand Rapids municipal workers are among the highest paid in the state, and are paid nearly twice as much as their peers in other cities across the country. Their salaries AND benefits are definitely unsustainable in this economy, especially when our tax base is eroding from closed businesses, people moving away to find jobs, and from the citizens in the private sector taking pay cuts and having to pay much more in out-of-pocket benefits.

    Most of the people I know who are still “lucky” enough to have jobs are being paid between a third less and half as much as they were being paid in 2001, when the so-called recession started. They are paying astronomically higher monthly insurance contributions and co-pays. No one in the private sector I know has a pension any longer, although the point of the City’s pension plan is to replace Social Security, from which some municipal workers are exempted.

    By contrast, City of Grand Rapids workers are being paid very high salaries, partly because every union demands a raise *every single year.* The non-unionized city workers have taken pay cuts a number of times in the past five years, including one of 10 percent recently. They’ve had to, because there is no money left over. And another consequence is people losing their jobs. If the City unions are really pro-worker, you’d think they’d be taking steps to insure that doesn’t keep happening, but they refuse to do so.

    The average unionized city worker’s pay–and this includes everyone from parking lot attendants to dispatchers–is $60,801. That’s a large salary compared to the average private-sector salary, which is currently just under $41,000 in Michigan. Sanitation workers in Grand Rapids earn an average salary of over $58,000, which is more than many area college professors make.

    Benefit plans are also very cheap compared to what private sector people pay. The police officers pay about $120 a month–and they pay that same amount for one individual or a family of 7 people. Their out-of-pocket expenses are low. The police complained bitterly when doctor’s office visits went up from $10 to $20 in their last benefit-plan adustment. Most people I know with insurance pay from $35 to $50 for a doctor’s office visit. And when they retire, these workers will get their same benefits program until they die–unlike most other people in the US today.

    In addition, almost everyone I know who works in the private sector now has merged days off–they get a “pool” of days that they have to use for both vacation and sick days until they are used up. Most people, because of that, get a week’s vacation at most. If they run out of days for an emergency illness after they take their one measly vacation, they are docked pay.

    By contrast, City of Grand Rapids workers get about one month’s worth of days off, between their vacation, sick days, and holidays.

    If these workers are on a picket line saying their pay and benefits are commensurate with what they’d get in a private-sector job, they are either lying or they are really out of touch. And what does it matter that the statements about the generosity of their pay and benefits are being said during hard times? These ARE hard times, and the City is struggling to pay all these expenses from the multiple unions with which they have to negotiate every year.

    That being said, I also think that the management salaries in Grand Rapids are way out of line, and not only should Greg Sundstrom give back his self-awarded raise, he should take a big pay cut. There are other ways that expenses could be cut as well. The City, particularly under Sundstrom, has been badly managed financially.

    Cutting jobs is not the answer, but frankly, that’s what’s going to keep happening if the unions won’t make genuine compromises and if management isn’t taken to task for other expensese that they don’t want to give up. And when jobs are cut, what’s the next step? Entire departments will be eliminated, and the citizens of Grand Rapids will end up with the awful consequences, such as privatized water management, which Greg Sundstrom has already said that he hopes to do. Then the cost burden will be shifted onto us, and we’ll ultimately pay for BOTH the bad financial management and the unions digging in their heels.

    What’s the answer? I don’t have one. I’m angry that the management of this city gets all of the media attention and none of the criticism. It’s time for a genuine media examination of OTHER costs in the city system that are out of line, such as management perks, and other expenses that could be cut, such as our participation in the state revenue sharing system.

    But I’m also really sick of listening to the municipal workers complain and complain when they are on a virtual gravy train compared to most of the people in this city, and their unwillingness to make any genuine compromises.

  2. Jeff Smith permalink
    February 10, 2011 3:41 am

    Kate, I appreciate the feedback and your concerns. I don’t think there are easy answers here and my intent with doing the story the way I did was to give workers a chance to respond to the comments that Heartwell made in his State of the City address, where he basically said that the city could not do anything progressive unless employee costs were drastically reduced.

    No body was really talking about worker benefits, salaries and pensions being a problem before the State cut revenue sharing. The City could generate more money by actually taxing businesses instead of giving tax breaks and subsidies that they claim they need to give in order for the businesses to stay.

    If the privatization of the water/sewage moves forward then people like Mike McKay will lose their jobs, which also seems incredibly unfair to me.

    I struggle with the idea that union workers, which got the wages/benefits they currently have because of being organized, should be forced to continue to make concessions (documented in Heartwell’s speech). Some private sector employees have been forced to take pay cuts, as you state, but that is in part because they are not unionized and don’t have any political power to fight those cuts.

    Ultimately the response for me is we need a different economic system, one where we don’t have to pit workers against each other and one where real equality can be realized.

  3. Kate Wheeler permalink
    February 10, 2011 4:51 am

    Jeff, you’ve given a good answer. You’re right in saying that it’s unfair to ask workers to bear the entire burden of cost-cutting when the city could raise revenues on businesses, for example. And as I said in my post, management plays a big role in this problem, too, and they are largely shielded from blame in the mainstream media.

    It’s not that I’m anti-union; in fact, the opposite is true. But I am stymied by how completely these City union workers seem convinced that 1)their pay is fair compared to other municipal workers (it’s not; it’s way above what city workers make in Detroit or Lansing, for example) and 2) that their pay is fair compared to the private sector (it’s not; people in the private sector are struggling and these workers are not.) So someone saying “We just want to feed our families” seems disingenuous to me at best, given the overall picture.

    Yes, their unions have protected them. But they are going to protect them right out of their jobs–and that’s going to suck for everyone. Where do you draw the line?

    And although the obvious answer is a different economic system entirely, that’s not going to happen in the short term. The reality of the current situation is that a solution that will benefit everyone just does not look like it’s even being considered. And that’s because management is just as entrenched, if not more so, than the unionized workers are. And my fear, as I said before, is that the already struggling citizens of Grand Rapids are going to end up footing the bill for all this posturing on *both* sides.

    This type of standoff never ends well. I say this as someone who has lived in Detroit and seen it played out a dozen times at least.

    I have also lived in Europe, where although there is still a capitalist system in place, government protection of worker rights such as pay, vacation time, layoffs, and health care benefits is much stronger. Those who are not unionized don’t suffer nearly as much as private-sector, nonunionized workers here in the States.

    I appreciate you giving a voice to these workers and allowing them to say things that the mainstream media rarely publishes or broadcasts. But I feel that some of their statements are vague and, as a journalist, you could have clarified them by asking additional questions. What concessions are they willing to make? What concessions do they want in return? Why do they feel their pay is fair when they’re paid more than other municipal workers in Michigan? etc.

    I just would have liked to have known more.

  4. Ann Marie Priddy permalink
    February 25, 2011 11:23 pm

    Kate you say that sanitation workers make $58,000.00 per year, my husband works for the city and makes more than a sanitation worker and his pay is more than $10,000.00 less than what you posted. I am amazed when I hear people say that the city workers are not struggling but everybody else is. More money is taken out of my husbands check for city required plans then I can even remember off the top of my head. It is not that they do not want to make concessions it is that the concessions the city wants is out of line. The city management gets raises, have city purchased vehicles, have multiple middle management positions that are unecessary, use city employees pension money to pay the bills and then do not pay it back, they waste money on hiring the lowest bidding contractor and then have to pay someone else to fix what that contractor messed up. The list goes on. Now the city wants the union workers to take a 20% pay cut when the union offered concessions that would cover the 20% without having to cut wages, the city said no and are now duing the union for not negotiating, how does that make sense. There was even offers from the union to go to 4 day work weeks and adjust the pay accordingly, city said no. If scheduled correctly the vital services would not be interupted. If my husbands pay is cut 20% that equals our house payment, what happens when more people leave Michigan because they can no longer afford to pay their house payment because the uniformed public thinks that all union employees make GM pay and benefits. I would love to see another article that asks the city workers their opinion of the 20% pay cut and really talk to them in detail about what is really happening. Some city employees would be paid below poverty level with this pay cut. If city employees are paid $60,801 per year in benefits and salary I want to know who is getting my husbands salary and benefits because we could really use that.

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