Protest redux is one of the weapons that union workers for Missouri American Water Company (MAWC) have for keeping the heat on. Monday afternoon they were out there, again, protesting in hundred degree heat–after working in the heat all day–about having to work under an unfair contract.
MAWC is part of a nationwide privately owned utility company. The national entity just raised employee health care premiums by 52 percent. As in 52 friggin’ percent–all while raising out of pocket costs and cutting coverage. “Cutting coverage” is four innocuous sounding syllables, but that term has a human cost and Kim Duffie (pictured below) is the face of it at MAWC. Duffie has Crohn’s disease. He’s out working in the field all the time, in Monday’s heat, for example before he came to the rally. That’s tough when you’re sick, and he feels worse these days than he used to. Under the former health care contract, he got monthly infusions to keep the Crohn’s under control–infusions that cost $7,000. No more. If he wants those now, he has to cough up 700 bucks a month and more than a hundred for other meds. He’s just a working stiff. Who’s sick a lot these days.
Like many profitable privately owned utilities, MAWC routinely cuts corners–and then asks for rate hikes. Which brings us to another weapon local 335 plans to use. Workers will show up at the rate hike hearings to describe the carelessness of their employer. Ted Carso (pictured at left) tells me that there are many large valves in the system that have been broken for years. They’re not even on the “maintenance pending” list anymore. That means that when there’s a water main break near one of them, a larger area has to be shut down while repairs proceed.
It wasn’t always like that. Al Rogers (pictured bottom left) says that two years running their local outperformed every other local in the country. In 2000 and again in 2001, they did such an outstanding job that every worker received a $700 bonus, and they took enormous pride in their jobs. That was back before the company went public and the shareholders demanded a different set of values. Now large valves that break are often abandoned and boil orders are more common.
To review then, MAWC behaves the way Ameren used to about tree trimming, inconveniences its customers unnecessarily, and … wants a rate hike of almost fifteen percent. Maybe they could make a case for that if they kept the system in good repair and didn’t pay their execs princely sums. But here’s how you know they do: when their CEO resigned last August, they agreed to pay him $1.2 million not to work for the next two years. Tom Schneider, president of Local 335, reports that when one of the national company’s subsidiaries got a rate hike recently in Virginia, the agency that granted the hike even specified that none of the money could go for bonuses for executives.
So it’s not like American Water Company is some widely respected corporation and the workers are asking for the moon. Oh no. This contract stinks, and these workers need to double the pressure on their greedy employer. Or triple it. The only way to do that, though, is for progressives to unite and organize. Some of that already goes on, of course. Schneider says they’ve already had support at rallies from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Communication Workers of America, SEIU, and AFL-CIO. “Once this is over here, however it pans out, when they call on us, we gotta be there for them.”
We on the left are starting to get that. They got the money, we got the numbers, and we must start using our numbers effectively. Think Wisconsin. What we actually need is a statewide alliance. If you didn’t already read it, see the inspiring account of how Pro-Vote and Jobs with Justice coordinated a statewide labor pushback last spring that stopped dead every single anti-labor bill the Republicans threw at us–did it with little money and despite the House being 2/3 Republican! Pro-Vote, JwJ, and their labor allies are maintaining the ties they formed then and preparing for the future. Here in St. Louis, Missouri Progressive Action Group is calling a conference of progressive leaders in the metro area, including unions, to discuss how we can have each other’s back and work together next year to defeat Republicans. I believe that in Missouri progressives are getting our alliance feet under us and starting to walk. We might have to run to catch up, but we don’t have a choice. It has to happen.
As for Local 335, the answer is as simple and as difficult as getting these alliances up and running. A well run coordinated campaign could make Missouri American Water Company buckle.