June 2010

Organizing Wire
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Mississippi Local Reclaims Municipal Workers
Lost to Outsourcing

When municipal workers in Moss Point, Miss., were left without a union after the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees departed the state in the early 1990s, they turned to IBEW's Pascagoula Local 733.

City workers, who had been meeting in 733's hall, appreciated the IBEW's reputation for effectively representing hundreds of workers at the massive shipyard operated by Northrop Grumman Ship Systems, located just a stone's throw to the south.

Jim Couch, Local 733 business manager, remembers visiting with the city's mayor following AFSCME's departure. After the IBEW asked the mayor to be recognized as the workers' bargaining agent, the mayor questioned what would happen if he didn't honor the union's request. "We told him we would get real, real active," says Couch. The mayor agreed to recognize IBEW and continue the terms of the AFSCME contract. "We built on it from there," says Couch.

In 2008, after successfully representing the bargaining unit for more than 25 years, the IBEW was notified that the city had decided to outsource the maintenance of streets, sewers and gas lines. Workers with at least 17 years of seniority remained working for the city. But other members retained their jobs with a private firm, Utility Partners. All were then working without union representation.

In 2009, supported by a labor-friendly majority on the city council, Moss Point's new mayor reviewed the municipality's experience with outsourcing and concluded that it had failed to save money and had actually created new problems. Last August, Utility Partners ended its month-to-month contract with the city. The privatized work was brought back into the public domain.

The city offered Local 733 the opportunity to be restored as representatives of the bargaining unit. About 90 percent of the bargaining unit—which had dwindled from 65 to 40 members—voted to support IBEW representation.

"We felt like the work could be done in-house," says Mayor Aneice Liddell. There were problems with the management of city services even before privatization that Liddell, a former alderman, hopes to solve through the recent hiring of a full-time civil engineer to direct departments. "There are so many liabilities that you still incur [after privatizing]," says Liddell, at the helm of a once-vibrant industrial city severely tested by manufacturing plant shutdowns and Hurricane Katrina. "You always have the question of who is at fault, the city or the contractor."

Liddell is targeting improved worker training in her dialogue with union representatives. "We are looking at the possibility of apprenticeship programs and cross-training," she says. "I have to look out for the betterment of the city. If the unions can help me and I can help them, I see no problem. I know these guys and I hope to have a great partnership."

James Ratcliff, a 24-year heavy equipment operator and acting supervisor in the sewer department, worked as a member of AFSCME, then Local 733 and most recently as one of the senior city workers without union representation. Ratcliff was dismayed that—under Utility Partners—newly-hired employees started out at lower rates of pay than under the union's contract and paid holidays were not counted toward overtime hours.

The overtime issue was recently resolved prior to the conclusion of negotiations on a new contract between Local 733 and Moss Point. "I'm glad to know that the city is honoring changes prior to signing our contract," says Ratcliff. "Without a union, we could voice our opinion, but there was nothing we could do to change things," he says.

James Ratcliff, a 24-year employee of the sewer department in Moss Point, Miss., says he is pleased to be a member of Pascagoula
Local 733.