Angelina Justice has been working as a youth services librarian assistant at the Free Public Library (LFPL) in Louisville, Kentucky since 2004. Though she says she loves helping the children who visit the library, she and other unionized city workers have faced a series of cutbacks and declining work conditions since Mayor Greg Fischer took office in 2011.
Like her co-workers at LFPL, Justice is a member of AFSCME Local 3425 — and she says the Fischer administration’s current contract with the union makes it almost impossible for her and her family to survive.
“If my household didn’t have a second income, we wouldn’t make it as a family of five,” she tells In These Times.
When Mayor Fischer ran in 2010, he had the city’s many public-sector unions on his side. His first campaign promised a plan for an “open, honest and transparent metro government,” which called upon local businesses to ally with labor to create jobs for Louisville residents. Though Fischer’s pro-labor rhetoric was often vague, workers viewed his statements as a heartening sign for the largest city in Kentucky, one of the last states in the South with no notorious “right-to-work” laws.
“It was labor that got him elected,” says John Stovall, president of Teamsters Local 783, which represents around 1,000 public workers, including Emergency Medical Services responders, mechanics, carpenters and street cleaners. “It wasn’t the [mostly white and affluent] East End, it wasn’t the rich people; it was labor. All of labor came behind him, supported him and endorsed him.”
Now, as Fischer makes his bid for reelection, that support may be waning. Rather than uniting labor and local businesses, workers say Fischer’s administration has been unresponsive to the needs of city employees around Louisville. They claim that the mayor failed to give unions their promised input on his choice of a labor liaison; they also note the administration’s refusal to use binding arbitration, which has severely slowed down many contract negotiations.
Because the local public unions have a total of 29 different contracts with the city government, the effect of the now-shaky relationship between Fischer and labor has varied among industries. First responders, for example, say that although management has been slow to hire new personnel to fill vacated positions, their department has been relatively untouched by cutbacks overall.
Others, however, haven’t been so lucky.
Stephanie Croft, president of AFSCME Local 3425, says the nearly 230 Louisville Free Public Library employees her union represents have been continually shunted aside by the city during contract negotiations.
“We’re currently in mediation — and may possibly take court action in the bargaining agreement — for the loss of full-time workers and their replacement with part-time workers,” she says.
In addition to the reductions in available full-time positions, Croft says, the city is also trying to gut benefits for any new hires.
“They’re trying to bring in the two-tier system, where those who are [already working] will keep the benefits that they have, but then newer people coming in will get less benefits,” she says.
Mayor Fischer, whose office did not wish to comment on the matter further, claimed in a column for Louisville’s progressive alt-weekly, the Louisville Eccentric Observer, that the metropolitan government “has to make changes that affect the employees’ jobs when those changes are considered in the best qualitative or economic interest of our citizens.”
He also argued that the city had the right to hire subcontractors and freeze wages under the existing contracts — which union leaders “negotiated and agreed to.”
Wesley Stover is the president of AFSCME Local 2629, which represents 800 employees of city parks, technology services and the Louisville Zoo. In another LEO guest column, he countered that Fischer’s claims are false; though the contracts do allow the hiring of subcontractors, Stover pointed out that the ones with his particular local don’t “allow for subcontracting to reduce or replace members.”
Overall, Stover tells In These Times, the city has been too willing to manipulate the system to undercut the rights of workers. In one particular instance, he points out, the Air Pollution Control District altered the job descriptions of unionized employees in their new contracts, increasing the education requirements for the positions beyond the workers’ qualifications.
These changes were made in response to state and federal audits of the department, which highlighted “multiple deficiencies”. Stover thinks that these shortcomings, which included improper safety training and out-of-date policy materials, should have been the management’s responsibility to fix. Instead, he says, the department made it harder for workers to keep their jobs, regardless of their years of experience.
“[The plan] seemed like a way to cut the budget by getting rid of higher-paid, older workers and use the workforce as a scapegoat,” he hypothesizes.
For Stover, this single incident is reflective of a growing trend among city administrators of allowing public employees to suffer the brunt of economic hardship, rather than trying to attain solutions that will benefit Louisville as a whole, workers included.
Ultimately, the strain of the last few years may hurt Fischer’s chances in the upcoming election. The Greater Louisville Central Labor Council (GLCLC), an AFL-CIO-affiliated coalition of local unions both in the public and private sectors, has refused to endorse him this November. In an interview with LEO, GLCLC President Ken Koch argued that the decision was justified, claiming that Fischer “has not kept any promises.”
Fischer’s labor liaison O’Dell Henderson, who is directly involved in contracts with city workers’ unions, is “about as far from labor as I am from a Wall Street banker,” Koch continued.
The GLCLC’s decision was fueled in part by lobbying from unions like AFSCME, whose members continue to suspect that their efforts on the job go unappreciated by local leaders. While many major cities have faced budget constraints, workers point out, not all of those administrations slash public services without regard to the people being affected.
“It is business, but it’s also personal,” says Croft. “Because you have [workers] who have to make car payments, house payments, and they have to take care of their children and they need money to do that.”
Justice, too, acknowledges that the economy has squeezed the job market as a whole; she argues that the city’s cuts help neither workers nor the public.
“In hard times, the public doesn’t use government services less, it uses them more,” she points out. “Unfortunately, libraries have less staff than ever, while the need for services like resume instruction, technology assistance, homework help, public outreach, ELL programs and individual assistance has grown exponentially. When an adequate level of service is not provided because there are not enough employees, how does that problem correct itself via supply and demand?”
In the long term, municipal employees say, this affair is making them question just how much their hard work matters to Louisville’s elected officials.
“This city is run off of the backs of workers in these different departments,” says Croft. “If you say that you value those people and what they bring, then [you should] show it. … How can you turn around and take benefits away if you say that you care about somebody? You know, we have to live too.”