Workers seek city board approval for union recognition this month

Published 11:39 am Friday, May 6, 2011

City employees and state union organizers seeking for more than a year to form a labor union say they hope they are nearing the completion of the first phase of the process — union recognition from the Board of Mayor and Aldermen by the end of the month.

About 30 city workers, all laborers, met Thursday night with Mississippi Alliance of State Employees president Brenda Scott to rally one another about pay raises, benefits and workers’ rights.

“We are in the organizing stage of the union process,” said Scott, who has worked for labor unions for 21 years.

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“Unions are what gave us the middle class,” she said. “All of these workers want a seat at the table. The only thing we are trying to accomplish is to bring the workers to an organization where their interests are being represented because right now, every interest is geared toward management. Now, we want to do collective bargaining without violating any state or federal or city laws.”

Mayor Paul Winfield said his administration, which gave 3 percent pay raises to most city employees this year — the first since 2001 — has been “employee-friendly.”

“We’ve done everything we can to advocate for our employees,” he said.

While 30 employees attended the Thursday meeting, about 125 have signed up during the interest phase over the last year, Scott said.

In order to get union recognition from the board, the alliance must gather at least 50 percent of about 260 eligible employees, which excludes police officers and firefighters, Scott said.

Interested employees have been meeting monthly since April in the attempt to form a union, the third since 1996.

Efforts were unsuccessful the first two times, Scott said, because of waning employee interest after negotiations with city leaders.

“People now live in a microwavable age,” she said. “They want stuff right away and when things don’t go that way, they give up. So this time, we’re making them build their own organization. We are explaining that to them and we are taking it very slow.”

Scott is modeling the Vicksburg union after the City of Jackson, which was unionized in 2008.

The next step is to approach the board and request a resolution to be recognized as a union, Scott said adding that could happen by the end of the month.

“We think of this as workers having input,” Scott said. “… if we get a collective bargaining agreement, we will have people listen to what they are saying.”

“I joined the union the first day they came,” said William Crawley Jr., a construction supervisor in water mains. “A lot of improvements need to be done, especially about pay raises.”

Crawley said he is paid $17.24 per hour, which is about five times more than the $3.25 per hour he started out with 18 years ago.

“Laborers in the water department need to start with at least $9 per hour instead of the $7.25 per hour,” he said. “You need someone with a backbone to fight for you. It costs too much to have a lawyer fight for you.”

The 3 percent pay raises were not enough to adjust for the cost of living, Crawley said.

“It really wasn’t enough,” he said.

His fellow city workers agreed.

“Three percent ain’t nothing,” said Albert Johnson, who is a foreman in water mains. “I’ve been with the city for 11 years and I’m not making what a foreman should be making. I have retirement invested and I can’t just leave.”

“Sometimes you feel like you need help,” he said. “I’m here to get better raises and better improvements.”

The pay issue was not the only hot topic among city laborers Thursday.

“It’s not all about the money,” said Tyrone Moore, also a foreman in the water department. “We can complain about anything to human resources, but they always believe the supervisor.”

Moore has been with the city for 11 years, though he left in 2006 to attend Hinds Community College, where he received an associate’s degree in collision and repair, hoping to earn a higher wage in the work force. He returned as a city employee, but still feels his wage is not enough.

Johnson and Moore refused to say how much they are paid.