CITY HALL PROTEST Employees gather, seek OK for union

Published 12:04 pm Friday, February 17, 2012

About 30 Vicksburg city employees waving signs and wearing red Communications Workers of America T-shirts stood on the steps of City Hall Thursday afternoon calling on the Board of Mayor and Aldermen to recognize their request for a union.

“We need representation,” said Freddie Scott, a four-year street department employee who stood with others near the entrance to City Hall, shaking signs, waving to passers-by and shouting union slogans.

“We ask for raises and the city says there’s no money,” he said. “Then the mayor comes up at his State of the City address and talks about how the city’s done such a good job with the budget.”

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Brenda Scott, president of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees/CWA, who is not related to Freddie Scott, said she and other organizers were in the city at the request of the workers. She said the 4,500-member union represents state workers, City of Jackson employees and employees of the Mississippi Action for Progress Head Start Center at Cedars School Circle in Vicksburg.

She said union representatives on Dec.16 presented interest cards to the city’s legal department showing that more than 50 percent of the city’s employees want union representation. She said 127 workers have signed interest cards.

Scott said the union would not represent the city’s police and firefighters, who are covered by the city’s Civil Service Board.

She said the union would fight to get better pay and working conditions for members, but neither she nor any of the protesters cited specific problems or pay.

City attorney Lee Thames said Thursday that the interest cards were sent to the city’s human resources department for verification, but he did not know if they had been verified. Repeated attempts to contact interim human resources director Walterine Langford about the cards were unsuccessful.

In his State of the City address on Jan. 31, Mayor Paul Winfield bragged on the city’s financial situation, saying the city had budget surpluses exceeding $1 million for the 2009, 2010 and 2011 fiscal years, but provided no numbers to support his comments.

The mayor also said he would seek a 50 cents per hour across-the-board raise for police and firefighters, providing raises, he said, for 175 to 200 employees. The cost of the raises would be $208,000. The Board of Mayor and Aldermen has not voted on Winfield’s pay increase proposal.

City employees received a 3 percent pay raise in November 2010, their first since 2001. Police and firefighters received no raises then.

The city employs about 550 people, including policemen, firemen, department heads and seasonal workers.

Brenda Scott said employees who have signed the interest cards deserve to know whether the board will recognize their request for a union.

She said Thursday’s gathering might be the first of other demonstrations to get city officials’ attention.

“We want to know one way or the other what’s going on — have those cards been verified,” she said. “We’re going to keep coming back until we get some answers. These guys have families. They deserve a seat at the table. We’re man and woman enough to take a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.

“After we get that answer, we’ll know which way to go,” she said. “We vote on these people (the mayor and board). They’re public servants.”

Talking to the workers Thursday afternoon, Scott urged them to stay united and press their cause to their neighbors for support.

“You all have backbone,” she said, “but you don’t have support coming out of that building (pointing to City Hall). You need to be treated like men. You all have got to realize that you deserve better.”

Jerrick Neal, a sewer department employee who has been with the city for about a year, said union representation “has been a long time coming. We do a lot of hard work for the city. We want to get paid for it.”

Freddie Scott said he was not criticizing police officers and firefighters for getting raises, “but we’d like to get that, too. I’d like to send my daughter to college and take my family on a vacation. I’d like to be able to pay all my bills each month, not have to decide each month which bills to pay.”

Winfield, who was in Washington, D.C., with a group of city, county, school and other officials meeting with the state’s congressional delegation, said he was “told there was a protest going on at City Hall.”

“While I don’t agree with their method, I respect the right of the employees to come to City Hall and address their concerns,” he said.

He said he wanted to meet with the employees “to see that there is no misunderstanding.”

South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman said he opposes the union.

“I don’t support it and I won’t acknowledge it,” he said.

“I’m surprised they met,” said North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield.

Mayfield said he left City Hall just before the group gathered.

“I would have been glad to go down and speak with them if they would have told me,” he said. He said Winfield was supposed to meet with Brenda Scott after he returned from Washington.

Scott said she has been talking with city employees since April 2010.

“We’ve met monthly,” she said.

Union organizers also met with city employees in 1996 to discuss joining MASE. The attempt to organize was unsuccessful. Scott said the current effort is the result of efforts by the employees, who she said “were this time building the organization from the ground up.”

A group of employees met with union organizers at the Klondyke on North Washington Street on May 6, 2011, to discuss plans to seek recognition by the city.

Winfield met with Scott on May 12 to discuss the union. He said at the time that his best position was to remain neutral, but also said the union “was not going to get a negative word from me.”