PAWTUCKET — It ain't over 'til it's over...yet the clock is ticking on the opportunity for municipal union workers to convince the city administration that they are can handle trash and recycling services better than a private vendor.
In October, the Purchasing Board voted to move ahead with developing a contract for the city's trash and recycling services to be handled by a private vendor, MTG Disposal. The move, backed by Mayor Donald Grebien and his administration, caused anger and resentment among the 20 or so employees of the city's Sanitation Department as well as the other members of Local 1012, which represents workers in other municipal departments.
Some members of the City Council had also voiced concerns over the privatization plan, criticizing the Grebien administration for not including them more in the process and questioning whether the decision was being made too hastily. In contrast, Director of Administration Antonio Pires had expressed the desire to have the private trash program in place before the end of the year to maximize the savings potential and have it up and running before the bad weather arrives.
At its Nov. 20 meeting, the City Council had requested an update on the privatization of the trash pick-up. In a Nov. 28 letter of response to the council, Pires said that at this point and time, there were no new developments. He said that to date, Public Works Director Lance Hill “has been working with the unions reviewing options and holding meetings with the vendor” and pledged to keep the council informed on an ongoing basis.
Both Pires and Hill told the Times that the discussions are still taking place with the vendor and the process is underway to develop a contract. Yet, both also said that until that contract is finalized, they are still willing to listen to any proposal that the city's union wants to present.
To that end, Augie Venice, president of Local 1012, told the Times Tuesday that the union would be submitting its latest proposal for maintaining the in-house trash and recycling services by the end of the day. He said the union has made its best effort to come up with a plan that keeps the services in-house, believing that a city-run program offers the highest quality and most cost-effective solution, while also preserving jobs for city residents.
Venice said the union does not believe the cost savings that have been stated as being achievable through privatizing the trash and recycling program.
“If they are coming forward with something that is to the betterment of the taxpayers, it is our desire and our obligation to listen” said Pires. He also said that the administration is cognizant of the concerns of the union workers, even though they have been assured that no sanitation department employees will be displaced by the privatization efforts. Yet, he also noted that given the city's significant structural deficit and concerns about pension and retirees fund obligations, the focus must be on finding savings and financial stability.
Pires said he considers “the door to be wide open” to the union to submit any well-documented plan it might have to provide trash and recycling services in a cost-effective way to the taxpayers. He said his only concern is that this is done in a reasonable time frame, and not in the “eleventh hour” after all the negotiations with the vendor have taken place.
Hill said that while “we are advancing the contract” with MTG Disposal, he had asked the union to submit its latest proposal to him by the end of the business day on Tuesday. He said he expected this to be a response to a lengthy list of questions and concerns he had raised about the union's last proposal.
“We are willing to keep the door open for anything and everything that benefits the city,” Hill stated. Yet, he also noted that the union's previous proposals had been largely a rehash of the same concerns and had not broken any new ground.
As to Local 1012, Venice said that a larger effort to stop privatization is underway by the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, the statewide organizational arm that Local 1012 operates under. State representatives held a meeting on Tuesday with union members from several other local communities to launch a public relations campaign against the new trend toward privatization of municipal departments that is occurring in many Rhode Island communities, he said. He expects more such meetings to be held in the near future.
Venice also said the AFL-CIO representatives are discussing ways to bring back a Central Labor Council in Pawtucket, which formerly served as a partnership of all city and school unions on key labor-related issues. The current privatization effort is just such an issue that would be of concern to all unionized employees and where having solidarity could prove beneficial, he said.