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Durham city workers decry racism and favoritism on the job
Claim working conditions are a hazard
 
Published Friday, February 22, 2019
by Freda Freeman, Correspondent

DURHAM – Durham city workers came out en masse Thursday to complain about racism, favoritism, discriminatory hiring and promotional practices, low pay, and being understaffed and overworked. Employees with the city’s Public Works, Water and Sewer, Solid Waste, and Parks and Recreation departments said they fear for the safety and welfare of Durham residents if things continue the way they’re going.

Members of the Durham City Workers’ Union met at the Tobacco Workers Union Hall to voice their frustrations and anger about being passed over for promotions for which they said they are qualified, working double and sometimes triple shifts with little to no sleep, and being penalized by unfair disciplinary action. Several said they expected to face retaliation for attending the meeting.

Nathanette Mayo, former president of UE Local 150, thanked the workers for coming out. She said, working together, they can make a change.

“We will not be silent. We will not be quiet. We will make them listen to us, because this is what democracy looks like,” Mayo said. “We as workers, as everyday rank and file workers, we have to come together in organizations, we have to build unions, we have to make change through those unions. And, it’s only when we come together as an organization, as a group, that we can make change.”

Mayo said a report of the meeting will be given to Durham City Council.

A panel of community allies was there to hear the workers’ concerns and offer support. The panelists were Desmera Gatewood with Durham Cares and the Coalition for Peace with Justice; Bertha Bradley with Fight for 15 and the Durham Workers Assembly; Diane Standaert, chairperson of the Durham Human Relations Commission; and Angaza Laughinghouse Jr., a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

City administrators are reclassifying job titles. According to city workers, a recently released consultant’s study calls for merging 450 job titles into 203. This, they said, is an effort to fill the staffing shortage by “squeezing” more work out of existing staff.

The workers have four demands for structural changes within city departments: a fair grievance process; an end to arbitrary and racist hiring and promotional practices; an end to staffing shortages by providing full funding to fill open positions; and an end to the merit pay system in favor of a step plan in which employees are at the top of the pay scale after 20 years with the city. The workers said they want the same pay system as police officers and firefighters.

Mike Johnson, who’s worked in water management for nine years, said the current grievance process is unfair. If a department director has a complaint against an employee, a hearing is held before a panel of three city employees from different departments. The panel decides what disciplinary action should be taken. However, Johnson said, the panel’s ruling can be arbitrarily upheld or overturned by the city manager, who often favors the department director who filed the complaint.

Marcus Cates, who works in water management, has been with the city for 14 years. Cates said in the past, promotions were based on job performance, however, now there’s a “good old-boy” system in place. 

“Since 2012, the shift has been middle-age white males receiving jobs over more qualified minorities. It’s never been an issue of just choose a guy because he’s this color or that color. It’s been an issue of let’s choose the best candidates to serve the citizens of Durham, and we’ve been failing that since 2012. We’re giving the jobs to people that don’t have the background and don’t have the skills set. Candidates are being overlooked because they don’t fit into the buddy system, the good old-boy system,” he said.

Saying Durham residents deserve better, Cates added: “I would like to push, from the director up, that we go in another direction, because, if constantly, we’re going in this direction, we’re going to have issues like Flint, and we’re going to have issues with customers’ high water bills.”

The city of Flint, Michigan, has been having problems since 2014 when, due to insufficient water treatment, lead leaked from lead water pipes into the drinking water, exposing more than 100,000 residents.

John Morris, a maintenance technician in the Water and Sewer Department, said working long shifts because of staffing shortages is a safety hazard for both city workers and residents. Morris also said that as a white man, “It’s eye-opening to watch black guys who are more qualified get passed up again and again by someone who comes from City Hall.” Morris said he didn’t apply for a certain job because he had enough respect not to “steal it.”

Standaert, of the Human Relations Commission, said she was in awe of the workers’ commitment despite their working conditions. At the same time, she’s very frustrated to hear them complain about the same issues they had in 2015 and nothing has changed.

“I’m in awe and admiration of the commitment of all the workers who spoke tonight and the long-term commitment to making the city a really wonderful place, and the stories you’ve shared of the mistreatment and disrespect is unfair and unacceptable,” she said.

“I’m also in awe that so much sounds so exactly the same as it did when this was first brought to the Human Relations Commission. So much in the city has not changed during that time, and they have not listened to your concerns. So, I, too, am committed to following your leadership of what needs to be done, what sort of changes you’re asking for, who we need to talk to, and when to show up.”

Bradley pledged her support to fight with the workers. She said she will take the workers’ issues back to Fight for 15.

Gatewood encouraged the workers to keep fighting. “The power lies in the organizing. It lies in the mobilizing. It lies in the activism from the city workers,” she said.

Pledging his support, Laughinghouse urged the workers not to become discouraged. He said the question isn’t what’s the point in fighting, thinking nothing will change; the question is what happens if you don’t fight back.

 

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