Utility workers fired up over service cuts

DEARBORN, Mich. — Hundreds of utility workers rallied at their union hall in Dearborn, Mich., Aug. 2 and 3, to protest plans by Michigan utility DTE/Michcon to close more call centers and customer service offices. Two informational rallies, held at the Utility Workers Union of America Local 223 AFL-CIO union hall, each drew over 250 workers.

DTE has already closed 17 customer service offices in Michigan. If the slated closings go through, only three offices will be left in the state.

Sam Weinstein, assistant to UWUA National President Donald Wightman, pointed out that the vast majority of the people who use customer service offices are single mothers, senior citizens, low-income families, Black Americans and Latino Americans, who are most vulnerable to cuts in services.

The UWUA has formed a coalition of unions and community organizations, called DTE Customers First, to launch a petition drive to the Michigan Public Service Commission to stop DTE from closing any more offices. The commission recently fined DTE $105,000 for failure to restore electricity to 350 customers during the bitter cold winter months. (It gets as low as 20 below zero with the wind chill here.) This is a small fine compared to DTE’s after-tax profits of $572 million in 2005.

Customers are feeling the impact of the closings that have already taken place.

After DTE closed its Ann Arbor customer service center, one woman needed to establish service from DTE. She didn’t have proper credit card and checking account information, so she was sent to a Detroit center. After taking a bus from Ann Arbor (a 70-mile round trip) and waiting in line, she was told she didn’t have proper photo ID and had to return a second time to become a customer.

Traditionally, DTE field collectors have had the authority to collect a late bill at a customer’s home. Now they are instructed to cut the service even if the customer offers to pay the bill in full. To have service restored costs about $1,000.

Jim Harrison, Local 223 president, and June Heath, Local 223 recording secretary, who is African American, called it a two-pronged assault: one, hurting the customers, and two, eliminating several hundred good union jobs. They said DTE is warming up for hard-nosed negotiations in 2007. Local 223 will be in the front line of Detroit’s Labor Day parade as one of the unions under attack.