North Miami Beach Water Privatization Plan Could Affect 80 City Workers, Union Says

North Miami Beach Water Privatization Plan Could Affect 80 City Workers, Union SaysEXPAND
Courtesy of AFSCME Florida
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Ignore the fact that the FBI is probing the City of North Miami Beach's proposal to hand the operation of its entire water system over to a private company, and brush aside that the third-ranked company bidding for the project, the French firm Veolia, has ties to lead crises in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Flint, Michigan.

Believe it or not, there's still good reason to be upset by the plan, which would affect nearly 200,000 Miami-Dade residents. Because on top of everything else, the city's privatization plan could seriously hurt blue-collar union workers. According to the American Federation of State, Federal, and County Workers (AFSCME), 80 water plant jobs could be thrown into jeopardy if the city approves the deal.

"Payroll — spending on the actual people who deliver reliable and safe water — is going to be a large expense," AFSCME Florida spokesperson Mark McCullough tells New Times. "A for-profit company has to do just that, deliver a profit, so they will keep cutting back on their employees to do that. And when those cutbacks don’t match the projection's needs for Wall Street, they will cut back on safety, maintenance, and make even deeper cuts through layoffs and shredding what is left for the employees who remain."

According to city documents, North Miami Beach wants to retain ownership of its water plant and system — which also services Miami Gardens, Aventura, and Sunny Isles Beach — but give total control and operation to a private firm. The city's request-for-proposal documents say that current employees would be transferred to the new company. Current employees would have to reapply for jobs.

The city commission will vote on whether to move forward with the deal at a meeting 6 p.m. Monday. North Miami Beach city officials have declined to comment on the record about the proposal in advance of the vote.

In most privatization deals, the incoming company typically agrees to honor the workers' current union contract until its term limit runs out. After that, benefits and jobs can be put on the chopping block. Benefits such as overtime, retirement plans, sick leave, and health coverage for plant workers can be stripped away to cut costs.

In North Miami Beach's case, the city's contract with AFSCME ran out in 2015, and the two parties are still negotiating a new deal. The union says it's concerned that a private company could go after benefits written into the AFSCME contract from day one unless the city writes some protections into the privatization contract.

"All that and they will certainly look to raise rates since citizens won’t have the chance to stop them because the for-profit company will respond to the wishes of stock traders, not taxpayers," McCullough says.

The city — along with the companies bidding to take over the water plant — contends that privatization can deliver services to residents at a cheaper cost to taxpayers. But that idea isn't backed by data: One study from the nonprofit Food and Water Watch shows that rates tend to increase dramatically once private companies take over.

At a protest outside North Miami Beach City Hall yesterday, AFSCME Local 3293's vice president, Hubert Rose, spoke out against the plan. He said he worked at the plant for 25 years.

"Privatizing North Miami Beach water is not something the great majority of the city residents want," Rose said. "They want what they have: good, clean, and reliable water at an affordable rate. And just so you know, during my tenure with the city, we have won numerous awards with the water department."

He added that North Miami Beach's plant has won "best taste" awards in both Miami-Dade County and the entire state of Florida.

"Private companies deliver cheaper services by cutting expenses like workers' benefits, safety training, even skipping steps meant to preserve the very water infrastructure," he said.

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