December 14, 2021

Solidarity blocks privatization in Rock Island

A yearlong fight to save Rock Island’s public water service ended in victory for the public works employees of AFSCME Local 988 when the city in September announced it would drop plans to privatize.

An important lesson from the struggle: It takes a whole community of supporters to win. But fortunately, solidarity and mutual aid is what the union movement is all about.

The first alarm rang in November 2020, when rumors spread that American Water—a private company that’s grown into a billion-dollar multinational corporation by buying up and profiting from public water systems—was pushing to purchase Rock Island’s water infrastructure.

Local 988 members swung into action, immediately working with Council 31 to plan and execute a news conference that got their message into the media. Workers warned that privatization schemes take public services out of public hands, making the operations less transparent and less accountable to local residents.

What’s more, AFSCME members pointed out, corporate owners often drive up costs to residents while cutting corners on quality in pursuit of private profit. A recent report found toxic chemicals in drinking water provided by American Water in neighboring Davenport, and the company was seeking a 9% rate hike in the fees it charged to residents.

Springtime brought municipal elections. AFSCME made every politician’s position on privatization a focus of its endorsement recommendations.

That’s when the local union launched its most important tactic: Walking door to door, talking to local residents about the privatization threat and the harm it posed. Canvassers asked voters to call their city council members and urge them to oppose any sale.

It was a community effort, with public works employees themselves getting help from other AFSCME locals (including Local 2025 Rock Island County Employees, Local 1132 City of Moline Employees and Local 1234 East Moline-Silvis-QComm Employees) and retirees.

Meanwhile at the State Capitol, Council 31 was working with the Citizens Utility Board in support of legislation to require a local referendum before any private company could acquire a public water system. The bill didn’t pass but it drew even more attention to the issue.

By the summer, American Water still wasn’t dissuaded. In July the corporation planned a presentation to the city council, but Local 988 and its allies were there to greet them with an informational picket.

And they kept knocking on doors. It got results. “As a direct result of the door-knocking we did, people were calling,” Council 31 staff representative Audie Schmidt said. “Elected officials were hearing from them, which is what we wanted.”

The final victory came Sept. 10. “The city of Rock Island will not sell its water and sewer system,” the Quad-City Times reported. “The decision follow[ed] months of pressure from public works employees, residents and union members who marched in protest, circulated petitions and spoke out regularly at city council meetings in opposition to a proposed sale.”    

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