Rally supports fired Raleigh sanitation worker

ccampbell@newsobserver.comMarch 11, 2013 

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Shirley Venable and supporters protest what they call her unjust firing Monday in front of the Raleigh Municipal Building.

TAKAAKI IWABU — tiwabu@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— Supporters of fired Raleigh sanitation worker Shirley Venable picketed outside City Hall on Monday, and they promise to return every week until the 10-year veteran employee gets her job back.

Their target is City Manager Russell Allen, who has upheld the 2011 firing over accusations that Venable threatened her boss. “Russell Allen, he’s unfair; city manager, he don’t care,” the protesters chanted.

Venable has denied making threats. The confrontation with her supervisor came just days after she was held at knifepoint by her estranged husband – an incident she says she was teased about at work.

The N.C. Public Service Workers Union organized Monday’s rally. “This is one of the greatest injustices I’ve seen,” said Angaza Laughinghouse, the union’s president.

In addition to rehiring Venable, the protesters are seeking changes to Raleigh’s Civil Service Commission, an appointed board that hears appeals from fired employees. It voted 3-2 last November in Venable’s favor, but a successful appeal requires four votes and two of the board members were absent.

In 12 cases to come before the commission in the last five years, it never ruled in favor of a worker, according to its minutes, and its meetings almost never have full attendance.

“It’s totally stacked against the workers,” said Ashaki Binta, a union organizer.

Later this month, a city council committee will consider changes to the commission, a majority of which is appointed by the council. Two of seven are elected by city employees. Councilman Thomas Crowder said he’s heard other complaints the board favors city leaders.

The commission’s chairman, attorney Lacy Reaves, declined to comment on the criticism last week. And Allen said he can’t comment on Venable’s firing because it’s a confidential personnel matter.

The protesters also want the city to provide counseling for workers who suffer domestic violence. Venable says she was thrust back into the high pressure environment of garbage collection as soon as her physical wounds healed.

“We’re like, ‘Where is the compassion?’” said Erin Byrd of Black Workers for Justice, another group involved in the rally.

Venable, who joined Monday’s protest, has been unemployed since her firing 18 months ago.

“By them talking about workplace violence, I can’t get another job,” she said, adding that her financial woes put her home into foreclosure and forced her granddaughter to drop out of college. “They messed me up for life.”

During her decade driving a garbage truck, Venable earned high marks from supervisors and even the people along her route. One of them, North Raleigh resident Mary Schneider, came out for the rally.

“I always saw her driving her truck and working real hard,” Schneider said. “I am shocked at what they’ve done to her.”

While the outcry surrounding Venable’s ouster could prompt changes to the Civil Service Commission, city council members say personnel decisions are the manager’s responsibility. “I don’t think there’s anything we can do regarding the specific case,” Crowder said.

Binta doesn’t buy that explanation, pointing out that Allen answers to the council. She’s hoping the weekly rallies will persuade city leaders to bring Venable back. If not, the next step could be a lawsuit, Binta said.

For her part, Venable says she just wants work before the state cuts unemployment benefits this summer. “I don’t care what I do,” she said, adding that she’d be happy to work “on the highway, picking up dead dogs.”

Campbell: 919-829-4802 or twitter.com/RaleighReporter

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