RECYCLING WORKRS SAY "ENOUGH!"
By David Bacon
Working In These Times, 10/31/14
SAN LEANDRO, CA-Within days of each other last week, two groups of
recycling workers declared they'd had enough of what they see as regimes
of indignity and discrimination. One group voted to unionize, and
another, already union members, walked out on strike.
"They think we're insignificant people," declares striker Dinora Jordan.
"They don't think we count and don't value our work. But we're the ones
who find dead animals on the conveyor belts. All the time we have to
watch for hypodermic needles. If they don't learn to respect us now,
they never will."
Workers celebrate the
union election victory at
Alameda County Industries.
Jordan's employer is Waste Management, Inc. (WMI), a giant corporation
that handles garbage and recycling throughout North America. In just the
second quarter of 2014 WMI generated $3.56 billion in revenue and $210
million in profit, "an improvement in both our net cash provided by
operations and our free cash flow," according to CEO David P. Steiner.
Shareholders received a 35-cent per share quarterly dividend, and the
company used $600 million of its cash in a massive share buyback
program. Two years ago Steiner himself was given 135,509 shares (worth
$6.5 million) in a "performance" bonus, to add to the pile he already owns.
But at its San Leandro, California, facility, WMI has been unwilling to
settle a new contract with Jordan's union, Local 6 of the International
Longshore and Warehouse Union, for three years.
Last week, she and other members of the negotiating committee returned
to the facility after another fruitless session. They called workers
together to offer a report on the progress in bargaining-standard
practice in Local 6. One supervisor agreed to the shop floor meeting,
but another would not. The workers met anyway. Then the second
supervisor told them to clock out and go home, a disciplinary measure
that would at least dock the rest of the day's pay.
Strikers at the Waste
"That's when we finally said 'Enough!'" Jordan explains. "As a union, we
support each other. If some of us can't work, then none of us will."
They walked out on an unfair labor practice strike, and immediately met
at the union hall and voted to strike. That strike ended on October 30,
after a week.
At another facility in the same city, workers at Alameda County
Industries were equally angry. At the end of a late night vote count in
a cavernous sorting bay, surrounded by bales of recycled paper and
plastic, agents of the National Labor Relations Board unfolded the
ballots in a union representation election.
When they announced that 85 percent had been cast for Local 6, workers
began shouting "¡Viva La Union!" and dancing down the row of lockers.
Sorting trash is dangerous and dirty work. In 2012, two East Bay workers
were killed in recycling facilities. With some notable exceptions,
putting your hands into fast moving conveyor belts filled with cardboard
and cans does not pay well-much less, for instance, than the jobs of the
drivers who pick up the containers at the curb. And in the Bay Area, the
sorting is done almost entirely by women of color, mostly immigrants
from Mexico and Central America and African Americans.
Just after voting, in
the ACI barn with pallets
full of recycled waste.
This spring, recycling workers at Alameda County Industries, probably
those with the worst conditions, began challenging their second-class
status. Not only did they become activists in a growing movement
throughout the East Bay, but their protests galvanized public action to
stop the firings of undocumented workers.
At ACI, garbage trucks with recycled trash pull in every minute, dumping
their fragrant loads gathered on routes in Livermore, Alameda and San
Leandro. These cities contract with the firm to process their trash. In
the Bay Area, only one city, Berkeley, picks up its own garbage. All the
rest sign contracts with private companies. And even Berkeley contracts
recycling to an independent sorter.
ACI contracted with a temp agency, Select Staffing, to employ the
workers on the lines. Sorters therefore have no health insurance,
vacations or holidays. Wages are very low, even for recycling: After a
small raise two years ago, sorters get $8.30 per hour on day shift and
$8.50 at night.
A year ago, workers discovered this was an illegal wage. San Leandro
passed a Living Wage Ordinance in 2007, mandating (in 2013) $14.17 per
hour or $12.67 with health benefits. Last fall, some of the women on the
lines received leaflets advertising a health and safety training for
recycling workers put on by Local 6.
The union's organizing director Agustin Ramirez says, "When they told me
what they were paid, I knew something was very wrong."
Ramirez put them in touch with a lawyer, who sent ACI and Select a
letter stating workers' intention to file suit for back wages. In early
February, 18 workers, including every person but one who'd signed, were
told that Select had been audited by Immigration and Customs Enforcement
(ICE) a year before. ICE, the company said, was questioning their
Workers cheer after the
vote total is announced at
Alameda County Industries.
Instead of quietly disappearing, though, about half the sorters walked
off the lines on February 27, protesting the impending firings. They
were joined by faith leaders, members of Alameda County United for
Immigrant Rights, and workers from other recycling facilities, including
WMI. The next week, however, all eighteen accused of being undocumented
"Some of us have been there 14 years, so why now?" wondered sorter
Despite fear ignited by the firings and the so-called "silent"
immigration raid, workers began to join the union. Within months,
workers were wearing buttons and stickers up and down the sorting lines.
At the same time, sorters went to city councils, denouncing the raid and
illegal wages, asking councilmembers to put pressure on the company
processing their trash.
By the time Local 6 asked for the election, ACI had stopped campaigning
against the union in fear of alienating its city clients and had ended
its relationship with the temp agency. In last week's balloting, only
one worker voted for no union, while 49 voted for the ILWU.
Because cities give contracts for recycling services, they indirectly
control how much money is available for workers' wages. That's taken the
fight for more money and better conditions into city halls throughout
the East Bay.
Waste Management, Inc., has the Oakland city garbage contract, and
garbage truck drivers have been Teamster members for decades. When WMI
took over Oakland's recycling contract in 1991, however, it signed an
agreement with ILWU Local 6. Workers had voted for Local 6 on the
recycling lines, at the big garbage dump in the Altamont Pass and even
among the clerical workers in the company office.
At WMI, workers also faced immigration raids. In 1998, sorters at its
San Leandro facility staged a wildcat work stoppage over safety issues,
occupying the company's lunchroom. Three weeks later, immigration agents
showed up, audited company records and eventually deported eight of
them. And last year, three more workers were fired at WMI, accused of
not having legal immigration status.
When Teamster drivers were locked out at WMI for more than a month in
2007 over company demands for concessions, Local 6 members respected
their lines and didn't work. That was not reciprocated, however, when
recyclers staged their walkouts over firings last year.
striking ILWU member
appeals to a driver to
respect the picket line.
Last week the Teamsters told drivers to cross Local 6 lines again. One
unidentified Teamster officer told journalist Darwin Bond-Graham that
Local 6 had not asked for strike sanction. "Our members can't just stop
working," he said. Local 6 officers say they have asked for sanction.
Relations between the two unions grew even tenser when the Teamsters,
which also represent drivers at Alameda County Industries, appeared on
the ballot in the election for the recycling workers. It received nine
Under the contract that expired three years ago, WMI sorters got
$12.50-more than ACI, but a long way from San Francisco, where Teamster
recyclers get $21 an hour. To get wages up, recycling workers in the
East Bay organized a coalition to establish a new standard, the Campaign
for Sustainable Recycling. Two dozen organizations belong to it in
addition to the ILWU, including the Sierra Club, the Global Alliance for
Incinerator Alternatives, Movement Generation, the Justice and Ecology
Project, the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy and the Faith
Alliance for a Moral Economy.
San Francisco, with a $21 per hour wage, charges garbage rates to
customers of $34 per month. East Bay recyclers pay half that wage, but
East Bay ratepayers still pay $28-30 for garbage, recycling included.
The bulk of that money clearly isn't going to the workers.
Fremont became the test for the campaign's strategy of forcing cities to
mandate wage increases. Last December the Fremont City Council passed a
32 cent rate increase with the condition that its recycler, BLT, agree
to raises for workers. The union contract there now mandates $14.59 per
hour for sorters this year, finally reaching $20.94 in 2019.
Oakland has followed, requiring wage increases for sorters as part of
its new recycling contract. That contract was originally going entirely
to California Waste Solutions, but after WMI threatened a suit and a
ballot initiative, it recovered its half of the city's recycling business.
The new Local 6 contract that ended the strike yesterday follows the
pattern laid out by the new Oakland city requirement on its recyclers.
Workers will get a signing bonus of $500 to $1500, depending on
seniority, to compensate for the three years worked under the old
contract. They will all get an immediate raise of $1.48 per hour, and
50¢ more on New Years. Then starting next July, wages will rise $1.39
per year until 2019, when the minimum wage for sorters will be $20.94.
The strikers at WMI ratified their new agreement by a vote of 111 to 6.
Management strikers stop a
Yet this strike was about much more than money. Over the last week,
workers from Alameda County Industries would come by the picket lines
after their shift ended, to help the strikers. While they also
undoubtedly would like their wages to rise to this new standard, for
both groups this was really a battle to end the second-class status of