Rare Rolling Sympathy Strike Beats Garbage Company That Tries to Trash Its Promise
Photo Credit: International Brotherhood of Teamsters
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Thursday, 250 Teamsters in Seattle went on strike against Republic Services, the second-largest waste disposal company in the United States. Workers in Buffalo, New York, and Columbus, Ohio struck Republic for three days earlier this week. These workers weren’t responding to moves by local management. Instead, they went on strike in solidarity with 24 striking co-workers in Alabama. The kind of strike they pulled off has become all too rare in the modern labor movement – and it’s usually illegal. On Friday, it won them a settlement the union hails as a triumph.
“We’ve made this company what it is,” said Mobile, Alabama striker Michael McLean Wednesday. “And then you have these people who come in and basically just poop on us. No respect for us.” But after taking workers for granted, said McLean, “they’re seeing it now: There’s garbage still all on the ground.” Striking Alabama workers – all male, majority African-American -- wore signs that read “I Am a Man,” echoing the sanitation workers strike that Martin Luther King was assassinated while supporting. So do their children.
“It means a whole lot to know that other guys stand behind us…” said Alabama striker Robert Agee. “To have that much support from people you don’t even know means a whole lot.” Chuck Stiles, Assistant Director of the Teamsters’ Solid Waste and Recycling Division, credits that “great show of solidarity”– from South to Northeast to Midwest to Northwest – with achieving “a good victory…just unbelievable.”
Republic Renege Sparks Strike
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has named sanitation work, which can involve fatigue, traffic accidents, and hazardous waste, the country’s seventh most-dangerous job. “We go two years accident free,” 20-year employee David Wing said Wednesday, “that should account for something besides a pat on the back or a letter…We’re not high school students no more…We have families we have to support.” Wing, who cancelled vacation plans to picket, says his family “stands behind me 100%...I have a son that’s in the US Army. He’s in Korea, and he calls every day and checks in.”
“It seems like it’s all about pride,” said McLean Wednesday. He added that Republic was spending thousands of dollars on strikebreakers rather than giving in to workers’ demand: that the company follow through with a contract deal it already agreed to. McLean said his manager “was in middle school when I started working here” but thinks he knows better than workers “”just because he had a degree. I have a degree [too]…that doesn’t mean that I knew how to do this business. I do now, because I’ve been doing this for 23 years.”
Officials with the Mobile-based Teamsters Local 991 said that after nearly a year of negotiations, they reached a contract deal with Republic last month. But after one of the two local Republic bargaining units had already voted to approve the deal, Republic backtracked on one of its provisions: eliminating two fees on workers. One is a $40/ month fee on workers who use tobacco; the other is a $100 / month fee on workers whose spouses have access to another healthcare plan (even a much worse one) but use Republic’s plan instead.
In response to Republic’s announcement it would not lift the fees, the Teamsters filed Unfair Labor Practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board (being stubborn in negotiations isn’t itself illegal, but backtracking often is). “They broke federal labor law,” Stiles said Tuesday. “We had an agreement that the surcharge was going to be completely waived, and that’s what they pissed backwards on” (interviewed following negotiations Friday, Stiles said that “from a Labor Board standpoint” there was some “grey area on what was right or what was wrong”). At 11:30 PM on March 22, Alabama Republic workers went on strike. 90 minutes later, Teamsters mounted picket lines in Buffalo and Columbus, and workers there refused to work.