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Teamsters Punish Lockout With Rolling Sympathy Strikes

The rare tactic of the sympathy strike represents a major escalation in the Teamsters' struggle with Republic Services, and it's poised to intensify this week.

Photo Credit: International Brotherhood of Teamsters


The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive In These Times' weekly updates.

Over the past month, Teamsters in five cities refused work in solidarity with locked-out sanitation workers in Evansville, Indiana. The Evansville labor dispute is the second in three months to feature sympathy strikes against Republic Services. This rare tactic represents a major escalation in the Teamsters' struggle with the company, and it's poised to intensify this week.

As I reported for Working In These Times, Republic Services/ Allied Waste, the second-largest solid waste company in the United States, locked 79 workers out of their jobs six weeks ago. (Under U.S. labor law, when union contracts expire, companies can lock workers out, and either shut down production or bring in replacement workers to do their jobs.) Republic told workers they’d be locked out unless they accepted a “last, best and final“ offer that would eliminate their pensions and replace them with 401(k)s. 

Teamsters Local 215 refused the offer, and Republic followed through on the threat. While Republic is only locking workers out in Evansville, the union says the company is proposing to get out of the pension fund in several cities where contracts have expired.

On May 24, locked-out Republic workers traveled to Urbana, Illinois, and started picketing a local Republic facility. In solidarity, members of Teamsters Local 26 refused to work. On May 30, Republic workers in Wayne, Michigan did the same, as did their counterparts in Richmond, California on June 1. Three days later, members of three Teamsters locals in Milpitas, California – some employed by Republic, some hired by other companies to make deliveries to Republic – followed suit. So did members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Ironworkers union hired to build a recycling facility there. On June 8, another 300 Teamsters in Long Beach, California did their own one-day sympathy strike.

A Teamsters source who requested anonymity said he expected the conflict to expand further this week, including "escalations with workers who have expired contracts and a strong possibility of those pickets being extended to other locations."

Maurice Thomas, a Republic diesel mechanic and Teamsters shop steward, says 90% of his co-workers in Long Beach participated in the one-day work stoppage. Despite favorable contract language, Thomas says it wasn’t easy: Management “did everything they could to prevent us from doing it.”

According to Thomas, Republic posted a notice saying that anyone who missed work on Friday would be required to work on Saturday – normally a day off - instead. When workers struck on Friday and didn’t come to work on Saturday, Republic said they would be disciplined. But Thomas saus that the number of workers involved, the contract language, and the pushback from rank-and-file leaders on the property forced management to back down.

Thomas says he welcomed the chance to support co-workers in Evansville because “ultimately, the management is going to back each other up from city to city. We have to be one union, one contrat. If we stick to that, we can have just as much power as corporate America.” Thomas was also glad to send a message to local management, whom he accused of forcing drivers to work unsafe levels of overtime.

Chuck Whobrey, the president of Local 215, says that for the 79 workers in Evansville, facing “the monster of a company, it can be a pretty lonely feeling. And so whenever they’ve extended the picket lines, it has really had a huge impact” on workers to see support from “people they don’t even know. Anytime you can get through to people that they’re in something bigger than themselves, it really does inspire them.”

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