Teamster Sympathy Strikes Defeat Lockout
Photo Credit: International Brotherhood of Teamsters
A series of one-day sympathy strikes by Teamsters in five cities helped convince the giant waste-hauler Republic Services to back off a six-week lockout of its workers in Evansville, Indiana. The lockout was Republic’s attempt to convince the workers to gut their pensions. In May and June workers in California, Michigan, and Illinois honored picket lines set up by locked-out Indiana workers.
Republic is the second-largest waste-hauler in the country, after Waste Management, and made profits of $589 million last year. The agreement reached last week suspends both the lockout and the picketing for 30 days, while the parties negotiate whether the company will continue to participate in the jointly run Central States Pension Plan. The plan, which is in bad financial shape, includes Teamsters in 22 states.
Managers had said they had workers’ interests at heart with their demand to end the defined-benefit pension and replace it with a 401k. They showed their affection May 8 by locking out 80 Teamsters.
Twenty-two-year employee Scott Williams carried a picket sign in Long Beach, California, the Bay Area, and Champaign, Illinois. The Teamsters adopted the slogan used by striking Memphis sanitation workers in 1968 when they were joined on the line by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I Am a Man,” or “Soy Hombre” in Spanish, the language of many Republic workers in California.
Williams says that when he and fellow Indiana workers arrived at an out-of-town location, they visited the worksite with a local union official, to let workers know what Republic was trying to pull and what their rights were.
They returned the next day—perhaps just two workers—with their picket placards. Everyone stayed out for the day.
Assistant steward Charlie Ackman of Local 350 in Milpitas, California, says he prepared fellow workers in advance and not one crossed the line, not even Ironworkers and Electrical Workers (IBEW) who were constructing a new recycling center.
Many Teamster contracts, including Local 215’s in Evansville, include the right not to work behind a picket line. It’s one of the clauses Republic still wants to remove. The international union coordinated information about which Republic locals had these rights and which had expiring contracts.
Recognizing Republic’s threat to pensions nationwide, a June 13 meeting of locals representing Republic workers voted unanimously to keep up the pressure and to alert municipal customers that sympathy strikes could come to their area.
“The company knew people were getting together and it wasn't just Central States locals,” said Local 215 President Chuck Whobrey. “The company understood the International was very serious about supporting the locals on this and weren’t going to stand by and let us get picked off one by one.”
The Teamsters represent 9,000 of the company’s 30,000 full-time employees in North America.
PENSION VS. 401K
Whobrey has costed out Republic’s initial pension proposal. The company has paid $107 per week into workers’ pension fund, but under the 401k proposal it would pay nothing unless the employee put money in.
With the lowest-paid workers earning $18.78 an hour, Whobrey feared only a small fraction of his members would agree to deductions. In a 401k, just half the workforce normally participates. “A generation from now, people have absolutely nothing,” he said.
“Even if you assume 75 percent participated at the maximum level, which is 5 percent of your pay,” Whobrey said, “the company would save $5 million over three years just in Evansville.”
Williams said he and his union brothers picketed a transfer station where trash is put on larger trucks bound for a landfill, a truck shop, and a recycling center in the Bay Area, with 300-350 workers staying off the job.
Although Republic is well aware which locations have the right to honor picket lines, and where the union seemed to be preparing, it still had difficulty reacting. Faced with a strike at the garbageman’s starting time of 1 a.m., managers scrambled to bring in the “Blue Crew,” supervisors and non-union workers from other locations.
The Teamsters said the crew didn’t usually arrive in time to be effective. “The garbage waits,” said Local 350 President Bob Morales. “In the meantime, we’re hoping residents are calling to the company and complaining,” Williams said.
In Milpitas, Ackman said, management added more overtime to workers’ usual 10-11 hours per day to get the garbage picked up later that week.
He said it didn’t faze members: “Whenever a union member of any union sees a picket line, it’s his fight.”
In Evansville, where the Blue Crew was doing locked-out members’ work, the city council had formally asked Republic to end the lockout.
Scott Williams said members had mixed feelings about returning to work and that he is “not so happy to be back to work without a contract.” Reached yesterday, his first day back, he said the international’s intervention and “the fact that after five weeks we didn’t say yes to the contract” led to the company’s decision to pull back.
REPEAT ROLLING STRIKES
Sympathy strikes have worked at Republic before. Workers in Mobile, Alabama, struck in March when the company tried to renege on a contract offer. They spread the strike to Buffalo, New York, Columbus, Ohio, and the Seattle area, and ended up reducing their portion of health insurance costs from 30-40 percent down to 25 percent.
But workers are worried about Republic’s long-term aim at their pensions. Marty Frates, president of Bay Area Local 70, says that if Republic can pull out of the Central States Pension Fund, which includes Evansville, it will come after Teamsters in other funds next.
Teamsters attended Republic’s May 17 shareholders meeting to oppose a management proposal that the CEO’s heirs get $23 million if he dies in office. They won 41 percent of the vote—despite the fact that Bill Gates owns 17 percent of the shares.
“I appealed to the shareholders,” Morales said. “How can you in one hand vote more benefits for this guy who makes a multimillion-dollar salary, and tell your poor workers ‘we want to get rid of your pension plan, and give it to this bastard’?”