Rare Rolling Sympathy Strike Beats Garbage Company That Tries to Trash Its Promise

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.

Local 991 business agent Levon “Rooster” Lindsey said Wednesday that in negotiations with Republic, the union agreed to accept modest wage increases in order to achieve improvements in workers’ health insurance. Workers will now pay 25% of the insurance plan’s cost – still a potentially heavy burden, but better than the roughly 39% workers pay now. Lindsey, a former Republic worker, said the extra $100 fee for spouses was designed to discourage workers from putting them on the plan: “They’re actually trying to force people off of their insurance to save money.” As for the cigarette fee, which Republic rolled out recently across the country, Stiles said Tuesday that the company’s stubbornness was rooted in fear: if union members were able to escape the unpopular fee, non-union workers could be inspired to organize. “It’s really to keep us from organizing more workers,” said Stiles. Nationwide, 27% of Republic’s 30,000 workers are union.

In an e-mailed statement Thursday afternoon, a Republic spokesperson said the company was “currently negotiating in good faith with the Teamsters Local 991” and “are dedicated to reaching a mutually beneficial agreement…Garbage collection is a public health issue and a work stoppage penalizes the public.” Republic declined to comment on the union’s allegations. But the Teamsters say no negotiations took place from before the strike began until Friday, the day a settlement was reached to end it.

In a statement released at the beginning of the strike, Teamsters Solid Waste and Recycling Division Director Bob Morales said backtracking on the Alabama contract agreement was part of a pattern: “In the last year, Republic has increasingly tried to intimidate, harass and bully its employees to the detriment of both workers and customers.” The union said that included attempts to deny Kansas City, Missouri workers overtime pay and end Canton, Ohio workers’ health care plan – all at a time when the company just declared $589 million in profit last year.

Republic has a “Blue Crew” designed to maintain production during strikes, composed of both management and non-union employees. But a TV report on Alabama’s 13 News showed a pile of garbage growing due to the strike. Workers said the supervisors assigned to do their jobs haven’t been able to get the job done. “They’re tying the trucks up left and right,” Wing said Wednesday. “Apparently they don’t know what they’re doing.” The union said the company damaged its reputation in the community by lying about the cause of disruptions early on – blaming it on faulty equipment rather than the strike.

Some workers canvassed door to door seeking community support, and they said they’ve been receiving plenty. “I saw some non-union trash workers bring cash by to the guys, just to say we realize your fight is for the standards for all of us…” Stiles said Tuesday. “They realize this group is what’s holding standards up in Mobile.”

Reached during a Wednesday picket, the Alabama strikers said having workers in Columbus, Buffalo, and now Seattle strike to support them boosted their spirits and their confidence. “I think it’s awesome,” said McLean. “It shows the brotherhood is strong, no matter where you’re at.”

A Striking Strategy

“Employers have always hated solidarity strikes and general strikes,” said Joe Burns, the author of Reviving the Strike and a negotiator for the Association of Flight Attendants, a Communications Workers of America affiliate.

Solidarity strikes are rare in part because labor law, while protecting the right to strike, restricts workers’ ability to spread a strike from one workplace to another. Where some archetypal American strikes took on a whole industry, or a city, or all the players in a supply chain, today the strikes protected by the National Labor Relations Act are generally restricted to a certain company at a single location. Historically, says Burns, “workers understood that to be successful, they needed to broaden their struggle and pull large numbers of workers into their fight…We don’t see those types of strikes today, because they’ve been outlawed by 70 years of legislation and court decisions.”

Compared to the strikes of old, isolated strikes are easier for companies to absorb, predict, and outlast. When unions win such strikes, it’s often by drawing consumer, media, or political pressure rather than by directly disrupting their company.

Going on strike is inherently risky. It means sacrificing pay, and it opens workers up to retaliation, legal or not. But that risk was mitigated by two factors in the Republic fight. First, Republic’s alleged backtracking gave the Teamsters a strong case that theirs was an Unfair Labor Practices strike – a strike instigated by management breaking the law. Workers have greater legal protection in ULP strikes than in “economic strikes” – for example, permanently replacing workers is illegal in a ULP strike. Second, many Republic workers have a “conscience clause” in their contracts, protecting their right to refuse to cross a picket line, without punishment beyond going without pay. That’s why workers who are in the middle of their contract with Republic were able to effectively go on strike (others had contracts that had already expired). Striking workers flew from Alabama to Seattle and set up a picket line there, and 250 Teamsters had the right to honor it and refuse to work.

“The Teamsters are relatively rare within the labor movement…in terms of having the ability to honor picket lines” in their contracts, according to Burns. He said Thursday that while there are “plenty of examples within the Teamsters of conservative trade union officials choosing not to honor picket lines,” in general, “they still have that culture of solidarity within their union that’s been lost by a lot of unions” whose contracts are more restrictive.

That conscience clause made it easier for the Republic struggle to keep spreading. The Teamsters represent 9,000 workers at over 150 Republic (or subsidiary) facilities. “We expect the strike to escalate in other areas,” said Stiles Wednesday. –If they hadn’t settled Friday, Republic management had every reason to expect the Republic strike to hit more cities, creating a “rolling strike” that, while continuous in Alabama, passed through a series of other states. Workers could strike with little warning, stay out for a few days, and then return to work.

That’s what the Teamsters did last fall at US Foods. As Jane Slaughter reported for Labor Notes, what began on October 30 as a ULP strike by just two workers became a rolling strike that drew in nine states and thousands of workers. When US Foods disciplined Mike Vagarsky, a member of the union bargaining committee, for refusing to miss negotiations for work, the local called a strike. A separate Teamsters local honored a picket line set up by Vagasky’s local, and then Vagarsky began traveling the country, setting up tiny picket lines which gave other US Food workers contractual grounds to refuse to work. This was the first time the Teamsters used this tactic against US Foods. “People understand out turn in the barrel may be next,” Washington State striker Jamie Young told Labor Notes. He called the action “way, way overdue.” A settlement was reached in December.

In absence of conscience clauses, some unions (including my former employer, UNITE HERE) in recent years have adopted the strategy of lining up different contracts to all expire at the same time. Workers have made a contract’s expiration date a key priority in one round of negotiations so they would have the right to engage in multi-city strikes over their next contract.

Slaughter noted that US Foods’ dependence on tight timelines - to deliver food before it went bad – made it particularly vulnerable to unexpected disruptions. Victory at Republic could means the tactic will spread further within the Teamsters, and the broader labor movement. And employers will be further inspired to insist on contracts with strict restrictions on strike rights, and to continue challenging the tactic in court. “It seems that they’ve adopted this as a conscious strategy to try to press these employers,” said Burns. “Which makes sense, because they can’t win these battles one location at a time against a giant corporation.”

Cause for Hope

On Wednesday, Alabama strikers welcomed the news that Republic Area Vice President Matt Locke, who had overseen local negotiations, had resigned from the company. McLean said Locke was one of the managers that would come by the picket line each morning “stomping their vehicles and laughing at us. But they won’t be doing it no more.” Wing said Wednesday the strike was “hurting them very bad…You just think about all the money they have to spend flying everybody around” to cross picket lines.

Stiles says a Republic manager approached him Wednesday on the picket line, implied that Locke was forced out over the strike, and emphasized his desire to resolve the dispute. That night, according to Lindsey, Republic’s Labor Relations Department e-mailed Local 991 Secretary-Treasurer Jim Gookins. “The words they used is, ‘We’re going to settle this,’” Lindsey said Thursday. He said that Republic proposed halting the strike immediately and returning to negotiations on Tuesday. The Teamsters responded that they won’t end the strike until the company affirmed the original agreement, and the two sides met Friday morning instead.

Lindsey says the Teamsters and Republic have agreed not to share details of the agreement until members have voted on it on Sunday. But Stiles says that under the deal, the smaller bargaining unit in Brewton, Alabama will have the exact contract terms they already ratified honored by Republic, and that for the larger bargaining unit in Mobile, the deal “was pretty much what we had said the settlement should have been anyway. But they actually gave us a couple of other little things that made it great.” Stiles says he’s confident the deal will be ratified on Sunday, and the strikers will return to work on Monday. “The workers are happy, the community is happy,” said Stiles.

Should they be called on in the future to show similar solidarity towards other striking Teamsters elsewhere, Alabama Teamsters said they’d be eager to mount sympathy strikes of their own. “If everything is within the law…” said Wing, “yes, I would stand up for them too. I mean, that’s what a union is all about.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect Friday's news that Republic wants to settle with the Teamsters. 

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