Taking on Waste Management in Seattle

April 23, 2010

Darrin Hoop reports on the Teamsters' fight for a fair contract from Waste Management.

MEMBERS OF Teamsters Local 174 in the Seattle region are locked in a contract battle with Waste Management, the largest and richest sanitation and recycling company in the U.S.

After working without a contract since it expired on April 1, 450 sanitation workers began an unfair labor practices strike at 10:30 a.m. on April 21. Mike Gonzalez, an official with Local 174, said in an interview with KOMO News:

We took our members out on an unfair labor practices strike to try and force the company back to the bargaining table...The charges we filed included bargaining in bad faith, coercing employees, threatening to retaliate against our workers, changing their working conditions. They are using all the illegal tactics that a company usually uses to force members to take a contract that they haven't fully bargained with us.

But after only a day on the picket line, officials from Local 174 announced that the workers would be returning to their jobs--still without a contract--as of midnight on April 23.

Teamsters Local 174 members on the picket line against Waste Management in Seattle
Teamsters Local 174 members on the picket line against Waste Management in Seattle (Jorge Torres | SW)

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer Web site said the union is concerned about preventing a "public health crisis" due to trash not getting picked up. "We are trying to persuade Waste Management to stop bargaining in bad faith," Rick Hicks, secretary-treasurer of Local 174, said in a statement. "However, we are also concerned that if we continued the strike, Waste Management might lock out our members and create another Oakland."

In Oakland in 2007, Waste Management locked out 900 sanitation workers for 26 days. Ultimately, however, the workers--members of Teamsters Local 70, Machinists Local 1546 and ILWU Local 6--won a contract victory.

Waste Management spent at least $10 million to bring in 400 to 500 members of its "Green Team," as it calls its professional scab operation, and hire another 350 security guards. As Todd Chretien wrote for SocialistWorker.org:

The company claimed the lockout was about safety, but their scabs ran over union picketers, drove broken-down trucks through the crowded streets of Oakland, started a grass fire next to a school, and let piles of rotting garbage fester in poor and working-class neighborhoods, while they picked up the trash in the well-heeled hills...

They planned to run roughshod over any resistance. The company ended up with a bloody nose...Locked-out workers organized around-the-clock pickets at every Waste Management facility, and despite police harassment, kept them strong. While the picket lines never stopped the scabbing operation, every day between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m., dozens of picketers confronted every single scab truck and security vehicle.

The pickets slowed down the company, demoralized the scabs and built unity between locked-out workers and other community and labor supporters.

What you can do

The Teamsters Locals 174 and 117 Web sites ask that supporters:

-- Join the Neighborhood Trash Watch program.

-- Call 1-800-976-0071. This number, set up by the Teamsters, will patch you through to your local elected official--you should ask them to pressure Waste Management to bargain in good faith, return to the table and offer a fair contract to its workers.

-- Report missed garbage pickups to 1-800-976-0071. It is important to report missed pickups; Waste Management will get fined for these service failures, and it will be under increased pressure to negotiate.

-- Put up a yard sign up expressing support for the Teamsters and advertising the 800 number to your neighbors. Talk to others about the strike and ask them to report missed pickups and sign up as a supporter. To request a yard sign, call 206-441-6060.

THERE ARE many lessons that could be learned from the victory in Oakland as Teamsters return to work in Puget Sound--because Waste Management still wants a number of concessions.

Mike Gonzalez, a 17-year driver with the company, said in an interview that the "key issue is the parity language. Waste Management wants to add to the contract. If another company comes to Washington state and pays lower wages to its workers, Waste Management wants to have contract language that would allow them to be able to lower 174's standards to match those of the new and lower-paid company. We won't vote on the contract if this proposal isn't removed."

Management has proposed increasing hourly pay over five years from the current top rate of $26.29 an hour to $29.09 an hour. But what they want to give with one hand, they propose to take away with the other--in the form of an increase in monthly medical payments from $30 to $50.

Also, management wants a cap of 8 percent on any future increases in health care costs that it's required to cover. Local 174 sanitation workers at Allied just signed a four-year contract where management covered cost increases of up to 12 percent. Clearly, any new raises at Waste Management would be made negligible by increased health care costs.

Management spokespeople have made sure the media talk about how much money drivers at the top rate ($26.29 an hour) make. But what they don't say is that it takes three or four years of backbreaking work to reach that.

All sanitation workers at Waste Management here start out in the recycling part of the business. These workers are covered by a contract with Teamsters Local 117. Starting pay is around $16 an hour, and the top rate is around $20. It takes three to four years to be able to transfer to garbage and yard waste pickup in Teamsters 174, and get to the top rate there of $26.29.

If you look at the comments section for articles about the contract battle at the Seattle Times and Seattle PI Web sites, a lot of people want to know why Waste Management workers are complaining about wages when the economy is still recovering from the recession. What they don't think about are the miserable conditions on the job, which contribute to sanitation workers having the fifth-most dangerous occupation in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

They should listen to the stories of workers like Brandon Plantenberg from Tukwila, who had this experience on the job, according to a union flyer handed out on the Seattle picket lines: "A rat jumped out of the can and landed on my face and scratched the top of my head. At the hospital, all my muscles were shutting down. During one test, I laid down, they put a blanket on me, and then I woke up two weeks later."

Or Mike Clawson from Seattle, who "got Hepatitis A from having stuff splash on my hands and up into my face. I gave it to my wife and kids. Now Waste Management wants to cut our family health care."

Waste Management could easily give the Teamsters what they deserve. The company ranks 196 on the Fortune 500 list of top U.S. companies. It has assets of $21 billion and made $1 billion in profits last year.

You might think that a company recognized by the Ethisphere Institute as one of the World's Most Ethical companies (along with other "ethical" companies like Nike, UPS, Catepillar, Fluor, General Electric and Whole Foods) might reconsider its hard line in this battle.

Think again--Waste Management is out to win this fight.

Local 174 members serve more than 1 million customers in the Puget Sound region. The power they have could bring Waste Management to its knees fast. It will be up to sanitation workers and solidarity from the King and Snohomish County labor movements to help the Teamsters win a fair contract.

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