‘WE’RE being treated as disposable,’ striking New Orleans sanitation workers employed by Metro Services Disposal Group said last Friday.
The workers began striking on May 5th, saying they weren’t being given proper safety equipment or paid sick leave.
The group of sanitation workers, also known as ‘hoppers’ (because they hop on and off the trucks to empty trash cans), walked off the job after frustrations around low pay and lack of safety equipment boiled over.
They have held firm to their demands and to their brothers on the strike lines for over a month now. ‘All we’re trying to do is to get what we’re asking for, and then get back to work. We just want fair treatment,’ Jonathan Edward, who’s been a hopper for over a decade, said.
They are not alone – workers around the country have taken bold action in response to the Covid-19 crisis, winning hazard pay, personal protective equipment, and even unions – all in the face of an unprecedented economic crisis.
This surge in labour militancy comes in the midst of heightened unrest around the country, including in New Orleans.
While low pay and lack of benefits have been an issue for the hoppers for years, Jernard Taylor, who has worked for Metro since 2009, said: ‘The coronavirus pandemic played a big part in our strike. After everything that’s going on, we’re still getting looked over.’
The workers are demanding an extra $150 per week in hazard pay, proper distribution of PPE, a higher living wage of $15 per hour, and better working conditions.
Their employer, Metro Service Group, provides sanitation services for New Orleans, along with other cities throughout the South and Philadelphia. In New Orleans, Metro employs the hoppers through a staffing agency, PeopleReady.
While city employees are entitled to benefits, sick leave, and paid time off, these hoppers aren’t, because they’re contracted out through a private company.
They receive no benefits while making only $10.25 per hour to pick up garbage in the hot sun.
The strikers are also demanding that Metro recognises their union, the IWW, sits across the table from them and bargains over the conditions of their work.
Out of around 40 hoppers employed at Metro, 26 initially walked out on strike. Because of financial strain, 12 strikers went back to work, leaving 14 on the picket line.
Those still on strike are scraping by thanks to the generosity of neighbours and strangers alike, with people bringing hot food and groceries to the picket line, and a GoFundMe that has raised over $135,000.
The striking workers are treating their strike like a job in itself: waking up at 4.00am to get to their picket line, just like a normal work day.
They’re making sure every striker has a ride there – and lining up transportation if they don’t. They spend their time building community support, talking to press and supporters, and exercising and playing basketball.
They’re out on the strike line for seven hours each day. And while the strike may have seemed spontaneous to those watching, leaders say that they had been planning it for at least a week, trying to work as many hours as possible to save as much money as they could.
‘We’ve been talking about it for a long time, but we didn’t have the power of the brotherhood we have now,’ Edward said. ‘But now that we have the support, we can go forward for a long time.’
During the second week of the strike, Metro Service Group replaced the striking workers with state work-release prison labour through another private company, Lock5 LLC.
These incarcerated workers would have been paid even less than the striking hoppers at $9.25 per hour. Even more outrageously, Lock5 LLC is legally entitled to 64 per cent of their pay, to cover its own expenses.
The use of incarcerated workers as replacement workers or to break strikes has an ugly history, especially in the South, the home of the Coal Creek War.
During the 1890s in Anderson County, Tennessee, coal mine owners replaced their employees with workers leased out by the Tennessee state prison system, after employees demanded to be paid in cash instead of company scrip.
Once Lock5 LLC bosses found out they were being asked to bring in workers because of a labour dispute, they pulled out of the deal.
But according to the striking workers, Metro is still using replacement workers.
And while the striking hoppers respect the replacement workers, ‘They don’t know how to handle the job like we do’ according to Edward, who has worked for Metro since 2007.
Usually there are two hoppers per garbage truck, but the striking workers say they’ve seen trucks with three and sometimes even four hoppers, who are struggling to keep up with the difficult workload, meaning Metro is potentially spending more money right now than they would if they just met the striking workers’ demands.
The strike has a historical echo. In 1968, sanitation workers in Memphis went out on strike after two of their fellow workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a garbage compactor. Four years prior, two other men were killed in the same way.
The all-Black workforce in Memphis had been organising since the early 1960s against low wages and unsafe conditions. They attempted two strikes, which both failed due to very real fears of termination and incarceration.
But after Cole’s and Walker’s death, enough was enough, and workers went out on strike for a little over two months.
Present day striker Jernard Taylor said that the hoppers have been studying the ’68 strike, and that ‘it gives us strength moving forward, to stick in and see this thing out.’
On the picket line in New Orleans, hoppers have been carrying the iconic I AM A MAN placards – the same ones that Memphis strikers carried with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
The fight for dignity and respect at work has never been easy, but as King said in his famous ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ speech, ‘We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end.’
And according to Taylor, ‘We’re out here til we win.’
The hoppers’ strike is happening as across the country, protesters are demonstrating their rage around the murder of George Floyd, and all of the other Black people who have been killed at the hands of police.
And as many gear up for waves of austerity thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, protesters are also calling for the examination of city budgets, as social services get cut and police departments get a boost. Working people have had enough of low wages, lack of healthcare, and threats of violence at the hands of the police.
- Statement from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka on Juneteenth: ‘On June 19, we commemorate the official freeing of the last enslaved Black people in the United States.
‘This is a day of profound meaning to Black workers, as it should be to all working people who cherish and defend the freedom to live our own lives, speak with our own voices and enjoy the fruits of our labour.
‘Juneteenth reminds us that we are independent of those who hire us, who seek to control us and who view us as objects with costs instead of as human beings with inherent dignity and worth.
‘The original Juneteenth celebrations happened on the Texas Gulf Coast, the childhood home of George Floyd.
‘This Juneteenth will be celebrated around the country — from Galveston, Texas, to Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC — by people demanding justice for George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and far too many others. We will be in the streets, both celebrating and demanding our freedom – freedom from racism and all the poisonous fruit it bears.
‘On this Juneteenth, we especially call attention to the economic disparities that persist for Black Americans.
‘Though explicit slavery has been abolished for more than 150 years, the exploitation of Black labour continues to this day through a systemically racist economy designed to promote wage disparity in the workplace and the chronic unemployment of Black people.
‘At a time when unemployment in America is at record levels – with the official rate at 13.3% and the Black unemployment rate at 16.8%, with a disproportionate impact on Black women – we must fight more than ever before to ensure true economic freedom for Black workers. We will not allow workers to be perpetually divided by race!
‘America’s union members, fresh off our Workers First Caravan for Racial + Economic Justice, are eager to take part in Juneteenth this year, many for the very first time.
‘We are grateful for the struggle of Black leaders and community members who have poured sweat and shed blood in the pursuit of a greater America.
‘We recommit ourselves today and every day to be a voice for all who live and work in these United States and to say out loud the names of those who were taken from us by racist violence. Black Lives Matter.’