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Sanitation workers win in Chicago

By Lee Sustar | October 17, 2003 | Page 11

CHICAGO--Sanitation workers at private companies here have won a decisive victory in their nine-day strike. At a time when many unions are making major concessions on health care, the 3,300 sanitation workers in Teamsters Locals 301 and 731 actually forced employers to increase funding for their plan--and won a 22.4 percent wage increase over five years.

The key to the union's victory over the 17-company Chicago Refuse Haulers Association was solidarity in the face of a concerted effort to weaken their union. Mayor Richard Daley, for example, claimed to be neutral, but ordered workers in the city's Department of Streets and Sanitation --members of Teamsters Local 726--to pick up overflow garbage from the multi-unit private residences on the grounds that it constituted a health hazard.

Unfortunately, Local 731 leaders publicly endorsed this effort, apparently in a bid for good public relations. City officials, however, used the opportunity to quietly help a series of scab outfits clean up office buildings in the downtown area and around Wrigley Field, where the Chicago Cubs were in the baseball playoffs.

Daley's efforts to undermine the strike bought some time for management, which tried to whip up an anti-union backlash in the media. The Chicago Sun-Times, for example, ran a large editorial cartoon featuring a giant rat declaring solidarity with a Teamster, who was depicted as a thug.

Newspaper and broadcast reports regularly reported that sanitation workers make $70,000 per year--a figure taken from a minority of high-seniority drivers who work 10 or more hours of overtime per week. "If I made that kind of money, I wouldn't be living in a trailer," one striker told Socialist Worker at the October 9 ratification vote. Nevertheless, passing motorists regularly honked to show support for the strikers, and there was a generally sympathetic mood for strikers despite the inconvenience caused the walkout.

And when the employers presented a lousy offer in the middle of the strike, workers sent a strong message with a 92 percent vote against ratification. With unseasonably warm weather adding to the problem of rotting garbage amid postseason baseball, management was unable to mount the huge scabbing operation needed to break the strike--and Daley was unwilling to pay a big political price to bail them out.

The deal contains a few face-saving small concessions for the bosses--such as stronger disciplinary procedures and a small cut in revenue sharing for newly hired transfer drivers. But management had to swallow its main demand to force workers to pay for health care--and raised health benefits instead.

That left no doubt as to which side won this fight. "On the news, they made a big deal about the health issues for everybody" from the uncollected garbage, Thomas Mate, a member of Local 731, told Socialist Worker at the ratification vote. "Well, we need to make sure our health and welfare is taken care of, because we have to deal with this every day. They keep saying on the news that we do have great benefits--and we do have great benefits--but we needed to make sure they will be great benefits in three, four or five years."

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