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Locked out by the "Wal-Mart of garbage"

July 20, 2007 | Page 16

TODD CHRETIEN reports on a showdown pitting workers in the East Bay against the corporate giant Waste Management.

FIVE HUNDRED scabs are collecting trash in Oakland, Calif., and other East Bay cities after Waste Management (WM) locked out 481 drivers from Teamsters Local 70 on July 2.

Despite threats of being fired, the rest of WM's local union workforce--including 80 members of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) Local 1546 and more than 300 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 6--honored Teamster picket lines.

As the lockout stretched into a third week in mid-July, the unions extended their pickets to other nearby WM facilities in an appeal for solidarity, and a Teamsters picket line at the Port of Oakland caused a several-hours-long work stoppage by ILWU on July 16.

With more action in the offing as Socialist Worker went to press, the fight against WM is becoming an important showdown for the Bay Area labor movement as a whole.

"Waste Management wants slaves working for them, and they want the rest of the country to bow down to them," said Bob Kuykenball, who has worked for WM for seven years and been a Local 70 member for 35 years.

What you can do

Donations to help the locked-out workers should be sent (checks payable to the "Alameda Labor Council Hardship Fund") to: Alameda Labor Council, 100 Hegenberger Rd., Suite 150, Oakland, CA 94621

For information on adopting a picket line or other ways to support workers, see the Alameda County Central Labor Council Web site.

For more information on the strike at Valley Power Systems North, visit the Operating Engineers Local 3 Web site.

 

"The only thing that's going to break this is for everyone out there to get involved. The public has to let Waste Management know how they feel about this. It's time to treat the workers and the public right. The board of directors needs to understand that profit isn't the only thing in this world--treating people fair is what matters."

On July 11, Dave Enriquez, a shop steward for Local 70, spoke at a rally of over 500 workers and their supporters outside the Davis Street dump in San Leandro.

"Just last month, WM sent me a letter saying 'congratulations on 40 years of service,' and they sent me a pin," Enriquez said. "Then they locked me out. I've lived in this community all my life. I've worked in Oakland, Hayward, Fremont. What has Waste Management done? Continuously try to take away everything we've got."

Meanwhile, on July 10, across the street from locked-out garbage workers in Oakland, 50 members of Operating Engineers Local 3 went on strike against Valley Power Systems North.

After being a union shop for 55 years, the new owners ripped up the union contract where workers perform maintenance on fire trucks, hospital generators, public buses and ferries. "The company wants to get rid of our health care and pension fund," Pete Figueiredo, district representative for Local 3. "Sixty percent of our experienced workers have already left for other union shops. We're on strike to defend what we had."

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GARBAGE IS big business, and Waste Management is the Wal-Mart of garbage. The Houston-based giant ranks number 181 on the Fortune 500, above corporate giants like Northwest Airlines, Pepsi and Sun Microsystems. It has $20 billion in assets and raked in over $1.1 billion in profits last year.

Over the last 30 years, it has gobbled up smaller competitors across the U.S. and Canada, and is now almost twice the size as its two next-largest competitors combined.

On the way to top, WM earned a reputation as a company that prefers to do business without worrying about labor rights. In the past four years, the Teamsters, which represents 8,500 of WM's workers (out of approximately 75,000 employees), have been forced to go on strike to defend wages and health care from New York to Chicago to Reno, Nev., to Washington, D.C., to Fort Worth, Texas.

Although the Teamsters and other unions have suffered losses in these fights, WM hasn't always had its way. In Chicago in 2003, Teamsters struck against WM and other trash haulers for nine days, successfully defending their health care and winning a 22 percent pay hike over five years. This show of strength in Chicago helps explain why WM has decided to declare war on the Oakland and East Bay Teamsters.

"Waste Management has the audacity to say that one of the main issues in this lockout is safety," said IAM Local 1546 Area Director Don Crosatto explained at the July 11 rally.

"Ask Don Welch about safety. Those of you who work at 98th Avenue know that Don is a 20-year member of ours--a 20-year Waste Management employee. Yet this morning, he was run over and almost killed by one of the scab rent-a-goons that they've got following the trucks.

"This isn't a company concerned about safety. Let's be real about what this lockout is all about. It's not about wages. They've offered us plenty of money, and they've offered the Teamsters plenty of money. It's a profitable corporation. It's not about health and welfare. It's not about pensions. It sure isn't about safety.

"It's about solidarity. The magnificent solidarity we've seen in the last week between our members, the members of Local 6 and the members of Local 70--that's what scares Waste Management. That's what they want to break up, and that's what we can't let happen.

"Waste Management has a long-term agenda. They want to break up the bargaining unit. There are over 100 [union contracts with WM] across the United States. They don't want them talking together, and they sure don't want them negotiating together.

"By hook or by crook, they're going to try to have their way--and if they succeed in fragmenting us, slowly but surely, starting with the smallest, most remote and most rural bargaining units, they're going to take us on and systematically destroy us, and force those of you still under contract to act as scabs. We can't let that happen.

"These managers and scabs that they've imported from across the country don't have a choice. They have to work, or they're going to be fired. They don't have a choice. And I have to hope that deep down, some of them know what they're doing is wrong.

"But you do have a choice. You have the freedom to support each other. That's your birthright as trade unionists. And we're not going to swap that for their 30 pieces of silver--now or ever."

That message is starting resonate with other Bay Area workers. Mary drives a delivery truck for UPS in Oakland and took her personal break time to join the July 11 rally. "I'm out here to show that I'm supporting my sisters and brothers in the Teamsters," she said in an interview.

Ron Herrera, the secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 396, which represents WM workers in Los Angeles, attended the July 11 rally--along with Seattle Teamster secretary-treasurer Ron Hicks, whose members struck WM last year.

WM's claim that its first priority is public safety is being quickly undermined by the reality in East Bay cities. WM has created a public health risk, as garbage (filled with leftovers from July 4 picnics) piles up in East Bay neighborhoods and restaurants.

To make matters worse, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that WM has a policy of picking up trash in upper-middle class neighborhoods, while letting piles of garbage fester in Black, Latino and poor neighborhoods.

Management has sent 200 poorly trained scab drivers out into the narrow streets of East Bay communities in the middle of summer vacation. Accidents have already taken place. On July 9, a scab driver pulled down a power line and started a grass fire next to Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland. The fire department got it under control--but anyone who knows anything about East Bay summers knows that hill fires are serious business.

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THE REAL aim of the lockout is to impose a draconian new discipline policy that would allow management to fire workers after two small infractions. WM wants this power because many of its drivers are 20-, 30- and 40-year veterans. The company wants to use the new rules to clean house and speed up the pace of work--and target union activists or anyone else that management doesn't like.

Ron Lookabill of IAM Local 1546 has worked at WM for almost 15 years as a mechanic. "I really believe they are trying to break the union," he said in an interview. "This will take time. People will have to see that the people they've put on the job are doing the unsafe measures that management tells us we can't do."

Predictably enough, most of the local media is trying to place the blame for the lockout on the "overpaid" Teamsters. WM claims that Teamsters "average" $70,000 a year.

But once again, WM's assertions deserve scrutiny. The drivers' top scale is about $25 an hour. At 40 hours per week, that comes out to $50,000 a year. With Bay Area rents and mortgages normally running between $1,500 and $2,000 a month, that doesn't leave that much for a family to get by on. So lots of drivers put in overtime hours to earn extra money to keep up with the high cost of living.

More is at stake, however, than defending fair wages. Andrea Trujillo's husband is a locked-out Teamster. She read out a letter to WM management at the July 11 rally, explaining the difficulties facing her family.

"Workers have not only have lost their livelihood under hostile conditions," she said, "they face the very real situation of foreclosure, homelessness and having no health care benefits for their family. All the while, the drivers were very willing to continue working through negotiations. But now, they have no income and face the horrible reality of losing health benefits at the end of July for their families.

"Let's zoom the scope in a little deeper to look at one family, and make these realities even clearer. In our case, we have a child cancer survivor in remission who continues to be seen by his oncologist. With our health benefits possibly ending...we will have an additional burden of a huge COBRA payment of $1,298 per month to avoid losing our benefits--something that is simply not an option in our case.

"How can anyone be expected to pay such a bill with zero notice? How can a company that says they care so much about their employees put them at such risk? This will put our family in financial ruin and jeopardize the health of an innocent 15-year-old boy."

Other family members of locked-out workers are facing their own crises--and workers across the country know what Trujillo is talking about.

Clarence Thomas, the former secretary-treasurer of ILWU Local 10 and current member of the executive committee of the Alameda County Central Labor Council put the East Bay lockout in the context of U.S. corporations' assault on working class living standards.

"This is about union busting," he said. "Different employers use different strategies. Take the ILWU--we were locked out in 2002, and there was an attempt by the Wal-Marts, Home Depots, Targets, Toyota to go to the Bush administration and encourage them to break up the ILWU coast-wide labor agreement with the Pacific Maritime Association in order to force into port-by-port negotiations.

"I think we can say that Waste Management also wants to break up the solidarity of the Teamsters, the ILWU and the machinists. Even though the money may be acceptable, there are some things that are more important than money, like the right to have a union hall and the right to collectively bargain.

"I think they're testing the waters. The Bay Area is a union town, and I think it's going to be up to all unions to understand what this is about, and get involved with solidarity.

"I think what a lot of people don't understand is that when you talk about solidarity, it's not just a slogan. Solidarity means that you have to give something up. It might mean a day's pay. It might mean your time. But you have to give something up."

The Teamsters estimate that WM is spending $600,000 a day to pay their scabs, put them up in hotels and rent a fleet of cars for their security force. On top of that, the company risks losing millions in city contracts--Oakland is taking WM to court, and other cities may follow suit.

But WM is sitting on over $1 billion in profits, so this is a drop in the bucket. It seems that WM's board of directors in Houston has decided to spend millions in the short term in order to break the strength of the unions--and thereby make hundreds of millions more in the long term.

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FACED WITH this type of assault, what will labor have to do to win? Chuck Mack, the secretary-treasurer of Local 70 and a Teamsters international vice president, set the right tone at the July 11 rally.

"We're not going to let WM dictate the terms of any labor settlement to a union in the Bay Area," he said. "They've made every mistake in the world, and they've lied about it, over and over and over again. We're here to tell people the truth. This is what we've come to expect from this company during this dispute. The message has to get out about the lawlessness that this company is about."

Sharon Cornu, executive secretary-treasurer of the Alameda Labor Council, pledged the labor community's support and announced the "long list of elected officials supporting us. Yesterday, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to tell Waste Management to end the lockout. We've got Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums supporting us, and City Councilors Jean Quan and Jane Bernner."

The Labor Council has also taken the lead in gathering funds for the ILWU workers, who make only about $11 or $12 an hour, but are honoring picket lines nonetheless.

"We've raised more than $10,000 in the last few days for the hardship fund," Cornu said. "The ILWU, UNITE-HERE, the California Nurses Association and the plumbers have all pledged. The fund is specifically for those workers who don't qualify for unemployment benefits. The labor movement is stepping up to protect those who need it during this time."

Barry Luboviski, the secretary-treasurer of the Alameda County Building and Construction Trades Council, revved up the rally. "I've heard of some dumb moves before, but Waste Management: What in the hell were you thinking about here?" he said. "I'm talking about stupid. I'm talking about a loser. I'm talking about an airhead. The worst kind of dumb--the kind of dumb that's going to lose.

"You know why? They made a cardinal mistake. They took this stupid road show into Alameda County, and they pissed everybody off. Speaking for the brotherhood of the building trades, we're here with you."

With pledges of support from East Bay labor and the nearly unanimous condemnation from local elected officials, it's clear that WM is losing friends fast. But if WM has decided to draw a line in the sand, it seems unlikely that political resolutions will intimidate them.

So far, no workers have crossed picket lines, and the picket lines themselves remain upbeat. Yet it's also true that the picket lines aren't stopping trucks from rolling out, only slowing them down a little.

Of course, WM is itching to get a court injunction to ban pickets altogether. They may use the fact that one of their own scabs ran over a union member as an excuse to ask a judge to ban pickets in the "interest of public safety."

The legal threat has to be taken seriously. However, if WM proves impervious to symbolic picket lines, then the unions and their supporters will have to consider organizing mass picket lines to stop the trucks from rolling.

But even this may not be enough--because WM's East Bay operation represents no more than 5 percent of its national revenue. Fred Pecker, ILWU Local 6 secretary-treasurer, pointed to the possibility of spreading the struggle beyond the East Bay to other WM facilities.

"Brothers and sisters, this is about our survival," he said at the July 11 rally. "If they can knock down one of us, it'll be like dominos. We'll all go down together.

"They locked us out, but we're not the victims in this. The victims are the people of Alameda County--because being a victim is having something done to you, and not being able to do much back.

"The labor movement is here to offer leadership for all the people of the county to express their righteous indignation. We're not victims, because we're standing up together so we're stronger. And if we don't settle this here, let's spread this.

"Because if there's no peace or public safety in Alameda County, then all of us should be out here. It's up to all of us to talk to our neighbors and make this happen. We have the recycler contracts. We have the lowest wage workers who work for Alameda Waste Management, and they're out there solid--every day, every morning at 6 a.m. We're working without a net, but we're standing up together."

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STARTING ON July 13, Teamsters Local 70 extended its picket lines to other local Waste Management facilities in Stockton and Walnut Creek. This is an important step in the right direction. If the picket lines are extended further, Waste Management will start to feel some financial pain.

WM workers are still hoping there's a way to settle the lockout and get back to work without having to up the ante, but it's clear that trying to wait out the company and relying on public pressure may not be enough.

As the lockout goes on and the discussion about how to win continues, one thing is clear. Everyone who cares about social justice and the rights of working people have to see this as their fight.

The Labor Council is appealing for unions and community supporters to adopt picket lines by mobilizing members to show workers they aren't alone. And the council is asking for the public to call local officials to tell them to get tough with WM.

Finally, donating to the hardship fund is something that union supporters all over the country can do. WM's executives aren't worried about their rent or mortgage payments, or losing their health care, but the locked-out workers are.

"This is about corporate greed in all its attributes," said Rasheed Ali, a Local 70 member who has worked for Waste Management for 30 years. "Labor is under attack. This is going to be in the textbooks.

"To win this, we'll need intelligence, solidarity and pressure from the community. The working people need to keep their eyes open, because we're all under attack. United we stand, and divided we fall."

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