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Solidarity defeats the garbage bosses

August 3, 2007 | Page 15

TODD CHRETIEN reports on a victory for the labor movement in the East Bay over the "Wal-Mart of garbage."

OAKLAND, Calif.--Nine hundred East Bay garbage workers beat back one of the biggest scabbing operations in decades, defeating Waste Management's attempt to break their unions.

Waste Management (WM) raked in over $1 billion in profits last year, earning it a reputation as the Wal-Mart of garbage. "All these corporations care about is their multibillion-dollar profits," said Bob Kuykenball, a member of Teamsters Local 70 for 30 years and a worker for WM for the last seven. "If they could, they'd chain us to a machine or a truck and make us work for minimum wage."

Starting on July 2, WM shipped in over 300 scab employees and hired another 350 security guards, locking out Teamsters Local 70, Machinists Local 1546 and ILWU Local 6 members.

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.

WM budgeted at least $10 million for their scab army, and 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 WM 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.

As negotiations came down to the wire, Oakland City Attorney John Russo announced to the press that police would clear out the pickets at a facility on 98th Avenue. The next morning, Local 70 Secretary-Treasurer Chuck Mack was there at 5 a.m. with beefed-up picket lines, telling police that if they arrested anyone, they'd have to start with him. The police backed off, and the pickets stayed up.

Local 70 also spread its picket lines to other cities, including Walnut Creek and Stockton, if only for a few days.

The solidarity shown by ILWU Local 6 recycling workers and IAM Local 1546 mechanics threw another wrench into WM's plans. WM had hoped that the recycling workers, who make just $12 an hour, and the mechanics, who are still negotiating their own contract, would cross the picket lines and leave the Teamsters to fight on their own.

Instead, management faced a solid wall of support. The recycling workers of Local 6 deserve special recognition--the predominantly Latino and female workforce held out for a month without pay. Dozens of other unions and community groups pitched in holding the line by walking the picket lines and raising over $100,000 for a hardship fund for locked-out workers.

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THE 26-day lockout ended when Teamsters voted 363 to 3 to accept a new contract. The five-year contract includes an initial 5 percent raise, plus a guaranteed cost-of-living adjustment of at least 3.4 percent per year starting in 2008, as well as increased contributions from Waste Management to workers' pensions.

Better still, WM conceded extra raises to the lowest-paid Teamsters in order to equalize with the better-paid drivers.

The Teamsters also defended their right to honor the picket lines of fellow Teamsters and other unions on strike or locked out. WM desperately wanted to take away this basic form of union solidarity.

The contract did contain several concessions. The Teamsters gave up company maintenance of health benefits, meaning that workers will now be responsible for paying the increased cost of their health insurance if it rises more than 12 percent per year. Also, the new contract gives up the right to strike over grievances, committing to binding arbitration in its place.

At the heart of the contract battle was Waste Management's desire to impose draconian new disciplinary procedures that would have allowed it to fire a driver after two minor safety violations. The Teamsters fended off this union-busting tool, but were forced to accept new progressive disciplinary procedures that give the company new power to victimize individual drivers.

However, all disciplinary matters will be grievable, setting up a test of strength on the shop floor that will pit workers' unity against management's new rules.

Finally, Local 1546's mechanics are still negotiating their contract--the unions will have to make sure WM doesn't take out its frustration on them.

Some workers criticized these concessions, as well as the fact that they were only allowed to see the contract an hour before they had to vote on it. These concerns are certainly justified, but it's also true that beating back WM showed that working people aren't powerless in the face of corporate greed. And these days, that lesson is worth a lot.

"They want it like it was before the first railroad strikes back in 1877 that built the unions in the first place," explained Kuykenball. "We did this for the public. It's not always about the money. You'd be surprised how much you can get paid in spirit if you do the right thing."

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