North Carolina Sanitation Workers Strike for $5K Bonuses
UPDATE: City workers won $6.5 million in bonuses at the City Council meeting on October 5. Bonuses of $5,000 will go to workers making under $42,800, with smaller bonuses going to those who make more. The union still wants an across-the-board $5,000 bonus for workers making less than $75,000 a year.
“We’re here to make a stand. At least 40 trucks should be on the road right now, and as far as we know, no trucks have gone out this morning,” said Durham, North Carolina, sanitation worker Christopher Benjamin, flanked by 100 sanitation and other city workers at a September 6 press conference.
This was the first morning of a six-day strike by the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union (United Electrical Workers, UE, Local 150).
During the six-day “stand down,” as they called it, sanitation workers would show up to the yard each morning and refuse to take out the garbage and recycling trucks, instead holding meetings and rallies in the parking lot throughout the day. After three days, with trash bins overflowing around the city, Durham brought in a private waste management contractor, GFL Environmental.
Durham city workers have been organizing for several months with three demands: 1) an immediate $5,000 bonus; 2) extra pay for work done outside their job titles; and 3) directly hiring all workers rather than employing them through a contractor or temp agency.
Hundreds of city workers across departments from Public Works to General Services signed a petition backing these demands, which was presented to the city council the day before the walkout.
City workers in Durham had their scheduled pay increases frozen for two years during the Covid pandemic. In June, city councilors voted to give workers 6 to 8 percent raises, far short of the 17 percent raises workers were demanding to help their pay catch up with inflation.
Many city workers are forced to work second jobs or have had to move out of the city due to skyrocketing housing costs. Vacancy rates in city departments are high; in the Public Works department, for example, only 57 of 177 positions are currently filled.
SOLIDARITY WAS DECISIVE
Blue-collar city workers, the majority of whom are Black, have united with firefighters and their union, Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 668, who have been mobilizing around similar issues.
Various other local unions have mobilized to support the city workers over the past several weeks, including the teachers union; the Union of Southern Service Workers; Duke University graduate students, who recently unionized in a landslide vote; and retail workers at the Durham store of outdoor equipment chain REI, who struck and then voted in a union this year.
The Durham Workers Assembly, a branch of the Southern Workers Assembly, has anchored much of the solidarity work—holding community meetings, engaging faith communities, and using a sound truck to spread the message and distribute yard signs all over the city. The Assembly also got 60 small businesses to sign a letter to the city council and hang signs of support in their shop windows.
On September 11, the day the workers announced they would return to work the next morning, 300 people joined a solidarity action outside Durham City Hall. Among them were city workers from other municipalities, like Mike Robinson, a Local 150 steward and solid waste worker in Raleigh.
“These cities work because we work,” he said. “I see someone holding a sign with Martin Luther King, Jr. on it. He died in Memphis, Tennessee, arguing this same point. That was 1968—it’s 2023 and we are still fighting!”
A PATH FORWARD FOR THE SOUTH
Durham’s city manager issued a proposal for tiered bonuses on September 15, a few days after the strike. Under her plan, the lowest-paid city workers (those making under $57,000) would receive only $3,000, with bonuses ranging from $1,000 to $2,500 for higher-paid workers.
The proposal was summarily rejected by the workers, who reiterated their demand that all workers making less than $75,000 receive a $5,000 bonus.
“We’re not satisfied with [the city manager’s plan], and we intend to do whatever we have to do to get what we’re asking for, because we deserve it,” said Durham solid waste worker Herman Moore. “We see workers all over the place taking a stand and saying enough is enough, and that’s exactly what we’re doing here.”
Since ending the strike, workers have mobilized week after week at city council meetings and work sessions, filling the front rows of the chambers each time. They also held a candidate forum to ask questions directly to those running in the upcoming Durham city council and mayoral election.
“The only way we know how to get what we deserve is to fight for it,” said UE Local 150 member Antonio Smith, at a rally outside a city council meeting September 18. “With the ladies and gentlemen that we have standing with us, we got Muhammad Ali in the building! We might not have thrown that knockout punch, but we haven’t fallen yet.”
At a council work session on September 21, the manager’s proposal was sent back to the budget office to draw up additional options for tiered bonuses for city workers.
On September 29, the City Manager released three new proposals for bonuses for the City Council to consider. All three of these proposals included $5,000 bonuses for the city’s lowest paid workers, in what the union is characterizing as a major victory. The proposals will be discussed and voted on by the Durham City Council on October 5.
PUSHING BEYOND THE BOUNDS
North Carolina is a right-to-work state, with the second-lowest union density in the country—just 2.8 percent of workers belong to unions. Thanks to a Jim Crow-era law, it is still illegal for public sector workers there to collectively bargain or strike, but they didn’t let that stop them.
“Durham city workers are carrying on a long tradition of struggle by Southern, predominantly Black sanitation workers, from Memphis to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, to Raleigh and elsewhere, who work a dangerous job and are forced into taking this tremendous risk,” said Ajamu Dillahunt, a member of the Southern Workers Assembly Coordinating Committee and Black Workers for Justice (BWFJ), which is dedicated to organizing a workplace-centered, social justice movement led by Black workers.
“Their bold action is a reminder of the history of the workers’ movement and how many of the most important victories have been won,” he said: “by pushing up against and beyond the bounds of legality and relying on organization, solidarity, and collective action to fight and win.
“The example they’re showing here should serve as inspiration to all workers looking for a way forward to organize in the South, in spite of the reactionary climate.”
UE Local 150 has built an organization of state, municipal, and university workers throughout North Carolina by relying on those principles. The union emerged from action networks of state workers built by BWJ in the 1980s and ’90s.
“Black Workers for Justice knew in the ’80s, when we were helping to revitalize the Durham City Workers chapter [of Local 150] and build other chapters, that Black workers were central when talking about the jobs that were the most manual-intensive, the most dangerous, and the lowest-paid,” said Nathanette Mayo, past president of the chapter.
“In these positions, Black workers are responsible for dealing with the health of our communities. They understand the importance of the jobs they do and the love they have for the community they work in. We have always had the view that building worker power builds the power of the community, and vice versa.”
Ben Carroll lives in Durham and is the organizing coordinator for the Southern Workers Assembly. Durham city workers will speak on their strike at SWA’s Southern Worker School in Charlotte in November. If you’re a worker in the South and you’re interested in participating, email info[at]southernworker[dot]org.