Recycling Workers Unionize, While Others Strike

Workers celebrate their union election victory at Alameda County Industries. Photo: David Bacon.

Excerpted from Working In These Times. Read the full article here.

Within days of each other last month, two groups of recycling workers declared they’d had enough of indignity and discrimination. One group voted to unionize, and another, already union members, walked out on strike.

“They think we’re insignificant people,” declares striker Dinora Jordan. “They don’t think we count and don’t value our work. But we’re the ones who find dead animals on the conveyor belts. All the time we have to watch for hypodermic needles. If they don’t learn to respect us now, they never will.”

Jordan’s employer is Waste Management, Inc., a giant corporation that handles garbage and recycling throughout North America. In just the second quarter of 2014, WMI generated $3.56 billion in revenue and $210 million in profit.

But at its San Leandro, California, facility, WMI had been unwilling to settle a new contract with Jordan’s union, Local 6 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), for three years.


Last week, she and other members of the negotiating committee returned to the facility after another fruitless session. They called workers together to offer a report on the progress in bargaining—standard practice in Local 6.

One supervisor agreed to the shop floor meeting, but another would not. The workers met anyway. Then the second supervisor told them to clock out and go home, a disciplinary measure that would at least dock the rest of the day’s pay.

“That’s when we finally said ‘Enough!’” Jordan explains. “As a union, we support each other. If some of us can’t work, then none of us will.” They walked out on an unfair labor practice strike, and immediately met at the union hall and voted to strike.

The strike ended on October 30, after a week, with a new contract. Workers will get an immediate raise of $1.48 per hour, and 50 cents more on New Year’s. Starting next July, wages will rise $1.39 per year until 2019, when the minimum wage for sorters will be $20.94.

At another facility in the same city, workers at Alameda County Industries (ACI) were equally angry. At the end of a late-night vote count in a cavernous sorting bay, surrounded by bales of recycled paper and plastic, agents of the National Labor Relations Board unfolded the ballots in a union representation election.

When they announced that 85 percent had been cast for Local 6, workers began shouting “¡Viva La Union!” and dancing down the row of lockers.


Sorting trash is dangerous and dirty work. In 2012, two East Bay workers were killed in recycling facilities. In the Bay Area the sorting is done almost entirely by women of color, mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America and African Americans.

With some notable exceptions, putting your hands into fast-moving conveyor belts filled with cardboard and cans does not pay well—much less, for instance, than the jobs of the drivers who pick up the containers at the curb.

Under the contract that expired three years ago, WMI sorters got $12.50—more than ACI, but a long way from San Francisco, where Teamster recyclers get $21 an hour.

Relations between the two unions are tense. During the strike at WMI, Teamsters officials told garbage truck drivers to cross the ILWU lines. The Teamsters also appeared on the ballot in the election for the ACI workers, receiving nine votes.

To get wages up, recycling workers in the East Bay organized a coalition to establish a new standard, the Campaign for Sustainable Recycling. Two dozen organizations belong to it in addition to the ILWU, including the Sierra Club, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Movement Generation, the Justice and Ecology Project, the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, and the Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy.



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Fremont became the test for the campaign’s strategy of forcing cities to mandate wage increases. Last December Fremont’s city council passed a 32-cent rate increase with the condition that its recycler, BLT, agree to raises for workers. The union contract there now mandates $14.59 per hour for sorters this year, finally reaching $20.94 in 2019.

Oakland followed, requiring wage increases for sorters as part of its new recycling contract.


This spring, recycling workers at ACI, probably those with the worst conditions, began challenging their second-class status. Not only did they become activists in a growing movement throughout the East Bay, but their protests galvanized public action to stop the firings of undocumented workers.

At ACI, garbage trucks with recycled trash pull in every minute, dumping their fragrant loads gathered on routes in Livermore, Alameda, and San Leandro. These cities contract with the firm to process their trash.

In the Bay Area, only one city, Berkeley, picks up its own garbage. All the rest sign contracts with private companies. And even Berkeley contracts recycling to an independent sorter.

ACI contracted with a temp agency, Select Staffing, to employ the workers on the lines. Sorters therefore have no health insurance, vacations, or holidays. Wages are very low, even for recycling: after a small raise two years ago, sorters get $8.30 per hour on day shift and $8.50 at night.

A year ago, workers discovered this was an illegal wage. San Leandro passed a Living Wage Ordinance in 2007, mandating (in 2013) $14.17 per hour or $12.67 with health benefits. Last fall, some of the women on the lines received leaflets advertising a health and safety training for recycling workers, put on by Local 6.

The union’s organizing director Agustin Ramirez says, “When they told me what they were paid, I knew something was very wrong.” Ramirez put them in touch with a lawyer, who sent ACI and Select a letter stating workers’ intention to file suit for back wages.


In early February, 18 workers, including every person but one who’d signed, were told that Select had been audited by Immigration and Customs Enforcement a year before. ICE, the company said, was questioning their immigration status.

Instead of quietly disappearing, though, about half the sorters walked off the lines on February 27, protesting the impending firings. They were joined by faith leaders, members of Alameda County United for Immigrant Rights, and workers from other recycling facilities, including WMI. The next week, however, all 18 accused of being undocumented were fired.

“Some of us have been there 14 years, so why now?” wondered sorter Ignacia Garcia.

Despite fear ignited by the firings and the so-called “silent” immigration raid, workers began to join the union. Within months, workers were wearing buttons and stickers up and down the sorting lines.

At the same time, sorters went to city councils, denouncing the raid and illegal wages, asking councilmembers to put pressure on the company processing their trash.

By the time Local 6 asked for the election, ACI had stopped campaigning against the union in fear of alienating its city clients and had ended its relationship with the temp agency. Only one worker voted for no union, while 49 voted for the ILWU.

Excerpted from Working In These Times. Read the full article here.

David Bacon is a California writer and photographer and was a union organizer for two decades. His new book, The Right to Stay Home: How U.S. Policy Drives Mexican Migration, was just published by Beacon Press.