It’s 4 AM. The air is cold and damp on 98th Avenue in deep East Oakland, down along the San Francisco Bay’s industrial waterfront. This is a hard geography of concrete and dust and pot-hole riddled roads latticed by train tracks. Much of the earth is landfill, crowded for miles with scrap metal yards, bakeries, machine shops, and warehouses. Behind a chain link fence are about one hundred empty garbage trucks parked in long rows waiting for the next shift of drivers who will fill them with tons of refuse. By 5 AM the trucks are idling, and lining up to roll out. But since last Friday about 130 workers at the Waste Management garbage facility here have been on strike.
Dozens of strikers are picketing the gates where the trucks must exit. Some workers have been there since 3 AM. They come in shifts to pace the sidewalk, men and women, young and old, here to fight. A majority of these workers are immigrants. These are the recyclers, the workers who receive the garbage from the trucks, who pick through it and sort materials inside cavernous warehouses filled with rubbish-dust. It’s messy, dangerous, and hard work.
The strikers at the picket line today say they’re fighting to up their pay from around $12.80 an hour to $15 next year with the ultimate goal of $20 an hour by 2019. And they want safer workplaces. Waste Management, the giant of the global trash industry, agreed to improve the workers’ pay during recent franchise contract talks with the city of Oakland. The workers now fear the company is backpedaling.
But it’s hard to tell who the recyclers are actually fighting. Their picket is being driven through by other workers, Teamsters who drive the hulking green garbage trucks. The trucks queue up to exit the 98th Avenue yard in long lines. The recyclers block each truck for 30 seconds or a minute, but there are too few of them to sustain an unbreakable picket line.
Most of the drivers smile and nod to their fellow workers on the sidewalk. Some honk their horns and reach out of their windows to shake hands with the strikers. They don’t want to be put in the position of breaking through another union’s picket. They’re sympathetic. They want to help their fellow workers win.
But there’s the Teamster leadership standing by. The vice president of the Teamster’s chapter for the recycling facility stands just steps away from the picket, but inside Waste Management’s gates. An annoyed look wrinkles across his face. He directs his union’s members to break the picket line, waving them through. He asks them why they’re waiting if they linger before the line of strikers too long. The drivers creep through the chain of bodies carefully in their giant trucks and roar off into the dark pre-dawn hours. So much for solidarity?
I ask the Teamsters official why.
“Local 6 didn’t seek our sanction for this strike,” he says. “They need to get this sanctioned by the Teamster’s joint council. Our members can’t just stop working.” He complains about the leadership of Local 6, implying that the union’s staff should have negotiated and finalized a contract with Waste Management years ago. It’s a long list of complaints, many political, others technical, many with merit. But ultimately there are 130 low-wage workers out on strike, fighting for dignity, and better conditions in their workplace. And they want support.
It’s true that Local 6 of the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU), the union that represents the recyclers, didn’t obtain a sanction from the Teamsters or from other unions for the strike. Local 6’s officers say, in fact, that they asked the Teamsters to sanction the strike. The Teamsters haven’t given a response yet.
The strike appears to have taken Local 6’s staff by surprise. Some of the workers even seem to have surprised themselves. But they’re firmly committed to the fight now. They’ve thrown a punch back at Waste Management.
The walk out was sparked by a run-in last Thursday with an especially abusive manager who allegedly threatened to fire specific workers who were seeking time off to participate in their ongoing contract talks. The boss threatened some of them with termination. In the face of this, all the recyclers walked off the job. They voted that night at their hall to strike, 114 to 4. Local 6’s leadership followed their members into the fight.
After sunrise, at the entrance to the Waste Management dump in San Leandro, about two miles south of the first picket line in Oakland, dozens of other recyclers march back and forth blocking trucks in the company’s fleet. Three security guards hired by Waste Management half-heartedly wave the garbage trucks through gaps in the line. They’re probably not making much more than minimum wage themselves. Truck drivers, overwhelmingly friendly here too, appear conflicted crossing the picketers.
The recyclers think they can win if the other unions back them up. Today they’re out there again in the cold, dark, small hours of the morning picketing the garbage factory and the dump. SEIU 1021, the big union local that represents public employees in northern California, is bringing lunch to feed the hundred strikers. It’s unclear if, when, and how other unions in Alameda County will support the recyclers in their strike.
In 2007, during the Teamsters’ contract fight with Waste Management in Oakland, the company locked the drivers out for 30 days. The recyclers chose to honor the Teamsters’ picket, staying off the job, and the Teamsters won a good contract. “Remember 2007!” shouts a picketing worker as a line of trucks leave the dump between a broken line of marching recyclers.
Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist and investigative journalist. He is a contributing editor to Counterpunch. His writing appears in the East Bay Express, Village Voice, LA Weekly and other newspapers. He blogs about the political economy of California at http://darwinbondgraham.wordpress.com/