Sanitation workers strike for safety, pay in California

By Laura Garza
January 17, 2022

CHULA VISTA, Calif. — Some 250 sanitation workers in the San Diego area continue to walk picket lines here since going on strike Dec. 17 against Republic Services. Members of Teamsters Local 542, many in rain gear for the winter storms that poured down, maintain pickets at four locations in their fight for safer trucks and working conditions and for higher wages.

“After Republic took over, conditions began deteriorating,” Cesar Silva, 38, a driver with 16 years on the job, told the Militant. “There were a lot of write-ups, trucks in bad condition, safety concerns. They demand we have PPE [personal protective equipment] but then they don’t order sufficient supplies, like gloves.”

This is the first time these workers have gone on strike. Silva said he spent a lot of time discussing the union and the need for the workers to fight back, taking 15 or 20 minutes each day to talk to different co-workers, many of whom had never been in a union before. “Until now everybody was afraid,” he said. “Now we’re sticking up for ourselves.”

Republic Services is the second-largest waste collection company in the country, operating in 41 states with some 30,000 workers. The Teamsters union has been in negotiations with Republic over similar conditions facing workers in Orange County, California; Los Angeles; New Orleans; and Northern California.

Republic Services is holding out against demands by the San Diego workers to receive higher wages similar to those negotiated recently in Orange County, where the union won over $2 an hour in the first year and a total of around $6 over a six-year contract. Republic has only offered the San Diego workers $1 the first year and 50 cents a year after that.

Pressure is mounting on the bosses as the garbage piles up. Residents are told they can take their own garbage to local dumps and the fees will be waived, but they are still paying for garbage pickup. Many workers said they have received a lot of sympathy from the community.

“Gates rakes in the cash, we pick up the trash,” said Manny Puma, a relief driver who has 30 years’ experience in the industry and seven years with the company. He was referring to billionaire Bill Gates, one of Republic’s main shareholders. Puma said the company tries to justify a lower wage scale here by saying it’s a “border town” with Mexico, “but my gas costs the same as 90 miles up the road.”

Long hours are another important issue, along with demands from the bosses to work faster. “You’re pressured to pick up all the trash every day, but they write you up if you go over 12 hours,” Puma said. “If my truck has a problem, they say, ‘Well, we gotta get the garbage picked up.’ Safety is secondary to profits.”

For workers who live on the Mexican side of the border, the pandemic-motivated slowdown in processing people seeking to cross over has taken a big toll. Francisco J. Huerta, who has eight years with the company, is a U.S. citizen who lives in Tijuana. His wife tried in the past to get some permanent status in the U.S., but hasn’t succeeded. He wakes up at 12:30 a.m. to get in line in time to assure he won’t be late to his 6 a.m. shift. He often grabs some sleep in the parking lot at work, if he gets there with some time to spare.

“I used to cross in 20 minutes, now it’s two to three hours,” he said. “It is important to have the younger workers supporting us, the older workers were more unsure” about striking, he said. “But everybody got together.”

When I asked him if similar fights were happening in Mexico, he said it would be difficult to do this there now because of threats of violence and intimidation by the bosses, backed by the cops.

The bosses have been operating some trucks with what they call the “Blue Crew,” which strikers say is a special group Republic maintains specifically to scab on strikes around the country. They offer workers from nonunion plants extra pay and expenses to join the strikebreaking crew.

The strikers need solidarity! Join their picket lines at the company’s main Chula Vista yards. Get your union or co-workers to send messages of support and contributions, earmarked for the strike, to Teamsters Local 542, 4666 Mission Gorge Place, San Diego, CA 92120.