Sanitation workers strike for raise, health care cost cap

By Janet Post
February 20, 2023

CAMDEN, N.J. —“Until you say ‘no,’ the companies are just going to keep taking back more,” striker Bob Klein told the Militant on an enthusiastic Feb. 4 picket line here by Teamsters Local 115. One hundred thirty sanitation workers — drivers, helpers and maintenance workers — voted unanimously Jan. 29 to strike Waste Management of New Jersey at its Camden yard. The walkout began after their contract expired Jan. 31.

Waste Management, the largest trash-collection and recycling company in the U.S., bought the yard over 20 years ago. The union has been negotiating since last October, but the company now refuses further talks.

Shop steward Ivan James told the Militant that the membership is asking for a 7% raise each year of the three-year contract. The company has only offered 2%. “And since they keep wanting to raise our health care costs, we want to put a cap on that right now, including what we pay for prescriptions.”

Workers picket seven days a week from early morning to evening.

James, a truck driver for 11 years, said workers have a regular 60-hour workweek, but management sometimes insists on “off-the-clock work,” like maintaining the trucks. “We’re really asking for everybody’s support for our strike,” he said.

Klein, who has worked here as a driver for 26 years, as well as other strikers, said that while wages and health care are important issues, they are deeply concerned over the company’s demand that video cameras in the truck cabs that managers can access “go live.”

“The union doesn’t oppose cameras when used for safety or training, but not as a hammer for the company,” said Klein. “We draw the line at being seen and heard the whole time we are at work. That is an invasion of our privacy.”

Driver David Jones agreed, saying, “We are honest workers. This is wiretapping! They have no respect for us. What if I need to talk with my family privately?”

Klein said the bosses also want to add a “Rule No. 11” to their “10 Life Critical Rules” that would bar the use of cellphones in the trucks, subject to termination.

Each truck crew consists of a driver and a second worker. The yard’s 100 trucks service residential garbage in Camden, the Borough of Haddonfield, and Winslow Township, and companies like Home Depot, ShopRite, Wawa, Lowe’s, Walmart and the Cherry Hill Mall.

In 2021 the Teamsters union reported that jobs in the solid-waste industry are the fifth most dangerous ones in the country, with 70 to 90 workers dying every year on the job.

Waste Management is a nationwide company and the majority of its 45,000 workers are nonunion.

The bosses brought in some 80 nonunion workers to try to break the strike, from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Arizona, Utah, South Carolina and Georgia. They get their home-yard pay, additional pay in Camden, $60 a day toward food, and a hotel room. A “security car” follows behind their truck on the route, said Klein.

While the cops have been giving pickets some leeway, they can’t try to prevent scab trucks from reentering the yard.

The strikers won solidarity from area construction workers in Laborers Local 172, Teamster-organized janitorial workers from the University of Pennsylvania, truckers from other Teamster locals, as well as workers in the neighborhood.