Durham sanitation workers fight for higher wages and justice

On Sept. 6, unionized sanitation workers in Durham, North Carolina, with United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 150 began a historic standoff after the city failed to meet any of their basic demands related to fairer wages and better working conditions for weeks. Specifically, Durham sanitation workers are calling for vacant staff positions to be filled, pay for work outside of their job description, permanent positions for temporary workers, a liveable wage and an immediate $5,000 bonus. 

Harsh working conditions for sanitation workers

Given the nature of their work, sanitation workers regularly encounter strenuous and dangerous conditions on the job. While the conditions of sanitation work may not be favorable, the work is essential to keeping our streets safe. 

Every day, sanitation workers risk their health in numerous ways while performing some of their most basic job duties. They are exposed to noxious odors from handling waste over long periods of time, which can also contain harmful substances that result in health complications. When speaking to Liberation News, a decade-long worker from the solid waste department described his experience of multiple hospitalizations during his sanitation career, “They found a protein just under my skin that was killing my platelets.” 

Sanitation workers are also often asked to perform work outside their job description, which they do not have training for. This includes a wide range of tasks, such as disposing of various domestic or wild animals or driving trucks they were not trained to operate. Willie, a city worker from the public works department stated in an interview with PSL members, “When you go in a sewer line you can possibly encounter flesh eating bacteria, you never know, a poisonous snake is a normalcy, it’s normal, but we have no training for it.” 

In addition to the strenuous tasks forced on sanitation workers, most find themselves completing the workload of multiple people. The city department of sanitation is severely understaffed with only 45 out of the 177 necessary positions filled. These vacancies add additional workload and stress to an already overworked and underpaid workforce. 

On the days when snow covers the streets or the heat has our blood boiling, sanitation workers arrive at work by 5:30 a.m. Rain or shine, in any condition, sanitation workers are required to complete their duties. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, workers put themselves and their family’s lives at risk to ensure the upkeep of the Durham community. Not only did workers not receive adequate safety gear or hazard pay, but their expected raise under the Step Pay Plan was frozen during this period and still hasn’t caught up to its originally proposed amount. The Step Pay Plan had the intention of giving general city workers a 3% raise every year and with performance pay of 4.8%. 

Since 2019, the cost of living in Durham has increased by 23%, but the wages of sanitation workers have only increased by 15%, an effective pay cut.

Starting out, sanitation workers make $19 an hour with seniority pay slightly increasing wages over the years. Most workers find themselves having to take on additional jobs to make ends meet for their families. While on the picket line, John from the solid-waste sector told the PSL he has to work four jobs to meet the needs of his family. 

City Council refuses to meet their demands 

On June 21, City Council members had the opportunity to approve a raise for city workers, a raise that would have caught up with the two years of raises lost during the freeze of funds during the pandemic. However, council members voted against the motion 4 to 3. 

On Sept. 7, the second day of the standoff between the workers and the city, sanitation workers and community members hosted a speak out at the City Council work session where they voiced concerns directly to council members. Ultimately, council members were unable to come to any immediate agreement on the matter and tabled the discussion until Sept. 18 when they may vote on the immediate $5,000 bonus. 

Mayor Pro Tempore Mark Anthony Middleton defended his hesitancy on the matter by saying the city does not have funds allocated for the bonuses or raises and meeting this concession will cause there to be a shortage in funds in the following years: “I am not going to vote with my left hand to give you money knowing that the next year we got a re-up and then take more from you next year to keep that going. I’m not gonna do it. Elect somebody else.” However, public records have shown that there is over $18 million remaining in the general fund and $42 million in the reserve fund. The city has the funds to meet the workers’ demands, but is refusing to invest it into the department that desperately needs it. 

Four days into the historic standoff, garbage was piling up in neighborhoods. The city decided to hire a private company, Green For Life (GFL), to complete the work. Jay, a city sanitation worker, says it costs the city at least $20,000 a day to hire GFL. It is clear based on the public report that the city has the money to meet the workers’ demands, but is more willing to pay a private company to act as union busters than meet the needs of their own people. 

After weeks of pressure from workers and community members, on Sept. 15, the city manager released a public statement proposing a bonus. The proposal offers a $3,000 bonus to city workers with a salary less than $57,000, a $2,500 bonus for city workers with a salary between $57,000 and $90,000, a $2,000 bonus for city workers with a salary over $90,000, and a $1,000 bonus for part-time city workers. While this is an important concession won from the collective power of the workers, Durham city sanitation workers are sticking with their demand for an immediate $5,000 bonus for all city workers making less than $75,000. 

Jim Crow ban on collective bargaining 

This is the longest stand off in Durham city sanitation worker history. In order to fully grasp the context of this historical moment, we must examine GS 95-98, a legislative remnant of the Jim Crow era. This legislation strips public sector workers of their right to strike and collectively bargain across the state of North Carolina. GS 95-98 was passed in 1959 when Black people had no voting rights or political representation. GS 95-98 was passed with the intention of disempowering Black workers and weakening the growing labor movement of the time. A recent study by Oxfam has found North Carolina to rank as the worst state in America for workers for the fourth year in a row. The struggle for fair pay and safe working conditions for Durham city sanitation workers is intrinsically tied to the struggle to dismantle GS 95-98 and to improve working conditions across the state. 

The fight continues

Labor organizing has been on the rise in the last few years and it is not stopping any time soon. All across the country, particularly in the South, workers are coming together and fighting for demands that are rightfully theirs. Class consciousness among the working class has been spreading due to capitalism’s inability to meet the needs of ordinary people. As the cost of living decimates low-paid workers, bosses and city officials continue to get bonuses and raises at the expense of exploited workers. Millions of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, can’t afford a medical emergency, and must work multiple jobs to feed their families.

Because of a lack of paid days off that most workers cannot afford, the sanitation workers have decided to go back to work beginning Sept. 13. Despite this, they continue to demand fair wages, a $5,000 bonus and improved working conditions. There is an upcoming City Council meeting on Monday, Sept. 18 at 6:30 p.m. and a work session on Thursday, Sept. 21 at 1 p.m. with the possibility of a vote on an immediate bonus. Even once Durham’s sanitation workers meet their demands, the fight for public sector workers’ right to collectively bargain is just beginning.

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