Striking recycling workers return to work with new contract that improves pay and benefits

California recycling workers on October 30 returned to work ending a week-long strike that began when they walked off the job to protest abusive treatment by a supervisor and their employers’ reluctance to agree to a new contract similar to one that a local competitor had signed with its workers.

Before the strike began, negotiations between the workers’ union, ILWU Local 6, and their employer, Waste Management, had dragged on for three years.

When the workers returned to work, they had a new agreement that, according to the ILWU, “secure(s) a contract that guarantees living wages and affordable health insurance.”

The recycling workers are immigrants who work at two Waste Management facilities in the East San Francisco Bay Area–one in Oakland, the other in San Leandro. They do the dirty work of sorting discarded recyclable materials picked up by Waste Management trucks in Oakland and other nearby communities.

David Bacon, writing for In These Times, reports that Local 6 members on October 23 walked off the job when a supervisor at the company’s San Leandro facility became abusive and threatened disciplinary action while workers were holding a shop floor meeting.

The meeting was called by workers on the bargaining team, who wanted to share information about the ongoing negotiations.

The workers had been working under the terms of a contract that expired three years ago and had received no raises during that time.

The City of Oakland last summer passed an ordinance requiring its private recycling contractors to pay living wages and provide affordable health care insurance to their recycling workers.

One of the contractors, California Waste Solutions, agreed to a contract with ILWU Local 6 that incorporated the city’s wage and health insurance requirements.

Waste Management on the other hand balked at reaching an agreement. It demanded that workers pay higher health care premiums and pay the bulk of future health care premium rate increase, which could erode future pay increases offered by the company.

“(Waste Management wants) workers to take all the risk and go gambling on what health care will cost in the future,” said Craig Merrilees to San Leandro Patch during the strike.

The agreement that ended the strike boosts hourly pay for the average recycling workers from $12.50 an hour to $13.22 beginning January 2015. During the course of the contract, hourly pay will continue to increase until it reaches $20.94 in 2019.

Workers will pay $10 a month more in health care costs but won’t have to pay for future premium rate increases.

ILWU’s victory at Waste Management is the latest development in its campaign to help low-wage, immigrant recycling workers improve their lives and jobs.

In February 2013, ILWU held the Alameda County Recycler Workers Convention in Oakland. The convention was attended by hundreds of recycling workers and their supporters.

That convention led to a number of actions on and off the job that has produced results.

For example, as a result of the campaign, the Oakland City Council passed its living wage ordinance for recycling company’s doing business with city.

The campaign also resulted in an organizing effort at Alameda County Industries(ACI) where 85 percent of the company’s recycling workers signed union representation cards.

The workers had hoped that ACI would honor their desire to unionize, but the company refused.

Instead, a union representation election will be held.

During the Waste Management strike, drivers who belong to Teamsters Local 70, continued to work, which frustrated the ILWU members, who stayed off the job in 2007 when Waste Management locked out its Teamster drivers at its facilities in the East Bay.

Writing in Counterpunch, Darwin Bond-Graham reports that Local 70 officials said that the drivers continued to work during the strike because Local 6 had not officially requested Local 70 to sanction the strike.

Bond-Graham also reports that Local 6 requested the sanction but never received a response from the Teamsters.

Local 6’s victory at Waste Management is the latest in a series of wins for the union and its recycling members.

“This week’s victory at Waste Management marks the third successful effort in less than a year by East Bay recycling workers to secure dramatic wage improvements with affordable family health benefits,” said an ILWU statement announcing the Waste Management workers return to work. “In December of 2013, workers at BLT in Fremont won a similar package. In July of 2014, recyclers employed by California Waste Solutions in Oakland did the same.”

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