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Recycling Workers Fight Back

Underpaid workers who toil in dangerous conditions are teaming up with environmental and community groups to demand workplace safety and better wages.



Over the past year, environmentalists have become increasingly aware of the plight of recycling workers. Separating recyclables, which requires standing for hours at a conveyor belt, is a dirty and dangerous job. It also often doesn't pay very well. Moreover, as we move toward a Zero Waste society, these recycling jobs are increasingly replacing safer, higher-paying ones in the garbage industry. "The best [paying] job is driving a truck to the landfill, the worst is sorting recycling," said Ruth Abbe, Zero Waste Coordinator for the Sierra Club. "As those high-paying [landfill] jobs go away, we don't want to replace them with poverty jobs."

In an effort to address this disparity, hundreds of recycling workers and allies from environmental and community organizations gathered for a convention in Oakland earlier this month to launch a new countywide Campaign for Sustainable Recycling. "We all have the same problems: lack of respect, dangerous working conditions, low wages — we have to work overtime to survive," said Josefa Solano, who sorts recyclables at a plant in Fremont.

Workers at the county's four unionized recycling facilities, who are members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 6, "have to organize and support each other, and invite all the recycling workers in Alameda County who are not in a union to join us," Solano added. In preparation for this campaign, 21 local recycling workers recently completed an AFL-CIO organizer-training program.

Moreover, improving recycling jobs is key to meeting the county's environmental goals, said Abbe. "We want to work with the workers because they're part of the Zero Waste solution," she said. "We need to support them to have what they need: a family-wage job."

But the growing support for recycling workers also appears to be sparking a backlash by the corporations that dominate the industry, some workers and union officials say. Workers at the convention, mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants, pointed to the firing last month of three of their co-workers from a Waste Management plant in San Leandro. The company said in a statement that it had fired the workers because a corporate audit revealed they had not provided "sufficient pre-employment information" when they were hired.

But Mirella Jauregui, a Waste Management employee, thinks the company had other motives. "Many of us believe Waste Management did that to intimidate us," Jauregui said. Union organizers pointed out that the firings occurred around the time workers had been considering a temporary work stoppage over problems in contract negotiations.

Alejandra Leon, another Waste Management worker, said that when she heard about the firings, "I could see that a lot of my co-workers were very concerned. Most of us are immigrants, with all different kinds of legal status, so people worried, 'How is this going to affect us?' We met and decided not to sign up for overtime the next Saturday, as a protest," despite the loss of income it would mean. "Then a supervisor told us if no one signed up for overtime on Saturday, they would ship the materials somewhere else, which would affect overtime at our plant for four to eight weeks. A lot of people regularly depend on overtime pay, so it was definitely a type of pressure. After that a couple of people signed up, but not enough to schedule a shift." Despite the threat, the company scheduled overtime as usual on the following Saturdays.

Last week, workers and immigrant-rights advocates told this story to the Oakland City Council, while two dozen others stood with signs reading "Oakland Is Not Arizona." Monica Wilson, of the Grassroots Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), said, "Oakland is a leader in Zero Waste, but when a city contractor is threatening and intimidating its workforce, it's time to step in."

Another speaker, Gail Bateson, of the nonprofit Worksafe, added that recycling is "one of the most dangerous industries in California." Her organization's report, "Dying at Work in California," states that job-related illness and injuries keep recycling and waste workers away from work at five times the average rate for all industries.

Two Alameda County recycling workers were killed on the job in the last year in accidents involving heavy equipment. At the convention, workers described hazards ranging from dangerous materials thrown into recycling bins (syringes, broken glass, chemicals, asbestos, dead animals, dog waste, and more) to rat infestations to dust and fumes: "We feel like we're suffocating," said Waste Management worker Xiomara Martinez. "We're inhaling a huge amount of dust. What's going to happen to our lungs?" She held up the masks and gloves workers use, dirty and tattered after only one day, and said they were inadequate protection against hazards on the line and in the air.

"Often the supervisors get angry when we ask for new [safety] equipment," added Solano. "When it's hot we often don't get water breaks. They close the doors, we breathe in dust and vapors from the trucks."

In a three-page, point-by-point response issued after the February 2 convention in Oakland, Waste Management officials said their Davis Street plant in San Leandro is "one of the safest recycling/sorting facilities in the country" and provides safety training and protective equipment. The death of 66-year-old Salvadoran immigrant Evangelina Macias at Davis Street last summer, the statement said, was "a terrible accident . . . that had nothing to do with [the company's] unremitting commitment to safety." Waste Management is appealing the three citations and $50,000 in fines issued by the California Occupational Safety and Health Agency (CalOSHA) in relation to Macias' death.

The first project of the Campaign for Sustainable Recycling will be a series of free health and safety workshops for 150 recycling workers over the next seven months, conducted by UC Berkeley's Labor Occupational Health Program and supported by a grant from CalOSHA. Eventually the coalition wants to see strong safety rules, including "worker committees with a real voice in safety" at every workplace. That's one element of the countywide "workplace standard" adopted at the convention. Another key goal is higher pay. Most recycling workers in Alameda County make $12.50 an hour or less — the workers' campaign wants annual increases to reach $20 an hour by 2016.

That's a big jump – but it's what recycling workers in San Francisco and San Jose are paid. Edgar Flores, a recycling sorter at California Waste Solutions in Oakland, told the convention he makes $11.97 an hour, while in San Jose, sorters working for the same company get $19.80. In a handout distributed at the convention, ILWU Local 6 pointed out that customer fees for waste disposal are similar in all three cities.

The issue of pay for recycling workers is the responsibility of the whole community, said Abbe of the Sierra Club, since city governments set the terms of contracts with recycling companies. "We want good service, we want the maximum recycling," she said. "So we have to pay an amount that's reasonable for the workers" and demand fair treatment.

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