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Recycling's Dirty Little Secret

The people who sort our recyclables have dangerous — and sometimes disgusting — jobs. And they're about to get worse.



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According to the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, which calculates a "self-sufficiency wage" for workers in California, by county and family type, an Alameda County family of five like Leon's and Gonzalez's needs each parent to earn $21.06 an hour.

Ironically, lower pay for waste-disposal workers has been an unintended consequence of our success in recycling, said the ILWU's Ramirez. Recycling workers are typically lower-paid than those who collect trash and work at landfills, because landfill jobs were created at a time when all the trash went into the landfill, and the men who collected and processed it "could make a good living providing a good public service," Pecker said. "Recycling came in little by little, under the radar, with scavenging — metal, paper — not paid fairly as a public service."

So as waste has shifted from landfill to recycling, there are fewer well-paying jobs and more low-wage workers. The new mandatory recycling ordinances threaten to increase that trend.

Ramirez argues that "cities have to take responsibility for what they do with the money from their citizens." In other words, better waste-disposal policies don't have to mean worse lives for the people who do the work. So the union wants Oakland's RFP to require the next contractor to pay all workers a "family wage" equal to earnings in comparable nearby cities — San Francisco waste-disposal workers make $18 to $20 an hour, said Ramirez, and San Jose is not far behind. In addition, they want the RFP to require that if some jobs are eliminated, the workers get to move to new jobs with no loss of pay.

The union's social equity goals include two other job-security provisions: a requirement that current workers can keep their jobs no matter who gets the new contract, and a ban on exporting jobs outside the county. Also on the list is a "ban the box" provision, which would prevent the contractor from asking job applicants to check a box on the application if they've been convicted of a felony.

The social equity provisions also include a three-bin system in multifamily buildings, a minimum number of bulky waste pickup days for all residential areas, and the right of individuals or the city to take legal action if any of the terms of the contract are violated.

Teamsters Union Local 70, which represents workers who drive the collection trucks and others who work at Davis Street and the Altamont landfill, wants the city to include in its RFP a commitment to pay the "prevailing wage," which for Teamsters union members is already substantially higher than the pay of people who process recycling. The Teamsters also is asking for a commitment to retain the current workforce if a new contractor is selected. In return, the union is ready to promise "labor peace" — no garbage strikes.

Because the Oakland City Council has already approved the draft plan, the current strategy of some environmental groups and unions is to persuade the council to amend it. Included in the social equity request is a requirement that contractors provide an additional bid on an alternative plan that would provide for three bins — for trash, recycling, and composting — for all properties. The final RFP is to be released by the city on May 23.

Abbe of the Sierra Club emphasized the importance of Oakland's final decision on this issue. The next waste-disposal contract will run for ten years, with the possibility of two five-year renewals, so the policies set this year could continue until 2032. And with the countywide composting mandate to take effect in two years, Abbe said her "fear is that if Oakland takes the easy way out with multifamily, the other cities will also say, 'We'll give up and technology will solve it.'"

It's a basic strategic choice, she said. We could tell people not to worry about their trash and try to fix it with technology — and the labor of low-paid workers, most of whom are immigrants. Or we could focus on education, culture change, "winning hearts and minds," and bring our production, packaging, and personal actions into line with "the zero waste vision," she said.

And commit to making sure that the new green economy provides safe and sustainable jobs for the people who do the work.

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