Chuck Stiles is solid waste and recycling division director for the Teamsters union.
Over the summer, I received an interview request to discuss the "labor shortage" in the private waste industry. As I told the reporter, the real problem facing the industry is exploitation and nothing else. Waste companies like Republic Services and Waste Management want the public to think there's a labor shortage. The truth is, it’s not a labor shortage — it’s a wage, benefits and workers' rights shortage.
The struggle for waste workers has been brewing for 40 years. Decades of consolidation have eroded the sanitation industry, and "Big Trash" has offered working people little reprieve or respect. Waste companies claim there are not enough workers, but it’s a desperate attempt to save face and hide the hard truth: Waste and recycling workers are leaving the industry because they are tired of the disrespect and poor working conditions.
As the largest representative of private waste workers in North America, the Teamsters know the so-called labor shortage is a direct result of companies putting profit over people. The difference unionization makes in the waste industry is clear. When it comes to issues of safety to wages and benefits, union workers are able to demand their worth and hold companies accountable.
Without a union, workers are at-will employees and lack the pay, benefits and protections of their union counterparts. This is one reason many nonunion workers are leaving the industry entirely for new lines of work. Waste drivers are highly skilled, talented and qualified workers. They are also in high demand at countless companies looking for experienced workers with a commercial driver's license.
If there's no inducement for waste workers, why would they keep working low-wage, high-risk jobs with few benefits? Why wouldn’t they look for new employment opportunities where their labor is valued and their hard work is appreciated?
Waste workers are essential workers. They don't just serve on the front line, they are the front line — keeping communities clean prevents the spread of multiple types of disease. They work in dangerous jobs preserving public health.
Throughout the country, we are seeing the negative impact of consolidation in the private waste industry. Years of mergers and acquisitions have not made working conditions any safer or fairer, and they surely haven’t been to the benefit of workers’ well-being. Rather than focus on another year of record profit and short-term greed, waste companies should invest in their workers. This means investing in safety and better working conditions. Long-term success will be a win-win for everyone, including shareholders. It will also allow these companies to attract new talent and retain a reliable, committed workforce.
The big lie that companies must cut costs to be competitive no longer holds weight. Compete with whom? After decades of consolidation, Big Trash has either acquired or demolished the competition. The private waste industry is an oligarchy; profits are on the rise and executive pay has never been higher.
Meanwhile, trash is piling up and waste workers are busier than ever. Currently, Republic workers in New Orleans are taking a stand against the company’s attempt to cut wages for some of its longest-tenured workers. The union has also had to file unfair labor practice charges for widespread equipment failures and faulty trucks at the New Orleans facility. To make matters worse, the issues came in the wake of Hurricane Ida, as Teamsters at Local 270 were bravely serving the community and leading the clean-up effort.
Be it a natural disaster or global pandemic, the response is always the same: waste workers go to work and get the job done, while the companies find new ways to cut corners and increase their bottom line.
Can you blame U.S. waste workers for wanting to leave the private waste industry? Why would anyone want to risk their life to work under these conditions?
In some cases, even Teamsters members have had enough and left the industry. Jerome Westpoint, a longtime Atlanta driver, recently left his job at Republic after more than 40 years working in sanitation. He told me he’ll always proudly consider himself a "garbage man," despite now working in another Teamster-represented industry. Unfortunately, after spending his entire working life to this point as a sanitation driver, Jerome felt he had no choice but to leave the company. He said it was the best decision for him and his family.
Waste workers are part of a proud tradition. It's a shame that many employers don't acknowledge their pride and sacrifice. If they did, maybe they would understand the real problem isn’t their workers, it’s worker exploitation.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Waste companies need to stop calling it a “labor shortage” and start recognizing that it is a wage, benefits and respect shortage.
Contributed pieces do not reflect an editorial position by Waste Dive.
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