Waste Management, Teamsters head to court over Reno, Nevada strike threats
- Waste Management has been granted a temporary restraining order by a federal judge in the District of Nevada that bars Teamsters Local 533 employees in Reno from "causing, encouraging, or participating in any strike, sympathy strike, slow-down, picketing" or any other related actions, as first reported by the Reno Gazette Journal.
- The issue at hand is a new policy requiring drivers to leave their onboard units (OBUs), used to clock out for unpaid 30-minute lunch breaks, in the truck. The union says this "substantially" limits breaks by making pre-meal wash-up time unpaid. Local 533 instructed employees to disregard this policy, leading to a warning of potential disciplinary action by management.
- Local 533 President Gary Watson then sent an Oct. 31 email to Reno's mayor and council members warning of "a good possibility of a strike" and expressing concern for public health in such an event. The judge took this as a strike threat and found Waste Management could "suffer irreparable harm" if that occurred.
Local 533's collective bargaining agreement, which currently runs through April 2019, covers 150 employees and includes a no-strike clause that would require such disputes to go to arbitration. It also includes specific guidelines around 30-minute lunch breaks. According to Local 533, allowing drivers time to wash their hands before clocking out on the OBUs was a years-long practice.
The company's July policy announcement kicked off months of back and forth that eventually led to disciplinary threats in October — which court documents indicate at least 65 employees ignored — and then active talk of a strike heading into November. Both parties then filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board over respective alleged contract violations, and Waste Management filed its legal complaint shortly after. The Teamsters maintain this can all be handled via the NLRB process and the case should be dismissed because no actual work stoppage, or resulting monetary damages, have occurred.
Waste Management collects the majority of Reno's waste and recycling via an exclusive franchise contract — a topic that has spurred plenty of local oversight questions in recent months — which means the city could see significant effects if a strike did happen.
Industry strikes have been relatively rare in recent years; another Teamsters local went on strike against Republic Services for less than a day in Atlanta this past summer, while workers at an Advanced Disposal Services landfill in Michigan struck for five days last year.
While Waste Management has said it is ready to continue service, the judge's opinion stated it "would obviously lose substantial customer and general public goodwill as a result of garbage piling up for a week (or longer) without being collected" and potentially face fines or breach-of-contract litigation.
It remains unclear what a compromise resolution to this OBU dispute might look like, given the staunch position of each side. While not a direct reference to this policy, recent comments during the company's third quarter earnings call indicate that overall route efficiency is an ongoing focus amid a tight labor market.
"[There's] really going to be a focus on operating costs in 2019," said CEO Jim Fish. "We've gotten really good at managing the ends of the route being pre-trip and post-trip. The middle of the route is an area where we think we still have a real opportunity."
The next court hearing, at which a preliminary injunction against the union will be considered, has been scheduled for Dec. 6.
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