New Orleans trash workers’ forced strike enters week 10
No it's not 50 years ago in Memphis but today in New Orleans with striking sanitation workers carrying "I am a man" signs. | Screenshot from WDSU

NEW ORLEANS—Does this look familiar? 15 sanitation workers, all Black, walking a picket line, holding up “I AM A MAN” signs.

No, it’s not Memphis in 1968. It’s New Orleans in 2020.

The workers, organized into the independent City Waste Union, were forced to strike on May 5 by their bosses, the Metro Service Group. The city had privatized its trash pickup years ago and Metro got the $10.7 million annual pact.

It paid the workers between $10.25 and $11 an hour, depending upon how much trash they picked up each day.

All this is in line with New Orleans history, post-Katrina, when the then-GOP George W. Bush administration and city and state officials used The Crescent City as a test run for their nationwide privatizing schemes which, not incidentally, hit people of color.

After Katrina, the city government cut back the buses. Louisiana virtually eliminated the New Orleans public school district and fired its unionized (AFT) teachers in favor of non-union charters. Bush’s regime had non-union contractors bring in out-of-state workers for repairs, thus throwing Electrical Workers (IBEW)out of jobs, among other moves.

And so many Blacks had to flee the city–and weren’t welcomed back—that Louisiana became a virtually permanent red state. Meanwhile, the city’s current mayor has washed her hands of the strike, the workers say.

The sanitation workers are trying to get Metro to sit down with them to talk some basic issues: A raise to $15 an hour, hazardous duty pay since they’re considered “essential” workers during the coronavirus pandemic, paid sick leave, and protective personal equipment.

In a film on their Facebook page, they pointed out that when the virus hit, Metro issued each one of them one pair of gloves and one face mask, for 16-hour days as “hoppers,” the dirtiest of sanitation jobs.

And it pays them a dollar for every 500 pounds of trash they heft, a rate that works out to between $10.25 and $11 an hour. Their $15 demand is taken from the “$15 and a union” nationwide campaign. In their Facebook film they add they really deserve more than that, plus $150 weekly in hazard pay.

The workers have lined up support from both local and national workers’ groups, and established a “go fund me” campaign. They held a 100-bag giveaway for the homeless at 10 a.m. on July 23, and the bags contained bottled water, T-shirts and sanitizers. Details are on the union’s site, www.cwulove.com.

They’re also selling the T-shirts via a virtual “store” on the Facebook page, with the money going to the workers.

Metro’s first response to the strike was to fire all 15, and hire prisoners, at less than $2 an hour, as their replacements. When a public uproar ensued, it substituted “permanent replacements,” i.e. scabs.

“The fact that we’re speaking our truth after years of exploitation has Metro so scared they hired a fancy PR firm to try and discredit us to maintain the status quo,” a recent union Facebook post says. The firm “handled PR for over 100 ‘vessel incidents and pollution responses,’ including PR for ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Shell after oil spills. They also specialize in ‘labor actions,’ AKA union-busting.”

“BMF made Metro a new website, FB page, and ads where they are spreading misinformation. It truly makes us sad because the same tax money being spent on Beuerman Miller Fitzgerald could be used to provide living wages and hazard pay for New Orleans families! Seriously—how much is all of this costing Metro??”

“We don’t have Metro’s millions but we have our community behind us and most importantly: The truth.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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