Recycling is supposed to be good and green, but there’s plenty that’s disturbing and dangerous about this fast-growing niche in the nation’s highly-profitable billion-dollar waste industry. Most recycling workers suffer from poverty wages, meager benefits, hazardous working conditions and dead-end jobs.
“People don’t know about the important work that we do to help the environment. In the past we’ve been mostly quiet, but that’s changing now because we’re speaking up and organizing,” said Alejandra León, who works as a “sorter” at Waste Management’s recycling facility in San Leandro, CA.
Out of the shadows
León was one of 150 workers who took an important step forward on Saturday afternoon, February 2nd by convening a historic “Convention of Recycling Workers” at the ILWU Local 6 union hall in Oakland. While some might be surprised to learn that these workers from four major recycling companies in Alameda County are longtime ILWU members, recognition is growing that the only way to improve conditions in their industry is through organizing and action.
“We have started by organizing ourselves to fight for an industry standard in Alameda County and are reaching out to build broad community and political support – eventually we’ll be able to help the non-union recycling workers organize so we can improve standards throughout the industry,” said Josefa Solano, a recycling worker employed at the Fremont Recycling and Transfer Station operated by BLT Enterprises.
Workers chair; clergy convenes
Recycling workers, including Marco Hernandez and Alejandra León chaired most of the meeting, with support from Local 6 Secretary-Treasurer Fred Pecker. Waste Management worker José Romero announced each of the four groups of recycling workers who filled the convention hall, generating a loud response of applause and cheers as each workplace declared their presence.
An inspirational convocation and blessing was delivered by two East Bay clergy members with a history of support for social justice causes: Servant B.K. Woodson of the Bay Area Christian Connection and retired Monsignor Antonio Valdivia from the Diocese of Oakland. Woodson, who is also a member of the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice (ICWJ), an affiliate of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), called on everyone to join together to promote the cause of justice. Monsignor Valdivia urged the convention to work for improved working conditions and an end to injustice. He also recalled a dramatic episode from his youth when his father, a longtime member of Local 6, arrived home one evening with a bloody head injury incurred while helping co-workers win their strike on the picket line against anti-union strike-breakers.
Speaking in Spanish
Most of the convention was conducted in Spanish, the language spoken by most recycling workers who are predominantly immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Simultaneous English/Spanish translation was provided by a team of professional translators who made it possible for everyone to understand what was said. Translation, childcare and a post-convention dinner were provided to promote the involvement and participation of workers and family members.
Welcome and a warning
ILWU International Secretary-Treasurer Willie Adams was on-hand to welcome workers at the convention, despite being stricken with the flu. “I wanted to be here today to welcome you to your union house, and let you know that our entire ILWU family has your back,” said Adams. “You have to lead this fight, but we’re committed to providing resources that can help you win this important struggle. Filling this union hall with so many of your co-workers, family members and supporters is a great start – and it should serve as a warning to employers if they challenge your campaign for fairness.” Adams concluded his remarks by inviting Monsignor Valdivia and Servant B.K. Woodson to join him in signing a “Statement of Support” posted in front of the room, declaring support for better pay, safer working conditions and better public recycling services.
Deadly safety problems
California’s top worker safety official, Ellen Widess, who heads the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal-OSHA), attended the convention to underscore the need for better safety and worker protection in the Golden State’s recycling industry. She noted last year’s tragic death of Evangelina Macias, a waste worker, mother, and Local 6 member who was killed while working at Waste Management’s San Leandro facility. The agency headed by Widess investigated the incident and decided to issue three citations against Waste Management – two of them classified as “serious” with fines totaling over ,000 – because the company failed to protect workers by following safety rules required by state and federal law. Waste Management is refusing to pay the fines and is trying to appeal the serious charges that they violated safety rules that cost Evangelina Macias her life.
The bi-lingual agenda for the four-hour event included three workshop topics of special concern to recycling workers: improving health and safety, defending immigrant rights and providing
better recycling services to benefit the public and environment. A panel of experts – including workers – documented the safety problems that are causing too many injuries and deaths at recycling companies. Amalia Cerillo, a worker at RockTenn’s recycling operation, explained how she broke her leg at work but was told not to report the injury by management.
Similar problems exist at other recycling companies where workers are also discouraged from reporting workplace injuries. Waste Management recycling worker Xiomara Martinez described how her co-workers organized a successful action to control a rat infestation at their workplace that had been ignored by the company. Josefa Solano prepared an impressive display to illustrate many of the safety problems facing workers, including samples of dust, improper safety equipment and she explained about unusual hazards such as dead animals, feces, hypodermic syringes and dangerous chemicals. BLT workers recently found an explosive grenade among the items they were sorting to be recycled. University of California safety trainer Valeria Velasquez explained how a new safety training program is being developed with worker participation to improve safety and reduce on-the-job hazards.
Attorney Nicole Marquez, from the organization Worksafe!, explained the need for workers to organize and take action in order to protect themselves from dangers on the job. She pointed to a recent study published by their organization that found waste industry workers were much more likely to be injured on the job than workers in other industries.
Recycling worker Yadira Carrasco from Waste Management kicked-off the discussion on immigrant rights by reminding everyone that “we as immigrant workers need to know our rights in the workplace and raise our voice when there is an injustice, but above all, we need to be willing to take action when necessary.” She introduced Waste Management worker Mirella Jauregui, who explained how her company had improperly used the E-Verify system that resulted in three workers losing their jobs. Co-worker Alejandra León told how workers responded to the company’s improper use of the E-Verify
system by declining to work overtime on Saturday January 19 – sacrificing badly-needed overtime pay – but making a powerful point to the company that abuse and disrespect will not be tolerated. She noted that the company immediately threatened to retaliate against workers for refusing to volunteer for overtime.
Expert immigration attorney Francisco Ugarte explained that Waste Management’s use of the government’s E-Verify system violated the ILWU union contract and federal rules. He also noted that company attempts to retaliate or threaten workers who take action together to defend their rights is illegal under federal law. Ugarte explained that the ILWU is taking legal action, but he encouraged workers to “stand up for their rights.” Ugarte announced that he has been retained by the ILWU to protect workers and advise the union about how to counter abuse of immigrants by employers.
Journalist and photographer David Bacon concluded with details about immigrant workers in other shops who had emerged from the shadows to defend their rights against abusive employers. He explained that immigrant workers have been a part of the U.S. workforce for more than a century, and that their contributions – and rights – need to be respected.
A moving and entertaining musical break was provided halfway through the convention by Francisco Herrera, a talented troubadour who performed a clever song that was perfect for the moment and audience because it told a tale of immigrant workers learning how to protect their rights.
Better pay & better service
The final panel began with Edgar Flores from California Waste Solutions (CWS) who asked why CWS recycling sorters in Alameda County are being paid .97 while CWS sorters in San Jose are making .80. RockTenn worker Norma Coronado said her own wage of .35 was several dollars an hour less than what her company is paying in San Jose for the same work.
Besides the low pay, recycling workers said they feel trapped in dead-end jobs with little chance for advancement. BLT worker Santos Lopez said it should be possible to work into better positions – if more training and opportunities were made available. Sierra Club Zero Waste Committee leader Ruth Abbe was supportive of three goals: better recycling services to help the public – and better-paying, safer jobs for workers. She noted that changes in the industry will place more emphasis on recycling and less on landfills in the future.
The need for better training and advancement opportunities should be part of that transition, she said. Recycling consultant John Hanscom shared some insights from his 14-years of experience in the recycling industry. He noted that public education is essential to successful recycling programs, and said that recycling workers could help perform some of that community education work if more training and opportunities were made available.
Important political support
While the convention appropriately focused on recycling workers and worker-concerns, a healthy contingent of political leaders and community advocates came to show their support for winning better jobs, safer conditions and better services for the public. Mayor Jean Quan of Oakland joined families after the convention when dinner was served. She signed the Statement of Support and declared her willingness to make recycling in Oakland work better for everyone. She shared her own experiences of growing up in an immigrant family, and encouraged the roomful of children to realize their dreams and aspire to lofty goals, as she had done by becoming Mayor of a major city. Fremont Mayor Bill Harrison attended much of the convention, as did Fremont City Council member Vinnie Bacon. Both addressed worker concerns and signed the Statement of Support. State Assembly members Nancy Skinner, Bob Wieckowski and Rob Bonta all addressed the convention, signed the Statement of Support and pledged to support efforts by workers to improve conditions. Alameda County Supervisor Richard Valle attended and signed the Statement of Support. Representatives of Supervisor Wilma Chan, State Senator Loni Hancock and newly-elected Oakland City Council member Dan Kalb were also present to show support.
Organizational backing included the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, Sierra Club Zero Waste Committee, Center for Environmental Health, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Green For All, Communities for a Better Environment, Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center, and others.
Ending with an action plan
The convention concluded with the unanimous adoption of standards to improve working conditions in Alameda County’s recycling industry. Workers also authorized a committee of their co-workers to continue directing the campaign – and join forces with other groups who share the goals of better jobs, safer conditions and improved services. The new effort is called the “Campaign for Sustainable Recycling” and it was put to the test several days later at the Oakland City Council meeting.
On Tuesday, February 5th, workers and campaign allies sent a delegation of forty representatives to the City Council’s “open forum” where testimony was presented about Waste Management’s recent abuse and retaliation against immigrant workers. The testimony moved several Council members to request follow-up meetings, and some, like Council member Rebecca Kaplan asked to sign the Statement of Support calling for better jobs, safer conditions and better services.
“We’re off to a good start,” said workers to the television and radio reporters who came that evening to cover the event. “It’s been a rough road for recycling workers in Alameda County,” said Fred Pecker of Local 6, “but they’re moving down the highway now with lots of support, more skills and the momentum to make things happen that were impossible to imagine just a year ago.