Americans are beginning to dump our throw-away economy. Curbside recycling is now available in most west coast communities and more than 9,000 cities across America. It’s helping to divert one-third of our waste that used to be burned or buried.
Recycling is also good because it conserves raw materials and saves money for local governments. And it reduces greenhouse gases that cause global climate change.
But recycling won’t succeed if recycling workers don’t have decent pay, good benefits and safe working conditions. Most full-time recycling workers are forced to live in poverty – and their “green jobs” are far too dangerous. Recycling workers are being killed and seriously injured every year.
On March 1, a 42-year old worker was killed at a Waste Management’s recycling plant in Philadelphia. He was crushed to death by a one-ton bale of paper.
Ironically – on same day – a Bay Area recycling firm was being honored by workers and community leaders for “dramatically improving working conditions” at a company which recently signed an ILWU Local 6 contract. During an interfaith luncheon, the Sierra Club’s Ruth Abbe presented a plaque to Chris Valbusa, general manager of Alameda County Industries (ACI), recognizing the company’s effort to cooperate with workers and create safer jobs with good pay, benefits and the right to fair treatment.
ACI and Waste Management are both private companies. And like most large recycling firms, their workers are paid with public funds – from residents and ratepayers – through contracts awarded by local governments.
When we drop a newspaper, bottle, or food waste in our recycling bin, it’s good to know that it will be recycled – but most of us don’t know anything about the workers performing these dirty and dangerous jobs – often employed by companies who exploit labor and cut corners on safety.
Years before the worker was killed at Waste Management’s Philadelphia facility on March 1, reports of hazardous conditions were being received by the Philadelphia Project on Occupational Safety and Health (PhilaPOSH). The complaints included workers getting sick on the job, suffering from poor ventilation, dust, dizziness, fainting – and even coughing up blood.
These conditions happen when employers cut corners on safety to deal with materials arriving in recycling bins that include syringes, toxic chemicals, animal carcasses, human waste and other filth. A 2015 study by public health experts, “Sustainable and Safe Recycling,” found that recycling workers are injured more than twice as much as other industrial workers. The findings also noted that fifteen recycling workers were killed on the job between 2011 and 2013.
The only way for workers to protect themselves is through education and active health and safety programs that they can control.
At the Waste Management facility in Philadelphia, we learned that many workers were considered “temporary” and assigned by an agency called Centrix Staffing. To check the company’s approach to safety, we asked a Spanish-speaking colleague to apply for work there. He was shown a short training video – in English – then deemed ready for work, with no hands-on instruction and no evidence that he understood any of the material presented to him.
The incident was captured on film in the an excellent documentary, “A Day’s Work,” which details the hazards – including death – facing workers in America’s growing “temp” industry.
Something similar happened to ACI workers who were also being hired as temps by an outside agency until 16 months ago. Things changed at ACI because workers asked the Longshore Union to help them organize a campaign to improve conditions. The effort included legal action to enforce living wage laws. Workers attended classes on their own time to learn about safety and rights on the job through trainings provided by the University of California’s Labor Occupational and Health Program. Help from the Coalition for Sustainable Recycling mobilized dozens of groups to support the effort, including Worksafe! Local churches, immigrant rights organizations and environmental groups contacted elected officials in the communities where ACI had recycling contracts.
ACI responded in a positive way to this growing pressure. The company dropped the temp agency and made the workers real employees. In October of 2014, ACI’s recycling workers formally voted to join ILWU. Instead of fighting the outcome, ACI management negotiated a fair agreement with a committee elected by workers.
The results have transformed pay and working conditions at ACI and lifted families out of poverty. Previous wages of an hour will reach over an hour by July 2019. Workers now earn sick pay, vacations, holidays and health insurance for their families. And safety has improved dramatically, thanks to an active health and safety committee that meets every three months – and includes a strong voice from workers.
The remarkable story of progress at ACI proves there is a clear path to reduce injuries on the job and prevent future tragedies: listen to workers; respect their right to organize; and support smart, effective labor-management cooperation.
The people who handle our recyclables ultimately work for us. So let’s treat them with the dignity and respect that they deserve.
–Gail Bateson & Barbara Rahke
Gail Bateson is executive director at WorkSafe, an Oakland-based group that supported ILWU recycling workers through the Sustainable Recycling Coalition. Barbara Rahke is executive director of PhilaPOSH and board chair of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.