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CHULA VISTA, CALIF.—“Who are we?” Teamsters! “What do we want?” Contract! “When do we want it?” Now!
The sanitation workers of Teamsters Local 542 were still in good voice three weeks into their strike, which began Dec. 17, 2021, even as Republic Services started bringing in nonunion out-of-staters as garbage piled up. Republic had refused the Teamsters’ demands for so long that the city of Chula Vista declared a public health emergency because of the amount of uncollected refuse.
Close to 300 workers, many of them Latino or Black, were on strike across three different San Diego County locations. “We want to go back to work,” said Chula Vista picketer Ladere Hampton, “so that we can clean up the city.”
Workers were demanding wage increases and new trucks (barring improved maintenance on the existing vehicles), saying their equipment was poorly maintained and could create a health hazard — especially to the children who often greet them on their routes.
“You don’t want to be driving down the street and you’ve got trash juices flying off your wheels, especially if you pull up to a customer’s house,” Hampton said. “And that’s happening.”
Workers also cited long hours as a point of contention. Many drivers work 11-hour days and six-day weeks, servicing more than 1,000 homes per route.
The picket line held back the “Blue Crew” — Republic’s term for the replacement workers, flown in from around the country — for a few minutes before letting them through to the facility’s driveway. As the Republic trucks sat waiting, Hampton pointed out how filthy they were — they’re normally cleaned weekly. He also held up a picture of a truck that arrived with a bin hanging off the side, a clear safety hazard.
“[Republic is] paying all this money to bring in a crew to try to do our job,” Hampton said. “And they’re not doing such a good job.”
The Republic media relations office told In These Times: “Safety is our number one priority at Republic Services. … Our Blue Crew relief team is made up of elite Republic Services drivers, technicians, and supervisors from around the country, and we’re grateful for their support in taking care of our customers in the San Diego area.”
The San Diego strike followed a similar dispute between Teamsters and Republic in December 2021 in Orange County, Calif., which concluded after seven days. It may not be the last. Republic is the second-largest trash collection company in the United States, with facilities in more than 40 states; the Teamsters represent more than 7,000 Republic workers, with contracts all over the nation up for renegotiation this year. And despite dragging its feet on wage increases for workers, Republic paid its CEO more than $12 million in 2020.
Even with nationwide support, the strike wasn’t easy on the workers, especially during the holiday season. Next to the picket line was a tent with a small box for donations. “If there’s anybody that needs some help, we’re willing to give them the box with the money, and hopefully that helps them so that they can stay out here,” Hampton explained.
He said the strikers had also experienced an outpouring of solidarity from the community. A couple of nights prior, two trucks had come through with “bags of groceries… for each [striking] driver,” he said.
As we talked, someone shouts “cliente” and the picket line splits to allow customers to enter the facility and drop off their own trash. The driver honks and waves.
Hampton pulls out his phone to find a picture. “You know, we’ve had a lady come out here and bring her kids out here because they knew — the kids knew — what was going on and they wanted to come out here and support us,” he says. In the photo, dozens of yellow-vested Teamsters smile and crouch down to share the frame with a small child holding a picket sign.
The Teamsters accepted an offer from Republic on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 17. The new contract includes wage increases and some healthcare benefits, but falls short of what the striking workers wanted.
“The new pay rates I believe are $26.90 [hourly], and before the strike, we were at $25 flat,” according to worker Dohney Castillo. Workers will also receive wage increases in 2023, 2024 and 2025, Castillo says.
“This was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make,” Rafael Mejia, a worker at Republic, says in a statement published on the Teamsters’ website.
“We are fighting for dignity and respect on the job, but we also know that the strike has been affecting our communities and our neighbors and our own families. This contract isn’t everything we believe we deserve, but it’s enough to go back to work and go back to taking care of our communities.”
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