When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. met with sanitation workers in 1968 in Memphis, they told him that Black workers were essential to keeping the city running—but were treated as if their work and their humanity were disposable. "All labor has dignity," King thundered in a speech to the workers in Memphis and to the nation, just two weeks before he was assassinated. Today, Black sanitation workers in New Orleans are holding on to King's message, and the resolve of the Memphis sanitation workers—who went on strike for over two months, until they won.
Sanitation workers in New Orleans have been out on strike for over a month now. On May 5, a group of sanitation workers, also known as "hoppers" (because they hop on and off the trucks to empty trash cans), walked off the job after frustrations around low pay and lack of safety equipment boiled over. They have held firm to their demands and to their brothers on the strike lines for over a month now. "All we're trying to do is to get what we're asking for, and then get back to work. We just want fair treatment," Jonathan Edward, who's been a hopper for over a decade, said.
They receive no benefits while making only $10.25 per hour to pick up garbage in the hot sun.
They are not alone—workers around the country have taken bold action in response to the COVID-19 crisis, winning hazard pay, personal protective equipment, and even unions—all in the face of an unprecedented economic crisis. This surge in labor militancy comes in the midst of heightened unrest around the country, including in New Orleans.
Protesters are of course demonstrating against police violence, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, but this conflict overlaps with the very basics of the ways that city budgets function, and the lack of safety net for the poorest workers—especially Black workers.
Every single hopper at Metro is Black.
While low pay and lack of benefits have been an issue for the hoppers for years, Jernard Taylor, who has worked for Metro since 2009, said that, "The coronavirus pandemic played a big part in our strike. After everything that's going on, we're still getting looked over."
The workers are demanding an extra $150 per week in hazard pay, proper distribution of PPE, a higher living wage of $15 per hour, and better working conditions. Their employer, Metro Service Group, provides sanitation services for New Orleans, along with other cities throughout the South and Philadelphia. In New Orleans, Metro employs the hoppers through a staffing agency, PeopleReady. While city employees are entitled to benefits, sick leave, and paid time off, these hoppers aren't, because they're contracted out through a private company. They receive no benefits while making only $10.25 per hour to pick up garbage in the hot sun.
The striking workers are treating their strike like a job in itself: waking up at 4 a.m. to get to their picket line, just like a normal work day.
But the hoppers aren't just demanding that Metro raise wages—they want them to recognize their union, and sit across the table from them and bargain over the conditions of their work. Out of around 40 hoppers employed at Metro, 26 initially walked out on strike. Because of financial strain, 12 strikers went back to work, leaving 14 on the picket line. Those still on strike are scraping by thanks to the generosity of neighbors and strangers alike, with people bringing hot food and groceries to the picket line, and a GoFundMe that has raised over $135,000.
The striking workers are treating their strike like a job in itself: waking up at 4 a.m. to get to their picket line, just like a normal work day. They're making sure every striker has a ride there—and lining up transportation if they don't. They spend their time building community support, talking to press and supporters, and exercising and playing basketball. They're out on the strike line for seven hours each day. And while the strike may have seemed spontaneous to those watching, leaders say that they had been planning it for at least a week, trying to work as many hours as possible to save as much money as they could.
"We've been talking about it for a long time, but we didn't have the power of the brotherhood we have now," Edward said. "But now that we have the support, we can go forward for a long time."
During the second week of the strike, Metro Service Group replaced the striking workers with state work-release prison labor through another private company, Lock5 LLC. These incarcerated workers would have been paid even less than the striking hoppers at $9.25 per hour. Even more outrageously, Lock5 LLC is legally entitled to 64 percent of their pay, to cover their own expenses.
Once Lock5 LLC found out they were being asked to bring in [prison] workers because of a labor dispute, they pulled out of the deal—but according to the striking workers, Metro is still using replacement workers.
The use of incarcerated workers as replacement workers or to break strikes has an ugly history, especially in the South, the home of the Coal Creek War. During the 1890s in Anderson County, Tennessee, coal mine owners replaced their employees with workers leased out by the Tennessee state prison system, after employees demanded to be paid in cash instead of company scrip.
Once Lock5 LLC found out they were being asked to bring in workers because of a labor dispute, they pulled out of the deal—but according to the striking workers, Metro is still using replacement workers. And while the striking hoppers respect the replacement workers, "They don't know how to handle the job like we do" according to Edward, who has worked for Metro since 2007. Usually there are two hoppers per garbage truck, but the striking workers shared that they've seen trucks with three and sometimes even four hoppers, who are struggling to keep up with the difficult workload, meaning Metro is potentially spending more money right now than they would if they just met the striking workers' demands. (Metro did not return a request for comment.)
But organizing isn't just about winning temporary improvements, it's about building power. When workers form unions, their employers are obligated to bargain in good faith with them, and can't make any unilateral decisions regarding their working conditions. Only 5.3 percent of workers in Louisiana are union members, compared to 10.3 percent nationwide. This lack of both institutional support and a model for unionizing makes it more difficult for non-union workers to organize. But that hasn't stopped sanitation workers in New Orleans from standing up and demanding hazard pay and personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic—along with higher wages and union rights if and when things return to normal. They call themselves the City Waste Union, and according to their spokesperson, Daytrian Wilken, are choosing which national union to affiliate with.
Unions have played a vital role in raising standards for sanitation workers, who have the fifth most dangerous job in the country. In 1968, sanitation workers in Memphis went out on strike after two of their fellow workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a garbage compactor. Four years prior, two other men were killed in the same way. The all-Black workforce in Memphis had been organizing since the early 1960s against low wages and unsafe conditions. They attempted two strikes, which both failed due to very real fears of termination and incarceration.
"We now live in a country where Black men are being exploited, kicked down, discriminated against and smothered in the streets. The world stands in solidarity with us but this African American owned company refuses to do the same."
But after Cole's and Walker's death, enough was enough, and workers went out on strike for a little over two months. This of course rings true for the hoppers in New Orleans, who have been struggling with these same issues for years, but just now reached a true breaking point. Taylor said that the hoppers have been studying the '68 strike, and that "it gives us strength moving forward, to stick in and see this thing out."
The hoppers' strike is of course happening as the world around us burns with pain and anger. Across the country, protesters are releasing their righteous rage around the murder of George Floyd, and all of the other Black people who have been killed at the hands of police. And as many gear up for waves of austerity thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, protesters are also calling for the examination of city budgets, as social services get cut and police departments get a boost. Working people have had enough of low wages, lack of healthcare, and threats of violence at the hands of the police.
Lita Farquhar, an apprentice in Carpenters Local 1846 and co-chair of the labor committee of the New Orleans chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, explains, "There's a direct correlation between the hoppers on strike and the protests taking place all over our country—our society does not value Black life. These hoppers have the responsibility of keeping our community safe and clean. What do they get for this? Wage theft, low wages, no health insurance… All of these things are deadly to the well being of these Black men."
These protests are, ultimately, a fight for humanity and dignity—much like the hoppers' strike. On June 3, Metro called the police on the striking hoppers' peaceful protest. Wilken wrote an update on the hoppers' GoFundMe page, saying, "We now live in a country where Black men are being exploited, kicked down, discriminated against and smothered in the streets. The world stands in solidarity with us but this African American owned company refuses to do the same."
Working people around the country are standing up for dignity, respect, and justice, both in their workplaces and on the streets. On the picket line in New Orleans, hoppers have been carrying the iconic I AM A MAN placards—the same ones that Memphis strikers carried with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. The fight for dignity and respect at work has never been easy, but as MLK said in his famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, "We've got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end." And according to Taylor, "We're out here til we win."