Grinding out a Hollow Victory under the NLRB for Garbage Workers

8965564-largeLittle Rock   For more than twenty years, Local 100 has represented “hoppers” in New Orleans as well as other cities in south Louisiana and Texas. Hoppers, gunslingers, or whatever they might be called are the laborers at the rear end of garbage trucks, handling the business end of the enterprise, making sure the content of the filled cans gets into the “hopper” which is the large cylinder that rotates and compacts the garbage on the route. Even as the process has become more mechanical with lifting arms and special cans, many an 80-gallon piece of plastic is still heaved into the hopper to keep the routes speeding along from house to house. This is hard, sweaty, and often dangerous work.

These workers for decades have been subcontracted by municipally privatized sanitation contractors like Waste Management or Browning-Ferris or smaller companies to temporary employment agencies. Some unions and organizers along with the general public wrongly assume these workers are company employees when and if they notice them at all and believe that if they are temporary or casual, they are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, but of course they are. When we won these elections in the 1990s, we bargained the workers up from minimum wage and archaic employment practices like “Chinese overtime,” still common in the industry for such workers. It was front page news in the Wall Street Journal at the time.

After Katrina hit New Orleans 10 years ago, garbage service was provided by FEMA for a while, meaning that all the workers and contractors disappeared. When they came back under the now disgraced and jailed Mayor Ray Nagin, there were new companies and new contractors. We were able to establish that one new contractor, Milton Berry, was a successor, and we attempted to bargain a contract with them. There was a problem though and a big one. Berry had unilaterally rolled back wages, so we filed charges to recover the losses while trying to bring this outfit up to the 21st century and modern worker protections. Easier said than done, because all Berry really had going for himself was a knack for cutting corners and some lawyers who didn’t care about anything but getting their hourly rate. We got 10j injunctions. We endured appeals to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Anything to wind down the clock. Berry lost the contract for the hoppers, but the lawyers kept on.

The final order has now come out more than seven (7) years after we filed the initial charges. The NLRB ordered Berry and his wife, as owners of M & B Services to post fifteen (15) notices of their illegal activity, but no hoppers will ever see these notices because Berry no longer has a place of business in New Orleans. He has been ordered to pay $223,781.00 in back pay and $42,292 in interest through September 22nd, a figure that will keep rising until payment, from the total bill of $266,000 now. The checks supposedly have to be received by the NLRB in their offices by no later than the middle of October. No question, if you read the order, after all of these years Local 100 and the workers have a victory in hand.

Rosa Hines, Local 100’s New Orleans office director, who has handled this case throughout this period should frame the order and put it near her desk somewhere in the office. That way we and the workers will have something to remember from this struggle, because after all of this time it is unclear that any of them will ever see a dime.

The NLRB order reads this way in finding culpability:

M&B Services, Inc; Berry Service, Inc. (Berry I); Berry Services, Inc. (Berry II); Berry Transportation, LLC; Milton Berry, an Individual Charged with Personal Liability; Carolyn Berry, an Individual Charged with Personal Liability.

Milton Berry’s business address is now in a New Orleans suburb. Carolyn Berry, his wife, has a business address in Magnolia, Mississippi. Their businesses are small potatoes, but having been led down a bad road by their lawyers’ exploitation of the deadening legalistic bureaucracy of the NLRB and the playground it allows scofflaws, they are now personally on the hook for $260,000.

The next lawyer they hire will probably be a bankruptcy specialist, not a labor law exploiter. The Berry’s will have a sad tale to tell at family dinners about the evil of unions. Meanwhile the union and the workers seven years later will have something they can look at in a frame with the slim chance of ever seeing a dime of back pay and the ongoing struggle of still trying to work on wages still lower than they enjoyed a decade ago.

Maybe there is hope in the new joint employer decision of the NLRB that allow justice to be won from the primary contractor, but that’s a fight next time. For now there’s no celebration over a hard won victory this time.

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Black Policy

Garbage workers at work

Hoppers at work

New Orleans I was eating lunch late last week on Poydras Avenue catching up with old friends and comrades from decades of political wars in the City of New Orleans.  These are the kinds of conversations where lineage and legacy are important.  When someone says Landrieu, do they mean former Mayor Moon, Senator Mary, or current Mayor Mitch Landrieu?  When Morial is mentioned, are we referring to something we remember about Dutch or something more recent with Marc?  In New Orleans like most big cities politics is both blood sport and thriving business no matter whose shingle might be out at City Hall, so past, present, and future are ever present with more angles to consider than the best carom on the green felt of any billiard table.

The new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, had gotten in a big time spat here in the early going around garbage contracts, so we spent some time discussing that.  Local 100 ULU continues to represent some of the workers employed by the contractors so has a clear stake in the conversation and one of my lunch partners had been called several days before and asked for advice by Mitch on how to handle the mess he stepped in so solidly.

Both of the current contractors are minority businesses and were awarded lucrative contracts by the recently cashiered mayor, Ray Nagin.  The local paper and the new administration on a cost cutting binge with a bad budget in a sorry economy was looking for savings, so slimming down the garbage contract seemed like an easy mark.  Mitch though made a quick and painful mistake by thinking it was a standard negotiation and when his people didn’t get immediate concessions to their liking, he announced that the City was going to unilaterally put the contracts back out to bid again.  Fur started flying with protests at City Hall, comments from the two companies’ lawyers that they still were making proposals, and a everyone from the NACCP to minority business associations jumping in to pull the Mayor’s coattails.

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