New Orleans Local 100 United Labor Unions has represented “hoppers,” as they are called in New Orleans for over thirty years. The hopper is the rounded back of a garbage truck where the trash is deposited by the laborer and then compacted. Somehow over the years, the workers handling the business end of the trash, whether in cans or more recently using a mechanical arm, came to be called hoppers as well. Before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, our union represented virtually all the hoppers in the city and throughout most of south Louisiana, all of whom lost their jobs when FEMA picked up the trash for almost two years, until the city took over the service again. Now we represent the hoppers in one of the two major garbage contractors. We just executed our latest contract with the company, but that’s where the story gets interesting since the pandemic over the last two years had almost the same unsettling impact on the workers and the city’s sanitation service as Katrina did.
It’s important to understand that hoppers, whether in New Orleans or multiple other cities, are usually not employed by the actual garbage contractor, once sanitation is privatized. They are provided by temporary employment companies that specialize in this kind of work. Picking up garbage is not for everyone. It’s hard and often dangerous work. Until we unionized these workers in the late 1980s, it was minimum wage, no benefits, and no holidays work. Our success then was heralded on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The wage structure is also often a day rate with Chinese overtime, rather than an hourly rate, incentivizing the workers to get in early and get off earlier. Until Katrina, New Orleans had probably the best paid hoppers in the country. In the pandemic we were able to negotiate special rates for our hoppers.
During the pandemic the sanitation scene became even more complicated. Hoppers became essential workers and both companies struggled to keep crews on the trucks, since workers could claim even higher wages for day work almost anywhere with businesses struggling for workers and not on a fixed cost city contract. The nonunion company, Metro, fell behind on its routes, sometimes by weeks, in 2020. Some dozen or so hoppers there began a wildcat strike to try to get higher wages and more Covid protection. The company contracted for convict strike breakers from Livingston Parish. The strike attracted some attention. Activists were attracted to the action. I assigned an organizer to see if there was interest in joining our union, and we quickly signed up more than 70% of the workers and strikers. Local 100 successfully had a lawyer send Livingston Parish a cease-and-desist order because using convict labor to break the strike was illegal. We had the head of the local AFL-CIO reach out to Metro’s owner to see if we could settle this with the workers. The activists calling themselves the City Waste Union weren’t happy that we had gone directly to the workers to organize with our union and were taking direct action on a number of fronts to try to save their jobs. After demanding that we had to go through some kind of a consensual decision with them, rather than the workers, we walked away.
The City Waste Union raised a quarter million reportedly from a GoFundMe site. For a while they paid the few hoppers still on strike to maintain the picket line. Eventually, the GoFundMe site broadened from hoppers to other workers. They wanted the drivers and the hoppers to be in the same union, not really understanding that the hoppers were employed by a subcontractor and the drivers were direct hires of the company, some of whom had been historically in the Teamsters union. They argued for a citywide union, but Local 100 already represented half the hoppers in the city. As their efforts petered out, they tried to bring AFSCME in, but by then the strikers had been replaced on the trucks and few were left, a situation that a public sector union like AFSCME couldn’t correct.
In These Times notes that they were able to get a lot of publicity and raise a lot of money, but like so many news reports, they fail to grasp the realities of the sanitation labor system or the situation on the ground in New Orleans. Poignantly, they quote one former striker, Rahman Brooks saying, “We were supposed to be a union. We went from being a union, to being a nonprofit organization. From day one, people were trying to dupe us…That’s what really killed the strike.”
Perhaps the intentions of the activists and their City Workers Union were good, but their information was bad, lost the workers their jobs, and wasn’t about building a union. Not understanding labor law or much about unions, how they work, or what they do, their objectives seemed more about media attention and fundraising, than supporting the workers in organizing where they worked or saving their jobs. When some of them argued to Local 100’s organizer that they opposed our efforts to stop the convict strikebreakers, because the convicts might help create more public support of the wildcat, it was clear that these strikers had become sacrificial lambs to some other cause, but it wasn’t about their work, their jobs, or building their union.
The City Workers Union is now history. Garbage pickup is now only once a week. Our hoppers and those with the other companies are now working even harder with heavier loads and less guaranteed work for fewer hoppers. The mayor wants to rebid the garbage contracts. There are a lot of lessons for workers from this pandemic, but it’s not clear what many have learned from the fables surrounding this small strike, compared to the terrible realities it taught.