Salvador Organizing low waged and informal workers around the world teaches an organizer a lot about the basic humanity and survival skills of workers. Humility and respect are constant companions, but so are the painful lessons about economics at the bottom of capitalism’s barrel. Call them waste pickers, trash workers, or, preferably, recyclers, I’ve been fortunate to meet with them and know their work not only in India, where ACORN organizes unions and cooperatives with these workers, but also in Egypt, Argentina, Columbia, Kenya, and even on the streets of our own neighborhood in the United States.
Still, I was unprepared when we walked into the sorting compound of the Salvador’s Cooperbrava cooperative. It was huge! It was more like an airplane hangar than a shed. Open on both sides with a roof stretching more than 30 feet over the area, it seemed massive as we made our way down the twisting aisle between mountains of cardboard and huge bags of aluminum and plastic filled to the brim, until finally we arrived at a midpoint where more than a half-dozen of the coop members sat on bright blue plastic chairs waiting to meet with us. They quickly explained that the city had a garbage dump across the road at one point, now abandoned, and allowed the coop to use this building for free, although didn’t support them in any other way.
The leader of Cooperbrava said that there were 33 members of the coop and most of them lived in the favela up the road. This was one of a dozen recycling coops in the city, and the leader of Camapet, another coop with 24 members, joined us later in the meeting. The coops often coordinated their work. Cooperbrava had two trucks, though only one was working now while they tried to save money for some minor repairs. At one time they had a contract with the Imprensa grocery chain, but the city had taken that over, so they roamed far and wide picking up from businesses and others without contracts.
Asking about the economics of their operation was painful. There is no clearer example of the power of global capitalism to sit among a mountain of what many would call garbage and have the members first explain how they were drowning in product because of the current strength of the US Dollar and the declining demand from China and Japan. They couldn’t sell paper at all because the price was so low, which is also true in India. Most of the members were women. None of the coop members could depend on the coop itself as their sole support. All of them described other work they did, from childcare to sewing to braiding hair.
The city trucks pick up garbage, but has no municipal recycling plan. The landfills are run by private contractors and don’t bother to recycle. The city’s coops had been trying for years to get Salvador to recognize their unions and to actually pay them for the service they provide, which saves the city money, but they have not been successful in their petitions.
The circular recycling arrows symbol was on their work shirts. I mentioned the EPA policy discussions about banning the symbol in the US and trying to force corporations to handle recycling at the production level, rather than leaving it downstream as the problem for consumers and cities. They joined in bemoaning how sometimes their pallets of plastic were rejected because of one or two bad items. The ability to educate the public to presort out the plastic items that could be recycled was bigger than any of us, so they felt the government needed to step up. We all raged at corporations fighting these changes.
They did their work with pride and professionalism, but were lucky to distribute any money to their members more often than every couple of months, if that. In a bitter irony, gangs had broken in and stolen the electrical wires hanging above us in order to sell the copper inside. They felt fortunate that the wires in their kitchen were spared, so they could still make lunch or a cup of coffee. Their struggle is heroic. We embraced these sisters, but we all silently shared the secret that this work was likely not sustainable.