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Berkeley IWW curbside recyclers use direct action to win demands, restore established working conditions.

By Mike H., Matt K.,  Steve O., and Bruce V.

The recycling collection workers at the Ecology Center's Curbside Recycling Program have long sparred with management over working conditions.  The IWW has represented this shop since 1989.  On Monday, September 10, 2007, the recyclers held a stop work meeting and refused to move their equipment until their demands were met.

The latest struggle occurred when the City of Berkeley added waste collection routes to their collection program.  The City of Berkeley waste collection workers are employed directly by the city and represented by a SEIU 790, a "Change to Win" business union.  The Ecology Center is operated as an independent non-profit which receives city money to help fund its recycling program.  

Unlike many cities that outsource their municipal operations to private entities and non-profits (often to reduce operating costs and weaken labor union solidarity), the Berkeley Ecology Center has a unique relationship with the City of Berkeley.  The Ecology Center created the city's curbside recycling program long before such programs were standard services.  

Apparently, the contract with the city requires the Ecology Center to match their collection routes with the city's, even though the programs are mostly separate from each other. Prior to the city's change, the recyclers worked seven routes daily, three of which were duo-routes (having two workers per truck) and the remainder were solo.

Ecology Center management proposed adding an additional route, but making each of the eight routes solo routes.  The Ecology Center recyclers have a route committee system, described in the union contract, though Management still has the official power to make the changes.  While the union members on the route committee signed off on the changes, they were not aware of how the changes would affect the work once put into practice.  

After the first week of the change, it was clear that the eight solo-route plan was universally unpopular among the union workers.  The union recyclers met on Saturday, September 8, 2007, along with organizers from the Bay Area IWW branch and some rank & file workers from the city waste collection program.  They agreed that they preferred to retain the duo routes.  

On Monday, the crew refused to operate their trucks until Management agreed to restore the three duo routes.  After it was clear that no trucks would move until the union's demands were addressed, Daniel Maher, the operations manager, agreed to consider alternatives to the new, eight-solo route plan.  The union crew demanded three duo routes and five solo routes.  Maher rejected this plan and asked the crew to "vote" on an alternative.  

At first, Mr. Maher tried to single out shop steward, Mike Hudgins, and divide the crew, but this tactic didn't work.  The crew was adamant about their demands and the strongest voices were those recyclers with the lowest seniority.

One hour later, the union crew revealed that their "vote" was to stand firm by their demands.  Mr. Maher, having encouraged the crew to vote on an alternative decided that democracy was only acceptable if the outcome was acceptable to his interests and asked the crew to "vote" again!  So the union crew repeated the process.  One hour later, the results were still the same!  It was obvious that the union wouldn't budge!

Meanwhile the crew from the Community Conservation Center ("Buyback") recycling drop off yard yard next door, stopped work and held a solidarity/safety meeting outside the Curbside trailer.  The Buyback recyclers are also IWW union members and have had a union shop since 2001.  After learning about the situation faced by the drivers, The Buyback recyclers marched into the trailer to offer support and solidarity.  For the next half hour Curbside and Buyback workers listened and spoke on the issue of the revised routes that the Curbside workers oppose.

By noon, Mr. Maher called in Ecology Center executive director Martin Borque.  The crew, Maher, and Borque negotiated over the issue.  Mr. Borque tried to argue that the changes were beneficial to the crew (an interesting analysis from one who doesn't actually have to physically perform the back breaking labor performed by the recycling collectors.  The Berkeley Curbside program still uses bins that must be lifted by hand!). 

Mr. Borque cited the fact that since the changes, the collectors were earning excess weight bonuses, whereas before the change the crew wasn't.  The crew responded by pointing out that Management had argued that the weight bonuses were supposed to discourage bringing in extra weight.  The current union contract has language calling for route reassignment (or at least evaluation) if specific routes result in weight bonuses consistently.  

Finally, after it was obvious that the union recycling collectors were steadfast in their demands, Management agreed to let the crew work under the old system, with duo routes and further agreed to reconsider the new route assignments.  Management tried to force the crew to perform all assigned work for the day (which would have resulted in recycling collection well into the night).  The union recyclers refused, all pledging to clock out at 5:30 PM.  

One of the crew's additional demands was regarding a truck whose back gate was broken and bent, therefore would not open properly, resulting in whoever was loading having to lift the heavy bins up over their head and throw the waste in.  This truck was now being assigned to the least senior drivers, due to seniority bidding for routes and trucks.  The workers demanded that this truck not be allowed to leave the yard until it was fixed.  They won this demand immediately

The Curbside workers were occupying the company's office all during this action, and this action was taken by 100% of the working crew that day - not a single truck went out until the mass grievance was won.

Although the dispute is still not completely settled, it is clear that the recyclers are much stronger and more solid than before, having used direct action at the point of production to get the goods.  Solidarity and collective action are like muscles that must be exercised periodically, or workers often forget that they have it. 

Contact the Bay Area IWW - bayarea.iww.org