Chicago Reels from Trash Strike

RESIDENTIAL AND COMMERCIAL waste customers, employees, employers and city officials reported feeling a collective sense of relief when 3,300 drivers and garage personnel employed by private waste companies ended a nine-day garbage strike in Chicago.

The strike affected approximately 8 million people and six counties across the Chicago metropolitan area. From Oct. 1 through Oct. 9, commercial customers and apartment residents within the city of Chicago and a majority of residents living in neighboring suburbs were instructed to dispose of only the most perishable items and to double-bag their garbage in preparation for a halt in services. News and industry officials reported trash bins were overstuffed and transfer stations remained clogged during the strike, as garbage awaited transport to landfills. To compensate for the lack of private commercial service, city sanitation employees were forced to work additional shifts.

According to industry representatives, the strike was drastic because of the nature of Chicago's labor situation, in which city and suburban drivers who work for private haulers are represented by the same Teamsters union. At the strike's onset, Teamsters had requested a 45 percent increase in wages and benefits. When the strike ended, after the Teamsters had called in a federal mediator, employees walked away with a 30.5 percent pay increase.

Throughout the strike and since July, Teamsters tried to negotiate wages, benefits and pensions with the Chicago Area Refuse Haulers (CARH) Association, which comprises 17 waste companies, large and small.

“The association was formed specifically to negotiate a new agreement,” says CARH spokesperson Bill Plunkett, “and the companies were not just the local operation of the large national companies, but were well more than half locally owned companies. Local companies didn't have access to the labor pool to bring in replacements [during the strike] as the larger companies did.”

Teamsters representatives say the strike was necessary to achieve its demands. “After three months of negotiating, [CARH's] offer [for wage, health benefits and pension increases] was 13 cents per hour,” says Brian Rainville, Teamsters spokesman. “Their most recent [but not final] offer [of Oct. 4] was $1.23. They could have been offering a real package at least close to what they were willing to pay. Their increases do not match what they know to be the cost of the benefits. They obviously had 10 times more money available than what they said.”

According to Plunkett, CARH member companies were stretched thin before the strike and will be even more strapped with the final labor cost adjustment. “Recently in Illinois, companies have experienced higher fuel costs, higher licensing fees for trucks and increased fees for landfill operations. All this plus the increase in labor costs make it inevitable that customers will be paying higher collection and disposal fees.” To prevent a future strike, some local officials are considering adopting a no-strike provision for garbage workers.

Plunkett says the CARH had to end the strike to avert a potential public health catastrophe: “The situation worsened dramatically as waste piled up in the city, and the Teamsters had a chokehold on the entire community,” he says. “It would have been irresponsible for the companies to allow the strike to continue.”

In addition to the relief Chicagoans felt after the strike, Plunkett says city residents have a new lease on trash. “[The city] gained a deeper appreciation and understanding of the critical infrastructure that the private waste industry provides to manage urban waste,” he says. “Most people take garbage services for granted every day. They no longer will in Chicago.”