Striking Out

ALTHOUGH MOST PEOPLE LIKE to forget about their garbage once they place it at the curb, garbage issues, if left unchecked, can sometimes weigh heavy on the public. For example, the recent garbage truck driver strike in Chicago tested residents' and business owners' mettle as they were left with overflowing and stinky trash containers. Trash went uncollected for nine days while the Teamsters and the Chicago Refuse Haulers Association negotiated a pay raise.

The garbage brouhaha was notable for several reasons beyond the association's higher-than-expected final wage rate. The number of drivers involved — 3,300 — was said to be the largest concentration of unionized garbage workers, meaning that this was one of the largest waste-related strikes in history. Subsequently, the number of people — approximately 8 million — who were denied garbage pickup also was substantial. And the strike seemed unusually divisive, with workers flocking to picket lines and the refuse association issuing its “final offer” and decision not to negotiate any more until a mediator was forced to address the problem.

Typical of many strikes, an “us versus them” mentality set in. But while both sides were drawing lines in the sand, they were losing another battle, the one with their customers. As trash piled up, the city's growing disdain was palpable. And as you could imagine, they didn't care who eventually picked up the garbage, they just wanted it gone. At that point, who was right in the labor-worker, public-private battle was overshadowed by a growing public health concern.

The Chicago drivers who were on strike worked for private haulers. And the public sector crews had to make up for the shortfall and temporarily save the day. But unionized garbage workers work for cities and counties, too. So municipalities facing similar labor problems may one day need to turn to private haulers for a rescue.

From the customers' point of view, however, this could seem like unnecessary rhetoric. Because regardless of who's footing the bill for the services, garbage must be collected to prevent sanitation problems. Some local officials now are looking at imposing a “no strike” law for garbage workers to avoid future waste buildups.

Among the most important lessons waste management professionals should take from this incident is that garbage transcends public and private sector boundaries. Deciding who and how much workers get paid to manage garbage is certainly important to our industry. But all the public really cares about is that their garbage is picked up. As one owner of Carson's rib restaurants indicated, he doesn't care how much workers get paid or if they're “wearing a space suit,” he just wanted someone to haul away his trash. And if the strike went unresolved for too much longer, he was hell-bent on finding anyone who would do it.

The author is the editor of Waste Age