NY & LA Waste Workers Unite

May 17, 2016 -- Jamie Way

Last weekend, New York City private sanitation workers traveled to Los Angeles to meet with that city's private sanitation workers. At the meeting, hosted by Partnership for Working Families and the LA Alliance for a New Economy, the two groups of workers discussed their experience building worker power and improving work conditions.

Los Angeles waste workers helped lead the fight to reform the private sanitation system through the Don't Waste LA coalition, anchored by affiliate LAANE. Workers in New York are part of a similar fight to reform the private sanitation system and looked to their LA counterparts for guidance on improving work standards and recycling rates, while reducing truck impacts.

Currently in New York, the sanitation department collects residential waste, but waste from large apartment buildings and commercial buildings is picked up by a large number of different private companies. In addition to leading to an abysmally low recycling rate, NYC's system makes it difficult to monitor working conditions, that trucks are constantly crossing the city inefficiently and that neighborhoods experience more pollution. Performing one of the most dangerous jobs in America, many waste workers face workplace injuries and serious safety hazards. The industry often employs vulnerable groups, including undocumented immigrants and the formerly incarcerated, which are less likely to report wage theft or stand up against low pay.

Mario Luna, a Los Angeles waste worker who attended the meeting, knows what it is like to live in fear of speaking out. When he migrated from Mexico, he was initially undocumented and saw how many workers in the industry faced tough working conditions due to their legal status. “Oftentimes, workers who are undocumented are not paid a fair wage for their work and can be laid off without notice because the employers know that they are undocumented," Luna says. "Speaking up against this can be difficult because of the fear of deportation.”

To address these issues, the Transform, Don't Trash, NYC coalition (anchored by affiliate ALIGN) is proposing a commercial waste zone policy similar to what the Don't Waste LA coalition won. It would create geographic zones of the city for which companies compete for exclusive access. The city government awards those contracts and therefore can set stronger recycling and labor standards. That means fewer trucks on the streets and less pollution in cities.

As the fight to reform private sanitation heats up in New York, waste workers returned to the city newly inspired and armed with knowledge of how LA workers won a similar fight.