Sanitation workers in Chula Vista who’ve been on strike since mid-December celebrated this week as members of the City Council came to their defense.
Almost a month after the labor dispute began, officials grilled managers from Republic Services, a private company that handles waste disposal for the city, in public and urged them to give in to the demands of Teamsters Local 542’s more than 250 members.
“Without the labor of the sanitation workers, your multibillion-dollar corporation wouldn’t be worth a dime,” said Mayor Mary Casillas Salas to applause.
But an important reality emerged at Tuesday’s meeting as the fiery rhetoric subsided — one that helps explain why dumpsters have been overflowing while customers continue to pay for waste disposal. Elected leaders in Chula Vista are limited in how much pressure they can apply because they gave away some of their leverage years ago.
In 2014, the city signed a decade-long franchise agreement with Republic Services that said the company wouldn’t be at fault in the face of an “uncontrollable circumstance” — for instance, an act of God, meaning a natural disaster or insurrection.
But an uncontrollable circumstance was also defined as a strike or work stoppage. That meant if the workers walked off the job to demand better wages, benefits and working conditions, Republic Services wouldn’t be held responsible.
“I don’t think that should be in anybody’s franchise agreement to be frank and I certainly hope in the coming years that it won’t be there,” said Councilman Steve Padilla at the meeting.
Instead, city officials have been forced to look elsewhere in their agreement, and in the law, to argue the company is at fault for something other than the strike. It’s unclear how aggressively they’ll pursue that.
Other language in the agreement gives the city room to collect and dispose of trash itself and charge Republic Services for the costs. There was talk of executing this “self-help” option on Tuesday but the City Council agreed to keep evaluating its options, including hiring a new company and bringing trash services in-house over the long term.
The next day, Salas promised to protect the striking workers by asking other waste disposal companies whether they’d bring former Republic Services employees on board. Councilwoman Jill Galvez said the city intended to declare a public health emergency on Jan. 18.
City Attorney Glen Googins told Voice of San Diego that the declaration could come up for an initial discussion at a special meeting on Friday.
Googins said the “uncontrollable circumstance” provision had been in the city’s trash contract since 1999, but he couldn’t describe how those negotiations played out. Those discussions predated his time in office. He has reviewed similar franchise agreements with municipalities, he said, and some specifically exclude work stoppages, others do not.
Whatever the reason, Salas also acknowledged this week that the provision put the city at a big disadvantage. But she dismissed criticism that officials have been too close to the private entity they’re supposed to oversee.
Earlier this week, both an op-ed for VOSD and an article published by La Prensa pointed to the City Council’s decision in 2015 — several months after the current agreement with Republic Services was struck — to appoint Steve Meisen, a division manager at the company, to one of their open seats. Although he served for almost two years and didn’t run for election afterwards, his selection was nevertheless controversial.
Because the Republic Services agreement extends through 2024, elected officials reasoned that Meisen’s participation in government didn’t pose a conflict. Not everyone agreed. As Galvez, before she was elected to the City Council, wrote in La Prensa at the time, “trash collection occurs on a daily basis in Chula Vista.” It’s an ongoing service, in other words, not something the city deals with every decade or so, and sometimes unforeseen issues arise.
She urged her colleagues on Tuesday to move quickly and lamented that officials hadn’t been involved in the labor dispute at the start. The Council met days before the strike began and didn’t return to the chambers until this week. Republic Services alerted the city manager of the strike on the first day but didn’t estimate how long it would take to resolve, as specified in the agreement.
Since then, Googins said, the city and the company have been communicating daily.
“At the time it was Republic’s indication and belief that the matter would be resolved in the near term, but they couldn’t opine on a specific date since any agreement would need to be approved by the union and they did not control that process,” he wrote in an email.
To help clean up the streets while the negotiations continue, Republic Services has brought in crews of workers from outside the area. In a presentation to the City Council, Richard Coupland, the company’s vice president of municipal sales, described the outside workers as “volunteers.” Salas countered that they were being put up in hotels and paid considerably more than the $24.60 an hour that the union members make.
She also pressed the company’s managers about some of the figures they’d offered to the public. Coupland argued that the sanitation workers under the current collective bargaining agreement earned income comparable to teachers, police officers and paramedics, and he complained that the workers’ demands were unreasonable for the San Diego marketplace. Under questioning, however, he acknowledged that his figures took overtime into consideration.
Some workers end up putting in 60 hours a week, or six days, to earn enough to support their families.
The union and the company have met to negotiate more than a dozen times, but Jaime Vasquez, Teamsters Local 542’s secretary-treasurer, said the company has only made a single offer. It was rejected last week, with 136 no votes and 86 yes votes, a roughly 60/40 split.
The company’s offer would have raised pay by $1.90, followed by 50-cent increases over three years and $1.50 on the last. Instead, the workers wanted $2 to begin with, followed by $1 increases over the next four years.
The difference between these two pay structures, over a five-year period, is $1.10 per hour.
By contrast, as the Teamsters and others have pointed out, the Phoenix-based Republic Services made $1.2 billion in profit in 2020, the CEO’s total compensation package is around $12 million and the company’s part-time board members just received $230,000 in restricted stock. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Trust is a major investor. The company provides waste disposal services to municipalities across the country, meaning its interests are bigger than a single city.
“You’re not gonna find anywhere it says they’re hurting,” Vasquez said. “It’s the other way around.”
Although the publicity hasn’t been good for the company, time has been on its side. The Teamsters have been providing the strikers with financial support — between $250 and $350 a week, said Salvador Abrica, an organizer — but it’s less than what they normally make and some have already caved. Abrica and others told VOSD that several of the guys have crossed the picket line in recent weeks.
The workers were motivated to strike after seeing their fellow Teamsters successfully bargain for higher pay late last year in Orange County. But there’s a key difference between the locales. In Huntington Beach, officials quickly declared an emergency and told Republic Services it had been failing to meet its contractual obligations. The strike lasted a week.
When asked if the city’s contract and foot-dragging was buying the company time and weakening the position of the workers, Vasquez said yes.
“There’s no other answer. It is problematic,” he said, “and now our members are suffering from it.”
The pressure against the company is coming from multiple angles. Although Chula Vista is at the center of the labor dispute, other areas have seen delays because the workers’ collective bargaining agreement with Republic Services crosses municipal lines.
The city of San Diego told the Union-Tribune earlier this week that the company’s plan to remove waste while the strike continues wasn’t good enough because it was mixing everything together: “It’s our understanding they intend to collect recycling, green waste, and trash in a single truck, which does not live up to its obligation to collect and process these categories of refuse separately.”
Republic Services has very little to say about the strike outside Tuesday’s meeting. When asked for comment, the company emailed a statement from a nameless media account expressing gratitude for its long-standing partnership with Chula Vista and frustration over the strike.
“We remain willing to return to negotiations but have yet to hear how the union would like to proceed,” the statement concludes.