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Like many of the sanitation workers who went on strike Dec. 17, Arturo Tapia didn’t believe the dispute would last long. When members of Teamsters Local 542 stopped working to demand better wages and benefits, he assumed the matter would be settled by the New Year.
A similar sanitation strike initiated by another group of Teamsters had been resolved in a week. The same day Republic Services, a private waste disposal company, struck that deal in Orange County, the workers who pick up trash in Chula Vista and other parts of the county walked off the job, took up signs and started marching outside the Otay landfill.
Union membership has been declining in the United States for decades, but there’s been a resurgence in labor organizing and demonstrations. The pandemic revealed to otherwise comfortable people the essential nature of certain jobs — without which the entire system falls apart.
A sense of camaraderie filled the air during those first few weeks of the strike. The workers grilled and tossed a football. As time dragged on, though, Tapia and others began to feel immense pressure.
Strikes only work if the union’s members stay off the job and hold themselves to the collective cause. But word began to spread that several of their own had abandoned the strike and crossed the picket line. As the company sought ways to clean up trash that was piling up and generating complaints, it brought in non-unionized workers from other parts of the country.
There was also an unofficial deadline looming over the heads of the Teamsters based on the terms of their previous contract. If they waited too long, they risked losing their health care.
Holding out for a better deal became increasingly difficult.
The union provided financial support but it wasn’t enough to cover all the costs of raising a family. Tapia said he pulled his kids out of sports and dance class to save a few bucks and missed a car payment.
Things got even more serious from there.
At the start of the fourth week of the strike, he told the other Teamsters that his daughter had just been diagnosed with a rare congenital vascular anomaly. He reported to the picket line, but her well-being was never far from mind. She called him crying a few days later.
Tapia anxiously waited on updates from the negotiations and word of better terms.
“I’m just praying,” he said.
In the end, Tapia stood by his fellow strikers but he was relieved when a majority of union members, himself included, voted yes earlier this week on a new collective bargaining agreement that was almost identical to the one they’d spiked 11 days prior.
Republic Services had held out in the face of bad publicity and managed to wear the strikers down. The workers had wanted a $6 raise over five years and settled for $4.90. Although the final offer represented a 20 percent increase in hourly pay and included more allowances for boots and tools, many felt it wasn’t good enough in an expensive region like San Diego’s.
At the base rate of $24.60 going into the strike, the workers were pulling in about $51,000 a year before taxes. Those willing to put in 60 hours, up to six days a week, could make as much as $75,000, but that’s a grueling schedule, especially for a job that’s considered one of the most dangerous.
Tapia is married with three children. His family would need to earn $50.54 an hour, about twice his current pay, to support his family in San Diego County, according to MIT’s living wage calculator, which relies on a wide range of typical expenses.
Republic Services’ final offer also included a $1,000 signing bonus and an extra 10-cent per hour pension contribution over the previous offer. But the improvements came with a warning.
In a letter to the workers over the weekend, a local general manager wrote that “the company will begin the process of reducing routes and laying off employees if our employees continue to refuse to return to work.”
Whether that’s legal is an open question. Employers cannot retaliate against workers for engaging in a strike, but legally there is some room for layoffs under certain circumstances. Salvador Abrica, a union organizer, told me a lawyer for the Teamsters is reviewing all its communications from the company over the course of the strike.
The sanitation strike generated a ton of media coverage featuring images of dumpsters flowing into the streets and attracting pests. It left a literal mess. Yet one of the more important aspects of the strike — its internal point of tension, though harder to visualize — escaped public attention.
Most of the workers I spoke to were committed to the strike as long as the majority wanted to keep it going. But others were nervous about getting a deal done as soon as possible because they’re obligated to work 80 hours a month to keep their health insurance. That meant the workers were covered for January, but not February, unless they got back in their trucks soon and logged two full weeks.
While some of the workers felt like their loyalties were divided over healthcare, others were committed to the sacrifice. Juan Berber complained to me that some guys were simply using the Teamsters as a vehicle for better wages and didn’t appreciate the purpose of solidarity.
“No one forced you to work union,” he said. “You gotta stand with everyone regardless of individual problems.”
After weeks of silence, Chula Vista came to the workers’ defense on Jan. 11, but elected officials were only willing at the time to offer fiery language and sympathy. They grilled Republic Services’ managers but then pointed to a provision in the city’s franchise agreement that excused the company in the face of a strike or work stoppage.
It limited their options, but it wasn’t a free pass. The city had other ways to exert power. It could, for instance, level fines against Republic Services for failing to pick up waste but decided that clean-up was a more urgent matter. Officials redirected some of their own employees to clear the trash accumulating outside apartment complexes.
Even members of the City Council expressed frustration over official handling of the strike. Councilwoman Jill Galvez stopped by the picket line on Friday and told the workers she was embarrassed by the city’s month-long inaction.
“I wish people would stop saying what we can’t do with our contract,” she told me afterwards. “That’s up to a judge to decide and place blame later. Our job right now is to communicate with Republic [Services] that we have a contract and they are failing to perform. Period.”
Chula Vista was the center of the strike because waste disposal services had been completely halted there, but other parts of the region were also disrupted. In the final days of the strike, both the city and county of San Diego warned the company that it was in violation of their respective contracts.
Chula Vista’s shaming of the company’s managers buoyed the workers. But when management didn’t immediately make a new offer, the striking workers got the impression that the Phoenix-based company, which made $1.2 billion in profit in 2020, was unfazed by the criticism. Some of the workers at the strike line concluded the city’s support was too little, too late.
As Sunday rolled around, the mood outside the Teamsters’s office in Grantville, where the workers had gathered for updates on negotiations, seemed more anxious than before. But people’s spirits remained high as one speaker after another rallied the crowd, arguing that politicians and the public were on their side. A donation page online had raised more than $12,000 at that point and the union agreed unanimously to give it to the family of a man who’d gone into cardiac arrest only a few days prior.
In the final hours of the strike, conversation kept returning to the workers who’d crossed the line.
Nicole Moreno, business representative for the Teamsters, said she didn’t respect anyone who’d betrayed the brothers but promised to connect those in need with government and union assistance. “You need to let us know so we can help you,” she said.
A line quickly formed in front of the table where she was standing. Tapia was among the first to put his name down.
After the vote was tallied on Monday, he said he thought the strike had sent a message that the company can’t do whatever it wants without being challenged. His framing was optimistic. Others seemed pissed.
Cesar Silva voted no on the contract because it fell short of what the workers actually wanted and he didn’t believe the signing bonus would amount to much. At the same time, he viewed the past month as a lesson for the union, revealing weaknesses in their own communications and the need for a bigger fund for future strikes.
“They drained us,” he said of the company. “They showed the power that they have, they flexed their billions. And then at the end of the day, our guys just had to go back to work.”
I called Laderer Hampton the next day to check in. He had been one of the faces of the strike, pushed in front of the TV cameras by his fellow Teamsters whenever reporters came to the picket line in search of a sound bite. But he was forced to abandon his post last week, and ended up missing the final vote, when his elderly mother went into a hospital.
He said he was pleased to see the increases in pension contributions. At 63, he’s nearing the end of a long career in manual labor.
Hampton echoed the ambiguity I’d been hearing in the voices of others and drove home why the workers could be simultaneously proud of the strike, glad to move on, and bummed about its outcome.
Hampton had spent the month dipping into savings to care for family members. He had planned on retiring in six months. But the strike may have set back his retirement date.
Even with the new contract, he’s preparing for the possibility that his pension and social security won’t cover all his costs of living. He expects he’ll need to find a part-time job.
“It just depends on how I feel, physically and mentally,” he said. “I’d like to go one or two more years, but right now I’m just gonna take it one day at a time.”
He’s committed, in the meantime, to holding his head high.