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Raleigh Sanitation Workers’ Struggle Builds Union, Brings Victories

by Kosta Harlan |
October 28, 2006
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Workers protesting at city council meeting.
Raleigh sanitation workers stand up at a city council meeting to present their grievances and demands. (Fight Back! News)

Raleigh, NC - Raleigh sanitation workers changed tactics, after months of protests to city management fell on deaf ears. The sanitation workers held a four-hour and a two-hour temporary work stoppage on Sept. 13 and 14, forcing city management to address their concerns. An important struggle has unfolded in the weeks since.

The sanitation workers, the overwhelming majority of whom are Black, face exhausting 14-hour days and are understaffed and overworked. Forced overtime and harassment of workers by management is commonplace. Sanitation worker Daron Green emphasized, “We need to have our management looked at. We have very bad management overall. We need new management, period.”

The Raleigh sanitation workers put forward five demands to city management: An immediate end to forced overtime; overtime pay after 40 hours work and not compensatory time; make temporary employees permanent and hire more workers to reduce workload; end the harassment against workers for speaking out against problems; city to meet-and-confer with the elected North Carolina Public Service Workers Union (UE Local 150) representatives in sanitation. The sanitation workers gave the city council one week to meet their demands.

Meanwhile, community organizers began rallying mass support for the workers - from the NAACP to religious groups to student organizers, who drove a sound truck through Raleigh neighborhoods to raise support for the sanitation workers’ struggle. Unions and community organizations from all over North Carolina passed resolutions declaring their support for the sanitation workers.

The city council met to discuss the situation on Sept. 20. In a hall packed with supporters, organizers with UE 150 and over 40 sanitation workers presented their demands and stressed the need for collective bargaining. Under a 1959 North Carolina state law, collective bargaining is prohibited for public sector workers - a holdover from the Jim Crow era, when higher numbers of Black workers were concentrated in the public sector in the South.

Jerry Ledbetter, a spokesperson for the sanitation workers, said, “We are asking for collective bargaining, to meet and confer with city council of Raleigh. We are ready to cooperate. We are here in good faith. But we have to be treated fairly, and be treated like human beings.”

Jimmy Gaye, who has worked in the Sanitation department for 22 years, told the city council, “It’s so much of a work overload that we have, we’re doing two to three jobs a day. We take the truck out, we go back in, we take the truck out, we bring it back in, until it gets so late in the day that you can’t do it any more.”

Gaye continued, “We’re thinking about our future here. We can’t grow if you don’t let us grow. Raleigh grows, and we know that we’re going to be expanding out, we’re doing Durham County, we’re out in Raleigh, we’re out to parts of Morrisville, we’re out in parts of Cary. We cover those areas. Those are big areas that you trying to cover, that you’re allowing to be annexed into a part of Raleigh now that the growth is here. Now, what about us? We want to grow too - can you let us do that?”

Raleigh mayor Charles Meeker and the city council, under pressure from workers and the community, stated that a “complete overhaul” of solid waste services management was necessary, and agreed to meet the demands, including recognition of UE 150. The city council promised to send city manager Russell Allen to meet with the workers on Friday, Sept. 22, to discuss their grievances.

The sanitation workers were optimistic about the hearing at the city council but stressed that the struggle was by no means over. Ledbetter said, “I thought the meeting went real well. Only thing we can do now is wait. You know anyone can say a thing, but you got to wait and see if they live up to it.”

But Friday’s meeting was a disappointment to the workers as city manager Allen balked on most of the demands and ignored the key issue of union recognition.

As a result, the alliance of labor, religious groups and student activists mobilized again. Over the weekend, Black Workers for Justice, UE 150 and other organizations held a community forum to rally support for the sanitation workers’ struggle, with 60 people attending.

Community organizers gave powerful speeches, noting that this was not just a struggle for workers’ rights, but also a fight for real equality for African-Americans. Many also made the connection between the Raleigh sanitation workers’ struggle and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, while rallying support for sanitation workers there.

On Monday Sept. 24, over 100 workers and their supporters, including Reverend William Barber, president of the state NAACP, took to the streets in a picket of the city council. They demanded a shake-up of the solid waste services department management and that the city council meet the workers’ demands. Mayor Meeker emerged from City Hall to publicly state that he supported the demands and would recognize the elected union leadership.

Less than a week later, Gerald Latta, the director of the sanitation department, announced he was stepping down, while Lash Hocutt, the operations superintendent, was transferred out of the department. Soon after, eleven temporary jobs were made permanent in the sanitation department, while the city council voted to make any city job longer than six months a permanent position - a victory for all of Raleigh’s city workers. Over half a dozen jobs were added to the solid waste services department, with plans to add more in the future. Sanitation workers are now receiving overtime pay, while an audit is set to take place of the city’s solid waste services department to determine how to reduce their workload and improve work conditions. In addition, Mayor Meeker has met with the sanitation workers’ union leadership.

UE 150 now represents 85% of the city’s sanitation workers, and is reaching out to organize other departments in the city. By standing together to put pressure on the city, Raleigh’s sanitation workers and their supporters have scored major victories - winning important concessions for the workers and building a fighting union.

But the struggle continues. City manager Russell Allen is still refusing to recognize the elected union leadership of the sanitation workers, and management still tries to pressure workers into forced overtime. Finally, as mentioned above, North Carolina has a long-standing legislative ban on collective bargaining for public sector workers. Many workers and activists involved in the sanitation struggle have decided to continue the fight for the rights of public sector workers, and that the time has finally come to overturn this unjust Jim Crow law.

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