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Progress for Raleigh sanitation workers

Cleaning up a labor dispute

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Raleigh sanitation workers (and their supporters) protested downtown on Sept. 25. - PHOTO BY CHARLES DUNCAN
  • Photo by Charles Duncan
  • Raleigh sanitation workers (and their supporters) protested downtown on Sept. 25.

Thanks to support from the public and the City Council, conditions are looking up for Raleigh's trash and recycling collectors, who walked out two weeks ago and since have been in a labor dispute over forced overtime without overtime pay and temporary workers on the job for more than six months.

Since the strike, sanitation workers have begun receiving overtime instead of the compensatory time they had been collecting. The city plans to audit the department's overtime policy and have an outside consultant look at the collection routes.

In the past week, the city made permanent the jobs of 10 of the 31 temporary workers. Of the 31 temporary workers, 19 had been on the job for more than six months--some for more than three years. City Manger Russell Allen announced a proposal Monday to overhaul the city's temporary employee policy so no worker will be on temporary status, which means no benefits and less pay, for more than six months.

Workers with the city's Solid Waste Services department and their supporters gathered with signs and a bullhorn Monday afternoon to demand a meeting with Mayor Charles Meeker and to express their anger with the city. Meeker came out to the picket line and talked to workers, union representatives and the press. He promised to meet with the workers' representatives the following day, and said he would work with the trash and recycling collectors and their union to address concerns.

The union has demanded: an end to forced overtime; overtime pay instead of comp time unless requested; temporary employees to be made permanent; more workers to reduce the workload; no retaliation against workers speaking out; and a meeting between city officials and UE Local 150's elected representatives.

UE Local 150 is the North Carolina public services union that represents 85 percent of Raleigh's sanitation workers, according to union representatives.

The dispute started this summer when the city instituted a new system for recycling pickup and dropped six employees. However, while instituting more efficient pickup that would presumably require less sorting along the routes, the city also expanded the list of what residents can recycle, losing any time-saving benefits from the new system. So, with more work and fewer workers, the Solid Waste Services department said it would give employees comp time instead of overtime. But when sanitation workers tried to take their newfound time off, they were refused.

The workers staged two wildcat strikes on Sept. 13 and 14, delaying trash and recycling pick up for four hours and two hours, respectively. On Sept. 15, Raleigh City Manager Russell Allen met with the workers and promised to improve conditions and pay overtime.

At the next City Council meeting, some sanitation employees showed up in their garbage and recycling trucks and ubiquitous orange uniforms to present their demands. Employees explained their working conditions and stressed that they wanted to bargain collectively. Council members were receptive to the workers' concerns, but Meeker cited state law that it is illegal to bargain collectively with public employees. Instead, Meeker said he would be willing to "meet and confer" with the workers.

"Meet and confer" is not a stated policy in Raleigh's municipal code, but it is how the city negotiates with its police and firefighters.

But by the end of last week, workers attending a union meeting gave a vote of no confidence to the city manager.

"Between Tuesday and Friday there have been a lot of changes" in what the city manager is saying, Jerry Ledbetter, a sanitation worker and union member, said Friday night after the no-confidence vote.

"We're done with dealing with Russell Allen," Lonnie Lucas, another union member, said Friday night, accusing Allen of having "no respect for our union" and avoiding pinning down changes. Lucas said the workers were not considering another work stoppage or a strike for now, citing public health concerns. "We continue to work because of the citizens," Lucas said.

In an interview Monday afternoon, Allen said he had not heard of the no-confidence vote. Allen did say he was "happy to meet with the elected leaders" from the union.

Citing the workers' concerns with forced overtime, the city manager said, "In every department there are times when we have to ask people to work overtime." Allen said that managers first look for volunteers, but the city "has to ensure public safety" and sometimes that means requiring employees to work overtime.

Angaza Laughinghouse, president of UE Local 150, said his short-term goals are to secure a written overtime policy and to have temporary employees made permanent. As for long-term goals, after Monday's rally, Laughinghouse had one question: "The city manager has a contract, why don't we?"

The city manager said 10 temporary employees in the sanitation department were notified last Friday that they would be moved into permanent positions. That leaves nine workers in Solid Waste Services that have been working with the department for six months or more still in temporary positions. But, Allen said, he will ask the city council at their next meeting for a way to move the remaining temps into permanent positions. Allen said it would "require flexibility" from the council to create more permanent positions.

Allen announced Monday that he will propose changes to the city's policy on temporary workers at the next city council meeting on Oct. 3.

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