The central dogma of the Neoliberal order that has gained and held power in America over the last few decades has been the privatization of public goods and services. Accompanying that effort to turn every level of society into a profit-making venture has come the destruction of any form of worker power or collective action. As the United States continues its unofficial general strike, under assault from political and capitalist strike-breakers, some official strikes are ongoing. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a number of the ways in which the capitalist system further enriches the wealthy by exploiting and underpaying workers through any means – legal or not – they can get away with.
Sanitation work has always been one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, and one that is crucial to the mental and physical health of the entire population. Now, on top of the existing hazards of injury and infection, there is the constant exposure to COVID-19 through potentially infectious material in every bag of trash they collect. In New Orleans, a group of sanitation workers has been protesting pay and conditions for over a week now:
Striking sanitation workers on Monday renewed demands for hazard pay during the coronavirus pandemic as a major city vendor acknowledged that it signed a deal to pay their prison labor replacements less than the minimum wage outlined in its contract with the city.
For the past week, a group of about a dozen workers has gathered outside the New Orleans East headquarters of Metro Service Group, a waste disposal company that has a $10.7 million annual contract to collect trash in a wide swath of the city’s east bank.
Pictures of the demonstrators have circulated widely on social media. In one image, they hold the “I AM A MAN” signs that Memphis workers carried during the 1968 sanitation strike that ended with Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
The striking workers, called “hoppers,” are employed through a staffing agency and do not have a collective bargaining agreement. They said they have continued to receive low pay even as the novel coronavirus brings new danger to their jobs. They also say they have only occasionally received protective gear, although the sanitation company says it’s amassed a stockpile of masks and gloves that it gives to workers.
“We feel like we’re putting our health at risk,” said sanitation worker Jerry Simon. “Every time we go out there, we could catch the virus.”
So far, the dispute shows no signs of ending. The workers and their employer can’t even agree on whether they were fired.
Simon said the workers went on strike on May 5 and the staffing agency, PeopleReady, fired them the next day. But the staffing company and Metro Service Group both disputed that the workers had actually been terminated. PeopleReady said the workers were welcome to come back at any time.
With some regular workers off the job, last week Metro Service Group filled their positions with state work-release inmates placed through a private company called Lock5 LLC. The inmates come from around the state, but they’re housed in a detention center that the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office leases to Lock5.
The work-release inmates were set to receive $9.25 an hour, according to Lock5 manager Hootie Lockhart. He said he usually tries to secure more pay, but the economic crisis has made it hard to find well-paying jobs.
The inmates stand to keep much less than that at the end of the day, moreover. In an arrangement outlined in state law, Lock5 takes up to 64 percent of inmate pay to cover its own expenses, Lockhart said.
Lockhart said he had no idea he was entering into a labor dispute when he sent inmates to New Orleans. He said he pulled the workers off the job when he found out.
“I did not know that there was a strike going on. That was never relayed to us,” he said. “We won’t be back. Not as long as there’s a labor issue.”
A Metro spokeswoman said there had been no service interruption because of the strike or the departure of Lockhart’s workers.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration said that under its contract, Metro Service Group is supposed to pay employees at least $10.25 an hour. In a statement on Monday, the company acknowledged that it signed a contract to pay the inmate laborers $9.25 an hour. The company said the inmates’ pay, which has yet to be invoiced, would be “amended” to meet the minimum.
“We’d like to add that, while hoppers went on strike and while we were unable to secure a regular stream of private sector workers to fill their spots during their strike, we are pleased to be able to provide work-release-approved inmates with meaningful work at a good wage so that they can more easily transition back into society,” said a company spokesman.
A Cantrell spokesman voiced no objections to the use of work-release inmates — noting that the city uses them during Carnival season — but New Orleans City Councilman Jason Williams said he was disappointed.
He also said he was “deeply concerned” about the original workers’ situation.
“These folks are as front-line as a janitor in a hospital,” Williams said. “They are taking contaminated materials away from our homes every day.”
The original workers employed by the temp agency, PeopleReady, said they want to meet with Metro Service Group to discuss their demands, which include a $15 hourly wage and $150 a week in hazard pay during the pandemic.
Simon said his group is open to compromise — but so far, the sanitation company isn’t talking.
“If we could talk, get a meeting, we could start getting somewhere. We’re ready to come back to work,” Simon said.
Collective action by workers has always been central to securing wages, and to safe working conditions under capitalism. In a system where “profit” is defined as income not spent on labor and materials, company owners have a direct financial incentive to underpay their workers, and to skimp on safety measures, as they have done throughout the history of this system. Very often, things like workplace safety are discussed in terms of industrial machinery or chemicals, or mine safety, but exposure to disease is absolutely a part of that, not just for healthcare workers, but for millions of other people who interact with the general public in a myriad of ways.
This pandemic has shown the degree to which that is true, with the high rate of exposure for all “essential” workers, and it has shown us how important it is for workers to have a say in the running of their workplaces. We have a long way to go to develop the kind of organized power we need, and it’s very clear that it is needed. The capitalist class has never made a move toward social responsibility without being forced to, and they have a record of going to extreme lengths to avoid making any concessions to the people whose work generates their wealth, and makes their society function.
If we’re going to deal with the economic, humanitarian, or environmental crises facing us, we need the power of organized, collective action, because the “elites” aren’t going to bother changing anything if it means losing even a little bit of their power. Look for actions and groups near you that you can support, and read up on the history and tactics of organizing for the good of the many.
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