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‘Black lives matter at work’: Philly sanitation workers rally for safer conditions on the job

The rally calls attention to the fact that workers’ rights — especially black workers’ rights — are part of nationwide protests that seek to protect the lives of black Americans.

Attendees at a rally and protest to support sanitation workers who are requesting hazard pay and PPE, engage in a social distancing protest at LOVE Park, in Philadelphia, June 09, 2020.
Attendees at a rally and protest to support sanitation workers who are requesting hazard pay and PPE, engage in a social distancing protest at LOVE Park, in Philadelphia, June 09, 2020.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia’s municipal sanitation workers, who are predominantly black, rallied Tuesday morning in John F. Kennedy Plaza for better personal protective equipment, hazard pay, and coronavirus testing.

Their rally came on the 11th straight day of protests in Philadelphia sparked by the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, and follows marches held by different groups of workers, including public defenders, health-care staff, and teachers. It builds on the anger among city workers — both union and nonunion — who are calling for Mayor Jim Kenney to more heavily tax the rich instead of cutting department budgets and laying off hundreds of workers. And it shines a light on the intersection of worker rights and the Black Lives Matter movement.

About 150 people filled LOVE Park for the mid-morning rally, which was organized by AFSCME Local 427, part of District Council 33. That reflects how the protests are drawing different kinds of groups into the activist fold.

“When city workers are under attack, what do we do? Stand up and fight back!” the demonstrators chanted as about a dozen police officers stood watching.

While the rally was not explicitly focused on police violence or Black Lives Matter, its timing makes it hard to ignore the parallels. The rally calls attention to the fact that the issue of worker rights — especially black workers’ rights — is part of the nationwide protests that seek to protect the lives of black Americans.

At LOVE Park, sanitation worker Durrell Rothwell described the difficulties of social distancing on a garbage truck. He said he couldn’t work for a month after being diagnosed with COVID-19, which was hard because “we make most of our money on overtime." His son tested positive after he did.

“The fact is that black lives won’t matter unless sanitation workers’ lives also matter,” said Daniel Reyes, a teacher and member of the Democratic Socialists of America who helped organize the rally. The rally, he said, shows that “black lives matter not only in neighborhoods and in schools, but they also matter at work.”

The rally aimed to draw attention to longstanding issues these workers have faced, ones that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, said Omar Salaam, business agent for Local 427.

“We’re definitely one of the most undervalued departments in the city,” said Salaam, who worked in sanitation for 20 years, most recently as a truck driver, before becoming a union staffer.

The median salary among the city’s 1,100 sanitation workers is $36,000, Salaam said, though many work overtime “because they need it to be able to take care of their families.” Many spend their own money to get better quality PPE. They fear contracting diseases on the job, as some have had to handle human feces and syringes. And they’ve been working throughout the pandemic as essential workers. Sixty have tested positive for the coronavirus, he said.

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The rally is not a strike, Salaam said, and the union told members that they should not use an unauthorized absence to attend. Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams sent a letter to workers on Monday addressing the rally, saying that “unauthorized absences ... will result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination.”

“The city must follow its unexcused-absence policies and treat any unexcused absence in accordance with those policies,” a city spokesperson said, adding that an individual commissioner could not make an exemption to the policy.

The city has “purchased and distributed thousands of masks, disposable gloves, and reusable gloves to Streets Department employees, in addition to the standard issue reusable gloves,” the city spokesperson said. “Employees are also given hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, safety glasses, face shields, and puncture-proof boots. The department will continue to provide the necessary PPE, but as with all entities across the country, the city has experienced some challenges with supply and delivery of this equipment due to high demand.”

The spokesperson added that all employees can be tested at Rite-Aid stores, urgent care centers such as Vybe, and other sites.

Kenney’s coronavirus-era revised budget cuts $18.5 million from the Streets Department from his original budget, including an $8.6 million cut to personal services and $9.3 million cut from equipment. The administration and D.C. 33 negotiated a one-year extension of their contract with a 2% raise and $750 signing bonus, a city spokesperson said.

» READ MORE: City workers facing layoffs say Philadelphia should tax the rich. Is that possible?

The mayor has also proposed adding $14 million to the Police Department budget over his originally proposed budget, a move that has angered protesters and politicians amid nationwide calls to “defund" the police.

Salaam said it was “unacceptable” that the city was increasing its police budget while cutting from other departments, including Streets.