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Trash is piling up, but people aren’t blaming Philly sanitation workers

Instead of blaming workers for the trash pileup, many have taken to defending them. It wasn't always like this.

At 7:45 a.m., the sun is already blazing over Kensington.

It’s not long after Larry Brown and Rashan Purcell have started their shift for the day. Sweat glistens on Brown’s shaved head as he and Purcell sweep up a sprawling pile of loose trash outside a bodega on Allegheny Avenue — what’s left behind after they throw bags of garbage, some torn and leaking, into the back of the roaring truck.

Makim Carter, who lives on the block, stops to gawk and shakes his head.

“Man,” he says, “that’s hazard pay.”

Carter’s trash pickup has been erratic lately, but he doesn’t blame the workers.

“I ain’t mad at them,” said Carter, 30, after throwing his own bag of trash into the truck. “They’re not tryna put themselves in danger.”

Welcome to the summer of sanitation workers.

Bags of trash have festered on the streets as pickup runs days late, and Philadelphians have been groaning about the pileup. But instead of blaming workers, many, like Carter, have taken to defending them. They put up signs saying they stand in solidarity with sanitation workers, pass out water to the workers as they come by, and buy T-shirts — from sanitation worker Terrill Haigler or @_YaFavTrashman, a true icon for these times — to help workers purchase protective equipment and cleaning supplies.

It’s a sign of how the narrative around work has shifted, especially during the pandemic. Americans have been witnessing the reality faced by many workers — low wages, few protections — as those risking their lives on the job speak out about unsafe working conditions.

Sanitation workers in particular have been at the forefront of this moment. Like their counterparts in Philadelphia, workers have protested in Pittsburgh and in Raleigh, N.C. In New Orleans, sanitation workers have been on strike for nearly three months.

The Black Lives Matter uprisings have only bolstered the efforts, as many sanitation workers are Black men. In Philadelphia, where the sanitation workers’ union has been fighting for hazard pay and better protective equipment since before the pandemic, Black men are the majority of the sanitation workforce.

There hasn’t always been widespread support for city workers from the public and elected officials.

In the early ’90s in Philadelphia, then-Mayor Ed Rendell made a name for himself by demanding concessions from the public sector unions, like AFSCME District Council 33, which represents the sanitation workers, and privatizing city services. The workers, Rendell said, were bankrupting the city.

This summer, Councilmember Brian O’Neill, who was first elected in 1979, hearkened back to Rendell when he called on Mayor Jim Kenney to hire private trash workers as a way to address the looming “public health crisis” — or at the least threaten to do so in order to pressure the union into ending what he called a “mini-strike.”

But O’Neill seemed to be the only one on that train. Not only have Philadelphians been vocal about supporting sanitation workers, but this City Council and administration are more pro-worker than they’ve been in decades, passing some of the most cutting-edge worker protection laws in the country. (Kenney has recently been the subject of protests in response to his proposal to lay off hundreds of city workers.)

Last week, Kenney announced that he would hire 120 temporary workers to help with the trash holdup. They’ll be paid $17.20 an hour, just under the median salary for city trash-throwers, though, as is custom for the city, they will not be unionized unless they become full-time. That means they’ll be doing the same work as their union counterparts without the same protections.

Is it a strike?

The trash pileup is not the result of a strike as O’Neill alleges, says Omar Salaam, business agent for AFSCME Local 427 of D.C. 33, adding that it would “not be good leadership” to do so. Both the city and the union say the delays are due to workers calling out because of COVID-19, whether that’s testing positive, isolating due to exposure to their colleagues, or lacking access to childcare, and the increase in household trash during the pandemic. The union also says it’s due to the city’s mismanagement.

Strikes are illegal under Local 427′s contract — though workers could legally go on strike after the contract expires in March if a new one is not in place.

The city could fire workers and sue union officials if they break that law, said Stephen Richman, a labor attorney with Markowitz & Richman. But workers around the country — most notably teachers in West Virginia in 2018 — have gone on strike in defiance of no-strike laws without being fired en masse.

There were several periods in the 20th century when sanitation workers did go out on strike.

“They were an essential service,” said Francis Ryan, a labor historian at Rutgers University who wrote the 2011 book AFSCME’s Philadelphia Story: Municipal Workers and Urban Power in the Twentieth Century. “That was the source of their power, and they weren’t afraid to use it.”

Most of those times, he said, workers were largely backed by the public — which is a key to successful strikes.

The last one was in 1986, which lasted nearly three weeks and ended when Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. said he’d fire the workers if they didn’t return to work per a judge’s order. They haven’t gone on strike since.

“City workers don’t do it the way they once did,” Ryan said, pointing to the decline of labor’s power, and politicians’ willingness to break strikes and take on unions the way Goode and Rendell did.

There’s also the fact that private-sector service workers, like the striking sanitation workers in New Orleans, are generally paid less than city workers and have fewer protections and benefits. The median salary among Philadelphia laborers, the workers who throw trash, is $37,000, which is about $18 an hour, a city spokesperson said, and they have made an average of $8,000 in 2020 in overtime. The median annual salary for a trash truck driver is $49,000; they made about the same as a laborer in overtime in 2020. The New Orleans workers make $10.25 an hour with no benefits.

Although union density still remains at historic lows, the tide for labor seems to be changing, at least in terms of public support.

It’s a nod to another time, Ryan said, back when sanitation workers used to go out on strike — a time of “an alliance between the people who collect the trash and the public they serve.”

Staff writer Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article.