It’s a call to acknowledge that all labor deserves dignity

I had no knowledge of the person who took my trash out

The following piece on the New Orleans sanitation worker strike by first time Hell World contributor Brittanie Shey is taken from the most recent paid-subscriber edition of the newsletter which you can find here. Please consider getting a subscription to receive all complete editions of Hell World and access to the full archives. Thanks for reading.

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On February 1, 1968, two Memphis sanitation workers were crushed to death when they took refuge from the rain inside the back of a trash truck, which then malfunctioned. Their deaths, and the hazardous working conditions of sanitation workers in Memphis at the time, most of whom were Black, set off a 63-day protest that many consider a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. 

Half a century later, a similar strike is playing out in New Orleans. There, like many cities, the work of sanitation employees is largely invisible, yet it’s still a critical part of society. These are the people who pick up household trash and clean up the streets after Mardi Gras. And since May, the City Waste Union has been striking against a city contractor called Metro Service Group for increased wages, better PPE, hazard pay and other necessities.

The workers, nicknamed hoppers, currently make $10.25 a hour picking up more than 250,000 lbs of waste per person per week, often without adequate protective gear. They’ve been asking for better working conditions for months, but the coronavirus pandemic gave those demands new urgency. On May 5, 14 hoppers walked off the job, demanding that their pay be increased to $15 an hour, $150 a week hazard pay, full PPE for every worker for every shift, and other conditions necessary to do their jobs safely and effectively.

Like the Memphis Sanitation Strike was, the New Orleans strike is closely intertwined with other social issues — the Black Lives Matter Movement; a looming eviction crisis in New Orleans, a city overrun with short-term vacation rentals; the prison-industrial complex in a state with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world; plus discontent with the way politicians have handled one of the most unprecedented moments of our time, a global pandemic. Many residents of New Orleans are specifically upset that Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who ran on a pro-immigrant, pro-minority, pro-LGBTQ platform, has been anything but progressive since taking office.

The 2020 protest is just now entering its third month. New Orleans residents have largely been supportive of the movement. But outside the city, few people know about the striking workers or their cause. One reason that might be is because jobs like sanitation work — jobs that are frequently dangerous and physically demanding — are often looked down upon, said City Waste Union representative Daytrian Wilken. (Wilken’s uncle is one of the striking hoppers.)

“The people who are sanitation workers, janitorial services people, maintenance people, they’re doing the jobs that nobody else wants to do,” she said. 

In addition, she said, many of the people who work those jobs are exploited. 

“If they're Black and brown, some of the brown people are undocumented. Some of the Black people may have to check the box, which means that they may have been a convicted felon. So at that point you have no choice but to take the work. The job requires a lot of work so that makes the work valued and the worker undervalued. And you have no choice but to say, ‘Okay, I'm gonna do it,’ because you don't have other choices.”

One of the biggest issues the strikers face is a convoluted web of outsourcing that makes it impossible for the workers to negotiate directly with the city, as Wilken wrote in a New York Times op-ed.

“With the mix of private employers, one of which hired a public relations firm to help during the strike, it is nearly impossible for a large number of the workers doing the same jobs across the city to band together and negotiate their working conditions with any one company or with elected officials. That means Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the sanitation department are insulated, remaining one or two steps removed from dealing directly with the men on the front lines,” she wrote.

Cantrell’s failure to engage with the strikers, one New Orleans resident told me, is reminiscent of her handling of the deadly Hard Rock Hotel collapse. The hotel, which was under construction, collapsed in October 2019, killing three workers. As of July, two of those workers’ bodies were still trapped in the rubble.

“The city and Cantrell are specifically ignoring important safety issues with regards to labor rights, passing the buck to the state where it doesn’t have to, after winning votes with a progressive agenda,” the resident said.

Metro Service Group claims that because of the pandemic and resulting economic slowdown, it doesn’t have the funds to meet the strikers demands. Metro also says that because its contract with the City of New Orleans is low-bid, it’s up to the city to increase wages by renegotiating the contract, Wilken said.

But this isn’t the first time Metro has short changed its contractors. Last August, before the pandemic began, the company settled a labor dispute stemming from a 2017 complaint in which sanitation workers — including some of the currently-striking hoppers — alleged that Metro had been underpaying them for years. And in June, a federal labor agency launched an investigation into Metro’s alleged attempts to union-bust. One of the ways the company has tried to subvert the strike is by hiring recently-released prisoners and halfway house residents to scab the hoppers at lower wages than what the striking workers made, Wilken said.

While they negotiate with Metro, the hoppers have set up a GoFundMe for donations that directly support their wages. There’s also a shop where supporters can buy shirts, yard signs and even face masks benefitting the group.

When well-meaning people talk about support for essential workers, they usually mean front-facing jobs like nurses, teachers and EMT, not those doing work behind the scenes. That’s one of the reasons the striking hoppers have started carrying I Am A Man signs like those carried during the 1968 protests — it’s a call to acknowledge that all labor deserves dignity.

“I have been that person,” Wilken said. “I would take everything out of my house I didn't want, I would put it in the trash, I would drag in out the curb, and I had no knowledge of the person who took my trash out — what they went through, what they were facing, what they even look like. I think It just never dawned on me that even if it rains, the guys are out there, and even if it's hot as hell those guys out there.”

Brittanie Shey writes a newsletter about art, culture and social justice on the Third Coast called Eat Your Makeup. She's the associate editor of Eater Houston and Eater Dallas. Her work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, Curbed, Modern Luxury and elsewhere.