Invisible no more

Threatened with deportation and paid illegally low wages, East Bay recycling workers did the unthinkable: They fought back.
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Striking ACI workers at the gate of the recycling facility demand the right to return to their jobs after a work stoppage.
David Bacon

We all want to be responsible for our environment. We sort our trash. We put the right things into the right containers, and feel good when we see them at the curb on trash pickup day.

Then the trash disappears. End of story.

But really, it's not the end. Not only does the trash go somewhere, but people still have to sort through what we've thrown away. In a society full of people doing work that's unacknowledged, and often out of sight, those who deal with our recycled trash are some of the most invisible of all.

Sorting trash is dangerous and dirty work. In 2012 two East Bay workers were killed in recycling facilities. With some notable exceptions, putting your hands into fast moving conveyor belts filled with cardboard and cans does not pay well — much less, for instance, than the jobs of the drivers who pick up the containers at the curb. And the sorting is done almost entirely by women of color; in the Bay Area, they are mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America, as well as some African Americans.

This spring, one group of recycling workers, probably those with the worst conditions of all, finally had enough. Their effort to attain higher wages, particularly after many were fired for their immigration status, began to pull back recycling's cloak of invisibility. Not only did they become visible activists in a growing movement of East Bay recycling workers, but their protests galvanized public action to stop the firings of undocumented workers.

 

ILLEGAL WAGES FOR "TEMPORARY" WORKERS

Alameda County Industries occupies two big, nondescript buildings at the end of a cul-de-sac in a San Leandro industrial park. Garbage trucks with recycled trash pull in every minute, dumping their fragrant loads gathered on routes in Livermore, Alameda, and San Leandro. These cities contract with ACI to process the trash. In the Bay Area, only one city, Berkeley, picks up its own garbage. All the rest sign contracts with private companies. Even Berkeley contracts recycling to an independent sorter.

At ACI, the company contracts out its own sorting work. A temp agency, Select Staffing, hires and employs the workers on the lines. As at most temp agencies, this means sorters have no health insurance, no vacations, and no holidays. It also means wages are very low, even for recycling. After a small raise two years ago, sorters began earning $8.30 per hour during the day shift, and $8.50 at night.

Last winter, workers discovered this was an illegal wage.

Because ACI has a contract with the city of San Leandro to process its recycling, it is covered by the city's Living Wage Ordinance, passed in 2007. Under that law, as of July 2013: "Covered businesses are required to pay no less than $14.17 per hour or $12.67 with health benefits valued at least $1.50 per hour, subject to annual CPI [consumer price index] adjustment."

There is no union for recycling workers at ACI, but last fall some of the women on the lines got a leaflet advertising a health and safety training workshop for recycling workers, put on by Local 6 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. There, they met the union's organizing director, Agustin Ramirez. "Sorting trash is not a clean or easy job anywhere," he recalls, "but what they described was shocking. And when they told me what they were paid, I knew something was very wrong."

Ramirez put them in touch with a lawyer. In January, the lawyer sent ACI and Select a letter stating workers' intention to file suit to reclaim the unpaid wages. ACI has about 70 sorters. At 2,000 work hours per year each, and a potential discrepancy of almost $6 per hour, that adds up to a lot of money in back wages.

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