New Orleans sanitation ‘hoppers’ form union, strike for hazard pay, PPE, benefits

Striking sanitation “hoppers” and their supporters protest for hazard pay, living wages and benefits in front of New Orleans City Hall May 18, 2020. – Photo: Chris Granger, New Orleans Times-Picayune

by C.C. Campbell-Rock 

New Orleans – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. first marched with striking Memphis sanitation workers on March 28, 1968. They were demanding better working conditions and the respect and dignity due them. Their signs proclaimed, “I Am a Man.” 

After canceling a planned trip to Africa, Dr. King returned to Memphis on April 3 to support the ASCFME sanitation workers. That evening, he delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to a packed room of supporters. The next day, he was assassinated.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life for people accustomed to being treated like the trash they hauled away, coming to Memphis to support men of legendary courage proclaiming “I Am a Man” in the face of rifles and tanks in 1968. – Photo: Bettmann-CORBIS

Fifty-two years later, sanitation workers in New Orleans are carrying the same signs, demanding better working conditions. But during this coronavirus pandemic, they are also demanding personal protective equipment, hazard pay, a $15 per hour wage, health insurance, sick leave and other benefits. 

They walked off the job on May 5, 2020, to protest unsafe working conditions and demand better pay. According to the workers, many were fired and replaced by prison inmates from Livingston Parish who were a part of a work release program. Organizers with the SEIU 100 filed a cease and desist order and the inmate work crew were forced off the job. 

According to the Metro Service Group, the striking sanitation workers – called “hoppers” in New Orleans – are employed by PeopleReady, which Metro subcontracts with to recruit and fill vacant hopper positions. 

At press time, at least two dozen hoppers were on the picket line. The workers started their walkout five days  after essential workers, including workers in California and sanitation workers in Pittsburg, walked off the job demanding hazard pay and PPE.

“We’ve got no hazard pay, no health insurance. We’re sure that’s not right,” Shone Gray, a 15-year sanitation worker, told members of Justice and Beyond, a civil rights and social justice coalition.

Daytriàn Mariell Wilken’s uncle Jonathan Edward is a hopper. She is an insurance adjuster. Wilkens says she didn’t intend to get involved, but “We have become organizers,” she said of herself and her uncle’s twin brother, Justin, who is a former hopper. 

They organized a Go Fund Me page for the hoppers and they are in talks with the ASCFME. “We would like to form our own chapter,” she explained. “ASCFME represented the original sanitation workers in the same union that Martin Luther King Jr. supported.” The group of striking hoppers have organized under the auspices of the City Waste Union.

“Waking sometimes at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning to meet the needs of the city is what the sanitation workers of New Orleans do daily. They are tasked with handling and disposing of the City’s trash. These men work tirelessly for hours on end to ensure these needs are met, but they are now having to fight for fair treatment and fair pay. 

“These men have not been provided any protective gear to guard against or combat the pandemic we are all facing. Instead of addressing the concerns of the workers, who are risking their lives in the COVID-19 riddled city of New Orleans, they were fired or told if they didn’t stop fighting for what is right, they would be fired,” according to the City Waste Union FB page.

However, a Metro spokesperson disputes the hoppers’ claims that they were fired. “No one has been fired due to the strike. PeopleReady has confirmed this in writing. Metro did not fire anyone, and no striker has been able to demonstrate that they were fired, because they were not. PeopleReady has informed its employees who are on strike that they may come back at any time – to work on the Metro account or for another client.”

If the hoppers are successful in setting up a viable union, their effort may become a model for other low-wage workers seeking economic equality.

Supporters of striking sanitation worker “hoppers” join the picket line. Law professor Bill Quigley, center, and Rev. Gregory Manning of Justice and Beyond and Malcolm Suber, college professor and community organizer with the Workers Group, to his right are joined by organizers to his left.

Nonetheless, unionization will be no small feat in a state that has adopted right-to-work laws. 

“The best known provision of Taft-Hartley may be its section 14(b), which allows states to enact ‘right-to-work’ laws that prohibit contracts requiring union membership as a condition of employment. Right-to-work laws have been enthusiastically embraced by 27 states, including the entire Southeast,” Michael Hiltzik, a business columnist, wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

“Pro-business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce praise these laws as fostering higher job growth and personal income than in states without them; (however) studies by labor-friendly organizations assert that average wages and benefits are lower in those states. Evidence from both camps does suggest, in any case, that right-to-work states generally had lower rates of union membership even before their enactment, and faster declines in membership afterwards,” Hiltzik explained.

Ironically, the sanitation workers’ goal of creating a union is pitting a Black-owned company against Black workers. 

Metro Services Group (MSG) is a Black-owned corporation co-founded by brothers Jimmie M. Woods and Glenn H. Woods. Headquartered in New Orleans, the company directly employs 250 people and 76 contract laborers. 

The firm provides sanitation, construction and demolition, disaster recovery and industrial and environmental services to municipalities in Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee, Florida and Philadelphia. MSG also has contracts with federal agencies. The firm generates $19.9 million in sales annually, according to Dun & Bradstreet. 

“Everybody needs to change. The world has changed,” Quigley says regarding the need for justice, fairness, better pay and a higher quality of life for everyone.

“I only got a mask one time. A week or two after corona, they only gave us a pair of gloves, once a week. If you don’t show up between 3:00 a.m. and 3:30 a.m., you don’t get the PPE,” adds Gray, the 15-year veteran hopper. “Sanitation trucks roll out at 3:45 a.m.” 

The company disputes hoppers’ claims about the lack of PPE. “When COVID-19 unfolded, prior to the protest, Metro bought 15,000 KN95 masks, surgical masks, bandanas, 2,000 pairs of various gloves and hand sanitizer.” 

But at the same time, Metro absolved the company of any responsibility for the hoppers’ pay, PPE or unsafe working conditions. Metro officials say PeopleReady is the direct employee of the hoppers and that the staffing agency is supposed to supply the workers with PPE.

“Metro has been assured by all its contractors that no one working on behalf of Metro is being paid less than the current living wage of $11.19 per hour, the current living wage under the City’s Living Wage Ordinance,” according to Metro’s fact sheet on the issue. 

Additionally, the company routinely sanitizes its vehicles, facilities and equipment and the company denied allegations that their vehicles are prone to breakdowns.  

“They’re paying us $10.55 an hour and we’re asking for $15 per hour. The temp service has come in here and pay us what they want to pay us,” Gray told Justice and Beyond members. Pay dispute aside, $11.19 per hour is still below the federal poverty threshold for a family of four, which is $26,200. Anything less than that puts a family directly into poverty. 

“We have no workers comp, no health insurance, no benefits,” says Gray, who says he works at least 12 hours a day. He says it’s easy to get hurt on what he calls a dangerous job. “I broke my leg on the job, but I have to pay for it out my pocket. I had to go to the hospital on my own.”  

When asked if Metro is testing employees for the coronavirus, Gray says, “They said they would start testing but (the tests) still haven’t come in yet.”

“The Metro Service Group fully supports hazard pay for sanitation workers and others on the front line in this challenging COVID-19 environment.  Metro has welcomed an opportunity presented by Councilman Jason Williams for a dialog with the strikers. 

But Wilkens says Metro blew off the meeting arranged by Councilman-at-Large Williams. “They’re scared because of the legal trouble they’re in,” she said of the National Labor Relations Board complaint the hoppers filed. In the complaint, the workers allege they were fired in retaliation for walking off the job. 

And if the Taft-Hartley Labor Act is any indication, they might have an airtight case. The law prohibits retaliatory action against employees who refuse to work in unsafe, dangerous conditions.

Loyola Law Professor Bill Quigley is a civil rights attorney and an expert in poverty law, and he has authored numerous legal analyses about fair wages, the need for minimum wage increases and workers’ rights. He also teaches social justice law at Loyola, among other subjects. He stood on the picket line in solidarity with the hoppers. 

“The city, Metro, PeopleReady, every one of those contractors should do the right thing. It’s a question of fairness and justice. It’s a common tactic for business to avoid accountability,” Quigley explains regarding Metro’s insistence that PeopleReady is the employer of the striking hoppers. “The city hired Metro and Metro hired PeopleReady. You can’t avoid your responsibility by subcontracting it out.”

Rev. Gregory Manning, the co-coordinator of Justice and Beyond and pastor of the Broadmoor Community Church, affirmed J&B’s support for the hoppers in a recent letter to Mayor LaToya Cantrell.  He expressed the group’s gratitude for Metro’s 38-year history as a highly reputable Black-owned company in the city of New Orleans, but his group is supporting the hoppers.

“Indeed, they have set an example of success that many should strive for. I would like to personally thank Mr. Jimmie Woods for his employment of young African-American men and women throughout the city.”

“With that said, I would also like to make it clear that Justice and Beyond stands in solidarity with the striking workers of the City Waste Union. We believe that these workers should be supplied with proper PPE so that they may be protected from COVID-19. This should be a standard distribution of new PPE daily for each worker. This PPE should be from head to toe. We also believe that each worker should be given hazard pay, sick leave, insurance and at least $19 an hour, the housing wage for New Orleans.”

Manning says he crunched the numbers and found that if Metro cut out the middleman, PeopleReady, the company could meet the workers’ demands and still make a profit.

“If Metro Services hires 100 hoppers at a rate of $19 per hour for a 40-hour week (the hourly wage for the city of New Orleans that a household of two with one child should earn to afford housing), then Metro services would pay a total of $3,648,000 in salaries. After you add an additional $2 million for insurance, PPE, sick leave and hazard pay, then Metro services would recoup nearly $5 million in profits from the city’s $10 million contract with Metro,” Manning wrote.

Unlike Memphis, the New Orleans sanitation “hoppers” don’t face National Guard guns and tanks, but they stand firm in their reasonable demands during the pandemic to be protected against coronavirus and the brutal poverty that comes from low wages and no health insurance. – Photo: City Waste Union

To date, Manning hasn’t received a response from Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who has told Wilkens that Metro is responsible for paying the hoppers. 

Metro is radio silent on suggestions to dump PeopleReady, but the company has asked U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond to include sanitation workers in the House’s Hero Act, and Metro Attorney David Davillier has suggested an increase the city’s sanitation fees.

The hoppers are not alone in their fight for hazard pay, a living wage and benefits. Essential workers nationwide, who continue to risk their lives to work during the coronavirus pandemic, are demanding the same benefits as unionized workers. 

Perhaps, even more than other essential workers, sanitation hoppers are essential to maintaining public health. Without them, the exposure to a vast array of illnesses caused by bacteria and other life-threatening microorganisms, including viruses, would make the coronavirus threat a walk in the park. 

“Everybody needs to change. The world has changed,” Quigley says regarding the need for justice, fairness, better pay and a higher quality of life for everyone. 

The hoppers are asking the community to join their fight by donating to their cause at https://www.gofundme.com/f/helping-the-essential or visit City Waste Union on Facebook.

C.C. Campbell-Rock is a veteran journalist who covers race relations and social justice issues. A New Orleans native, Katrina survivor and former Bay Area resident, she can be reached at campbellrock1@gmail.com.