Fifty years ago tomorrow in Memphis, Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech to an audience of striking black sanitation workers. The next day, he was assassinated.
Nearly 1,300 of the city’s sanitation workers had walked off the job and been on strike for three months, with their now iconic “I am a man” signs, to protest dangerous working conditions, racial discrimination and poverty wages.
As we meditate on King’s legacy, it is important to recognize that the issues of workers’ rights and economic and racial inequality that were central to the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike remain pervasive all these years later. Indeed, here in New York City, the sanitation industry’s largely black, Latino and immigrant workforce continues to face dangerous working conditions on a daily basis.
Orrett Ewen, a former worker for Sanitation Salvage, testified recently at City Hall, describing the unsafe conditions he endured:
“My brain was so tired. . . . If you complain about being overworked, they will give your shifts to someone who won’t complain. Private sanitation workers learn to shut up about safety so we can keep our jobs. . . . Anyone who tells you everything is fine in the garbage industry doesn’t know what they are talking about, or is pulling the wool over your eyes. There are big problems and the city needs to do something.”
The private sanitation industry collects garbage from New York’s businesses at night — from bodegas, restaurants and office buildings — accounting for half of the city’s garbage. In an recent exposé, ProPublica laid bare the stark contrasts between the abuses in this industry and the daytime collection of residential trash by the city’s Department of Sanitation.
The public-sector workers follow compact routes, work eight-hour days and have a median base pay of $69,000 plus health care and a pension. The workforce is mostly full-time, unionized and 55% white.
There are drastic differences in the safety record too, both for workers and pedestrians. Private waste trucks have killed seven cyclists and pedestrians in the city since 2015; municipal sanitation trucks have not caused a fatality since 2014. The risk of crashes goes up with the excessively long and overlapping truck routes, exhausting work hours, a lack of training, and badly maintained trucks.
Compounding the problems with safety and wages, racism and the very real threat of deportation for immigrant workers are intensifying under Trump. Many of the helpers riding on the back of garbage trucks are black and Latino, or from countries covered by the proposed travel ban such as Yemen, or from African countries that Trump has deemed “shitholes.” The owners of the 20 largest private sanitation companies operating in the city (which account for 78% of the market) in the meantime are almost all white men.
As the experience of the city’s Sanitation Department employees shows, sanitation jobs can be good jobs. It is time to make sure that all workers in the industry earn a good wage, work in safe conditions and are free from discrimination and threats.
Luckily, there are signs of change. Drawing inspiration from King, community groups, labor unions and faith leaders have answered the call of sanitation workers who are fighting racism and egregious conditions in the private waste industry.
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