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In Spring 2020, just as New Orleanians and the rest of the world were wrapping their minds around a new reality ushered in by a global pandemic, a small group of determined men known as “hoppers” because of the manner in which they hop on and off of slow-moving garbage trucks to dispose of the trash residents leave on the curb for pickup, organized in the city.

Calling themselves the City Waste Union, in an open letter to Metro Disposal, the City of New Orleans, and the New Orleans Sanitation Department, the workers made their demands, which included hazard and safety equipment provided to them by Metro Disposal, an increase in the standard day rate to $135 per day, a $150 per day rate of hazard pay until the end of the pandemic, seven paid days of sick leave, and the right to form a union. They also wanted their starting pay raised from $10.25 per hour to a base rate of $15 per hour, according to literature the Union disseminated at the time.

Their effort was reminiscent, in some respects, of the Memphis sanitation workers strike in February 1968, prompted by the deaths of two workers who were crushed by trash compactors. That protest caught the attention of Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King and lasted only two months, intensifying immediately after King’s assassination in Memphis. It ended on April 16, 1968, with a settlement that recognized their union and increased their wages.

The City Waste Union strike was also short-lived. Beginning in early May of 2020, the strike lasted until September 2020. 

When the strike was over, some of the striking workers left for better-paying jobs, according to Southerly Magazine. Some workers returned to work for Metro, which had reportedly replaced the strikers with prison laborers during the union’s demonstration.  

Here is where the two labor organizing efforts diverge. By all accounts, the City Waste Union strikers were not as successful as the garbage workers that striked in Memphis some 52 years before. 

Those who returned told Southerly that the conditions they found were pretty much the same. Some employees were working as much as 100 hours a week. Their union was not recognized. Pay did go from $10.75 to $11.19 and as much as $12 an hour  for overtime, according to information workers shared with Southerly. The pay raise was still a far cry from the $15 they demanded.

Members of the City Waste Union striking in New Orleans last year. This photo was one used on a GoFundMe account set up to benefit the striking workers in 2020. Labor strikes, however, can’t be blamed for the most recent shortage of workers needed for sanitation contractors to fulfill their duty.

Fast forward one year later, and if we didn’t know better, we would surmise that the City Waste Union was at it again. We would assume that, tired of poor working conditions and low wages, a cadre of hoppers were once again staging a strike as evidenced by the piles of trash that await pick up across New Orleans.

However, there is no organized effort on the part of striking workers to blame for the latest issues related to garbage pick up across the city. Instead, it seems that a shortage of laborers and other workers nationwide is impacting the ability of the city’s trash collection contractors to fulfill its contract.

We are feeling the pain locally, and the fallout in trash collection has sent New Orleans in a tizzy. There have been protests and public meetings on the matter. A site for residents to dump their own household trash has opened. The Mayor has unveiled a $20 million emergency sanitation plan to bring on new contractors to get the city cleaned up and trash off neighborhood curbs.

In fact, almost everyone in New Orleans has been talking trash for the past several weeks.

Yes, we are fully aware that the complaints about trash collection across New Orleans are rising. Want to know what’s not rising and what no one seems to want to talk about? WAGES!

While the cost of living steadily climbs, the wages of trash collectors, grocery store workers, hotel workers, restaurants and fast food workers, and most any other job related to the service industry have not kept up. In fact many workers filling jobs in these industries are expected to toil for wages that don’t even keep them and their families on the right side of the poverty line.

To understand just how little far too many of these and other working poor Americans earn, consider that when the United States Congress first responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with a financial aid package to assist Americans who would not be able to work because of restrictions and business shutdowns, they did so by adding an additional $600 boost to state unemployment benefits so that workers left jobless because of the pandemic could actually afford rent or their mortgage, food and utilities while the nation grappled with the health care crisis.

To fully comprehend just how much disdain, big corporations and business interests have for the working poor, consider that when they realized it might be a hard sell to convince unemployed workers to give up the enhanced benefits for poverty wages, they persuaded governors and state legislatures across the country—including our own—to end the federal boost to unemployment benefits early.

Now wrap your heads around this: the federal boost to uneemployment insurance payments have ended across the nation and actually ended early in 25 states—a move that was supposed to force the so-called ungrateful, lazy Americans soaking up free money back into the job market for peanuts. Guess what? It didn’t work.

Instead, worker shortages persist in the restaurant and fast food industries, in the hotel industry and, yes, in the garbage collection industry. 

It’s wages, stupid. 

People want to work. They want to support themselves and their families. They don’t mind working dangerous or dirty jobs or even those jobs that require them to work in the public and place them at a higher risk of getting sick during the ongoing pandemic. What they don’t want to do, what they are tired of doing is working these jobs for little or nothing. They don’t want to work these jobs without benefits, proper protection or paid sick leave.

We have said it before. We will say it again. It’s the working poor that have been abused by the system and by big business interests for too long, not the other way around. And what this pandemic has offered them, if nothing else, is time. Time to weigh their options, enhance skills, take a course or two, start a business, or at the very least, time to realize that they are worth more than they have been getting paid. If they aren’t flocking back into the job market, it’s not their fault. It is the fault of businesses and corporations that refuse to pay higher wages. It’s the fault of elected officials that refuse to raise minimum wage in their states or municipalities. 

The bottom line is that it is time to start paying people what they are worth. Trash collecting is not only a dirty job, but it is a dangerous job. We’re finding out the hard way that somebody has to do it. And that somebody should be making a salary that is commensurate with the service that they provide. If not, as many New Orleanians have learned over the last several weeks, maybe nobody has to do it. Maybe, just maybe, we will have to grab our trash and drive it to the dump ourselves.

According to a 2019 survey by Money Talk News, the average annual wage for trash and recycling collectors in our great state was $33,300 — a bit less than $16 an hour before taxes for a 40 hour work week. To be sure, we question that figure, given that City Waste Union employees were striking a little more than a year ago for a base hourly wage of $15. We can only surmise that if that average annual wage for Louisiana’s hoppers and is correct, it includes a hefty share of overtime hours resulting from work hours that extend far beyond any 40 in a week. And it still falls short as a recent study supports that in order to rent a two-bedroom home in the New Orleans-Metairie area—without spending more than 30 percent of annual income—an individual would need to make $18.54 an hour, bringing in at least $38,560 annually.

Stinks, doesn’t it?

So as the pile of festering garbage sits on your curb, ask yourself what you think your friendly neighborhood garbage truck hopper should be earning.

This is not just about Metro Disposal or the piles of trash in New Orleans. This is an issue that the state legislature has to get serious about. Workers across Louisiana deserve much more than a minimum wage set at $7.25. This is an issue that big business and major corporations have to get serious about. It is time to value your workers by paying them a wage  and providing benefits that allow them to take care of their families.

Until hoteliers, restauranteurs and many other businesses in service-related industries, including trash collecting, get serious about living wages in Louisiana, we are going to remain hard-pressed to find people willing to pick up our garbage, make up our hotel beds, serve our food, or to do just about anything else that we have come to rely on while they earn wages that will not even allow them to rent a decent apartment.