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Organizing Sanitation
Workers in Louisiana


by Paul Glover  *  Undercurrents, October 1971

Two times every day a line of at least a dozen garbage trucks leaves the City of Lafayette's Sanitation Department garage.  They barrel up Dorset Street away from the Vermillion River, past stinking Trappey's, and spread out across the city.  Working day and night along 25 well-coordinated routes, the hungry hydraulic jaws of these trucks will pack in several hundred tons of Lafayette's leftovers each day.

Feeding and burping the machines are the most hardworking men in town. Teaming up three to a truck, the driver and two collectors empty about 1,400 cans per day.  All things considered, they are also the most underpaid and abused.

Not since the Middle Ages when corpse carriers carted off victims of the Black Plague has any work been so widely regarded as unhealthy and undesirable.

It is in fact true, as the sanitation workers will admit, that the job they do is unhealthy and undesirable.  But an important distinction should be drawn between work and worker.

There is a popular assumption in our overly-competitive society, that a man's quality is to be ranked according to his work.  So, naturally enough, the common term "garbageman" seems to reflect the value people place on men who toil with trash. In the back of their heads some people say, 'as a man you are garbage.'

On their rounds they can expect to be frequently treated like garbage.  Little girls throw things at them ("Clarence was knocked out with a peach"), folks call them "nigger" (all the collectors are Black), and ever since the $2.25 monthly residential charge began last year people have been more demanding ("sweep the rest up off the street").

DANGERS

The possible health hazards of this line of work are many.  For instance, it is easy to twist an ankle jumping onto and off the truck all day.  Vigilant dogs do not distinguish between postmen and collectors.  In addition, these guys are expected to work in all kinds of weather-- lightning, downpour, everyting.  The morning crew even worked through Hurricane Edith.  The truck drivers are known to back up on the collectors occasionally.  As recently as a couple years ago a collector had a hand drawn into the loader and sliced off.  The garbage itself presents obvious dangers.  Sharp objects offer painful surprises.  Diseases and cockroaches thrive in putrid piles of muck.  And the continual turmoil in their stomachs caused by the repulsive stink of rotting food produces ulcers in almost all of the long-time garbage collectors.  The monthly safety meetings held in City Hall are dedicated primarily to cost-cutting schemes and efficiency pep talks.

It is a myth that these men get accustomed to the dirty work.  "Some things nobody can get used to.  We still throw up now and again," says one.  "They got us picking up rotten-ass motherfucking dead dogs when they're supposed to have a dog warden."

Another suggests sarcastically, "Well, you can't expect whites to do shit work!"

Indeed, the administrators seem to agree.

RACISM

As mentioned before, all collectors are Black.  They hold the positions at the bottom rung in the Departmental ladder.  Once, for a short while, a white man collected trash.  He was put into a different position because the Department received complaints from whites who thought it inappropriate. 

Historically, Blacks have not been promoted higher than to truck operator, even after passing the civil service exam.  Blacks with high school educations have been informed that they failed the exam, but at least one illiterate white was promoted.  Supervisor Jim Veazie is quoted in conversation as having said, 'Garbage pickup is not a white man's job.  It's a job for colored men.'  When a special commercial collection section was begun, none of the collectors were notified that they could apply for the higher position.  A white man now works there.

Racism in our Sanitation Department is not only a direct problem for Black employees.  Fancy subdevelopments like Bendel Gardens are given priority service.  Calls from the rich neighborhoods get placed on the top of the pile of service requests. Since Hurricane Edith, debris has been cleared from the city from "south to north, because of the greater concentration of trees," according to Chief Sanitation Engineer George Landry.  The workers seem to think, however, that they are working from white to black, because of the greater concentration of whites.

EXPLOITATION

On the average, garbage collectors earn $80. each week.  These wages, considering the conditions and nature of their work, and the wages for comparable work, seem exploitative.  That is, the amount collectors and drivers in Lafayette are paid is not fair compensation for the service they render the community.  Those who plan the Department's budget and administer its funds repeatedly ignore the needs of the workers.  When the $2.25 monthly municipal charge was levied last year it was claimed a necessity because "there was a lack of available funds under the existing tax structure, and the Department was operating at a deficit," according to Chief Engineer Landry.  He added that the surtax would enable the Department to improve its services by adding more equipment and personnel.  Today, the administrative offices are more comfortable and the foremen are using new cars, but the drivers and collectors have never received a measurable portion of the thousands of extra dollars thus raised from Lafayette residents.  Their last pay raise was almost a year ago, amounting to mere four cents per hour.  With each raise the insurance and retirement payments mysteriously go up.  No gain on the play.

STRUGGLE

Last year a union (Local 1150 AFL-CIO Municipal Public Employees) was supported by the workers but over half have since dropped out.  Rumors spread against the union ("it just wants to take your money") were effective in draining strength from workers' demands for change.  This November the Department's budget is revealed, and workers haven't even seen what is in it.  They do not participate in representing their own interests.  They can vote as individuals for representation in government yet can't have a say in getting their bread from a business which depends on them. 

They are good men.  They are among the many who get messed over by the greed of others.

paul5glover@yahoo.com

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