- Interview by
- Meagan Day
On May 5, 2020, a group of sanitation workers in New Orleans went on strike demanding an increase in wages from $10.25 to $15 an hour, and $150 a week in hazard pay and proper distribution of protective equipment during the pandemic.
The City Waste Union strike, as it’s called (even though the workers are not members of a union), is entering into its sixteenth week. The National Labor Relations Board started an investigation into the workers’ employer, Metro Services Group, in late June, but so far Metro has refused to come to the table. (In an illustration of the complicated arrangements produced by privatization, Metro has a direct contract with the City of New Orleans, and then subcontracts out to another company that handles payroll and timekeeping called People Ready.)
Though only fourteen workers (known as “hoppers”) are on strike, their struggle has drawn widespread support in New Orleans and solidarity action as far away as Seattle. They made this video about their working conditions and rationale for striking:
All of the City Waste Union strikers are black men. Their campaign incorporates the famous “I Am A Man” slogan and imagery used by the 1968 Memphis sanitation strikers, who were also all black men, to whom Martin Luther King Jr delivered his final speech the night before he was assassinated. “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end,” King told them. The City Waste Union strikers’ use of the slogan means to communicate that the struggle has not yet ended.
Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Daytriàn Wilken, the niece of a City Waste Union striker who has become a key organizer in the campaign, about the cause and stakes of the strike.
What were the initial conversations that you had with your uncle that made you feel like you wanted to get involved?
He told me the hoppers were going on strike and they wanted me to start a GoFundMe with a goal of $5,000. I didn’t really know how serious they were about this in the very beginning, but I could tell my uncle was passionate.
Then he started explaining things to me, saying, “I’ve only been given one pair of garden gloves and one KN95 mask to haul trash that might have been put out of a house where somebody had COVID-19, and if I go to the hospital I have to spend $200 out of my pocket to even see a doctor.” All of that was something I had no idea about.
When I started listening to these things, I realized that other people need to hear this. So I said, “Okay, I’m all in.” Then the strike took over my life. I now handle social media and emails, coordinate community support, make and sell all the merchandise that supports the guys and their families during the strike, and talk to the hoppers every day to make sure they have everything they need.
The community support has been incredible. I’ve never been an organizer before, and I didn’t have a strategy, but my family goes back eight generations in New Orleans. I think when you’re passionate about the place where you’re from, that speaks to people. They can see that the hoppers are honest and passionate about how both they deserve better and the city deserves better.
What is City Waste Union trying to signify by reviving the “I AM A MAN” signage from the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike?
For a long time, these guys have been treated like trash, instead of the people who are actually emptying and clearing the trash. These guys are invisible. They are ignored.
So many people haven’t ever thought about what it means to be a sanitation worker, not just during a pandemic but in everyday life. I’ve personally rolled my trash can out to the curb on Tuesday morning without considering the man who picks up my trash can, what he experiences on the job or when he goes home. That didn’t change for me until I started having these conversations with my uncle.
The guys using the “I AM A MAN” sign are trying to drill into people that they’re human. They deserve respect and consideration. And a lot of times they lose out on those things because we think the position that they work in is lowly. The same thing happens with people who work in janitorial services.
And then it was also something to show people that we’re still experiencing the same unfair treatment as fifty years ago. It makes people pause and ask the question: Why do they still have to go on strike? Why do they still have to remind us they’re men? Why the hell are we still doing this? On Juneteenth we had a conversation with Ozell Ueal, who was one of the original sanitation strikers in Memphis. And that made the guys even more eager to use the signs to connect that strike to what we’re experiencing right now.
The hoppers decided to go on strike just a few weeks before George Floyd was murdered, sparking the next wave of Black Lives Matter protests. I’ve seen some Black Lives Matter messaging from City Waste Union. How are they related?
I in no way think that the hoppers’ situation compares to a man being smothered to death, but I do think that they connect metaphorically.
If I had to pull up [a] picture [of George Floyd being murdered] and label who the people are, I would say the bystander cops watching George Floyd being murdered would be the business owners. And then if I had to say who George Floyd was in the picture, he would be the working class. And then the person with his knee on George’s neck, that’s the system. The system that we’ve been pushed into and forced to accept, which has been shoved down our throats for generations. I’m talking about the system of constant poverty.
If you’re working-class, you’ve been put in a situation where you get credit for the work of your hands, but do you truly own it? Would you ever be able to say that you own that work? That’s the problem. The system has taken ownership from us because they exploit the working class. It’s a system where somebody can make $10.25 an hour working for the sanitation company and never get a raise.
That’s how these low-bid contracts are set up for the sanitation workers. And then you think about the hospitality workers, or the people who do construction. In this city it took more than a year to get all three black and brown bodies out of the Hard Rock Hotel that collapsed on top of them. And the people who had to go and get those working-class men out of that building were the same working class. How ironic is that?
So again, if I had to compare metaphorically, I would say that we are the working class and the system has had its knee on our neck for way too long.
On City Waste Union’s social media pages, I can see how widespread the community support is. People are wearing facemasks and carrying tote bags with the City Waste Union logo. They’re putting signs in their yards that say, “Until you treat them proper, we stand with the hoppers.” Have you been surprised by the expression of solidarity from the people of New Orleans?
I have. To be honest I think I’ve been most surprised by all the white people who are supportive. But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. New Orleans is somewhat separated into white and black, but we do have white working-class people. For example a lot of the people who work in the French Quarter are white.
In general, I’m just shocked when I go on our Instagram page. We have nearly five thousand followers, and I’m like, “Where do these people come from? Like who are they?” For me it’s kind of crazy. And it’s not just in New Orleans. All the way out in Seattle, there’s a group of people that go out every Thursday and picket in front of True Blue, which is the company that owns People Ready.
We’ve also had so many organizations help us out. Some of them are Stand With Dignity, Take ‘Em Down NOLA, the Democratic Socialists of America, BYP [Black Youth Project] 100, IATSE [International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees] Local 478, Cooperation New Orleans, and Southern Solidarity. I think this is the first time so many organizations in New Orleans have been involved in supporting just one strike.
Does City Waste Union want to become a real union?
We don’t want them to be necessarily our own union, but we would like to join a union and have it be a parent union. So that way you don’t lose the identity of the City Waste Union, but you still have the mother union that would be able to provide resources. But first we just need to get a raise, protection, and hazard pay for these guys who get up at four o’clock in the morning and keep New Orleans clean.