DeKalb County sanitation workers say they need their voices to be heard. That’s why they want to be represented by the Teamsters union.
During the two most recent Board of Commissioners meetings, a few sanitation workers have asked commissioners to recognize Teamsters Local 728.
“We haven’t had a raise in over six years,” said Octavius Saunders, a county sanitation worker for 12 years. “It’s not getting any better.”
Saunders said workers’ bottom line is driving the movement to unionize.
“They’re getting more revenue,” Saunders said about the county. “They generate money but then don’t want to give us [more] money. We have families too.”
Saunders said employees’ pension contribution and medical insurance premiums are increasing.
“This isn’t the first time they’ve gone up on our pension and insurance,” he said. “I got a 5 percent raise [two years ago] when I became a driver, but I didn’t see the raise because they went up on the pension.”
Saunders said sanitation workers have been in talks with the Teamsters for approximately three months.
“We’ve talked to the Teamsters about them working to get us more money,” Saunders said. “They said they would not take money out of our checks [for fees] until they get us more money.”
A December 2011 executive order by DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis established a county “policy on unions and organized employee groups where department heads and cabinet staff are directed not to conduct themselves or communicate in a negative, derogatory or demeaning nature about a union or employee efforts to organize.”
Ellis’ policy directs department heads and cabinet staff to remain neutral during employee unionization efforts and allows employees to hold meetings to discuss union representation on county property during work hours with prior approval from the human resources director.
“Management is not supposed to impede or obstruct” talks between county workers and union representatives, said Burke Brennan, the county’s chief communications officer. “Management’s been told not to interfere.”
The county has fire and police personnel who are already represented by unions.
Ben Speight, organizing director for Teamsters Local 728, said Ellis’ executive order “gives workers a level of protection” and “recognizes workers’ rights.”
“With that memo, it leveled the playing field,” Speight said.
In 1997 there was an effort to organize the workers but that was unsuccessful, he said.
Teamsters Local 728 has 7,500 members and represents UPS workers; Georgia State, Kennesaw State and Emory University bus drivers; and O’Reilly Auto Parts and Lithonia Lighting truck drivers. The union also represents Republic Services, a private waste management company.
Speight said the sanitation workers would not be represented through a collective bargaining process. Instead, it would be a “meet and confer” process in which union representatives would meet with management to resolve outstanding issues.
In addition to their pay, sanitation workers are concerned about safety. Each sanitation truck is supposed to be manned by a driver and two helpers, Speight said.
“Oftentimes now, there is only one helper,” he said. “There are a number of safety issues with that.”
Workers handle needles, broken glass, dead animals and heavy equipment and must hold onto the back of the trucks while working in the elements, he said.
“The workers want respect,” Speight said.
Speight said sanitation workers around the country have had a history of mistreatment and low wages. “In 1968, Dr. King was assassinated supporting sanitation workers,” he said.
Since September, more than 80 percent of the county’s approximately 450 sanitation workers have signed petitions saying they want the union to be recognized by the county, Speight said. “That’s a clear super-majority.”
“The workers in sanitation are the face of DeKalb County,” Speight said. “Two days a week at least, you’ll see sanitation workers coming down you street.
“Sanitation workers, as Dr. King noted, protect the public’s health,” Speight said. “Without sanitation workers, you have a mess on your hands, literally.”
Robert Pruitt, 20-year sanitation truck driver, said, “We need a union in there because we’re not being treated right.
“We haven’t had a raise in about five years,” he said. “Everything is steady going up and our checks are steady going down. It’s too much.
“Teamsters hopefully can help,” Pruitt said.