International Day of the Recyclers – Convention March 1

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Manila, Philippines 1987: Recyclers working on Manila's Smoking Mountain dump collecting material to be recycled.

Manila, Philippines 1987: Recyclers working on Manila’s Smoking Mountain dump collecting material to be recycled.

May 1 has long been celebrated by the working class world wide as International Workers Day in honor of the Haymarket martyrs executed in Chicago in the aftermath of the national strike for the 8-hour day of 1886. However on March 1 at the union hall of ILWU Local 6 in Oakland, a new International holiday is a specter haunting the emerging “green” economy. March 1 has been proclaimed International Day of the Recycler and was inaugurated in 2008 at a gathering of recyclers from 34 countries in Bogota, Colombia to memorialize the brutal slaying of 10 recyclers in Barranquilla in 1992.

Portraits - Worker

Recycling is the essential green component of the effort to get to Zero Waste, meaning no more landfills. The basic work of the recycler is sorting along conveyor belts extracting different materials like plastic, wood, paper and metals for recycling and often encountering waste, syringes and even human skulls.

Local 6’s recycling membership first met in convention on February 3, 2013 to affirm their commitment to creating a new “standard” for recycling workers in Alameda County. At that convention, 142 workers employed by three different companies, BLT in Fremont, Waste Management Inc.(WM Inc.) in San Leandro, and California Waste Solutions(CWS) in Oakland, united in their resolve to get to $20.00 per hour by 2016. The workers at a fourth company, RockTenn (which has since gone out of business), were also present and inspired their co-recyclers at the other companies with their unfair labor practice strikes that led to a new contract in the summer and fall of 2012

At the time hourly rates at CWS, WMInc. and BLT hovered around $12-13 per hour for the sorter work. Pundits, policy experts, union “leaders” openly derided the $20 per hour goal as unwinnable. Yet after over 2 years of street demonstrations, strikes, political maneuvering, and building alliances in the community, a new standard of 20.94 by 2019 was achieved at WM Inc., BLT and CWS and Local 6 is on the verge of signing an agreement to reach the standard for the newly organized Alameda County Industries (ACI) in San Leandro.

“The political victories were all driven by worker action.”

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In the interim the campaign’s leaders, almost exclusively Latina immigrant women, were inspired by the work of the Associacion de Recicladores de Bogota, Colombia and their charismatic leader, Norah Padilla, the 2013 recipient of the Goldman environmental prize. A solidarity greeting was read at the convention from the Colombian recyclers. Shouts of “Si Se Pudo'”(Yes we did!) resonated throughout the cavernous Local 6 hall on Hegenberger Road as workers celebrated their advances. The convention honored politicians from Oakland, San Leandro, Fremont and Alameda who stood with the campaign and mandated franchise increases to cover the tiny marginal costs of advancing the hourly rates to the Alameda standard. Other honorees included Valeria Velasquez, Suzanne Teran and Dinorah Barton-Antonio from the Cal Berkeley based Labor Occupational and Health Program who provided the invaluable health and safety training that liberated the workers to fight for better conditions.

The political victories were all driven by worker action. When BLT balked at approaching the City Council of Fremont to boost franchise fees to cover the standard, workers struck at BLT. When it was time to pressure the Oakland City Council to do the right thing, workers at CWS and WM Inc. struck for a day and camped out in front of City Hall. When WM Inc. workers, the largest group of 130 workers tired of years of delay, they struck WM Inc. for a week despite the Teamster’s official refusal to respect their picket lines.

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ACI workers, the newly organized group, braved immigration firings and IBT strong-arming to join the ILWU. All these workers and their families packed Local 6 on the first Sunday in March for International Recyclers Day.

It is refreshing to see a campaign that relies on the united strength of the workers, organized on masse to drive policy and contract changes of significant benefit to them and their families. The Campaign for Sustainable Recycling is worker driven and its power lies beyond any narrative or creative messaging, but in the willingness of workers en masse to sacrifice their sunny Sunday for the greater good. Si Se Pudo!

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All photos by Robert Gumpert.

About the author

Peter Olney

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. View all posts by Peter Olney →

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