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An interview with a garbage and recycling collection contractor

by Workers Struggle - Sudbury

The Interview

Al Ternative works at Waste Management, a garbage and recycling collection contractor, in residential collection. There are approximately 40 workers working for this company in Sudbury. The workers for the garbage collection and recycling collection departments of this company are represented by two different unions.  There are approximately 30 workers in Al’s bargaining unit with LIUNA (Labourers’ International Union of North America), including labourers (pitchers), drivers, and mechanics.

Al started as a temporary pitcher in 2010 at $11 per hour. With the completion of his DZ training, he became full time in 2011, which bumped his hourly rate up by $7. He now makes $18.73 an hour, which is lower than other municipalities, and lower than what our own city workers earn. Waste Management workers do not have their daily hours of work guaranteed. They can only work until the work runs out every day, and they work under constant surveillance.

The main areas of struggle in Al’s workplace are: 
         •  Hours of work 
         • Company surveillance 
         • Dealing with the City 
         • Union struggles

Hours of work

Waste Management workers are scheduled from 6:30 am – 4:30 pm, 4 days per week, but they have to leave work without pay as soon as their work is done for the day. So they’re only paid as long as the company can provide work, not for the hours that the company scheduled them for. For Al, Fridays in particular are a struggle to make hours because he doesn’t have a set run for that day. “Going home at noon on a Friday is nice, but, it doesn’t pay the bills…It’s great if you do the whole full days. But like recently, because it’s winter, spring’s not here yet, people haven’t been cleaning their yards yet, it’s been really – like this month and last month, especially a few weeks after Christmas, coming close to February and beginning of March, that’s a slow period for us. There’s not much work. I mean, unless I make work for myself, and it’s very hard to do with GPS in our trucks. That’s a new thing in our trucks.”

Company surveillance

It is very difficult for Waste Management workers to work to rule to get their scheduled hours. This is because of the GPS monitoring in the new tablets that workers are assigned every morning. “We all want to make hours. We try to drag it out but because of the GPS in the trucks we can’t drag it out too much. So, what we do is we go for our hour, take a small break, under ten minutes, ‘cause at ten minutes the GPS pings that we’ve been sitting, and then we go for another hour, wait nine minutes, and then go for another hour, wait nine minutes. Ten minutes an hour they won’t care. Ten minutes of down time on a truck, they won’t make a big and bad; they won’t bat an eye about it. It’s fine, whatever. You coulda been talking to a customer, you coulda been picking up a bunch of bulk, somebody had to go take a piss, you know, whatever. Under ten minutes we don’t have to mark it down as a break and it doesn’t ping against our time. Once it’s ten minutes, a fifteen minute break has to be written down.”

To give readers a sense of the intrusion and infantilization this time management technology represents, here is the button pressing sequence workers are now required to input:

Circle check 
Sign in co-worker 
Press leave yard 
First stop press start 
Lunch press stop 
Press lunch 
Press end lunch 
Press resume run 
Dump and fuel 
Press finish 
Drive to landfill 
Press arrive landfill – press Sudbury garbage – municipal 
Go dump 
Ticket from scale entered 
Press leave yard 
Fuel truck 
Press arrive yard 
Press kilometers, hours 
Circle check again 
Hand in tablet

There are additional buttons to press if the truck breaks down, etc. and fifteen minute breaks are not input in this way.

Waste Management workers cannot turn the tablet’s GPS off. Al was sufficiently concerned about this encroachment to research Canadian law regarding the time management of workers. “Companies are not supposed to time manage your whole day. They can time – so when I’m going from house to house, they can have the GPS on. As soon as I leave the neighbourhood and I’m not doing house to house, I should have the option to be able to turn the GPS off, but I don’t. I don’t know what’s going on with this. I’ve heard from guys that we should have been fighting it right away with the unions, but I’ve also been hearing that people are doing is they’re waiting for their new collective agreements to come up, ours is in a year and a half from now. So, when that happens, we’re going to fight the whole GPS thing.”

To give readers a sense of the camaraderie and autonomy workers enjoyed before the GPS tactic was introduced, Al describes a typical day before this technology was implemented. “My Wednesday run is a very short run. No matter how slow you go, the latest I’ve ever been done with even dumping twice in a day, I’m done at two o’clock. I just, I can’t stretch it until four no matter what I do. So, what I would do is, I would do my first part, from xxxxxxx Road all the way to… xxxxxAvenue and then I’d go to the Tim Horton’s at xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx, I’d collect whatever all the way down there on the xxxxxxx and then I’d stop at the Tim Horton’s and I’d sit there for about half an hour. Then I’d drive up and I’d do the xxxxxxxxxxxxx area, that would only take like a half an hour. Drive back and then I’d do the xxxxxxx down all the way from there…’tilxxxxx. And then I’d drive down to the Tim Horton’s, sit there for an hour, well forty-five, usually. Then I’d drive up and I’d do the other, all up by the xxxxx and all that, the xxxxxxx area and all that and then I’d, we’d go and have our lunch. Then we’d call the other guys and say, ‘How you guys doing?’ ‘Oh, we’re on this street.’ ‘Alright, we’ll meet you there.’ We’d go help the other guys. We wouldn’t even call the office and ask if they want help. We’d just go and help them.  Cause they, those guys on xxxxxxxxx, they would start later because they had to dump thexxxxx truck cause that’s their truck for the day.... So, we would go and help them do a couple, bang off xxxxx, xxxxx, and xxxxx Street…and then we’d sit for another hour and then we’d call in. But with the GPSs you can’t do that.”

When asked if he agreed with the company’s expenditure and whether it could have been better used to bring wages up commensurate with other municipalities, Al replied, 
“Company-wise it’s making them millions….Because two years ago, I made approximately $45000. Last year I made $41000. I haven’t done my taxes yet….It’s going down.”

Dealing with the City

Another source of struggle in Al’s work is dealing with policies set out by the City.  For garbage, there is a three bag limit per household in Sudbury. “The thing is though is, they set the rules, they tell us to follow the rules, but yet, we get a wrench, we get a limit sheet is what it’s called. The limit sheet has like um address, a code for why we’re – for what reason we’re leaving something behind or whatever and then we have to write a little description if a description is needed. So like I come up to a house and they have like a fridge and stove at the end of their driveway so I write down you know 278 blah blah lane and I write fridge, stove and it’s code sixteen for white goods. And I put a check mark for the Oops sticker and I have an Oops sticker that I’ll leave there that’ll say another truck will come and get this at a later date. So that’s simple.  Never have problems with those. But then I come up to a house with a person who has let’s say six bags of garbage and a pile of carpet because they ripped out all their carpet in their house. The carpet’s all bundled properly, like the city told them to do it, but I leave an Oops sticker and then the person comes running out of the house freaking out on me. 
'Well, I’m sorry sir; it’s only a three bag limit, three item limit. Carpets count under that.' I don’t know why the city decided to do that. It would be just so much easier if I could just throw it all in. Then I don’t have to deal with it; just go on.”

But if the worker just throws it all in because he knows eventually it will end up in his truck (or worse, he’ll get sent back), then he’s in violation. “First offence is write-up, second offence is um, oh verbal warning, write-up, suspension, fired….Now the chances of them watching us is very slim. But city vehicles are harder to spot out than our company trucks’ managers watching us. Our managers all drive Ford F-150s. They’re white, they have a “Waste Management” symbol on them and a little orange light on top. I can, I know where they are. We can spot them. The city, they drive Toyota Prius’, they drive Escapes, they drive all kinds of different vehicles. So and the city trucks, there’s city water division, city waste division, there’s city this division, city that division, road division. So like, we don’t know if they’re watching us, or not. We never know when they’re watching us….But the thing is though, ok, I do that, I do it properly. You’re not happy about it. You run in your house and you get on 311, you freak and scream at the City. I wrote it all down. I’m gone. I’m at the other end of town, I’m almost done my run. I get a phone call from my boss, ‘You gotta go back to that address and pick it up.’ ‘Seriously?’ So fine, we do that. We come back, we pick it all up….The neighbours all see this, not every neighbour but there’s always the people that see it. They’re seeing this and then they start leaving extra shit out. And it just becomes an endless cycle….The City of Sudbury, they never stick to the rules….”

A similar situation occurs after Christmas. Many residents place their Christmas tree somewhere other than beside their garbage. Workers are only allowed to make one stop per residence and therefore cannot pick up trees that are placed, for whatever reason, somewhere else. This policy frustrates Al, “I don’t see why it’s a big deal if I drive in, guy scoops the tree up, I just keep going. It’s one single motion.” The same rule is true for any bulk item, including furniture. These items have to be placed next to the regular garbage in order to be picked up.

Union struggles

Al’s workplace is unionized, as are Waste Management workplaces in other municipalities, but not with the same union. It is also the trend to have two unions representing these workers, one union for the garbage workers and one union for the recycling workers. “The reason why the company allows that is so that if one union goes on strike, at least they have back up. That’s what I think. Because I’ve noticed that at every single yard I go to, there’s always two unions. I’ve done training, I’ve had to go help out in other yards, or heard from guys coming from other yards, that we have two unions. It’s smart.”

Waste Management workers are not only divided across municipalities, they are further divided between commercial and residential workers. “I find that our union it’s mostly about the commercial guys. Everything that – like our last contract mostly benefitted the commercial guys. Um, I mean I understand why it’s that way in a way. I don’t think, it’s not necessarily right. I don’t think it should always lean that way but I understand why. The commercial guys is our company’s money maker big time, so they wanna please those guys. Cause that’s where they make the money, front-end roll off. Companies pay them to pick up their garbage. Where us res-y guys, there’s no money in residential garbage. None whatsoever….We’re cost plus….When it came to the contract negotiations and all that, everything was all about getting bonuses for these guys. Like holy geez, what about us? Like what about the labourers? Why don’t they get a raise? Like they went from $11 to $13 in four years, that’s not very much.”

The labourers are also being divided individually for special pay treatments. “And one of the labourers is actually getting more than me, because he’s been with the company for almost twenty years. And he’s only been a labourer, but when he got his big raise, and, he was a good worker, he always showed up to work, never called in sick, did his job, did extra work when he could. They gave him the raise because he was a good worker.” I asked if this raise was outside of the pay treatment set out in the collective agreement and Al confirmed, “Yes, it is.” I asked if anyone grieved it and he recalled one man did, “He was told three months good work habits, showing up all the time, being on time, all that kind of stuff and we’ll get you that raise.”

Apparently during the last contract negotiations the union tried to secure some guaranteed pay for the workers. “Our last contract, I was just brand new hired on, so I didn’t know all the ins and outs of everything….They were trying to fight for us getting at least eight hours of guaranteed pay, um, but that didn’t pan out.” Instead the company offered a $750 signing bonus to avoid having to struggle or worse, having to make a concession. Al justified, “Well, the thing is, I did the math, the signing bonus worked out to be the pay raise anyways.”

Vehicle breakdowns are also a problem, and there’s no language in the collective agreement regarding these. Workers are expected to cover for each other when there is a breakdown. There is a danger of management amalgamating runs if the workers can easily come together to cover the work of someone who is broken down. Al knows there are other municipalities who have language on this. “See down in Brampton, like for example, in their contract, if you’re broken down for an hour or less, no help, you’re on your own, finish your run. But if you’re broken down for an hour or more, we will send you help….It’s very specific with the City, and that’s what Sudbury needs. We need a very specific contract that labels out, you know, this type of help is gonna happen, this is the amount of trucks we need, this is the conditions the truck’s gotta be in all the time. Um, we don’t have that in Sudbury.”

Double-siding is also an issue where there is confusion. “With us that’s the biggest thing: production, production, production but follow the rules. But if we follow the rules we’ll never get done….When I was talking about the life critical rules, we can’t double-side. Well on my Tuesday run there’s a loop that I do, um, I go down uh, xxxxxxxxx Road, I go up xxxxxx, I come around and I go up xxxxxx and then I go out. I double-side that whole loop. If I didn’t I would add an extra hour and a half to my day. I would never make the dump, ever. ‘So but, technically you’re breaking a rule?’ I’m breaking a rule. They know I’m breaking that rule, just don’t get caught…..Our company refuses to give us permission to do that.”


The situation with the hours of work at Al’s workplace is a good example of the fundamental contradiction between workers and capitalists. When worker organizations are stronger, the capitalist has to pay the worker for all the hours they’re reserved to work with their schedule. When capitalists are stronger, they can tell the worker to go home without pay whenever they please. When workers are stronger, it’s the capitalist’s problem if they run out of work – not the worker’s. Before City workers gave up this work, they were paid for all hours they were scheduled and they organized their work days fairly autonomously. The City was successful in privatizing this work and now these workers are enduring harsher conditions. They’re not yet really struggling on this issue, they’re mostly just taking it and management is taking advantage of their low level of struggle and working class consciousness.

This lack of class solidarity was also evident in our discussion of breakdowns. Al was preoccupied with a worker who he perceived as a slow and picky worker. We discussed erring on the side of his co-worker and not management when it comes to work. If there are discrepancies in the speed workers work, it’s very important to pay attention to the reasons for this because it may be necessary for co-workers to slow the speed of their work in order to achieve a higher level of collectivity and solidarity. Capitalists achieve significant divisiveness by othering over the speed which workers work. It’s important for workers to build unity around how fast they will work collectively. It’s important to work to rule when it is beneficial to do so as a strategic measure for workers to exert their power.

A good example of when working to rule is not beneficial to workers is the practice of adhering to the City’s garbage pick-up policies. To set up policies and refuse to defend them if a resident complains is to pit the collection workers against the community, which is a low blow. All of this garbage gets picked up in the end – it’s in the workers’ best interests to be proactive. Workers should be picking up everything residents are allowed to put out for collection, in order to build community and solidarity. As a community, we do not have to accept the dictation of these policies. The workers should be making these decisions themselves. They are already doing this when they double-side areas they determine should be double-sided, so they can build on that. If workers experience disciplinary action for taking too much garbage at one location, we can mobilize as a community to support workers. It’s important not to give in to the effects of surveillance and scrutinizing of our work.

During our interview, Al sometimes sympathized with management over his co-workers. He often expressed understanding and patience for his boss’s position. This is unfortunate. We discussed that in a more militant union, this would be frowned upon. At one point in our discussion he minimized the intrusion of the GPS. “Yeah ok, they put these GPS systems in our trucks now and it’s managed time a little bit but still, there’s always ways around that, there’s always people figuring things out. Look at me, I’m taking nine minute breaks.” Al is right, people do resist all the time, but it is not possible for individual resistance to magnify the power workers have the way collective resistance can. More serious and collective struggle is needed.

This interview was originally posted at Workers Struggle - Sudbury.

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