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Black Lives Matter on the Picket Line

Striking New Orleans sanitation workers fight for respect. 

Jonathan Edwards protests outside Metro Service Group. (Photo: Katie Sikora)

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NEW ORLEANS — Rahaman Brooks has had to adjust to a new daily routine during the pandemic—though, on the surface, nothing has changed. He still wakes up in the wee hours before dawn for an early morning shift. He still dons his yellow, light-reflecting vest. And he still heads down to Metro Service Group headquarters in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, where he has worked since 2017 as a trash collector.

But now, Brooks carries with him a sign that reads “I Am A Man” and, instead of making his way to the lot full of waiting garbage trucks, he joins the picket line outside Metro’s gate. 

On May 5th, a small-but-determined group of hoppers—what New Orleanians call trash collectors because they hop on and off the truck—formed the City Waste Union and walked off the job. The group of 26, all of whom are Black men, decided to strike in the face of an unprecedented public health crisis, and what they say is the trash company’s failures to protect them. 

Metro then replaced them with prison labor.   

As the coronavirus bore down on New Orleans with hurricane-like intensity, hoppers like Brooks continued to venture out into a ghost town, ensuring the city’s streets remained trash-free. As others stayed inside, Brooks braved the unforgiving Louisiana heat and went to work. 

Hitching a ride on the back of the truck with the wind rushing to greet his face, Brooks didn’t mind the job. But it’s hard work, and his indignation was boiling over. 

“You have to just do that job to see how hard it is,” he said. “It looks easy because I’m just picking up cans and dropping them but, no, it’s hard. You run sometimes 10 to 13 miles.”

Brooks and other hoppers say they finally had enough of the poverty wages and cavalier attitude Metro has towards their safety. Trucks often break down, they say, and protective equipment such as masks are scarce. Hoppers for Metro earned $10.25 to $11 an hour before the strike and had no paid time off and no paid sick leave, even though New Orleans’ living wage ordinance requires employers to pay at least $11.19 an hour and provide at minimum seven days of paid leave. Since the strike, Metro has begun to pay its hoppers $11.19 an hour. With three children to support, Brooks routinely worked 60 to 70 hours a week and says he could barely get by on his $10.25 an hour pay. The offer of $11.19 an hour, he says, doesn’t change much.

“The city might say that $11.19 is the living wage but that’s not what we say,” Brooks said. “If you don’t want to live in a neighborhood that’s crime-ridden, you can’t live on $11.19, not in New Orleans.”

“At the end of the day, them people get rich off our backbreaking.”

study conducted by the National Low Income Housing Coalition and Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center found that to rent a two-bedroom apartment in the New Orleans area—without spending more than 30 percent of your annual income on housing—an individual would have to earn at least $20.73 an hour. That translates to an annual salary of at least $38,560; the median household income in New Orleans is about $36,964 per year.

According to Zumper’s National Rent Report, which evaluates over one million listings in over 100 cities throughout the nation, New Orleans ranked 22nd amongst U.S. cities with the most expensive rent. 

The hopper’s demands are modest by comparison: a $15 an hour wage, recognition of their union, $150 a week in hazard pay, personal protective equipment against COVID-19, and that unsafe trucks be fixed. 

They have also filed a grievance against Metro with the National Labor Relations Board, citing the company’s failure to provide protective equipment, unlawful surveillance of workers, and attempts at crushing the union. 

As Brooks sees it, Metro’s management continues to enrich itself by exploiting his labor. 

“At the end of the day, them people get rich off our backbreaking. They sit in the office and collect the funds and we be outside going home sore, barely walking, unable to play with our kids,” he said.

Since the strike was first called, Brooks and his fellow hoppers continue to wake up at the crack of dawn to picket outside Metro’s headquarters, to demonstrate that they are ready and willing to work. The hoppers pull a whole day’s shift, picketing from 4 a.m to 11.a.m. 

Instead of driving into the parking lot of Metro’s headquarters and hopping on one of the trucks, Brooks drives himself to the parking lot of the Winn Dixie supermarket across the road. The neighborhood is littered with a hodgepodge of barren lots and boarded-up storefronts, a grim reminder of the community’s protracted recovery from the apocalyptic devastation inflicted by Hurricane Katrina 15 years ago. After the storm, much of the community’s affordable housing was never rebuilt, permanently displacing thousands who fled the rising waters and leaving the area an echo of its former self. 

The idea to strike had been growing for some time, as the discontent against Metro mounted. But the coronavirus proved to be the catalyst. As the virus crept its way into the heart of Black New Orleans, silently wreaking havoc on an already fragile population, some hoppers began to fall ill. Some hesitated to call in sick or risk losing a day’s pay.

“Metro never gave us any PPEs or anything like that so hoppers was getting sick,” said Brooks. “And if they get sick, we don’t have sick pay, so they still come to work because they can’t afford not to get paid.”

“A few of us have been thinking about striking way before the pandemic, but when we weren’t getting any PPE we figured the time was right now,” said Jonathan Edwards, a 12-year veteran hopper. “Now that we are on strike we ain’t planning to lie down.”

The City Waste Union has been on strike since May. (Photo: Katie Sikora)

Metro does not directly employ the hoppers. Instead, Metro subcontracts the hiring to a temp agency called PeopleReady. By hiring the hoppers as temporary workers instead of full-time employees, Metro avoids providing them with health care, retirement plans, sick days, or vacation pay. Metro also sidesteps paying payroll taxes on the hoppers’ wages. 

When Metro failed to provide enough safety equipment such as face masks and gloves, the hoppers say, they went on strike. 

In response, the union also alleges, PeopleReady abruptly fired all of the striking workers, including Brooks and Edwards.

David Irwin, a spokesperson for PeopleReady, denies that the workers were fired. 

“PeopleReady wants to make it clear that no striking worker has been, nor will they be fired,” he said. “PeopleReady has informed the striking employees of this to ensure that there is no misunderstanding. Several PeopleReady employees have returned to work. We welcome the rest of those striking to come back soon.”

Greg Beuerman, a spokesman for Metro, also denied many of the workers’ allegations, insisting that the company has not fired any of the workers, provides PPE for all employees, and pays the minimum wage. He says Metro purchased 15,000 masks, 2,000 sets of heavy gloves, and sanitizer before the strike was called. He was also eager to point out that the company makes donations to over 200 civic, educational, economic development, and religious organizations throughout Louisiana.

But once the strike was called, Metro Service Group replaced the striking workers with prison labor. Contracting with another private company, Lock5 LLC, Metro hired inmates to work as hoppers. 

Louisiana has an incarceration rate of 683 people per 100,000 residents, giving the state the distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the country. 

“This is the 13th Amendment loophole in action,” said Daytrian Wilken, spokesperson for the City Waste Union and Jonathan Edwards’ niece. “They [Metro] are hiring slaves—because that’s what they are when they are under the charge of the state.” 

Although the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawed chattel slavery, it did not ban the practice of forced labor outright. The Amendment made an exception for prison labor: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude,” it states, “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”

The practice of using convict labor to break strikes dates back to the early 1890s when mine owners attempted to subvert striking mineworkers’ union efforts during the Coal Creek Wars in eastern Tennessee. The mine owners replaced the striking miners with convict laborers leased out by the Tennessee state prison system. Enraged, striking miners attacked the state prison stockades, freed hundreds of prison laborers, and set mine properties ablaze. The conflict led the Tennessee state government to abolish its convict leasing system—making Tennessee the first southern state to end the practice, in 1894.

“This is the 13th Amendment loophole in action… They are hiring slaves.”

Lock5 quickly pulled out of the agreement with Metro after learning that the inmates were replacing striking workers. Lock5 manager Hootie Lockhart told the New Orleans Advocate that he “did not know that there was a strike going on. That was never relayed to us. We won’t be back. Not as long as there’s a labor issue.” And though Metro has since hired other temp workers to replace those on strike, staffing shortages persist, and the city has received a spike of complaints about Metro missing trash pickups.

Beuerman, the Metro spokesperson, disputed the claim that the company had replaced its striking workers with prison labor. 

“No one has been replaced with ‘prison labor,’” he said. “For just the first four days of the strike, Metro was forced to subcontract with a work-release program to meet the temporary staffing shortfall so the company could honor its contract with the city.” 

Lock5 LLC is a private company that is contracted by Louisiana to manage its state work-release program. In other words: prison labor.

In 1996, New Orleans privatized its public sanitation sector, birthing a private trash collection industry overnight. Metro is currently one of three private companies that are contracted with the city to collect residents’ trash. In 2017, Metro signed a seven-year, $10.7 million contract with the city. That same year, Metro’s co-owner Jimmie Woods donated $2,500 to City Councilman Joseph I. Giarrusso III, the chair of the city’s Public Works, Sanitation and Environment Committee, which evaluates contracts and has oversight over the sanitation industry.

Interestingly, Metro Service Group is a Black-owned company. It was founded in 1982 by brothers Jimmie and Glenn Woods, who were both former hoppers. Since its founding, the brothers have become some of the most respected business leaders in the city and the company has grown into one of the largest African-American owned contractors in Louisiana: its annual revenue is $19.98 million.

With nearly 40 percent of Black businesses not expected to survive the pandemic, Metro stands as a rare success story. But Daytrian Wilken, the City Waste Union spokesperson, believes that success is predicated on the exploitation of Black bodies.

“We as a community want to support Black businesses but Black exploitation does not end because the company is Black,” she said. “Their bottom line needs them to exploit Black men.”

“In order for you to make money, exploitation has to happen somewhere,” she continued. “And that’s fine if that’s the way that you do your business—but understand that when people say ‘no, fuck that, I’m not going to let you exploit me,’ at some point you’re going to have to concede to some of the demands the people of the community are making.”

D’artanian DeJean protests outside Metro Service Group. (Photo: Katie Sikora)

The Metro sanitation strike is no isolated incident. It’s part of a wave of labor actions that have been sweeping across the country in the wake of the conjoined pandemic and economic crisis. Many of the strikes have been initiated by workers in the gig economy, who live in a perpetual state of precariousness: roaming from one job to the next without any benefits, and uncertain where their next check will be coming from. 

Workers at companies like Instacart and Target’s delivery service, Shipt, organized walkouts to protest their unsafe working conditions. In July, gig workers for Amazon, Google, Uber, Lyft, and Postmates organized work stoppages in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. The pandemic has only exacerbated the inherent dangers that gig economy workers face, forcing many to choose between going broke or working and putting their health at risk. 

Temp workers routinely fall victim to racial discrimination, wage theft and sexual harassment. They also face a greater risk of workplace injury than permanent employees. 

The U.S Bureau of Labor estimates that nearly 3.2 million people are currently working in temporary positions across the United States. And according to the American Staffing Association, a staffing agency trade group, agencies last year hired more than 15 million temporary and contract employees. In fact, several temp agencies have grown to become some of the largest employers in the country. 

“There is a long history of using temporary employment and it’s growing in the United States,” said Vern Baxter, Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at The University of New Orleans. “Most simply, it’s a way of avoiding paying benefits to your workers, oftentimes pay cheaper wages and also avoid any kind of commitment beyond week to week for the employees.”

Despite their determination, the strike has taken its toll on the sanitation workers. Many who initially walked off the job have gone back to work, with the number of strikers now down to 13, from the high of 26. 

At first, Jonathan Edwards was frustrated at the hoppers who went back to work. The strike has not been easy for him and his family: every day he spends striking, the more his financial situation deteriorates. But he grew to appreciate that not everyone could continue to lose their pay. 

“I understand that some people have to sacrifice for others to win,” he said.

For Rahman Brooks, the strike feels as though he has come full circle. As a kid growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, he had always heard stories about the 1968 Sanitation Strike, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to a crowd of mostly Black sanitation workers. The speech turned out to be King’s last; the next morning, King was murdered at the Lorraine Motel. 

King connected the Memphis sanitation strike to the greater global struggle for racial and economic justice, declaring: “The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee—the cry is always the same—‘We want to be free.’” 

It was that 1968 sanitation strike, ignited by the death of two Black sanitation workers, that popularized the slogan “I Am a Man.” And it is that 1968 sanitation strike that is the inspiration for the striking New Orleans sanitation workers today. 

“This is very special to me,” Brooks said. 

It’s the first time he has ever engaged in political action, and it has become one of the defining moments of his life. 

“When people tell me that we influence them that means a lot to me,” he said, “because if you haven’t done anything good in your life, you have now.”

Amir Khafagy is a New York City-based journalist. He has contributed to such publications as Vice, Dame, Truthout, Bloomberg, Gothamist, Jacobin, Curbed, City Limits, and In These Times. Follow him on Twitter.