Most recycling workers at Waste Management Davis Street facility in the East Bay are being paid a paltry $12.67 an hour or less. It’s less than the Local 6 members need to support their families. On top of the low wages, they had to deal with a dangerous rat infestation that plagued their workplace until they organized to exterminate the problem.
Big ugly rats
The Waste Management rats aren’t just big and ugly – they can carry 70 dangerous diseases including the plague, typhus, and deadly hantavirus. Droppings and urine from diseased rats also can create dangerous disease vectors, especially if workers inhale dust or come in contact with the feces, urine or decayed carcasses.
Allowing the rats to get out of control was Waste Management’s first mistake. Ignoring worker complaints and concerns compounded the problem. Ordering workers to enter enclosed spaces where rats were roaming freely and defecating pushed workers to the breaking point. “Making us work with the rats was dangerous and disrespectful,” said Jaciel Gonzalez.
Company ignored safety & health laws
By allowing the rats to run wild and exposing workers to hazards, the company also was violating health and safety laws, but the threat of violations didn’t make management lift a finger to fix the problem.
CEO’s don’t have to worry about rats
“The CEO doesn’t have to worry about rats in his office, or get down on his hands and knees with rat urine or droppings, but some of us do,” said Victoria León. Working without rats, Waste Management’s CEO was able to take home $7 million last year, and the company made almost a $1 billion in profit. But the company’s mega-resources weren’t available to help workers address the rat infestation until early April, when something changed.
Organizing made the difference
Waste Management recycling workers decided to get organized and do something about the rat problem. They circulated petitions that called on management to end the disrespect, solve the rat problem and start protecting workers.
Sticking together, showing unity
After everyone signed, they got together and marched to the boss where they presented their petitions as a group. Most workers also carried signs with a large rat to make the point clear.
“We presented the petition together to show that all of us were involved and behind this,” said Maria Hernandez who works on the swing shift. Both day and swing shift workers presented the petitions to their supervisors. The supervisors on both shifts accepted the petitions and promised to pass along the workers’ concerns to upper management.
Company moves under pressure
Even before the petitions had been presented, management got word that workers were angry and organizing about the rats. The company quickly hired an exterminator. Workers asked for more safety equipment, more frequent cleaning, and testing to make sure areas are safe before they enter to do cleaning, especially in enclosed areas. There are still some rats at Waste Management, but Local 6 workers are learning how to control them with organizing and unity.