Nearly 45 years to the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated during a trip to support Memphis trash haulers, more than 70 DeKalb County sanitation workers showed up to a County Commission meeting Tuesday to demand a union.
The turnout of workers in their neon yellow safety shirts — some taking a break from work — was just a fraction of the 411 employees who have petitioned commissioners to recognize Teamsters Local 728, an existing union in the region that DeKalb’s sanitation workers wish to join. Some invoked King in explaining their main concerns: safety and dignity on the job.
“I know most people don’t think about the trash when they put it out in the morning, because it’s gone when they come home,” said Angelo Williams, a driver who has worked for DeKalb for more than 12 years. “We do an excellent job in DeKalb. But we need an advocate so we can safely continuously serve this county.”
Unlike Cobb and Gwinnett counties, where private haulers collect trash, DeKalb runs a sanitation department and owns the Seminole Road Landfill where waste is taken. DeKalb has kept curbside rates steady for seven years in part by emphasizing recycling and expanding the life of that dump.
At the same time, however, morale in the sanitation department has plunged. Like all other county workers, those employees haven’t seen a raise since 2008.
But garbage workers do the fourth most dangerous job in the country, suffering more fatalities than even police officers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, acknowledged the difficult work during brief comments to workers. Ellis reminded the workers that he had ordered his administrators to allow unionizing efforts and said there would be no repercussions against workers who were involved in the initiative.
Commissioners, too, said they supported the right to join a union. The real hurdle: the legal question of how to allow union membership while honoring a local law that does not allow dues to be automatically deducted from employee pay.
Working out that process could take months. So, too, could the separate question of one-time raises for the lowest-paid county workers, including haulers who can earn as little as $20,000 a year.
Commissioners are moving toward a one-time bonus for employees who earn less than $37,700 a year — many of them in the sanitation department.
“There are things we are doing to help them, but I understand they want an opportunity to talk,” said Lee May, the commission’s presiding officer. “In that regard, recognizing a union will not be a problem.”
May said the commission will set up a meeting in the next few weeks to talk with sanitation workers about specific concerns. The board can adopt new safety policies, for instance, even as the union issue remains outstanding.
Despite the show of force at the meeting, workers said they were upbeat, not angry, about the process.
After filing out of the session, several dozen even chanted several rounds of “DeKalb” to show their unity with the government and the nearly 700,000 people they serve when they roll out four times every week to pick up trash, recycling and yard waste.
“I hope that not only the board but also the citizens that we serve recognize that our quality of work has not diminished, not one bit,” said Quenton Hoskins, a driver who has worked for DeKalb for 10 years. “That is a testament that being recognized as a union would not diminish the work we do on a daily basis. We all just want stronger communities.”