Vote No on Proposition 32: No Special Exemptions

Prop. 32: Labor Fights New Attack on Unions and the 99% in California California Labor Federation Blog by Paul Krehbiel Labor and community groups are gearing up to defeat a measure that is on the November ballot in California aimed at crippling the ability of unions to financially support election campaigns. Proposition 32, put on the … Continue reading

In Memory of Avelino “Abba” Ramos

Sunrise: April 12, 1934 Hilo, HI Sunset: June 5, 2012 Richmond, CA Avelino “Abba” Ramos passed away on June 5, 2012 in Richmond, CA at the age of 78. Abba dedicated his life to his family and the worker through his service with the ILWU in Hawaii and California. Abba graduated from the University of … Continue reading

NOTICE TO ALL LOCAL 6 HOUSES

NOTICE TO ALL LOCAL 6 HOUSES June 22, 2012 Re:  Loss of Evangelina “Eva” Macias, Local 6 Member Brothers and Sisters, It is with great sorrow that I inform you of the death of Local 6 member, Evangelina “Eva” Macias[1].  Sister Eva died from injuries sustained after being run over by a front end loader … Continue reading

Recycling’s Dirty Little Secret The people who sort our recyclables have dangerous — and sometimes disgusting — jobs. And they’re about to get worse. East Bay Express Article By Jean Tepperman. Photos by Stephen Loewinsohn

Victoria Leon and Sergio Gonzalez have seen some nasty things at their work. The married couple from Oakland has been employed for the past five years at Waste Management’s Davis Street Transfer Station in San Leandro, where they sift through the stuff that East Bay residents put in their recycling bins. Unfortunately, it’s not all cans, bottles, and cardboard. Leon and Gonzalez have seen numerous dead animals roll by on the conveyor belt that passes their sorting stations, including a lot of cats and rats, and, once, two pit bulls. They also have seen medical waste, human feces, needles, batteries, and a variety of mysterious, foul-smelling substances.

“If people just put recycling in the recycling,” Leon said in a recent interview, “that would solve many of the problems.”

But many residents don’t realize the ramifications of putting garbage and other waste in recycling bins. “A lot of us don’t know or don’t think about the fact that human beings sort through” the recycling at transfer stations, such as the one in San Leandro, noted Agustin Ramirez, Northern California organizer for the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU), which represents about two hundred of the workers at Davis Street.

In one of the buildings at Davis Street, a huge open shed, stuff from the recycling bins moves along a two-story maze of shrieking conveyor belts. Workers sort the recyclables with the help of machines fitted with screens, filters, and optical scanners. But first, some of the workers pick out the non-recyclable trash by hand. “The job we do is dangerous,” Leon said.

Although Waste Management spokesman David Tucker said employees get OSHA-approved protective gear and have not had an accident in more than a year, workers say that sorting through trash exposes them to real hazards. Gonzalez said he was cut one time by a contaminated piece of broken glass. Doctors ended up removing a four-square-inch area of his infected skin.

Needles can jab through the cloth gloves, too, Leon added. And there’s “the dust flying around us,” said Gonzalez. “They give us masks but those don’t filter out fumes from chemicals,” said Martin Reyes, who sorts the material that people bring to Davis Street themselves. “And the dust gets on my clothes, so I take that home — what’s in that dust?” One thing that’s definitely in the dust, Gonzalez said, is particles of glass: “There’s a machine that crunches the glass. They give us special glasses but the glass particles can get past them” and cut workers’ eyes.

In short, workers like Leon, Gonzalez, and Reyes have difficult jobs that pay relatively poorly. And their work could get even more disgusting because of a decision earlier this year by the Oakland City Council. The council approved a controversial plan that would force workers to sift through a large chunk of the city’s garbage — not just the stuff that ends up in recycling bins — in order to dig out food waste to be composted.

Oakland officials say they’re trying to keep as much compostable material out of landfills as possible in order to help fight climate change, but some environmental groups and labor unions say the city’s plan may actually make things worse — not only for low-paid workers who will have to sift through the nasty mess of garbage and food waste, but also for the planet. The city’s plan, critics say, undermines efforts to educate consumers about the importance of composting.

At the same time, Oakland’s plan also serves as an example of a growing issue within the green economy: how to recycle and compost as much waste as possible without harming either the safety or the livelihoods of the frontline workers.


Recycling has come a long way in a relatively short time. A few decades ago, “a precious few in Berkeley and Marin were recycling our wine bottles,” noted Ruth Abbe, a member of the Sierra Club’s Zero Waste Committee. “Now everyone gets a 64-gallon can. It’s great. It’s the democratization of recycling. On the other hand, it’s a challenge getting the word out, educating people to know what’s recyclable and what’s not — winning hearts and minds.”

Over the years, people have gotten pretty good at recycling cans and bottles, although “we still need to do better with paper,” said Oakland’s recycling specialist, Peter Slote. But for many people, the idea of composting — putting food scraps in a separate green bin and processing them to produce fertile soil for growing more food — remains unfamiliar. “We’re still at the beginning stages” of educating the public about composting, said Abbe. “We’re still overcoming the ick factor.”

Single-family homes in Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, and other East Bay cities now get three bins — for recycling, compost, and trash. But in many businesses and apartment buildings, everything has just been going into the trash. Starting July 1, however, a new Alameda County mandatory recycling ordinance will require most commercial properties and multifamily residences to provide enough recycling bins to accommodate all the recyclables they generate. In two years, by July 1, 2014, all businesses will be included. And they will all have to separate compostables (food scraps and yard waste).

According to the county’s StopWaste agency, about 60 percent of the stuff that now goes into the landfill — valued at $100 million a year — could be recycled or composted. The county’s goal is to get that down to 10 percent by 2020. That’s going to mean a lot more recyclables going through the sorting process at Davis Street, according to Waste Management spokeswoman Karen Stern.

Recycling Workers Say They Are Geting Trashed

Recycling Workers Say They Are Getting Trashed     Oakland Post March 7-13, 2012 When garbage and recy­cling goes out to the curb, most of us do not think about what happens next. Hundreds of Oakland waste workers want to change that by making the public more aware – and their em­ployer more accountable – for the … Continue reading

ILWU Waste Workers Organize to Win Better Contracts

When we take our garbage and recycling to the curb, most of us give little thought to what happens next. Two hundred ILWU members in the Bay Area waste industry are mobilizing to change that by making the public more aware – and their employer more accountable for the wages, benefits and working conditions of … Continue reading

Bayer Workers Win New Contract in Berkeley With Better Job Security

A new contract covering 420 Local 6 members at the Bayer HealthCare plant in Berkeley, California was reached on September 30 and ratified by 70% of workers on October 12.  Significant improvements The new four-year contract includes better job security, annual raises of more than 3%, and a freeze on the 18% share of health … Continue reading

Speaking out for Good Jobs at Bayer

ILWU Local 6 member Arturo Lobato spoke to members of Congress who gathered in Oakland for a town hall meeting on August 16th. The event, called “Speak Out for Good Jobs Now,” was held at the Acts Full Gospel Church in East Oakland. Lobato spoke to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Oakland Rep. Barbara Lee, … Continue reading

RockTenn Workers Take Action, Win Improvements

Local 6 members at the RockTenn recycling facility in Oakland went on strike for several hours early in the morning on August 30th after the company refused to bargain fairly for a new contract. Workers made the decision to strike after unfair labor practice charges were filed against the company. Less than two weeks later, … Continue reading