Invisible no more

Threatened with deportation and paid illegally low wages, East Bay recycling workers did the unthinkable: They fought back.
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Striking ACI workers at the gate of the recycling facility demand the right to return to their jobs after a work stoppage.
David Bacon

We all want to be responsible for our environment. We sort our trash. We put the right things into the right containers, and feel good when we see them at the curb on trash pickup day.

Then the trash disappears. End of story.

But really, it's not the end. Not only does the trash go somewhere, but people still have to sort through what we've thrown away. In a society full of people doing work that's unacknowledged, and often out of sight, those who deal with our recycled trash are some of the most invisible of all.

Sorting trash is dangerous and dirty work. In 2012 two East Bay workers were killed in recycling facilities. With some notable exceptions, putting your hands into fast moving conveyor belts filled with cardboard and cans does not pay well — much less, for instance, than the jobs of the drivers who pick up the containers at the curb. And the sorting is done almost entirely by women of color; in the Bay Area, they are mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America, as well as some African Americans.

This spring, one group of recycling workers, probably those with the worst conditions of all, finally had enough. Their effort to attain higher wages, particularly after many were fired for their immigration status, began to pull back recycling's cloak of invisibility. Not only did they become visible activists in a growing movement of East Bay recycling workers, but their protests galvanized public action to stop the firings of undocumented workers.

 

ILLEGAL WAGES FOR "TEMPORARY" WORKERS

Alameda County Industries occupies two big, nondescript buildings at the end of a cul-de-sac in a San Leandro industrial park. Garbage trucks with recycled trash pull in every minute, dumping their fragrant loads gathered on routes in Livermore, Alameda, and San Leandro. These cities contract with ACI to process the trash. In the Bay Area, only one city, Berkeley, picks up its own garbage. All the rest sign contracts with private companies. Even Berkeley contracts recycling to an independent sorter.

At ACI, the company contracts out its own sorting work. A temp agency, Select Staffing, hires and employs the workers on the lines. As at most temp agencies, this means sorters have no health insurance, no vacations, and no holidays. It also means wages are very low, even for recycling. After a small raise two years ago, sorters began earning $8.30 per hour during the day shift, and $8.50 at night.

Last winter, workers discovered this was an illegal wage.

Because ACI has a contract with the city of San Leandro to process its recycling, it is covered by the city's Living Wage Ordinance, passed in 2007. Under that law, as of July 2013: "Covered businesses are required to pay no less than $14.17 per hour or $12.67 with health benefits valued at least $1.50 per hour, subject to annual CPI [consumer price index] adjustment."

There is no union for recycling workers at ACI, but last fall some of the women on the lines got a leaflet advertising a health and safety training workshop for recycling workers, put on by Local 6 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. There, they met the union's organizing director, Agustin Ramirez. "Sorting trash is not a clean or easy job anywhere," he recalls, "but what they described was shocking. And when they told me what they were paid, I knew something was very wrong."

Ramirez put them in touch with a lawyer. In January, the lawyer sent ACI and Select a letter stating workers' intention to file suit to reclaim the unpaid wages. ACI has about 70 sorters. At 2,000 work hours per year each, and a potential discrepancy of almost $6 per hour, that adds up to a lot of money in back wages.

Comments

Can we just go ahead and deport them now?

Posted by Chromefields on Jun. 12, 2014 @ 11:39 am

(or renting to one) is that they won't go whining about their damn "rights".

Of course, they can. But then Mister Freeze from ICE pays them a call. That means a few months is a privatized federal facility in Texas with no air conditioning, and then a very hot, unpleasant bus ride back to Bumfuck, Guatamala.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 12, 2014 @ 11:59 am

Any chance we could put Campos on that bus back to Bumfuck, Guatamala?
He did enter this country illegally.

Posted by Right Wing Top on Jun. 13, 2014 @ 7:10 am

Employer broke the law by paying illegal workers too little?

Simple solution: Charge the employer and deport the illegals.

"One fired janitor, Teresa Mina, said at the time, "This law is very unjust. We're doing jobs that are heavy and dirty, to help our children have a better life, or just to eat. Now my children won't have what they need.""

You have no right to be in this country and you tell us that our laws are unjust?

To everyone but doctrinaire leftists and amoral business owners it's obvious...

Don't like a foreign country's laws? Stay out.

Posted by Honest Abe on Jun. 12, 2014 @ 3:25 pm

then encourage driving down wages here in the good old USA.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 13, 2014 @ 1:20 am

Mexico has zero qualms deporting people working illegally in Mexico. The law is broadly supported there.

Posted by Right Wing Top on Jun. 13, 2014 @ 7:19 am

There is really no talk of immigration reform, what quotas of new immigrants from what countries are desired moving forward, rather documenting the undocumented and opening up the door for H1-B "guest workers."

The "immigration" political debate is really flipped upside down.

It makes no sense that this is such a high priority progressive electoral issue given that it inherently addresses the issues of very few voters and serves as a boon to corporate interests. Many "progressives" on "the left" who advocate for "immigration reform" labor under the misapprehension that immigrants represent a somehow untapped reservoir of progressive/liberal support simply because of their ethnicity and status of being oppressed as undocumenteds.

Immigrants tend to cleave politically closer to conservatives because they chose to move to the center of a brutal libertarian capitalist empire and cannot be expected to behave politically in a way that challenges that simply because they are people of color who've been oppressed. The right wing is too racist and xenophobic to realize this.

Undocumented people from Latin America should be given a safe landing here, but this is only an important issue due to corporate need for a reliable source of cheap labor.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 13, 2014 @ 5:09 am

"Immigrants tend to cleave politically closer to conservatives because they chose to move to the center of a brutal libertarian capitalist empire and cannot be expected to behave politically in a way that challenges that simply because they are people of color who've been oppressed."

That or because the left has descended into preoccupation with pet identity issues and offers nothing to people who want to work hard and create a better life for their families.

"There is really no talk of immigration reform, what quotas of new immigrants from what countries are desired moving forward, rather documenting the undocumented and opening up the door for H1-B "guest workers."

The "immigration" political debate is really flipped upside down."

That's right. We should decide who we want to accept first. Rewarding those who break the law by residing here illegally or employing illegals is backwards and unfairly punishes those who go through the process legally.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 13, 2014 @ 6:22 am

I am not so concerned about punishing those here illegally as I am about rationalizing the debate over immigration moving forward.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 13, 2014 @ 7:03 am

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