California Organizing Drive Attacks Last Nonunion Solid Waste Contractor in Region
After 25 years of driving for the solid waste company Ratto Group, Patricio Estupiñán was tired.
His equipment was in horrible condition, and he was being forced into so much overtime he barely had time for a life outside of work.
So he did something about it: He and his co-workers formed their union with the Teamsters.
Before becoming a Teamster, disrespect and mistreatment on the job was rampant and it seemed like he had no recourse.
“There was too much injustice and we needed a change,” Estupiñán said. “We needed a complete change, the biggest change possible, and the Teamsters were the only option that was going to make that happen.”
On March 19, 300 workers packed a community center in Santa Rosa, Calif. The Ratto Group recently announced that they had been sold, and a new company was going to be handling sanitation for Sonoma County and the city of Santa Rosa.
“Who’s ready for some change?” Organizer Ricardo Hidalgo asked the workers, after delivering the news that they would soon become members of Local 665. The crowd cheered wildly. It was clear that the change Estupiñán had desired for so long had finally arrived.
“The Ratto Group is something we’ve been working on for a very long time,” said Ron Herrera, International Vice President and Director of the Solid Waste Division. “We’re looking forward to welcoming our newest members into the union. No matter what these workers were up against, they always stood strong during the organizing drive.”
The Teamsters have represented the vast majority of the sanitation workers in Northern California for quite some time, but the Ratto Group had always been a holdout. After almost 20 years and four different attempts to bring a union to the Ratto Group’s North Bay location, the company was beginning to become a consistent source of aggravation.
Local 665 Secretary-Treasurer Mark Gleason remembers how challenging the Ratto Group was, and he’s looking forward to getting the new members significant changes in their workplace.
“In Northern California, the workers in Sonoma County were among the lowest-paid, lowest-compensated workers in the sanitation and recycling industry,” Gleason said. “We’re going to negotiate a benefits package that’s substantially better than the bare-bones one they have with Ratto Group, we’re going to negotiate on wages and retirement. Lots of improvements are coming.”
Doug Bloch, Political Director of Joint Council 7, echoed Gleason’s sentiment. “The issue that we’ve had over the years is that Ratto Group has always been out there undercutting us. They drag down industry standards across the entire region by paying these workers substandard wages,” Bloch said. “This has a negative effect on us when we go to negotiate a contract, or any time these cities review the rates that they pay to these garbage companies. For the longest time, we just couldn’t deal with them.”
The comparatively low cost that the Ratto Group offered to Santa Rosa came at a high price to someone else: The workers there described conditions that were far below the standards that their union counterparts enjoyed in other parts of the region.
“My concern with Ratto is that they don’t care about safety,” said Francisco Covarrubias, a driver with 11 years of service. “I would go out on a route, they want me to overflow the truck. That’s not permitted by law. If California Highway Patrol caught me with overloads, I could go to jail.”
Juan Gerardo Rodriguez, a driver who has been with Ratto Group for 13 years, spoke of similar problems on the job. “Sometimes we have to assist our fellow workers along the route because the equipment breaks down,” Rodriguez said. “That slows us down, but it’s pretty much routine.”
Ratto Group workers also expressed displeasure at the way management treated them.
“I start at 7 a.m. and nobody says ‘good morning’ when you come in, nothing like that. It’s only ‘hurry up!’ or, ‘I need this truck,’ or ‘you guys are lazy, start moving,’” said Efren Cuniga, a mechanic with 17 years of service. “The manager wants to make everything faster, and he wants the trucks running straight away. I work 12-to-13-hour days.” Covarrubias agreed.
“They were very mean. I’ve never worked for a company like this, as bad as this one,” Covarrubias said. “The only reason I never left was because I needed a secure job for my family.”
After years of fighting for representation, things began to look up last year. In November, Local 665 was approached by drivers at the Ratto Group about re-launching the organizing effort, and the local decided to make another go at it, this time with help from the International Union. Initially, the local was only going to target the drivers, but when the workers started talking to each other, they realized the groundswell of support meant they could make a play for the entire facility.
“The union sounded like a good idea,” said Jose Gutierrez-Mejia, a sorter who has been with the company for about two years. “Everyone had a bad job before, too many hours, bad conditions, we wanted more opportunities. Everybody I talked to said they were in favor of the union, I mean everybody. We knew it would make our jobs better and we weren’t afraid to fight for it.”
The timing of the organizing drive could not have been better. The city of Santa Rosa had recently hired an auditor to investigate the company, and their findings were bad news for the Ratto Group. Violations included things the workers had been fighting to change for years: outdated equipment, failure to meet minimum levels of recycling, and even operating an unpermitted, rat-infested facility. The company had to pay millions of dollars in fines, and its contracts with Sonoma County and the city of Santa Rosa looked like they might be in jeopardy.
In January of this year, the Ratto Group decided to accept a buy-out from a larger company, Recology, and it became clear that they would no longer be operating in Sonoma County. The city of Santa Rosa, one of Ratto’s largest customers, put their contract with the company out to bid. A few months later, Santa Rosa workers filed for an election. After more than a decade of being denied union representation, they hope to win.
The organizing effort has received strong support from other Teamster locals in Joint Council 7, including Local 856 (which represents Santa Rosa city workers), Locals 315 and 350 (which represent Recology) and Local 70 (which represents Waste Management).
“We’ve had great support politically from the local officials here, from community activists and environmental groups, and from our sister Teamster locals, but the workers and the organizing drive are the real reasons behind our success,” said Mike Yates, Local 665 business agent.
With the union and new management coming in, the newest members of Local 665 are looking forward to the most pressing issue at their jobs getting addressed: safety. With the audit exposing egregious issues that persisted for years, workers know that there’s a high expectation to improve these standards.
“This work is very dangerous. The drivers, the sorters and the helpers, these are the ones who need better standards the most,” said Roman Olvera, a Ratto Group worker for 25 years. “For years, we’ve all had to worry about safety on the job every day we come to work. Worry about how we’ll feed our families if we get seriously injured. Now, that’s finally going to come to an end.”
“With the union coming, it will be necessary for the company to follow the rules in regards to improved equipment,” said Driver Juan Gerardo-Rodriguez. “It will also be better for the community, because we will complete our routes on time and there won’t be so much pollution.”
In addition to safety, Santa Rosa sanitation workers are looking forward to the standards the Teamsters Union can bring.
Jesus Ortega has been a driver’s assistant for six months. “I’m looking forward to better pay, better benefits,” Ortega said. “I’m looking forward to negotiating for higher wages so my family and I can best plan for the future. We feel good now because we have the support of each other and the union.”
Raymundo Perez started as a side-loader helper at 19 and has since become a driver. In his 28 years working for Ratto Group, one thing that’s become important to him is a voice on the job and long-term security.
“We get better salary, better hours, but we also get better supervisors, because I know that I have a union representative that I can go talk to if I have issues on the job,” Perez said. “It’s going to make my family’s life better. I can come home knowing I have a future built up for my family and for myself.”
Santa Rosa sanitation workers have seen first-hand that hard work pays off if you never give up. They are optimistic for the future: both for themselves, and for their union brothers and sisters all throughout California.
“I am incredibly proud,” Gerardo-Rodriguez said. “We didn’t have a union before, but now, we are united. This is something that will benefit not only the workers, but also our families and the community at large.”
“Right now, I feel awesome. I feel really excited for the future. I just pray that other waste workers have an opportunity like we have. Even other companies will see this is a great opportunity,” Perez said. “After 20 years, this is the first time that we’re bringing the union to Sonoma County and I'm excited for everybody.”
Waste Victories, Coast-to-Coast
New York City Recycling Workers Vote to Join Teamsters, California Workers Ratify Contract
Teamsters in the solid waste industry won two major campaigns recently, with recycling workers in New York City voting to join the union and California workers ratifying a contract that sets standards for waste workers in the region.
In New York, the workers at Sims Municipal Recycling voted 46-20 in early March to join Local 210 in an election that was overseen by an independent arbitrator.
The vote capped an eight-month organizing drive by the workers, who process all of the city’s residential recycling. An agreement reached the day before the vote between the union and company averted a strike and gave workers an immediate union vote, free of employer interference.
“It feels so good to say that we are Teamsters,” said Jordy Lopez, a Sims worker. “We are proud to count Sims’ Brooklyn workers as Teamsters,” said George Miranda, International Vice President and Secretary-Treasurer of Local 210. “Our union is working with the environmental justice movement to transform New York’s sanitation industry to protect workers and communities. This victory at Sims is one step in that larger fight.”
The Brooklyn facility processes all of the residential recycling collected by the New York City Department of Sanitation.
Workers informed company management in December that a majority had signed union authorization cards with Local 210, but the company refused to bargain a contract.
Prior to the vote, the workers filed unfair labor practice charges at the National Labor Relations Board alleging a union-busting campaign by management that included threats and retaliation against union supporters.
Earlier this year, workers at Waste Management in Southern California who belong to Local 396 overwhelmingly ratified a contract that sets standards for waste workers in the region.
"This contract provides substantial improvements to the workers’ medical coverage as well as significant wage increases and increases in company contributions to the workers' pension plan,” said Ron Herrera, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 396 in Covina, who also is Director of the Teamsters Solid Waste, Recycling and Related Industries Division. “It also provides for an improved and expedited grievance and arbitration procedure to protect our members’ jobs. Furthermore, we’ve negotiated first-of-its-kind language to protect the rights of immigrant workers.”
The five-year contract was ratified overwhelmingly in early January. It covers nearly 300 workers at centers in Santa Ana and Irvine, and a transfer center in Irvine.
“With its improved wages and benefits, this contract will bring fairness and security for us and for our families over the next five years,” said shop steward Jorge Gomez, a 23-year Teamster and driver at Waste Management who served on the Local 396 Negotiating Committee.