Is the City’s Contract With Metro the Real Piling Trash or Does Metro Stink for Not Picking Up?

The Metro Disposal sanitation workers – or “hoppers” – on strike. Courtesy of the New Orleans Workers Group.

Waste collection is undoubtedly one of the dirtier jobs of our society, but an absolutely essential one. As an essential service, this fact becomes clearest when it begins to waiver, as the residents of New Orleans East, Lakeview, the 9th Ward, and other locales are now intimately aware of. Trash has been piling up for a month and residents have begun to give up on the expectation of a pickup on Wednesday and Saturday.

Metro Service Group, the company contracted by the city to service these areas, has failed in recent weeks to uphold their contract with the city. The city’s contract with Metro holds that trash must be picked up within 24 hours of being put out. This makes sense. Trash left to pile is unsightly, incredibly smelly in the New Orleans heat, and a public health hazard. Metro and the city claim that this is solely due to a shortage of qualified drivers, but when we consider the history of Metro and the city, that’s not so clear.

The question of the conditions of waste workers is one intimately connected to how well-organized our community is. In 1968, Martin Luther King marched in solidarity with wasteworkers in Memphis exposed to terrible working conditions and low wages. Protestors marched with signs that read, “I Am AMan” – a claim of basic dignity in the face of mistreatment.

In the early summer of 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, so did waste workers of the Metro Services Group when they went on strike. A group of 26 trash collectors (known in New Orleans as “hoppers”) formed the City Waste Union to fight for $15 hourly wages, $150 daily hazard pay, sick leave, PPE, routine vehicle maintenance, and recognition of the union. The response from Metro was less than impressive.

Metro refused to speak directly with the striking workers and replaced them with inmate labor through a contract with Lock5 LLC. Lock5 LLC ended the contract once they realized the inmates were replacing striking workers. Metro has attempted to defend this practice, arguing that giving jobs to inmates is a demonstration of their good-will towards the formerly incarcerated and their desire to reintegrate them into society. This would all be fine and good if it didn’t come at the expense of hard-working, long-time employees asking for fair wages, safe conditions (during a global pandemic), and basic recognition.

Eventually many from the union returned to work under economic pressure, but the fight for basic dignity amongst Metro workers continues to this day. This wasn’t the first issue Metro has had with workers. A 2017 NLRB investigation over a grievance alleging that Metro paid workers below federallymandated minimums concluded in Metro paying around $411,000 to over 100 workers owed overtime. The refusal on Metro’s part to speak directly with and recognize their employees speaks to the faceless corporatism that undergirds the company’s struggle to fulfill its city contract today.

Metro Service Group has released online statements in light of late pickups to explain the delays and assure the public that the most is being done to resolve the issue. Their statements claim that they are suffering from a labor shortage of qualified drivers and are stuck in bidding wars with other sanitation companies facing similar issues. City Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen has spoken positively about the steps Metro has taken to resolve the labor shortage. The city released a statement confirming the stated cause adding that Metro, “has increased its monetary wages and incentives, entered into new subcontractor agreements to provide additional equipment and crews, as well as expanded relationships with local labor firms to augment their team.”

While the issue of nationwide labor shortages is undeniable, it’s unclear the degree of these wage increases and these statements seem to gloss over larger systemic issues with the city’s contract with Metro. They also fail to be clear about what Metro has done to improve working conditions since the 2020 strike. In the main statement on the Metro website, two articles are linked to explain the difficulty the company is facing, however it’s not so clear that these articles relieve Metro of blame.

The article titled, “The Pandemic Effect: Workers Matter”, where Jimmie Woods, the owner of Metro Service Group, is heavily quoted, appears to defend Metro as trying their hardest in the face of an archaic city contract stating, “Metro’s ability to pay their drivers is locked into an outdated contract with the city. Static wage rates are baked in the contract. So Metro has little to no wiggle room.”

The contract in question is a seven-year contract signed four years ago. Four years ago, lawmakers in no way could anticipate a global pandemic that would shake the economy to its core and place major pressures on businesses to protect workers, both physically and financially. The purpose of the city contract with Metro is to save the city millions of dollars over its course, but austerity is rarely, if ever, the correct response to economic decline as we see in Britain right now.

Metro’s statement made direct responses to claims of a connection between the issues of the 2020 strike and the present issue arguing that the conditions of hoppers has nothing to do with the driver shortage that is present in other cities, as well. However, this overlooks how potential drivers might feel about working for a waste company with a storied history of worker abuse.

The present circumstance can be boiled down quite simply. Trash has been piling for months. Metro assures us that they are doing the most they can, but cannot give a timeframe. The city tells us to trust this, to report late pickups to 311, and that they will ensure accordance with the city contract. However, the city contract is not being upheld and these assurances aren’t very satisfying, especially if there’s a pile of trash in front of your house.

When Metro failed to meet their contracts during the 2020 strike, Ramsey Green, LaToya Cantrell’s head of infrastructure, urged citizens to report late pickup to 311 (like they are urging now), so that the city could properly fine Metro for contract breaches to put pressure on them. However, if Metro is losing money like they claim and having to engage in bidding wars to fill driver demand under the current contract, this punitive model cannot withhold the needs of the community and speaks to a long-standing and profound disconnect between the city government and Metro.

The city and Metro must radically reimagine their contractual relationship to adapt to the present circumstances. Their failure to do so is representative of a calcified bureaucracy that has forgotten essential workers and the communities they serve. If this seems too radical to you, it doesn’t to most in the waste industry, as the city and Metro should know.

In the other article Metro shared in their statement titled, “Roundup: Driver shortages hamper local waste collection, US recycling infrastructure begs $17B expansion,” the article cites the Solid Waste Association of North America and their proposed solutions to driver shortages post-pandemic. Notably, they advocate that, “Communities that contract for waste and recycling collection services may have to renegotiate their contracts to reflect wage increases associated with driver and helper positions or reductions in service levels needed to minimize budget impacts.”

If such a renegotiation, which seems necessary for a long-term recovery of New Orleans waste collection services, is on the table, no one has mentioned it and there appears to be no intention of doing so on the part of either Metro or the New Orleans city government. Given Metro’s history of mistreating workers, the onus is on them to revamp their business model in a way that dignifies and supports their workers. Given that wastecollection is an essential service, the onus is on the city to create conditions for Metro to facilitate better working conditions and to ensure their provision through a new contract. The existing contract appears to work for no one. The palliative approach of the city and Metro only signals further lack of dedication to the well-being of sanitation workers and the assurance of essential services. It’s time for the city to seriously invest in the building blocks of a well-organized community.

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