UFE and RWNC have been supporting Durham sanitation workers, members of UE 150
Photo Credit: UE 150
Durham Sanitation Department workers - a group of majority-Black municipal workers who performed essential services during the pandemic and are paid too little have been engaged in a historic campaign. Organizing with UE150, they secured bonuses that were impossible without building solidarity, garnering community support, and taking risks. Here, we share the story of their campaign, the historic partial victory that resulted, and the demands the union will push for in the months ahead. UFE will be there in support as we help organize community endorsement and aid via the Durham Workers’ Assembly.
Essential Workers Run Durham
Workers in the Durham Sanitation Department – a majority Black workforce – have been fighting for fair pay and safe staffing since 2019. That same year, a proposal for a wage increase was frozen due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet throughout the pandemic the sanitation workers were resilient. They never failed to keep Durham safe and clean. Their services during the pandemic even extended to dealing with hazardous bio waste.
Fair Pay Denied
In June 2023, the city council voted against a proposal to raise wages for city employees, which would have compensated for the two years of Step Pay Plan increases that were skipped during the pandemic. While wages have gone up 15% in recent years, due to inflation and local factors the cost of living has gone up 23% – which equates to an 8% pay cut. As a result, many city workers must work second jobs, and many more are not able to afford rent or become homeowners in Durham.
A Historic Work Stoppage
On the morning of September 6, 2023, the Durham Solid Waste workers, a subsection of the Durham Sanitation Department, did not load their work trucks in protest of the city’s lack of needed pay increases. NC public workers are not legally allowed to strike, which makes this work stoppage historic. Joined by workers from other city departments and community supporters, they called for:
- Immediate $5000 bonus per worker,
- Paying workers for all work outside their job title, and
- Hiring all temporary workers permanently.
Additionally, the workers are demanding that the minimum wage be increased to $25per hour for city workers, $28 an hour for solid waste collectors and $35 an hour for heavy equipment operators.
The City Fights Back, Badly
In response to these demands, the city hired private solid waste collection companies to do the jobs of the Durham Solid Waste workers. These companies are not adequately trained in collecting garbage, yard waste, recycling and bulky items. It has been reported that with the private contractors, recycling items are getting thrown in the same trucks as garbage trucks. And the money being paid to the private contractors is coming from the same fund that could be paying the $5000 bonus that the workers are demanding! Additionally, the city insisted that workers in the Public Works Department were to operate the solid waste machinery, despite the lack of proper training.
The Struggle Continues
For six days straight, a majority of the workers in Solid Waste Services stood together and refused to load their trucks.
At a press conference on September 11th, the workers announced that they would be returning to work on Tuesday, September 12th. Their commitment to helping out the community was the driving force behind going back to work even though their demands have not been met. The workers have also expressed their gratitude for all the support they have received, including raising nearly $40,000 in GoFundMe donations from the community as they tried to support their families while out of work.
In bringing public attention to their dignity as workers, and seeking community allegiance for their struggle to have their difficult and essential work recognized with fair compensation, the majority-Black sanitation workers carrying on a campaign for justice that long precedes them.
Durham city workers are carrying on a long tradition of struggle by Southern, predominantly Black sanitation workers, from Memphis to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, to Raleigh and elsewhere, who work a dangerous job and are forced into taking this tremendous risk. The example they’re showing here should serve as inspiration to all workers looking for a way forward to organize in the South, in spite of the reactionary climate.,
— Ajamu Dillahunt, a member of the Southern Workers Assembly Coordinating Committee and Black Workers for Justice (BWFJ) and former board member of UFE, speaking with Labor Notes
On October 5th, the Durham City Council Work Session voted to award $6.5 million in additional bonuses to the city workers. The workers’ stated, “We didn’t get what we asked for, but we got a victory.”
Bonuses will be paid to workers such that those who earn the least will receive the largest bonus.
- Workers earning under $42,800 per year will receive the full $5,000 bonus demanded by the union.
- Workers earning between $42,481–$56,650 will receive a $3,750 bonus.
- Workers earning between $56,651–$84,970 will be awarded a $2,500 bonus.
- Those who earn between $84,971–$106,210 will be awarded a $2,000 bonus.
- Workers earning over $106,211 will receive a $500 bonus.
- Finally, all part-time workers will be awarded a $1,000 bonus.
The money awarded will serve to aid in stable housing for the workers.
UFE Was There with Movement Support
UFE, along with the Raising Wages NC coalition, helped organize community support via the Durham Workers’ Assembly. While the workers led their campaign, the Durham Workers’ Assembly became the arm of the campaign that built support from community, businesses, faith-organizations, and the border labor movement.
UFE’s contributions included providing support in grassroots fundraising, graphic design, emcee-ing at a rally, outreach, and finances. UFE offered tips on how to do grassroot fundraising and how to raise money during community meetings with the Durham Workers’ Assembly. Additionally, UFE designed flyers and yard signs to help gain recognition for the Durham Workers. Alongside graphic design, during rallies UFE led chants. To help garner support for the Durham Workers, UFE sent emails, texts and had social media outreach about the workers’ campaigns. UFE turned out community and labor (workers, unions) support for actions and meetings. UFE also provided monetary support by donating to the GoFundMe created for the workers on strike.
In a city with disproportionate resources – where median income is rising as a result of more high-income workers, and with some of the highest housing prices in the country – Durham remains the lowest paid municipality in North Carolina for sanitation workers. As of October 1, 2023 the starting wages for sanitation workers in North Carolina are:
- Durham, NC - $39, 141
- Burlington, NC - $40, 500
- Greensboro, NC - $43,000
- Greenville, NC - $41,000
- Raleigh, NC - $41,117
- Rocky Mount, NC - $40,516
- Charlotte, NC - $45,760
This is especially egregious since Durham is one of the major municipalities in North Carolina, as well as supposedly the most progressive in terms of politics.
Public records show that the city does not have a shortage of resources to pay municipal workers. At the end of the 2023 fiscal year, Durham had $18.83 million left in the General Fund in the city’s reserve fund, in addition to their $42 million in reserves. $5.4 million of that is from the lapsed salary and benefits not paid due to the city’s vacancies in the Public Works Department. The $5,000 bonus demanded by the sanitation workers would only cost the city $8-10 million.
Durham Solid Waste Workers will continue to bring attention to the unfairness of municipal pay rates in the city. Members of the union are still hoping that in the near future, Mayor Elaine O’Neal will find the additional $1.2 million to award workers under $75,000 the full $5,000 bonus.
UE150 will work with the Mayor, City Council and City Manager’s office during the current Compensation Market Study. The union is proposing that next year’s budget will fund a minimum wage increase: up to $25 per hour for city workers, raised to $28 for solid waste laborers, and a minimum of $35 per hour for all heavy equipment operators or CDL holders. UE150 states that every worker deserves a minimum of a $3 per hour wage increase.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. UFE, along with the Raising Wages NC coalition and Durham Workers’ Assembly will use this fight as momentum to continue to build workers’ power. This campaign helped us recruit new worker leaders and activists, re-energized our movement, and showed us the power of workers’ collective actions. As the chant goes: “When workers’ rights are under attack, what do we do?” “STAND UP, FIGHT BACK!”