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Teamsters to Bill Gates: ‘Fighting Inequality’ Begins at Home

September 26, 2019

By Steve Wishnia

Teamsters send a clear message to Bill Gates.

NEW YORK, N.Y.—As multibillionaire Bill Gates entered Jazz at Lincoln Center for his foundation’s forum on “fighting global inequality” Sept. 25, about 60 Teamsters picketed outside, demanding that the trash-collection company he owns a third of reduce its workers’ inequality.

Two dozen workers at Republic Services in Marshfield, Massachusetts, in Boston’s southeastern suburbs, have been on strike since Aug. 29. “They’re just not willing to negotiate a fair contract,” Bernard Egan-Mullen, one of several strikers from Teamsters Local 25 who came down for the protest, told LaborPress. Members of 13 New York-area Teamsters locals joined them.

The strike’s main issues are wages, health care, retirement, holidays, and work rules, according to Local 25 officials. The Marshfield workers’ pay ranges from $24.50 to $28 an hour, says Egan-Mullen, while Local 25 members at Republic in the nearby town of Quincy make $28. The Quincy workers get pensions when they retire, while the Marshfield ones only have a 401(k) plan. The company is offering a 2% raise, he added, but wants to increase workers’ health-care costs by 3-5%, and their insurance coverage already has a $5,000 deductible. 

Republic, in a statement released Sept. 12, blamed the strike on the union’s “unrealistic bargaining demands.” Egan-Mullen says the company told workers they had “no option” other than accepting its offer.

“Thanks to all the locals at Teamsters Joint Council 16 for their support in this fight,” Local 25 President Sean O’Brien said in a statement. “These workers deserve respect, a fair wage, and health benefits to support their families. Republic Services maximizes profits but treats its employees like trash. But each day, more and more Teamsters are joining the fight by honoring our picket lines.  Solidarity is the key to winning fights against greedy national corporations, and Republic Services is learning that when you fight the Teamsters in one location, you fight them everywhere.” 

Gates, whose ownership of Microsoft made him the richest man in the world before he was eclipsed by fellow tech magnates Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg, owns about one-third of Republic’s stock. The Teamsters say he receives over $100 million in stock dividends annually from it. The Phoenix-based company, the second-largest trash collection and disposal company in the U.S., reported $10 billion in revenues in 2018 and about $1 billion in profit. It spent about $700 million on stock buybacks, according to the Teamsters.

He was in the city for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s annual Goalkeepers event, which this year focused on “the challenge of fighting global inequality to ensure no one is left behind.” “If we hope to accelerate progress, we must address the inequality that separates the lucky from the unlucky,” Goalkeepers’ 2019 report states, with a graphic comparing the privileges Gates and his ex-wife have with the obstacles faced by a girl growing up in Africa’s Sahel region, the drought-prone lands on the Sahara Desert’s southern edge that are one of the poorest places in the world.

On Sept. 24, it gave a “Global Goalkeeper” award to India’s Hindu-supremacist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for a program the Indian government says has built 110 million public toilets in the last five years. 

City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal (D-Manhattan), who stopped by the rally unplanned on her way to a meeting, said it was hypocritical that Gates was telling other countries what to do when “he can’t see what he’s doing to actual people.”

Local 25 has extended picketing to Republic sites around the nation, with Teamsters locals in the Atlanta area, San Diego, Oakland, and several other California cities refusing to cross their lines. About 7,000 of the company’s 17,000 sanitation workers are Teamsters. On Sept. 21, two locals representing Republic workers in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas voted to authorize a strike.

“Republic is refusing to pay the area standard and is attempting to nullify worker protections gained in previous contracts,” John Bouchard, secretary-treasurer of Local 350 in the San Francisco suburb of Daly City, said in a statement. “Local 350 is part of a bigger nationwide movement, to fight Republic’s anti-worker negotiating tactics.”

Egan-Mullen says the Marshfield strikers are grateful for the solidarity. The walkout was “the catalyst for a very big picture,” he added. “Corporate America is putting their foot down, saying they don’t want to deal with unions.”

The company has brought in strikebreakers “from across the country” to drive its trucks and collect trash, he says, and it’s paying them more than it pays the regular workers, as well as covering their hotel and transportation expenses.

Republic’s Sept. 12 statement accused Local 25 of harassing strikebreakers with “union-orchestrated violence, stalking, threats and racial slurs, as well as interference with trash collection by moving customer waste receptacles and blocking trucks.”

“We are absolutely telling them they’re scabs,” says Egan-Mullen. “But we’re not threatening anybody. We’re lawfully picketing, and we’ll continue picketing until they’re willing to come back to the negotiating table and have a real conversation.”

When Local 25 went on strike against a Boston-area roofing supplier in 2016, it lasted 18 weeks.  

September 26, 2019

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