Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Watch our mini documentary: ‘On Strike for Everybody’

A striking hopper from the City Waste Union. Photo by Katie Sikora

This project was produced in collaboration, and with the support of, Studio To Be.

In early May, about 30 hoppers — sanitation workers who hop on and off the back of trucks to empty trash bins — went on strike against Metro Service Group, a company that contracts with the city of New Orleans.

Over the next several weeks, they organized as the City Waste Union, demanding more personal protective equipment (PPE), a minimum wage of $15 an hour, $150 per week in hazard pay, and upgrades to trucks.

Fourteen weeks later, about half of them are still on strike.

Marta Rodriguez Maleck, a documentary filmmaker based in New Orleans, spent time with the City Waste Union over the last several weeks, documenting their picket line and speaking to union members.

Watch the film, “On Strike for Everybody,” below.

But, as Carly Berlin reported in June, the pandemic is just the straw that broke the camel’s back: The Metro hoppers made $10.25 an hour working four days or less in a week, and $11 an hour if they worked five days or more. The New Orleans Living Wage Ordinance requires city-contracted workers to be paid $11.19 an hour.

A spokesperson for PeopleReady, a staffing agency that employs the hoppers and subcontracts with Metro, told Southerly that an “underpayment mistake” was made, and that “all employees have, and will continue, to receive their full and correct pay.”

“We want to make it clear that none of those continuing to strike have been, nor will they be, fired,” said PeopleReady, adding they have “informed the striking employees of this to ensure that there is no misunderstanding. We welcome the remaining striking employees to come back to work soon.”

Metro is a Black-owned, New Orleans-based company. Daytrian Wilken wrote in a New York Times op-ed in late July: “As I understood it, one of the original goals of contracting out the work years ago was to give more opportunity and power to Black and brown private contractors in a majority-Black city. And a goal of the city’s living wage ordinance was to protect the people those companies hired. I don’t think anyone set out to take advantage of working-class Black men; I just think it has turned into that.”

A public relations firm representing Metro directed Southerly to metrotruth.com, a site that denies claims made by the union. However, when asked repeatedly for an interview with Metro CEO Jimmie Woods, or any further comment, the representative stopped responding.

For months, the union said Metro refused to talk directly, and only through New Orleans City Council president Jason Williams. But on Friday, City Waste Union posted on Instagram that they had a meeting with Woods to “express themselves openly and say all of the things they needed to say to the owners.” The post states that Metro told them to “take our fight to the city & ask them to increase the living wage ordinance or to amend Metro’s contract.”

The city of New Orleans declined to comment on the strike or on how sanitation workers are at risk of COVID-19.

The hoppers refuse to return to work until Metro meets their demands. They’re taking donations and garnering support among the New Orleans community.

“The end that we see is not that the hoppers go back to work for Metro, but that at some point the situation with the city union will be its own co-op,” Wilken told Southerly. “The guys will be able to own portions of this company. They’ll be able to actually earn the work of their hands as opposed to having a boss and someone looming over them. They are their own bosses and they still get to do the job that they know and love.”